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Frederic William Burton - The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864
The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864
Frederic William Burton
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Irish Great Houses: Golden Age of the Ascendancy

castletown, co. kildare

Castletown, Co. Kildare - photo courtesy Irish Tourist Board

by Suzanne Barrett


In addition to its many picturesque ruins, Ireland is dotted with dozens of magnificent houses of diverse architectural styles. The "Big House," as these splendid buildings were called, has a long-established history, made familiar by the fiction of Sommerville and Ross, Elizabeth Bowen, and others. The Big House was a tribute to the Anglo-Irish ascendancy, and many of these homes were destroyed during the Irish Civil War.

The earliest of the great houses were built during the early eighteenth century (the pre-Palladian period). A half century later, Ireland's golden age of Palladianism saw the construction of magnificent homes such as Castletown in Co. Kildare and Strokestown Park, Co. Roscommon, later followed by a return to the gothic style (Castle Ward, Co. Down, Glin Castle, Co. Limerick).

The beginning of the nineteenth century ushered in the Regency style of architecture and dignified homes such as Mount Stewart, Co. Down. By mid-century, the Victorian Age ruled, and we find the grand style epitomized by Kylemore Abbey.

The Adam style of interior design found in many of the homes is associated with Scottish architect Robert Adam (1728-1792) and became popular in Ireland from the 1770s. Adamesque interiors were popularized by Michael Stapleton, who used both moulds and freehand. One of the best known proponents of this style was James Gandon (1743-1823), designer of Dublin's Custom House and the Four Courts. Abbey Leix in Co. Laois is a fine example of the Adam style. It was designed by James Wyatt for Thomas Vessey, second Lord of Knapton, in 1773.

Let's take a closer look at a few of these magnificent buildings which have withstood the test of time. Some are private residences, others offer tours, still others are hotels and conference centers or museums.

In early times, the peninsula saw many invasions. The Milesian invasion began around 1700 BC and the first battle took place in the Slieve Mish mountains Tradition has it that the people of the vanquished Tuatha Dé Danainn disappeared into forts and mounds and became the fairies. Traveling west from Tralee, the full beauty of Tralee Bay and its endless miles of sandy beaches can be seen as one approaches Derrymore (An Doire Mhór - the large oak wood). In Derrymore are seven ringforts, one of which has double banks and fosses (Derrymore East). In addition, the area contains some stone hut ruins, however, the area is very much overgrown, and the latter visible only to the intrepid observer.

Beaulieu, in Drogheda, Co. Louth, was begun in 1660. Located on the banks of the Boyne estuary, it is one of the earliest houses in Ireland not constructed with an eye to defense. It is the home of Mrs. Nesbit Waddington who is the ninth generation of her family to occupy the house. Her ancestor, Sir Henry Tichborne, a prominent military commander in the Civil War, purchased the land from the Plunketts. The house was built between 1666 and 1667 by his son William.

Beaulieu is interesting in that it is unfortified, built during a period of widespread suffering, rebellion and counter rebellion, Beaulieu is the most important home of its date to have survived intact.

Inside the front hall, a two-storied room, is a two-tiered, seventeenth-century stone mantel containing a painting of the town of Drogheda, complete with its defensive walls intact. The drawing room and dining room have panelling and door surrounds from the same period plus an ornate plasterwork ceiling, rare in Ireland.

Beaulieu possesses beautiful gardens, a testimony to Mrs. Waddington's love for gardening.

StackallanStackallan House in Navan, Co. Meath is a pre-Palladian home built in 1716 by Gustavus Hamilton (b. 1639), first viscount Boyne. Originally named 'Boyne House,' the estate consisted of forfeited lands beside the River Boyne which were granted to then General Hamilton for heroism at the Battle of the Boyne, the Siege of Derry, and the capture of Athlone. In 1714, George I created him Baron of Stackallan. In 1717, he became Viscount Boyne. He died in 1723. Another Williamite soldier, Thomas Burgh (1670-1730) is credited with the design of the house.

The front of the house was changed from the original design with a walled, terraced garden created on the south front (the original entrance). Here the window surrounds are heavier and more elaborate. The stables are thought to have been designed by 'Capability' Brown and are approximately sixty years later than the house.

Of particular interest is the staircase ceiling which depicts the Hamilton coat of arms surrounded by military trophies. The entirety of the design is encased in a stucco wreath of a type know in England but rare in Ireland. The staircase appears to be from the same time period as the remodeled front since the bannisters are more delicate than those of the 1716 period.

