A summer morning at Ballyfin, County Laois. When the house and demesne were restored some years ago, this cascade and pool were added by gardener Jim Reynolds on rising ground immediately behind the main building. In the foreground a river god reclines on a plinth while the vista is closed by a Doric temple designed for the site by architect John O’Connell.
There are over twenty place names in Ireland incorporating the word ‘Pallas.’ Seemingly this derives from a Norman term, paleis, meaning boundary fence (hence the word palisade which clearly comes from the same source). One such spot is Pallas, County Galway found at the end of a boreen (from the Irish word bóithrín, meaning ‘a little road’). Here can be found, if not quite a palace, certainly the remains of a very substantial tower house and ancillary buildings. Pallas Castle as it is known, is believed to date from c.1500 when it was built by a branch of the Burke family, descendants of the Norman de Burghs, the first of whom William de Burgh had seized territory in this part of the country and in 1203 called himself Lord of Connacht. Rising five storeys, the tower stands within a bawn wall access to which is through an east-facing two-storey gatehouse flanked by similarly propotioned turrets. Immediately adjacent to the tower house on the west side are portions of a 17th century house, its gable end built into the bawn wall, through which separate entrance was created. The walls on either side retain their internal parapets, reached via flights of stone steps.
The Burkes remained in possession of Pallas until the mid-17th century when, like many other families who had risen against the Cromwellian forces, they were dispossessed of their lands and moved further west. The same fate befell another ancient family of Norman origins, the Nugents, formerly Barons Delvin but since 1621 Earls of Westmeath. They too were required to depart their original property and move west, being given part of the former Burke land including Pallas. Following the restoration of Charles II in 1660, the second Earl of Westmeath was allowed to return to his ancestral lands and those in County Galway bestowed on his second son, the Hon Thomas Nugent, created Baron Nugent of Riverston by James II in 1689. As a Roman Catholic and Jacobite he went into exile, dying in 1715 but his sons conformed to the established church and so were able to retain both the family title and estates. Their descendants remained at Pallas until the 1930s, having some thirty years earlier become Earls of Westmeath when the main line of the family died out. Ultimately the Land Commission took over the Pallas estate and divided it up, thereby ending the Nugent link. What remains of Pallas Castle is today a National Monument.
So this is what is left at Pallas, but another very substantial building in the immediate vicinity has since disappeared. In 1797 the amateur architect William Leeson, now best known for laying out the town of Westport, County Mayo, was commissioned by the fourth Lord Nugent of Riverston to design offices and, it seems, a new residence. This building was considerably enlarged by the tenth Earl of Westmeath after he inherited the title and estate on the death of his father in 1879. Surviving photographs show a house typical of the period, with an abundance of plate glass, parapets and balustrades, cement-rendered pilasters and quoins, together with a three-bay extension to one side. Further improvements were carried out on the property in the years immediately before the outbreak of the First World War with the addition of a new library and smoking room, but in the aftermath of the war circumstances were very different. The Nugents left the area for good soon after the death of the 11th Earl in 1933 when the title passed to his younger brother. A sale of the contents took place and then in 1945 the house itself was demolished, followed by an auction of its fixtures and fittings, including no less than 150 interior and exterior doors and a similar number of windows, marble chimney pieces, library shelving and so forth. Despite the building’s scale, today there is no obvious trace of it on the landscape and only the older structures survive at Pallas.
The main entrance gates to Carrigglas Manor, County Longford. These were designed c.1795 for the estate’s then-owner Sir William Newcomen whose family owned one of Ireland’s most successful private banks. The gateway was part of a large scheme for Carriglas commissioned from James Gandon, of which only this and the interlinked stable and farmyards were actually built. Sir William’s son, Sir Thomas Gleadowe-Newcomen lacked his father’s acumen and when the bank collapsed in 1825 he shot himself. Carrigglas then passed into the ownership of a clever lawyer, Thomas Lefroy, today best-remembered as the possible object of Jane Austen’s amorous intentions. His descendants remained at Carrigglas until 2005 when the estate was sold to a property company called Thomas Kearns Developments which proceded to wreak havoc on the place, cutting down large swathes of ancient woodland and throwing up cheap housing before – like Sir Thomas Gleadowe-Newcomen – going bust. Three years ago Carrigglas was bought by a local company, Glennon Brothers, but since then little seems to have happened other than that the existing buildings around the estate have deteriorated further. Such is the case with the entrance, a triumphal arch flanked by low walls that conclude in a pair of lodges: stylistically it has many similarities with the entrances to the Four Courts in Dublin, also designed by Gandon. Unfortunately neglect in recent years means the ashlar blocks are beginning to shift, thereby putting the entire ensemble at risk. The structure is, of course, listed for protection.
