Few country houses in Ireland have had such a chequered history in recent decades – and yet somehow survived – as Middleton Park, County Westmeath. The present building dates from the mid-19th century, replacing an earlier residence which had previously belonged to the Berry family. When in 1846 James Middleton Berry inherited from his uncle James Gibbons another estate in the same county, Ballynegall (see Ballynegall « The Irish Aesthete) he sold his original property to George Augustus Boyd. Born in 1817, he was the only son of Abraham Boyd and Jane Mackay, both of whom been married before, she to George Rochfort, second Earl of Belvedere. Since he inherited a considerable portion of the former Belvedere estates through his mother, in 1867 George Augustus Boyd legally changed his surname to Rochfort-Boyd. With his wife Sarah Jane Woods, he had at least seven children, their eldest daughter Edith in due course marrying Sir Thomas Chapman, who lived at South Hill, County Westmeath (see What Might Have Been « The Irish Aesthete). In due course, that marriage ended badly owing to Sir Thomas embarking on an affair with his own children’s governess: he and she went on to have a family of their own, one of whom was T.E. Lawrence, otherwise known as Lawrence of Arabia.
To go back to George Augustus Rochfort-Boyd, just to complicate matters further, a year after he died in 1877, his heir legally reversed the two surname order, being called Rochfort Hamilton Boyd-Rochfort. All three of his sons had distinguished careers in the British army, the eldest Captain George Boyd-Rochfort being awarded the Victoria Cross in 1915 and the youngest, Captain Sir Cecil Charles Boyd-Rochfort being one of the most successful horse trainers of the mid-20th century. Following the death of the eldest brother in 1940 Middleton Park had been inherited by the middle sibling, Lieutenant-Colonel Harold Boyd-Rochfort, who in 1957 decided to sell the property – and so began its decades-long woes.
In 1957 Middleton Park was bought by a German family who, a few years later, in turn sold the place on. In the mid-1970s the house and some 380 acres were acquired by the Fermanagh-born trainer and gambler Barney Curley who, in 1984 decided to dispose of Middleton Park not by the usual means of either auction or private sale, but instead through running a lottery: at the time, Ireland’s property market was extremely depressed and it seemed unlikely Curley would realise much for the place. Tickets were offered at £200 each and, according to a television report of the time, almost 9,000 of these were sold, meaning the vendor would have made around £1.8 million since his expenses were minimal, especially as the event garnered international attention. However, in the aftermath, Curley was prosecuted for promoting an illegal lottery, and sentenced to three months in prison: on appeal, he was given the benefit of the Probation Act, with no conviction recorded provided he contributed £5,000 to a local charity. In July 1992 Middleton Park was on the market once more, this time realising just £300,000 at auction, although at least in part that price was due to the fact that the amount of land around the building was now much less than had previously been the case. In 1999 it was sold to a couple for something less than £500,000 but less than two years later was once more available to purchase, along with just 12 acres, this time for £1.7 million. After a period of neglect, restoration work was undertaken on the building which opened as an hotel, specialising in weddings, in 2007; seven years later, this was sold as a going concern to a UK based private equity firm for around €1m. In 2016, that business closed and soon enough Middleton Park was being offered for sale – yet again. It then sat empty for three years before being bought by the most recent owners who once again had to embark on substantial renovations due to the building’s neglect.
Middleton Park was designed by the London-born architect George Papworth who had moved to Ireland in 1806 when aged 25. His talent soon attracted aristocratic clients such as Jenico Preston, 12th Viscount Gormanston, for whom he supervised the renovations of Gormanston Castle, County Meath, and Ulick de Burgh, 14th Earl (and future first Marquis) of Clanricarde for whom he undertook similar work at Portumna Castle, County Galway. But he also designed a number of Roman Catholic churches, such as that for the Carmelite order on Whitefriars Street, Dublin, as well as being involved in work on the city’s Pro-Cathedral; another one of his projects was King’s, not Heuston, Bridge over the river Liffey. Middleton Park, dating from c.1850, was a relatively late work, since he died in 1855, and – at least on the exterior – a somewhat anachronistic one, since the design clearly owes much to Francis Johnston’s Ballynegall, which dates from 1808 and to which the Middleton Park estate’s previous owner had moved. In both cases, the building is of six bays and two storeys over basement, the two centre bays delineated by a single-storey Greek Ionic portico. And, as also once at Ballynegall, one side of the block concludes in a substantial conservatory designed by Richard Turner; at Middleton Park, the other side continues in a long, single-storey office range. However, the interiors of the two houses are quite different, not least because the entire centre portion of Middleton Park is given over to a vast, full-height staircase hall, the double-return stairs with scrolling cast-iron balustrade leading up to an impressive first-floor gallery, the whole lit by a vast lantern. Nothing else in the building could hope to match this tour-de-force, and the main reception rooms accordingly are of more modest – and comfortable – proportions, although during its various times as an hotel, a number of substantial function spaces were added to the office range side of the building. That Middleton Park has survived, given such a chequered history, is very fortunate and one must hope that the house’s future is more stable than has been its past.