‘A Tall, Unlovely Block’


‘It was in the sixteenth century that Robert Martin, one of the long and powerful line of High Sheriffs and Mayors of Galway, became possessed of a large amount of land in West Galway, and in 1590 Ross was his country place. From this point the Martins began slowly to assimilate West Galway; Ross, Dangan, Birch Hall, and Ballinahinch, marked their progress, until Ballinahinch, youngest and greatest of the family strongholds, had gathered to itself nearly 200,000 acres of Connemara. It fell, tragically, from the hand of its last owner, Mary Martin, Princess of Connemara, in the time of the Famine, and that page of Martin history is closed in Galway, though the descendants of her grandfather, ‘Humanity Dick ‘ (for ever to be had in honourable remembrance as the author of ‘Martin’s Act for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’), have kept alive the old name of Ballinahinch, and have opened a new and notable record for themselves in Canada…’




‘Through a line of Jaspers, Nicholases and Roberts, the story of Ross moved prosperously on from Robert of Elizabeth’s times, untouched even by the hand of Cromwell, unshaken even when the gates of Galway, twelve miles away, opened at length to Ireton. Beyond the town of Galway, the Cromwellian did not set his foot; Connemara was a dark and barren country, and the Martins, Roman Catholic and Royalists to the core, as were all the other Tribes of Galway, held the key of the road. From that conflict Ross emerged, minus most of its possessions in Galway town and suburbs; after the Restoration they were restored by the Decree of Charles II, but remained nevertheless in the hands of those to whom they had been apportioned as spoil. The many links that had bound Ross to Galway Town seem thence forward to have been severed; during the eighteenth century the life of its owners was that of their surroundings, peaceful for the most part, and intricately bound up with that of their tenants. They were still Roman Catholic and Jacobite – a kinsman of Dangan was an agent for Charles Edward – and each generation provided several priests for its Church. With my great-grandfather, Nicholas, came the change of creed; he became a Protestant in order to marry a Protestant neighbour, Miss Elizabeth O’Hara, of Lenaboy; where an affair of the heart was concerned, he was not the man to stick at what he perhaps considered to be a trifle. It is said that at the end of his long life his early training asserted itself, and drew him again towards the Church of his fathers; it is certainly probable that he died, as he was born, a son of Rome. But the die had been cast. His six children were born and bred Protestants. Strong in all ways, they were strong Protestants, and Low Church, according to the fashion of their time, yet they lived in an entirely Roman Catholic district without religious friction of any kind…’




‘It was during the life of Nicholas, my great-grand-father, that Ross House was burned down; with much loss, it is believed, of plate and pictures; it had a tower, and stood beautifully on a point in the lake. He replaced it by the present house, built about the year 1777, whose architecture is not aesthetically to his credit; it is a tall, unlovely block, of great solidity, with kitchen premises half underground, and the whole surrounded by a wide and deep area. It suggests the idea of defence, which was probably not absent from the builder’s mind, yet the Rebellion of twenty years later did not put it to the test. In the great storm of 1839, still known as ” The Big Wind,” my grandfather gathered the whole household into the kitchen for safety, and, looking up at its heavily-vaulted ceiling, said that if Ross fell, not a house in Ireland would stand that night. Many fell, but Ross House stood the assault, even though the lawn was white with the spray borne in from the Atlantic, six miles away. It has at least two fine rooms, a lofty well-staircase, with balusters of mahogany, taken out of a wreck, and it takes all day the sun into its heart, looking west and south, with tall windows, over lake and mountain. It is said that a man is never in love till he is in love with a plain woman, and in spite of draughts, of exhausting flights of stairs, of chimneys that are the despair of sweeps, it has held the affection of five generations of Martins…’




‘Life at Ross was of the traditional Irish kind, with many retainers at low wages, which works out as a costly establishment with nothing to show for it. A sheep a week and a cow a month were supplied by the farm, and assimilated by the household; it seemed as if with the farm produce, the abundance of dairy cows, the packed turf house, the fallen timber ready to be cut up, the fruitful garden, the game and the trout, there should have been affluence. But after all these followed the Saturday night labour bill, and the fact remains, as many Irish landlords can testify, that these free fruits of the earth are heavily paid for, that convenience is mistaken for economy, and that farming is, for the average gentleman, more of an occupation than an income.’


Extracts from Violet Martin’s essay The Martins of Ross published posthumously in 1917. 