The current owners are Mr. and Mrs. Martin Naughton, who also own Dublin's Merrion Hotel. Mrs. Naughton is a direct descendant of Elizabeth Clifford Brabazon Moore. (Lady Brabazon/Lady Moore of Mellifont) and the Townleys (Balfour) of Townley Hall.

The greatest of the Palladian homes was, and is, Castletown at Celbridge, Co. Kildare. It was built by William Connolly, Speaker of the Irish House of Commons from 1715, a man of humble beginnings, but who amassed enormous wealth and power dealing in forfeited lands. He was appointed Commissioner of the Revenue in 1709. A residence in close proximity to Dublin was essential, so he bought land near Celbridge beside the Liffey and in 1722 began construction of the first and grandest Palladian house in the country. Architect Alessandro Galilei (1691-1737) designed the house of classical proportions, a sliver-grey block flanked by wings of golden-brown Ardbraccan stone linked by curved colonnades.

Eleven of the south facing front windows are taken up by the hall and magnificent staircase between. The source of the limestone with which the house is constructed remains a mystery. It does not blacken in rain as do other Irish buildings.

Castletown was copied in both large and small houses throughout the country. The design had some influence on the White House in Washington, D.C. Leinster House in Dublin is said to be the father of the White House. Castletown rightly can claim the title of grandfather. It is the only house in Ireland designed by Galilei who left Ireland four years before construction began. The actual builder remains a mystery.

'Speaker' Connolly died in 1729. His widow Katherine lived in the house until her death some years later. It was then inherited by a nephew, William, and on his death two years later, by his son, Tom who became known as Squire Connolly. He and his wife Louisa Lennox were responsible for much of the renovation, including the fashionable Swiss-Italian plasterwork above the staircase.

The property often descended down through the female line, but never changed hands by purchase from 1722 until 1965 when it was put up for auction by Lord Carew whose mother was a Connolly. A housing estate sprang up on a portion of the six hundred acres. Castletown and one hundred acres surrounding it eventually was purchased by Desmond Guinness and made into the Irish Georgian Society which undertook its restoration. Castletown was the first house in Leinster to open its doors to the public. A fine collection of Irish furniture adorns the spacious rooms.

Bantry House at Bantry, Co. Cork is a magical country house with lovely gardens and a magnificent art collection. It also has an interesting history.

The first house to be built was called Blackrock and was erected by the Hutchinson family in approximately 1710. In 1739 the property was acquired by a Richard White. During the 1798 rebellion, Richard White, the grandson of the original purchaser, observed the movements of the French fleet and placed his home, then called Seafield, at the disposal of the British general and his staff. For services rendered, this Richard White was made a viscount in 1800, and in 1816, the Earl of Bantry. His son, also Richard, was created Viscount Berehaven. He traveled all over the world gathering furniture and works of art for the house. A six-bay addition with bowed ends was added in 1820.

In 1845 the house was greatly enlarged and remodelled by Berehaven, later the second Earl of Bantry. He added two more wings and a sixty foot library with four freestanding Corinthian columns. The dining room has life-sized portraits of George III and Queen Charlotte. Two drawing rooms feature Gobelin, Beauvais, and Aubusson tapestries.

In 1978, Bantry House was inherited by Edgerton Shelswell-White. He has undertaken extensive restoration of the Italian gardens and both wings to provide accommodation for tourists. Bantry House remains the residence of the Shelswell-White family, but they share their magnificent home with forty-seven thousand tourists each year.

Abbey LeixAbbey Leix in Co. Laois sprang out of 820 acres of abbey lands on the banks of the River Nore. The land was a grant to Thomas Butler, Earl of Ormonde in 1562, but no home was built until Thomas Vessey, the second Lord Knapton, acquired the land. Work began in 1769 following a design by James Wyatt.

In 1776 the second Lord Knapton was created Viscount de Vesci (the old Norman version of his family name). Additional lands were acquired by the second Viscount de Vesci. His son, Thomas, married Lady Emma Herbert, daughter of the Earl of Pembroke and granddaughter of Russia's Ambassador to the Court of St. James. Her flair for design and his money added a new story, dormer windows, and a balustraded parapet to the original house.

The fifth Viscount de Vesci started the Abbey Leix Carpet Factory in 1906, providing many local girls with employment. Soon carpets were being shipped throughout Ireland, Britain, and to the United States.

Abbey Leix remains one of the few estates left relatively intact within its setting of estate cottages. No demesne wall divides the parkland from its surroundings. The oldest oak tree in Ireland stands here in one of the few remaining primeval oak forests.

I hope you have enjoyed this mini tour of a few of Ireland's great houses.

Until next time.

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bantry house

Bantry House from a post card, other photos by author


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