A High House on High Ground


‘It is a high house, standing on high ground; without a tree, bush or offices in sight, nothing can be more uncompromising than it looks from this road. We soon after approach two bridges over different rivers, which rise after a subterranean course…the old gentleman [Christopher French St George] built the house and an excellent one it is – finished it in the best manner – with painted ceilings to all the lower rooms, and to the hall, which is large and handsome – he furnished it in the best style of those days – of about twenty years back, lived in it and enjoyed it, and 9 or 10 years ago resigned it to his son, who soon after married Lady Harriet St. Lawrence, and they have lived happily and have seldom left it, never for any length of time – they have six little girls – and they appear very happy – Mr St. George an excellent country gentleman, improving his estate, fond of hunting, shooting and all country sports…’
From the Journal of Mary Beaufort, September 1808





‘In the afternoon Tilly Redington and I drove over to Tyrone House. A bigger and much grander edition of Ross – a great square cut-stone house of three stories, with an area – perfectly empty – and such ceilings, architraves, teak doors and chimney-pieces as one sees in old houses in Dublin. It is on a long promontory by the sea and there rioted three or four generations of St. Georges – living with country-women, occasionally marrying them, all illegitimate four times over. No so long ago eight of these awful half-peasant families roosted together in that lovely house, and fought, and barricaded and drank, till the police had to intervene – about 150 years ago a very grand Lady Harriet St Lawrence married a St. George, and lived there, and was so corroded with pride that she would not allow her daughters to associate with the Galway people. She lived to see them marry two men in the yard. Yesterday as we left an old Miss St. George, daughter of the last owner, was at the door in a donkey trap-she lives near, in a bit of the castle, and since her people died she will not go into Tyrone House, or into the enormous yard, or the beautiful old garden. She was a strange mixture of distinction and commonness, like her breeding, and it was very sad to see her at the door of that great house – If we dare to write up that subject!’
From a letter written by Violet Martin to Edith Oliver, March 18th 1912





‘A correspondent has sent some interesting but sad details of the malicious burning of Tyrone House…It was in the late Georgian style and the finest house in Ireland. The ceilings were all painted by Italian masters and were regular works of art. The mantle pieces were all of rare Italian marble and very costly. In the hall was a fine full sized marble statue of Baron St George the founder of that once great family. It was the work of an Italian artist. The head was broken off the night of the raid deliberately it must be said. All the ceilings are now ruined and the mantle pieces also, and the entire structure an empty shell and ruin. There was no grounds for the report that the military or police intended or were to occupy the house, and agrarian motives are believed to have inspired and instigated this most foul and reprehensible act of purely wanton destruction. Of late years the place was freely allowed to be used by pleasure parties who came out from Loughrea and other places to have a dance which cost them nothing and to enjoy themselves, and who were never prevented from having their pleasure and a dance on the spacious floor of the dining room, and they can now no longer do so, and where in olden days the finest balls in the Co. Galway took place.’
From the Tuam Herald, September 4th 1920.


I shall be speaking of Tyrone House, County Galway and the St George family next Friday, September 22nd at 12 midday during the 2017 Irish Antique Dealers Association Fair in the RDS, Dublin. For more information, please see: http://www.iada.ie/antique-fairs

A Country Pile


The garden front of Gurteen le Poer, County Waterford. The present house was completed in 1866 to designs of Samuel Ussher Roberts, great-grandson of the 18th century Waterford architect John Roberts. It was built for Edmond de la Poer, created a papal count after serving as Private Chamberlain to Pope Pius X. Count de la Poer was a descendant of Roger la Poer who had accompanied Strongbow to Ireland and was then granted land here by Henry II in 1177. This particular branch of the family remained Roman Catholic and supporters of James II, and after being attainted in 1691 they were denied both the title of Baron la Poer and the main estate at Curraghmore. For the past twenty years Gurteen le Poer has been home to Austrian-born artist Gottfried Helnwein and his family who are at present restoring the gardens.