Not Such a BelView


Writing of agriculture and manufacturing in County Offaly in 1801, Sir Charles Coote noted that the linen industry then thrived, with several local landowners ‘who keep looms employed, but do not bleach. Mr Holmes of Prospect and Mr Armstrong of Belview are the most extensive manufacturers, and both have large greens, but they only bleach their own linen, their [sic] being bleach yards for public accommodation.’ Almost twenty years later Peter Besnard, Inspector-General for Trade and Manufacture of Linen and Hemp in Ireland, produced a report in which he commented on Offaly: ‘The Manufacturing and Bleaching branches of the Linen Business are carried on in this county as usual, particularly in the neighbourhood of Clara and Charlestown; in the latter place, a new Linen Hall has been built by Andrew Armstong Esq. of Belview, whose family have long been supporters and encouragers of the Linen Trade. Mr Armstrong has built this Hall at his own expense, and likewise gives a premium for the best Web sold in it; and I cannot avoid remarking, that wherever premiums have been established, and judiciously applied, they have been productive of much benefit.’





The Armstrong family appears to have settled in this part of the country in the 18th century, one John Armstrong (born 1748) marrying Jane Holmes, whose family lived nearby in a house called Prospect (still standing). He married a second time and had a son Andrew Armstrong, the man mentioned by both Sir Charles Coote and Peter Besnard as being active in the linen industry. A large range of now-derelict buildings on ground below Belview testify to the one-time importance of this business, in the 18th and early 19th centuries by far the most commercially viable in Ireland. From the early 1700s onwards Irish linen was imported duty free to England and to the American colonies, so that eventually this one product accounted for around fifty per cent of Ireland’s total exports. It is understandable that so many entrepreneurial spirits became involved in the business and, if they managed their concern sufficiently well, grew rich, as did the Armstrongs. As was so often the case, they gradually climbed the social scale, moving away from the commercial class to become landed gentry. John Herbert Armstrong, for example, who inherited Belview in the mid-19th century , joined the army and served as a major in the Royal Tyrone Fusiliers. He further cemented his gentry status by marrying Eliza Catherine Lowry whose family, related to the Earls of Belmore, lived at Pomeroy House, County Tyrone. Their son in turn married Emily Theodosia Blacker-Douglas whose family were large landowners (with over 8,000 acres in County Kerry) and lived in Elm Park, outside Armagh. However, after selling their estate in 1912 under the Irish Land Act, the Armstrongs left Belview, which was subsequently leased to a variety of tenants.





Located on the border of Counties Offaly and Westmeath, Belview is a substantial house, the front portion of which dates from the second half of the 18th century. To the rear is an older L-shaped building which looks to have been adapted into a service wing when the newer section was added. The latter featured the usual layout of the period, with a drawing room, dining room and morning room/office opening off a central entrance hall on the ground floor: traces of neo-classical plasterwork survive in some of these spaces. Outside the east-facing façade is of five bays, with a Venetian window on the first floor. Below a short flight of stone steps led to a tripartite limestone doorcase with engaged Doric columns and an open pediment. The house testifies to the Armstrongs’ wish to identify themselves with the local gentry, as well as to the wealth that could be accumulated through the linen trade. A folly built in the form of a monastic round tower by Andrew Armstrong in 1817 and now buried in the nearby woodland, likewise provides evidence of the family’s social ambitions. The house was abandoned some decades ago and is now a roofless ruin.

Important Remains

In Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size (1976) Kiltullagh, County Galway was described by the late Maurice Craig as having formerly been very handsome, thanks to its ‘gigantic paneled chimney-stacks and (as can still be traced) a very steep roof…To judge by the provision of pistol-loops it must have been built early in the 18th century or even earlier…Even in its present state it can be seen to be a building of quality. The pistol-loops commanding the entrance are conspicuous.’ Likewise, the reference to Kiltullagh in Vanishing Country Houses of Ireland (1988) noted that it was an ‘important, late seventeenth-century or early eighteenth-century, two-storey house. The very high chimney-stacks have sunk panels, and there are pistol-loops in the basement which is most unusual for a house of this period. The house which is now a ruin is a most impressive example of an early virtually undefended house and should be preserved from further depredation.’




