In North Tipperary, particularly around the area bordering on County Offaly, one frequently comes across variants of the same late 18th century house: tall (usually three storeys over basement), narrow (often only one room deep), grey and plain, its facade only relieved by a limestone pedimented doorcase reached via a flight of steps. Milford conforms to this type and, as is frequently the case, its external austerity – another regularly encountered characteristic, and one not confined to this part of the Irish countryside – gives way to an interior full of delights.
Milford was built by a branch of the Smith family, the origins of which are believed to have been in Durham, north-east England. Initially they settled in Ballingarry, presumably occupying the castle there but then built a house at Lismacrory north of the village. That building no longer stands; as early as 1841, the Ordnance Survey Name Books description says ‘it was a very commodious house of the modern style of architecture with extensive offices attached to it, but it is now falling into ruins, the last occupier was Rev. Mr. Smyth of Ballingarry.’ The Reverend in this instance was John Smith, a Church of Ireland clergyman who died in 1813. His brother Ralph appears to have been responsible for constructing Milford, some five miles to the west of Lismacrory, perhaps around the time of his marriage in 1772 to Elizabeth Stoney. Two further generations of the family, both with heads called Ralph, occupied the property but in the aftermath of the Great Famine, like so many others they seem to have found themselves in an impecunious position. In July 1852 over 800 acres of the estate of Ralph Smith Smith was advertised for sale and five years later, the remaining estate of his son Richard Flood Smith, a minor, which included Milford and its demesne, was on the market. The Smiths subsequently emigrated to New Zealand and Milford was bought by a local farming family called Murphy, apparently keen advocates for both Roman Catholic causes and women’s education. The property changed hands several times during the last century and much of the land around it was divided by the Land Commission so that today the house stands on 17 acres. It then stood empty for some 15 years (the only residents being long-eared bats) before Milford was purchased by the present owners in 2020.
The site on which Milford stands was originally called Lisheenboy and owned by the once-dominant O’Carroll family. While there is evidence of human habitation here going back to the 11th century, the earliest surviving remains of construction can be found to the south of the present building where a sunken rectangular walled structure suggests that a fortified house or bawn once stood here. And within those remains are a number of bee boles which have been dated to 1650. At that date the lands would still have been in the hands of the O’Carrolls, but in the aftermath of the Williamite Wars, they lost their remaining property. However, at some prior date a farmhouse was constructed at Lisheenboy and it was directly in front of this building that Milford was erected. This addition is of five bays, with a single bay breakfront. The entrance doorcase is flanked by narrow sidelights and these are replicated on the two floors above, widely spaced on either side of a central arched window to produce a charmingly provincial variant on the Serlian window. The internal plan is typical of such houses, with the entrance hall having doors to left and right for access to drawing and dining rooms, while directly behind is the toplit staircase. In the hall a frieze below the cornice contains what seems to be a random selection of motifs including agricultural implements, classical figures and wreaths of leafs. The friezes in the dining and drawing room are more typical, the former incorporating trails of vine leafs and grapes, the latter regular repeats of lyres and profiles linked by more sinuous lines of foliage. The drawing room’s current Chinese-inspired wall decoration was introduced by an earlier occupant. As already mentioned, three years ago, Milford was bought by artists Deej Fabyc and MJ Newell, and they are gradually restoring the house as funds and time permit. They run a number of events here and also offer workspaces for up to eight artists in residence through their organisation, Live Art Ireland.
For more information on Live Art Ireland, please see: live art Ireland – Ealaín Bheo Centre for Art Research and Development at Milford House (live-art.ie)