Saintly Connections


The last Roman Catholic to be executed in England for his faith (although officially it was for high treason), Oliver Plunkett was also the first Irishman to be canonised for some seven centuries when declared a saint in 1975. Born 350 years earlier in Loughcrew, County Meath, Plunkett was member of a family which traced its origins back to Sir Hugh de Plunkett, a Norman knight who had come to Ireland during the reign of Henry II. His descendants established themselves primarily in Meath and Louth and soon acquired large land holdings in both. During the Reformation period, the Plunketts remained loyal to the Catholic religion of their forebears. Oliver Plunkett’s education was accordingly assigned to a cousin Patrick Plunkett, Abbot of St Mary’s, Dublin (and brother of the first Earl of Fingall). He then travelled to Rome where he entered the Irish College and became a priest, remaining in Italy until 1669 when appointed Archbishop of Armagh: the following year he returned to this country where he established a Jesuit College in Drogheda. However, changes in legislation and government attitudes towards Catholicism following the so-called Popish Plot of 1678 obliged him to go into hiding. Finally arrested in Dublin in December 1679 he was initially tried in Ireland but when the authorities here realised it would be impossible to secure a conviction he was taken to London where found guilty of high treason ‘for promoting the Roman faith’ and hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn in July 1681: since 1921 his head has been displayed in a reliquary in St Peter’s, Drogheda.





One of the houses associated with Oliver Plunkett is Louth Hall, County Louth. It was here he came to stay on his return to Ireland in 1670, provided with lodgings by his namesake and kinsman Oliver Plunkett, sixth Baron Louth. The original building on the site was a late-mediaeval tower house set on a hill above the river Glyde. This branch of the family had been based at Beaulieu, immediately north of Drogheda but in the early 16th century another Oliver Plunkett moved to the site of Louth Hall and in 1541 was created the first Lord Louth by Henry VIII. He may have improved the property to befit his status but given the travails that befell his successors as they remained Catholic during the upheavals of the next 150 years it is unlikely much more work was done to the building: on a couple of occasions their lands were seized from them or they were outlawed. The ninth Lord Louth, a minor when he succeeded to the estate in 1707, was raised in England in the Anglican faith and so his successors remained until the second half of the 19th century when the 13th Baron Louth was received into the Catholic church. Meanwhile considerable changes were wrought to their house, to which c.1760 a long three-storey, one-room deep extension was added. Further alterations were made in 1805 when Richard Johnston, elder brother of the more famous Francis, created several large spaces including a ballroom with bow window to the rear of the building. He was also responsible for inserting arched gothic windows to the original tower house and providing a crenellated parapet to conceal the pitched roof behind.





The Plunketts remained at Louth Hall until almost the middle of the last century. Most of the surrounding estate, which in the 1870s ran to more than 3,500 acres, was sold following the 1903 Wyndham Land Act but the house stayed in the family’s ownership and was occupied by the 14th Lord Louth who died in 1941. Louth Hall was then disposed of and seems to have stood empty thereafter. When Mark Bence-Jones wrote of the house in 1978 (Burke’s Guide to Country Houses: Ireland), he included a photograph of the dining room being used to store sacks of grain. Fifteen years later Christine Casey and Alistair Rowan (Buildings of Ireland: North Leinster) wrote of ‘delicate rococo plasterwork’ in two niches of the same room, and of crisp neo-classical plasterwork in the stairwell, as well as the first-floor drawing room featuring ‘delicate plasterwork of oak garlands and acorns.’ Almost none of this remains today, as vandals set fire to the already-damaged house in 2000 and left it an almost complete ruin. Somehow traces of the original interior decoration remain here and there, tantalising hints of how it must once have looked, but even the Plunkett coat of arms that until recently rested above the pedimented entrance doorcase has either been stolen or destroyed. As so often in this country, the only remaining occupants are cattle. Oliver Plunkett is a much–venerated saint in Ireland but not even his documented links with Louth Hall has been sufficient to protect it from a sad end.