Evening light down the length of the Temple Water at Castle Ward, County Down. Although the main house overlooks Strangford Lough, in the 18th century it was judged necessary to have a man-made lake, its vista closed with a view of the 15th century tower house known as Audley’s Castle. The lake’s name comes from a pedimented Doric Temple built on a rise to the immediate north of the water: the building’s design is believed to have been an adaptation of a patternbook plate by Robert Morris showing Palladio’s Il Redentore in Venice. It appears in a watercolour painted by Mrs Delany in 1762 so both the temple and the lake had been completed by that date.
In Ireland few painters are better known or more admired than Sir William Orpen (1878-1931), examples of whose work today fetch some of the highest prices for a picture at auction. Yet Orpen’s background is relatively little studied, and his links with County Kerry are accordingly overlooked. Like many families, the Orpens were inclined to give themselves a more distinguished pedigree that was actually the case. So in Burke’s Landed Gentry of 1847 it is claimed that ‘The family of Orpen is of remote antiquity, and is stated to trace its descent from Erpen, second son of Varnacker (maire of the palace to Clothaire I), who was the son of Meroveus, and grandson of Theodorick, son of Clovis, King of France.’ This places their origins back in the sixth century, so that by the time William, Duke of Normandy won the Battle of Hastings in 1066, he was of course accompanied by a knight called Robert d’Erpen who thereafter settled at Erpingham in Norfolk. According to this version of events, the family turns up in Ireland in the second half of the 17th century already long established as members of the landed gentry on the other side of the Irish Sea. Such would have been the story of his forebears likely known by William Orpen. However the year before his death a cousin, the historian Goddard Henry Orpen produced an alternative, and somewhat less distinguished narrative. From this it would appear that the first Orpen to come to Ireland, a descendant of humble English yeomen, did so some time in the 1650s/60s when he acquired land around the area of Killorglin, County Kerry and that by the mid-1670s his son, Richard Orpen was employed as a land agent by the region’s greatest landowner, Sir William Petty. All of which is not quite so splendid as the lineage proposed by Burke but, as Goddard Henry Orpen wrote, ‘it is the truth I seek and not a (faked) illustrious ancestry and, after all, is it not better to rise than to fall?’
So, the earliest Orpens to settle in Kerry did so in the second half of the 17th century and prospered thanks to their association with the Pettys, later Petty-Fitzmaurices and ultimately Marquesses of Lansdowne. As a result they were able to acquire their own substantial landholdings, including the area around Ardtully in South Kerry. Until the 17th century this property was under the control of the MacFineens, a branch of the powerful MacCarthy clan but according to the Books of Survey and Distribution (compiled c.1650-80) during the course of the Confederate Wars, Colonel Donough MacFineen forfeited Ardtully, on which then stood ‘two good slate houses, a corn-mill, a castle, malthouse, barn, and tuck mill, likewise there are iron-mines and a silver mine in the quarter of Ardtully.’ The lands here were granted by the crown to one John Dillon but subsequently acquired on a long lease by the descendants of the original Richard Orpen: following a marriage between the latter’s grandson and Anna Townsend of Bridgemount, County Cork in 1766 the family’s name became Orpen Townsend. Ultimately in the first half of the 19th century the Ardtully estate was first leased and then purchased through the Encumbered Estates Court by a cousin of Richard Orpen Townsend: this was the successful solicitor Richard John Theodore Orpen. Founder of a legal practice still in existence today (as Orpen Franks) he would act as President of the Law Society from 1860 until his death sixteen years later. Knighted in 1866, he was the grandfather of the artist William Orpen and builder of a house still just extant at Ardtully.
Sir Richard John Theodore Orpen was clearly very proud of his family, if somewhat deluded about its pedigree, and assembled whatever information he could about his ancestors. He also built up a considerable land holding in County Kerry, amounting to over 12,000 acres by the time of his death. A fine residence in the centre of this property was required, and duly built at Ardtully in 1847. Its architect unknown, the house is customarily summarised as being in the Scottish Baronial style but this seems more a flag of convenience than an accurate description. In truth Ardtully looks to have been a typically Victorian grab-bag of architectural elements, its most prominent feature being a castellated round tower and turret on the south-east corner. Looking towards the river Roughty, the entrance front features a porch topped by the Orpen coat of arms (now damaged), another attempt by Sir Richard to demonstrate his lineage. Inside the house looks to have contained the usual collection of reception and bedrooms ranged over two storeys, the roofline marked by a succession of stepped gables and dormers. A substantial range of service outbuildings lay to the north. A handsome coloured illustration of Ardtully appeared in County Seats of The Noblemen and Gentlemen of Great Britain and Ireland (published 1870): conveniently the author of this six-volume work was Sir Richard’s nephew, the Rev. Francis Orpen Morris. The estate was eventually inherited by another Anglican clergyman, Sir Richard’s second son, the Rev. Raymond Orpen, Bishop of Limerick, Ardfert and Aghadoe. Uncle of the painter Sir William Orpen, he retired from office in 1921 and the same year Ardtully was burnt by the IRA. It has remained a ruin ever since, the link with one of this country’s greatest artists forgotten.
