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'County Houses of Laois'

By John Nick Colclough


County Houses of Laois

Laois, according to the Victorian travel writers Mr. and Mrs. Hall possesses no features of distinguishing character and may be so dismissed. As they speed from Dublin to Limerick and Cork modern travellers notice nothing of Laois except the quality of the main roads. But if they venture a mile or two off the highway and onto the byways they will find some of Ireland's finest architectural heritage, from the simple charm of Cecil Day Lewis's childhood home at Ballintubbert House, near Stradbally, now the home of actor John Hurt, to the ruined magnificence of the O'Dunnes Brittas Castle. There are half a dozen houses in Laois which qualify for the description of stately home, massive mansions surrounded by great parks and once furnished with the finest antiques and paintings. There are at least two dozen houses of national architectural importance, and there are countless smaller homes built for the strong farmers of the 18th century which have a charm and character that make them uniquely appealing.

Though once home of the wild chieftains, Laois' rich lands, mineral resources and geographical importance meant that from the 16th century colonists had sought land here. The O'Moores, Magiollopadraigs and O'Dunnes were harassed by the seven tribes -Hartepole, Cosby, Bowen, Barrington, Ruish, Hetherington , and Hovenden. They were followed a century later by the Piggots, Cootes, Priors, Parnells, Poles and Cuffes. While traditionally the big houses have been identified with English ascendancy it is worth remembering that many who were rich and Protestant were actually Irish, like the Fitzpatrick's of Grantstown and the Dunnes who built the battlement-ed sandstone mansion Brittas Castle to the design of McCurdie in 1869.

Conversely many English and Norman settlers remained Catholics and became "more Irish than the Irish" in the words of one frustrated Viceroy. It also comes as a surprise to many to discover that most of the "Big Houses" were in the eighteenth century considered to be farmhouses, surrounded not by thousands of acres and a multitude of tenants but farming four or five hundred acres - the middle classes of their day. Indeed some of the most remarkable of Laois men came from houses which would be modest even by today's standards - hardly a stone remains of Sir Jonah Barrington's house at Cullenagh near Timahoe, but it was certainly no mansion. His birthplace, in 1760, was Knapton House which was rebuilt in 1770 by Colonel Piggot and apparently inhabited by the Vesey family while their house was under construction.

Dr. Bartholomew Mosse's home between Portlaoise and Stradbally is now only marked by a forestry plantation. Patrick and James Fintan Lalor's home, Tinakill near Shanahoe stands in ruins, a modest late 18th century two stories house three bays wide with an attic storey squeezed in under the caves, similar to the nearby Fruitlawn House which was once the agent's house for the Abbeyleix estate.

Few of the unfortified dwellings built before 1720 remain. The ivy clad chimney stacks of Castle Cuffe near Clonaslee show how ill prepared Sir Charles Coote was for the rebels who destroyed it in 1641. Near the Green Cross Roads, north of Ballybrophy stands the empty shell of a mid 17th century house while at Rush Hall on the main road from Mountrath to Roscrea are the ruins of another larger 17th century house.

At Aghaboe a barn building was once a late 17th century residence and had till recently traces of a spiral stone staircase and plaster panelling. To the south of Durrow is Edmonsbury which with it's massive chimney stacks and high pitched roof probably dates from the very early 1700's, a similar date to Raheenduff near Stradbally which is a two storey house with windows. Shrule Castle, on the Carlow borders, which was the principal seat of the Hartlepoles and home of the historian William Lecky was demolished in the 1940s. All that remains is the 16th century tower house with a chimney piece dated 1576 and the initials R.H.

The first country house of importance that still stands in close to its original condition is Castle Durrow. Colonel William Fowler started the present house around 1712 and it is one of the few 18th century houses for which precise building records survive. In 1714 a slater called Andrew Moore of Ballyragget was engaged in roofing but his work was so bad that in 1722 his work had to be redone. Some things never change!

By 1714 the windows were being glazed by Francis Trumbull but work was still underway in 1726 when John Rudd was paid 21 for 229.5 yards of oak wainscot and 10.25 yards of floor for the dining room and in 1737 Trumbull was still glazing. The mason who provided the pinkish grey cut limestone from which the house is built was Benjamin Demane of Kilkenny. In 1922 the banks foreclosed and the Viscount Ashbrooke went to England. The house has been very well maintained by the Presentation Nuns, but most of the original decoration is long since gone. However a couple of rooms have retained their panelling and the room to the left of the hall still has the 1717 plasterwork of Thomas Lett and John Thompson - geometrical borders, heavy baskets filled with flowers and rosette and shell motifs.

As a piece of pure architecture Summer Grove is probably one of the finest examples in the country. John Sabatier, a Hugenot, bought the land in December 1736 and the house was apparently built by 1748, though the interior detailing may not have been finished until a decade later. The facade has all the elements of classical architecture - a Gibbsian doorcase below a Venetian window with, in the pediment, a Diocletian window, while the front of the house is of two storeys a triple doored screen in the hall leads down to the kitchens and up to bedrooms on three levels, giving large high ceilinged rooms at the front of the house and cosier chambers at the back. The front of the building is constructed from very small cut stone blocks.