A Special Friendship


The story of Castle Ward, County Down is well-known. Wonderfully sited on a rise above Strangford Lough the house dates from the mid-1760s when an older residence was replaced by something more à la mode. The problem was that Bernard Ward and his wife Lady Anne (née Bligh) had very different ideas about what they wanted. Mr Ward (created Baron Bangor in 1770, and then Viscount Bangor in 1781) preferred the classical style, whereas his wife fancied Gothick. As Mrs Delany wrote around this time, ‘Mr Ward is building a fine house, but the scene about is so uncommonly fine it is a pity it should not be judiciously laid out. He wants taste, and Lady Anne is so whimsical that I doubt her judgment. If they do not do too much they can’t spoil the place, for it hath every advantage from nature that can be desired.’ Ultimately a compromise was reached whereby Mr Ward had his way on the entrance front, and Lady Anne hers on the side overlooking Strangford Lough. Internally the same division was agreed so that the ground floor rooms are quaintly split between the two decorative styles. The architect responsible for organising this curious arrangement is unknown, although it has been proposed that, like the stone used for the exterior, he came from Bath or else Bristol (the names of both James Bridges and Thomas Paty have been mentioned). Nevertheless the arrangement was not enough to hold the Ward marriage together and soon after Castle Ward was finished Lady Anne, who complained of being bullied, decamped first to Dublin and later to Bath where she died in 1789, eight years after her husband.





It may be that the Wards’ differences extended beyond just architecture. In an article published in 2000, Professor Sean Connolly discussed the relationship that existed between Lady Anne and an older woman, Letitia Bushe. Born in County Kilkenny in the first decade of the 18th century, Letty Bushe was a gentlewoman of modest means whose life was spent either in rented rooms in Dublin or staying with friends in the country. A talented amateur watercolourist, she was also known for the brilliance of her conversation (as well as her good looks before these were marred by smallpox). Among her closest friends was the aforementioned Mrs Delany who, when still Mrs Pendarves and visiting Dublin in November 1731 wrote to her sister, ‘I eloped for an hour or two to make a visit to a young lady who is just recovered of the small-pox. I think I never saw a prettier creature than she was before that malicious distemper seized her – a gay, good-humoured, innocent girl, without the least conceit of her beauty; her father has been dead about six months, a worthless man that has left a very uncertain fortune; she paints delightfully.’ The two women remained friends and regular correspondents until Letty Bushe’s death in 1757. But for a period she had a closer and much more intense relationship with Lady Anne. It appears they met in 1739, when the latter was just twenty-one and Miss Bushe in her mid-thirties. On July 31st 1740 she wrote to her younger friend, ‘This Day twelvemonth was the Day I first stay’d with you, the night of which you may remember pass’d very oddly. I cannot forget how I pity’d you, & how by that soft road you led me on to love you. I feared many things for you, & my compasion by degrees rose into esteem.’ Later again she would write of ‘two whole years of thoughts, tenderness, stuff and nonsense’. All of which indicates this was more than just a standard friendship.





Professor Connolly chronicles the relationship’s ups and downs, in part caused by Lady Anne’s regular visits to England where her father, John Bligh, first Earl of Darnley, had extensive estates. Letty Bushe suffered agonies in her absence. In the spring of 1740 Lady Anne crossed the Irish Sea, and by August of that year Miss Bushe was confessing, ‘About the time you left Ireland, I hardly slept at nights, and such a wizened pale old hag I grew.’ This appears not to have been an exaggeration because Mrs Ann Preston, with whom Letty Bushe was then staying in County Meath, in turn wrote to Lady Anne, ‘What has your Ladyship said to poor Miss Bushe? For since your last letter she has neither eat, drank, slept or spoke one chearfull sentence. In short she is so very unlike herself that I scarce know her. I beg you will say something to her to raise her spirits.’ The following month Miss Bushe wrote to her inamorata, ‘You make some of the sweetest moments of my life in reflection, & were it not for bitter absence I think you wou’d do so in reality. Tho I live & eat & sleep & laugh, yet I am often surprized at my self, well knowing I seldom am without your Idea, & the cruel sence of being separated from you.’ So it went on for several years, even after the marriage of Lady Anne in September 1742 to Robert Hawkins Magill of Gill Hall, County Down (he died less than three years later). We can only guess at the tone and content of Lady Anne’s letters because it appears that at some date she made off with her side of the correspondence and destroyed it. But she preserved the letters received from Letty Bushe and they provide both an insight into their relationship and a possible explanation for the failure of her marriage to Mr Ward. Despite the couple having three sons and four daughters prior to her departure for Dublin, it was perhaps more than just his architectural judgement she found disagreeable.


A Woman’s Life in Mid-Eighteenth-Century Ireland: The Case of Letitia Bushe by S.J. Connolly was published in The Historical Journal, Vol.43 (2000)

From Venice to County Down


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.


More about Castle Ward soon…

Portrait of the Artist’s Homestead


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.

Jacobean Sophistication



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.