Kiltullagh belonged to a branch of the d’Arcy family, one of the Tribes of Galway, the mercantile clans that ran the city during the Middle Ages. Like other members of the same milieu, from the early 16th century onwards they gradually acquired parcels of land in the countryside and gradually metamorphosed into gentry, although this process was not without setbacks. The lawyer Patrick d’Arcy was a key figure on the Roman Catholic side during the Confederate Wars of 1641-52, in the former year writing his Argument which insisted that ‘no parliament but an Irish one can properly legislate for Ireland’ and later helping to draw up a Constitution for the Confederacy. In the aftermath of that side’s defeat, he lost his lands but the greater part of these were restored to his heir James d’Arcy: the family owned over 18,750 acres – divided between Kiltullagh and an estate to the west around Clifden – but all this was lost in the aftermath of the Great Famine when the property was sold by the Encumbered Estates Court. (The last of the family to own the property, Hyacinth d’Arcy, subsequently became a Church of Ireland clergyman). In the meantime, one of the more interesting members was another Patrick d’Arcy, born in 1725 and at the age of fourteen sent to Paris to be raised by an uncle who was a banker there. An eminent soldier and scientist, he was created a French count and a member of the Académie Royale des Sciences, dying of cholera in 1779, two years after marrying his niece Jane d’Arcy.




As so often, we know almost nothing about Kiltullagh’s history. It was clearly a substantial house and stood at the centre of a large estate, but the architect responsible for the building’s design is a mystery. Kiltullagh appears to have been occupied by the d’Arcys until the second decade of the 19th century when the then-head of the family, John d’Arcy, following the death of his first wife, moved west where he founded the town of Clifden and outside it built a new residence, Clifden Castle (now also a ruin). Thereafter the house was rented to tenants and at some date gutted by fire. As with Clifden, the entire property was sold through the Encumbered Estates Court in 1850, being bought for £6,000 by Pierce Joyce. Kiltullagh was never rebuilt and stood a ruin. The former stable yard has been converted into a residence and some years ago work was undertaken on the main building to secure what remained. However, this enterprise appears to have halted and since then the interior has remained filled with scaffolding.

Ascending the Social Ladder

When the first edition of Burke’s Landed Gentry of Great Britain and Ireland (then known as ‘Burke’s Commoners’) appeared in 1833 it did not include an entry for the Alexanders of Milford, County Carlow. This must have been a matter of some disappointment to the family, as was their absence in subsequent editions until finally in 1871 when they were featured, albeit briefly. The history of the Alexanders is a tale of social ascendancy initially dependent on wealth, and the retention of the former even when the latter had gone. The founder of the dynasty, John Alexander, had modest origins but what he lacked in pedigree was amply compensated by entrepreneurial flair, and resulted in his acquisition of an estate sufficiently substantial for later generations to judge themselves members of the landed gentry. Late in life his heir, also called John Alexander (as remained the case with successive generations) wrote ‘There is not any subject so difficult to me as genealogy. I am very much behind in my knowledge of it as far as relates to my family. I have been endeavouring to grasp some particulars for your perusal, my object being to elicit the truth and to place my family in their right position.’ Likewise he had earlier insisted, ‘’I am not a “retired” merchant, never having served my time to any business, and during the years I was proprietor of the mills on this property, I took almost no part in the working of them’. All of which indicates a desire to distance himself from the mercantile activities which had formed the basis of the family fortune, and to ally himself with a class unsullied by sordid commercial transactions.





The first Alexanders arrived in Ireland as settlers from Scotland in the early 17th century, settling in the Limavady area. In the late 1750s John Alexander, a younger son, moved to Belfast where he became a successful merchant and land agent for the Earl of Donegall before also going into the milling business. His eldest son, likewise called John, moved to County Carlow in 1784 with the intention of becoming involved in the last profession and there joined forces with a wealthy Roman Catholic corn merchant and miller called James Conolly. Already Carlow had become one of the country’s principal area’s for corn production: between 1769 and 1784 the amount of corn sent there to Dublin grew from just 78 stone to 382,953 stone, an astonishing increase. This growth was driven by entrepreneurial businessmen like Conolly and young John Alexander. The former already owned a mill on the river Barrow a few miles from Carlow town, in a townland called Ballygowan, and this was the business John Alexander joined and expanded, notably after 1790 when at the age of 26 he took over direct responsibility for its management. The result was further rapid growth, not least thanks to the construction of additional and larger milling buildings on the site, by then given the name it has carried ever since, Milford. Within three years the mill had become County Carlow’s largest supplier of flour to the capital. In addition, Alexander embarked on a second enterprise on the same site: the production of malt. To the east of the flour mill, he constructed Ireland’s largest and most powerful malthouse, thereby establishing his predominance in a second field. During this period of expansion, Alexander lived in a modest single-storey, three-roomed thatched dwelling adjacent to the mills. However, in 1799 it was time for him to build a residence befitting his status as a wealthy man.