The façade of Portumna Castle, County Galway seen from the outer court. The house dates from 1618 when it was commissioned by Richard Burke, fourth Earl of Clanricarde and his wife Frances Walsingham, who had previously been married to both Sir Philip Sidney and the second Earl of Essex. The building’s design bears similarities to the Clanricardes’ mansion at Somerhill, Kent completed just a few years earlier. At the time it was probably the most sophisticated semi-fortified house in Ireland, with Italianate influences apparent throughout beginning with the Tuscan gateway providing access to the inner court. Few changes were made thereafter to the property, other than the addition of a bow at the centre of the rear elevation. However Portumna Castle was accidentally gutted by fire in 1826 and the family later built a new residence on an adjacent site. The latter was destroyed in 1922 and its stones used to build a Roman Catholic church in the nearby town. The old castle was subsequently acquired by the state and re-roofed although, having stood exposed to the elements for over 150 years, its interior retains few original features.
‘1699. My father when he maryed (sic) my mother set up house-keeping at Stradbally and the year after he marryed he built the Big house that is the Hall, Big Staircase, and Big Parlour. My G-Fr. Pole gave him all the timber and 500 deal Boards to build it. He then planted a good many ditches and trees, made the south hedge of ye avenue, enclosed ye kitchen garden and the new orchard, and set the hedges round ‘em. He kept race horses which my G-Fr. Pole did not like and he gave him £100 on condition he wo’d never keep any more which he never strictly observed.
My eldest sister was born at Ballyfin, my sister Betty and I at Stradbally.
1703. My father’s circumstances were so bad that it was thought best he sho’d go into the Army and he therefore borrowed £300 from William Doxy of Rahinahole with which he purchased a Capts Commission in … Regiment. In 1704 he brook up the house and let Stradbally to Major Lyons and he was sent out of peque by the Late Duke of Ormond (now James Butler) (because he wo’d not vote for him in Parlmt) to Spain with recruits, and thereby also got one vote out of the way…’
1714. ‘[My father] left London and came over to Ireland to his new post and now by his long absence from his own home, and liveing in a manner as an exile in a parsimonious way, and by lands encreasing in value and leases falling and thereby his estate riteing, he was left in considerable circumstances, and so resolved to repair and refit his mansion House of Stradbally, in order to bring home his familly and spend his days at home, and so the latter end of 1714, he began to improve Stradbally, he made ye avenue that is, planted the trees, he built the Bridges going to it, added the Drawing-room to the big house next to the Big parlour, he winscoted the second floor entirely, floored the garret, built the Back stairs to the big house, built and finished the road to the Big house, made the big stairs, winscoted and floored the little Parlour and finished in a plain way the second floor of the little house, built a Brew house, walled the garden at the N:E: end of the house, also the Partarre, he laid out the new kitchen garden and planted it all with the choicest fruits, and planted the orchard at the N:W: side of the garden, he did all this and a good dail more in about 18 months time, and in April 1716 he came over to York to bring us over…’
From the time my Father came from England he lived very handsomely, more so than anyone in this county except my Uncle Pole, he kept his coach and chariot and six mares and four servants in Livery besides his Butler, and other outservants, as steward, gardner, etc., he kept a very plentifull house and table, his allowance was, 12 beefs a year, 40 muttons, 26 barrels of wheat for bread, 60 barrels of Mault, 2 hogsheads of wine, pork, veal, lambs, Wilde and tame fouls, and all other things in proportion. He continued in this method, and never encreased or decreased, when there was the least company, his table was never covered with less than 5 & 6 but very often with more, he used to have variety of white wines, the Poor never went away empty from his door, for both F: and M: were exceedingly charitable.
My father was ever doing some improvement or other, for Stradbally, when he came to it in 1716 was but a rough uncouth place.’
Extracts from the Autobiography of Pole Cosby (1703-1766) originally published in the Journal of the Co Kildare Archæological Society and Surrounding Districts, Vol V, 1906-1908.
Photographs show the stableyard at Stradbally, County Laois as designed for Robert Cosby by Lanyon, Lynn & Lanyon in 1866-67.