Dotted in fields the length and breadth of the country are the ruins of some of Ireland’s “big houses” - including several fine examples in this area.
A collection of photographs and essays about these abandoned mansions has been put together by writer Tarquin Blake, and this month sees publication of his book, “Abandoned Mansions of Ireland”, a must for anyone with an interest in the story of Ireland.
Mr. Blake, a Cork-based architectural explorer, photographer and historian, explains that from the mid-eighteenth century Irish country houses flourished. Landowners generated easy income leasing land to tenants, and as their wealth increased, so did the size of their country mansions.
However, factors such as the Great Famine, land reforms, the increasing expense of maintenance and the IRA targeting the houses during the War of Independence took their toll, and gradually, abandoned and forgotten, the houses sank into decay.
It weas in 2008 that Tarquin came across his first abandomed ‘big house’, and that prompted him to begin exploring the lost architecture of Ireland, and he documents what is left of fifty manions around the country, with brief histories and beautiful photographs of the haunting ruins.
Included are Ballynagall House, Tudenham, and also indeed Belvedere House.
Ballynagall derives its name from the Anglo-Norman invaders. Hugh de Lacy had obtained thousands of acres in Westmeath and gave the lands of Baile na nGall or “The Town of the Foreigners” to his followers. In 1720 Colonel Arthur Reynell bought the lands and built Castle Reynell. In 1803 Castle Reynell was bought by James Gibson and in 1808 James’ son, also named James, commissioned the architect Francis Johnston to build a new mansion house. Ballynagall was built over the old Castle Reynell at a cost of over £30,000. When complete it was described as a splendid mansion and one of the finest and most extensively planted demesnes in the country.
The house was two storeys over basement, six bays at the front with a single storey Ionic portico and single storey, two-bay wings. The entrance led into a hall, to the right was a drawing room with pink walls and green and gold mouldings, the drawing room led through to a Richard Turner conservatory which looked out over the gardens. The dining room was green with gold decorations, had red curtains and housed a dining table that could seat thirty-six. The ground floor contained many other reception rooms including a billiard room and smoking room. The staircase, also designed by Francis Johnston, ran the full height of the house and had brass banisters and a mahogany handrail. The second floor contained numerous bedchambers, containing four-poster beds.
When James Gibson died, he left Ballynagall to his nephew by marriage, James Middleton Berry. Berry left the house to his cousin Thomas Smyth.
In 1962 Major Thomas Smyth sold Ballynagall to Mr Cronin and Mr MacDonald. The house was again sold in 1971. In 1981 Ballynagall House was dismantled; anything of use was removed and the house left as a roofless shell. The fine portico found a new home at the entrance to the K Club, Straffan, County Kildare, and the Turner conservatory at the La Serre restaurant on the Lyons estate, Celbridge, County Kildare.
Tudenham and Belvedere
While far from abandoned, Belvedere House features in the book, due to its association with the nearby, and abandoned, Tudenham House.
Mr. Blake writes of Belvedere:
“In 1740 Robert Rochfort, Lord Bellfield and later first Earl of Belvedere, commissioned the architect Richard Castle to build him a hunting lodge. At that time Richard Castle was recognised as the greatest architect in Ireland. Belvedere was built as a two-storey-over-basement, five-bay Palladian villa. Despite its appearance, the house contained very few rooms; they were, however, well proportioned and featured extremely fine rococo plasterwork on the ceilings.
“Robert’s family home was Gaulston House, also in County Westmeath, and he intended to use Belvedere as a retreat. But shortly after the house was complete, Robert accused his wife, Mary Molesworth, of committing adultery with his younger brother, Arthur Rochfort, who lived close by in Bellfi eld House. As punishment he put her under house arrest in Gaulston House while he moved permanently to Belvedere. She spent the next thirty-one years forbidden to see anybody other than servants, creating one of the greatest social scandals of eighteenth-century Ireland. Robert’s brother Arthur was dispossessed, sued for £2,000 and he died destitute in a debtors’ prison. Robert’s other brother George Rochfort also commissioned Richard Castle to build him a mansion.
“Rochfort House (which later became known as Tudenham House) was built next door to Belvedere and was a far larger and superior house. Robert, who was consumed with anger and jealousy over his brother’s fine mansion, had a wall built between the two houses, blocking his view of his brother’s residence. This wall, the largest folly ever built in Ireland, standing three storeys high and over 180 feet long, became known as ‘The Jealous Wall’.
“By the time Robert Rochfort died in 1744 he had acquired the nickname ‘‘The Wicked Earl’ and it was said he was murdered for all his wicked deeds. When his wife was finally released from captivity, old and haggard, she fled to France, became a nun and spent the remainder of her life as a hermit.
“No children were ever born at Belvedere. The house was passed from cousin to cousin: Charles Kenneth Howard-Bury owned it in 1912 and from Charles it was handed to Rex Beaumont in 1963. In 1982 Westmeath County Council bought the estate for £250,000, the house was restored and is now open to the public.”
Of Tudenham he writes:
“Tudenham House, built by George Rochfort in 1742, was first called Rochfort House. Rochfort employed the architect Richard Castle, who had also designed George’s brother’s house next door, Belvedere House.
“Rochfort House was a very fine three-storey house, seven bays at the front with a central niche and oculus and seven bays on each of the sides which featured central curved bows.
The front doorway led into a great hall with columns at both ends. Four large reception rooms with fine plasterwork, a library, billiard room and gun room were accessed from the hall. The two-storey upper hall had a large dome which was reglazed with stained glass in the nineteenth century. Eight bedrooms and a bathroom were found on the first floor and the top floor held a further suite of bedrooms.
The vaulted basement was immense, with a huge kitchen and the servants’ quarters. The Rochfort estate amounted to over 850 acres.
“Rochfort House was sold in the Landed Estates Court in 1836 and bought by Sir Francis Hopkins, second Baronet of Athboy. Sir Francis renamed the property Tudenham House. He died in 1860 and left the house to his sister, Anna Maria, who was married to Nicholas Loftus Tottenham. Anna Maria built a new front lodge to the house, and moved the driveway, making it exactly one mile long.”
He continues: “During the First World War the house was used as a hospital. Charles Tottenham died in 1929 leaving his wife, Georgina, as the head of the household. Charles’s son Harold returned from South Africa and occupied Tudenham for some years but the enormous house was very difficult to maintain. Harold extended the garden cottage and made it into a comfortable family home.
“During the Second World War the house was occupied by the Irish Army. After the war the house was unused. Eventually in 1957 anything of use was removed: doors, wall coverings, fireplaces and furniture all found new homes. The roof was removed and the house left as an empty shell. The Tudenham estate was taken over by the Land Commission, which divided it into five farms, which were then let to various tenants.
“Abandoned Mansions of Ireland”, published by The Collins Press, is on sale from this week at €27.99.