Now for sale for the first time since built, Milford House appears to have been designed by its first occupant, mill owner John Alexander who married not long after construction was complete and then gradually acquired an estate of more than 2,000 acres. Facing west, the core of the building is of five bays and two storeys over basement, with a single-storey extension to the north added around 1813. As testament to Alexander’s want of social pretensions, the facade is unadorned other than a granite portico with four Ionic columns. Inside there is a similar want of ostentation, a generous entrance hall leading to the library at the front and drawing and dining rooms to the rear, and accordingly facing east. A staircase opening to the north of the hall leads to a first-floor lobby from which can be accessed six bedrooms. Since its construction, the house has undergone relatively little modification, the most immediately obvious being the insertion of plate glass in the ground-floor windows: this dates from the mid-1890s when John Alexander III married. It was during the same period that Milford benefitted from electrification: the former oat mill was then reconfigured as a hydro-electricity generating station, which led to nearby Carlow town being the first urban centre in Ireland or Britain to enjoy electric street lighting. Meanwhile the entrance hall had been re-decorated in 1883 with the William Morris ‘Pomegranate’ wallpaper still in place. The only other major intervention was the replacement of the main reception rooms’ chimneypieces. The originals were of plain Kilkenny marble but in the mid-1940s they were removed by Olive Alexander (wife of John Alexander IV) who bought that in the library when the contents of nearby and now-ruinous Clogrennane were being auctioned. Those today in the drawing and dining rooms appear to have been acquired around the same period in Dublin. However, Milford essentially retains its original character and is thus a record of how a mercantile family thrived and used the construction of a country house to assist its transformation into landed gentry.

With thanks to Shay Kinsella whose 2015 doctoral thesis on Milford and the Alexanders was of invaluable assistance.
Milford is currently for sale through Knight Frank (http://www.knightfrank.ie/properties/residential/for-sale/milford-county-carlow/cho180066)

Well Red


It is now half a century since Castletown, County Kildare opened to the public. Constructed during the 1720s as one of our earliest and still greatest extant country houses, the building might have been lost had it not been for the plucky vision of the Hon Desmond Guinness in purchasing Castletown, and then the sterling work of the Irish Georgian Society in undertaking restoration work so that it could welcome visitors. Since 1994 Castletown has been in state ownership and the Office of Public Works, together with the Castletown Foundation, supports an ongoing programme of further improvements to house and contents.



One of the latest projects undertaken inside Castletown has been the conservation of the Red Drawing Room, part of an enfilade on the northside of the ground floor. The design of this space dates from the second half of the 1760s when much work was being undertaken in the house by Tom and Lady Louisa Conolly but the walls were hung in crimson hand-woven damask probably in the late 1860s/early 1870s. An early decision was made not to replace this much-weathered material but to preserve it in situ, carrying out necessary repairs while leaving evidence of age and wear-and-tear. This work is now complete and the room returned to inspection by visitors who will be able to admire a rehang of pictures and other additions to the decorative scheme, not least new curtains of damask woven to match that on the walls. An essay on the Red Drawing Room’s conservation by Christopher Moore is included in Volume XX of the Irish Georgian Society’s Irish Architectural and Decorative Studies journal which has just been published.

Well Hung


The slate-hung exterior of Drishane, County Cork. Facing due south out to sea (hence the protective slates), the house was built c.1780 for Thomas Somerville and has remained home to successive generations of the same family – including author Edith Somerville – ever since. Drishane will feature in the latest series of Lords & Ladles (in which the Irish Aesthete intermittently has a walk-on – or rather sit down – role) beginning on RTE One television this Sunday, June 10th.

The Glory of the House


In his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837), Samuel Lewis wrote that the ‘noble mansion’ at Newbridge, County Dublin was said to hold ‘several valuable paintings by the old masters, which were collected on the continent by the Rev M. Pilkington, author of the Dictionary of Painters, who was vicar of this parish; the drawing room contains several of the paintings described by him.’ The cleric mentioned here was Matthew Pilkington, born in King’s County (now Offaly) in 1701 and ordained a deacon in the Church of Ireland twenty-two years later. His was likely not a very profound vocation, but a position in the established church offered career advantages of which he intended to take advantage. Initially all went well. In 1725 he married the well-connected Laetitia van Lewen, as diminutive – but also as witty – as her husband, and the couple became friends with the likes of Jonathan Swift and Patrick Delany. Through the former Pilkington secured the position of Chaplain to the London Mayor of London and so moved to the other side of the Irish Sea. However in London he antagonized potential supporters and was imprisoned two years later. On returning to Dublin, he then became estranged from his wife and the couple was eventually and scandalously divorced in 1737: just over a decade later Laetitia Pilkington published her entertaining memoirs, from which her former husband emerges in a poor light. Ultimately he recovered his social position thanks to the patronage of Charles Cobbe, Archbishop of Dublin who offered Pilkington the living of Donabate and Portraine next to Cobbe’s newly completed seat at Newbridge. As mentioned by Lewis, it is believed that Pilkington travelled to mainland Europe to buy paintings for the house and that this in turn would have informed the work by which he is remembered: The Gentleman’s and Connoisseur’s Dictionary of Painters, the first such book published in English. It appeared in 1770, four years before the author’s death.




The greater part of Newbridge was built between 1747 and 1752 to the designs of Scottish-born architect James Gibbs, his only known work in Ireland. The following decade a large drawing room was added to the rear of the house. In 1755 Archbishop Cobbe’s son and heir Thomas married Lady Elizabeth Beresford, youngest daughter of the first Earl of Tyrone, and sister of the first Marquess of Waterford, and space was needed for the young couple and the art collection being assembled for the family by Matthew Pilkington. The architect on this occasion was a local man, George Semple who had already overseen the erection of Newbridge. Semple initially proposed adding a pair of wings to the south-facing façade but in the end the decision was taken to construct a single large drawing room/picture gallery to the rear of the house, taking the space previously occupied by a pair of small offices. As has been noted by Julius Bryant, to preserve homogeneity of style within the building Semple used Gibbs’ 1728 Book of Architecture as a source for the design of doorcases and chimney pieces, the former immediately apparent at the entrance to the room from the adjacent antechamber. Running some 45 feet in length, the space has a ceiling featuring ‘a sea of scrolling leaves and floral garlands encircled by dragons and birds fighting over baskets of fruit.’ This work is believed to have been undertaken by stuccodore Richard Williams, a pupil of Robert West: the Newbridge accounts for this period include seven payments to ‘Williams ye stucco man.’




A drawing of the Newbridge drawing room dated c.1840 and attributed to Frances Cobbe shows the room as it looked following a refurbishment of the space two decades earlier. In 1821 payments for furniture were made to Woods & Son, and to Mack, Williams & Gibton of Dublin, who were also paid for curtains in 1828. The carpet, by Beck & Co. of Bath was supplied in March 1823 for £64 and 18 shillings, while the crimson flock wallpaper and matching border came from the Dublin firm of Patrick Boylan. The present arrangement of paintings, the greater part of them collected during the previous century by Archbishop Cobbe and his son and daughter-in-law, dates from the same period. Towards the end of the 19th century, Frances Cobbe called the drawing room ‘the glory of the house. In it the happiest hours of my life were passed.’ She remembered the room as assembled by her parents. Some of the collection had been sold in Dublin in 1812, and in 1839 two key paintings, by Hobbema and Dughet, were sold to pay to fund the construction of some 80 estate workers’ cottages. In November of that year, then owner Charles Cobbe (father of Frances) wrote in his diary, ‘I have filled up the vacancies on my walls occasioned by the loss of the two pictures which have been sold, and I felt some satisfaction in thinking that my room (by the new arrangement) looks even more furnished than before.’ Such is still the case today. In 1985 Newbridge passed into the hands of the local authority, now Fingal County Council, which has been responsible for house and estate ever since. However, Alec Cobbe artist, designer and musical instrument collector, who grew up in the house continues to be devoted to the building. He has valiantly undertaken successive projects to preserve and conserve the interiors, not least the drawing room. As a result today, as noted by Bryant, this gorgeous space today ‘provides a rate opportunity to study an Irish collection in its historic context.’