Nearby on the side of the Slieve Blooms is Capard House, overlooking the Quaker village of Rosenallis. Capard is an immensely impressive neo-classical house built by John Pigott. Poor Mr. Pigott, he started the house with great notions of grandeur. It was to be "one of the most extensive mansions in the kingdom, extending upwards of 220 feet". Built from limestone quarried on the estate, Pigott's intention was to create wealth and employment in the area. His plan was to triple the size of an existing house built in 1742, which itself had replaced Sir John Dowdall's 16th century tower house. However he took the rebellion of 1798 as a personal plight and gave up his ambitious plans when they were only half completed, moving to England for a decade.

For all its grandeur there were very few large rooms -the servants block to the north, under which runs a mountains stream, is as big as the many house. Painted on the wall of the staircase hall is a family tree of the Pigotts, just in case they should ever forget who they were. In the yard is a sawmill dating from about 1750. It is a charming building in pure Palladian style.

In similar style, but on a scale that is truly magnificent is Ballyfin, described by Mark Bence Jones in his guide to Irish Country Houses as the grandest and most lavish 19th century house in Ireland. The original house of the Poles is illustrated in Milton's Views of Seats and was the home of the Duke of Wellington's brother but he sold it in 1821 and Sir Charles Coote employed an architect called Dominick Madden to design a new mansion. When the first stage of the house had been completed he called in Sir Richard and William Morrison, the most fashionable architects of the day, to complete the work. The front of the house, built of cut local sandstone, is thirteen bays or windows wide, in the middle of which is a massive Ionic portico.

The front hall has ben described as an austere room, with a roman mosaic floor, but beyond it is a vast rectangular top lit saloon with screens of composite Ionic columns, an inlaid floor and a coved ceiling entrusted with plasterwork more ornate than any wedding cake. There is a green and gild music room with carved and gilded musical instruments in panels on the walls and a wonderful white marble fireplace, its shelf held up by statues of two muscular Romans. The West end of the house is entirely taken up with a 70 foot long library, with a large bow window half way along, opposite the door. From the library one can go out into Richard Turner's elegant 1850's conservatory. Turner also made the conservatory at Glasnevin and Kew.

The grounds are as superb as the house, having been laid out by the distinguished Irish landscape gardener John Sutherland, who worked for both the Pole and the Cootes. His coup de grace is the medieval round castle, complete with turrets, moat and drawbridge. In 1929 Sir Ralph Coote sold the house and 600 acres for 10,000 to the patrician Brothers who use it as a school.

Another house associated with an internationally famous name is Woodbrook near Portarlington. It was built in 1712 by Knightly Chetwoode with the help and advice of his friend Dean Swift. Nothing to do with a sylvan stream, its name is a combination of Chetwoode and Brooking, his wife's maiden name. Damaged during the rebellion of 1798, a new front was added in 1815 with inlaid oak floors and a vaulted ceiling. The drawing room has superb murals by E. Hayes of various Highland castles, painted to honour the Scottish bride of a mid 19th century Chetwoode.

It had until a recent demolition a four storey polygonal tower from which the surrounding countryside could be surveyed and an 18th century galleried kitchen, from which the mistress of the house could observe the cook's labours. The delightful wooded parkland including an avenue of trees planted by Swift and a long canal also planned by the Dean was cleared away in the name of progress.

Not all the important Laois houses are enormous. Mount Henry at Portarlington, now a Presentation convent, was built in about 1820 for Henry Smyth to the designs of Richard Morrison. It is a square two storey house with a later wing. A porticoed front door is set back between symmetrical bays. The stone floored front hall has a screen of columns and a small circular gallery lets in light from a roof lantern. On the other hand another Laois House that Morrison worked on was Emo Court, which is massive. Emo, a corruption of the Irish townland name Imoe, replaced Lord Carlow's earlier house, Dawson's Court.

In 1790 his son, the Earl of Portarlington, commissioned James Gandon, of The Customs House and Four Courts fame, to design the house, but it was not completed until 1860 when the great copper domed rotunda was put on by the Dublin architect William Caldbeck. In the intervening years the English architect Lewis Vuklliamy had completed the garden front giving it the giant portico and a Dublin architect called Williamson had done up the interiors.

In the late 19th century it nearly became the home of Edward VII, then Prince of Wales, who knew Laois well from his friendship with Barney Fitzpatrick, Lord Castletown. However it was not sold until 1930 when it became a Jesuit seminary. It was then that various naked classical statues were dumped in the lake, lest they distract the meditations of the seminarians.

In 1969 it was brought by Mr. Chomeley-Harrison who has since restored it and executed several of the various designers' original intentions that were never carried out, such as Gandon's trompe I'oeils in the entrance hall. Generally decoration is quite restrained throughout the house - the beautifully proportioned drawing room with its bow window has nothing more exotic than two pairs of marble columns. A circular dining room has an ornate ceiling, but the central rotunda is the piece de resistance.

A circular room with an intricately inlaid wooden floor, marbled plasters rising the full height to the dome above and plaster panels on the walls, it is an astonishing space.

Gandon's great rival was Wyatt and it was to Wyatt that Thomas Vesey turned in 1773 to design a new house at Abbeyleix. An impressive block of a house it is 7 bays wide and 3 storeys over a basement. Inside the ceilings and walls are decorated with Wyatt's classical plasterwork, while the drawing room is hung with a beautiful 19th century blue wall paper.

The formal gardens were laid out in 1839 by Lady Emma Herbert and based on her memories of her Russian grandfather's garden at Alupka, near Yalta in the Crimea, though at Abbeyleix a pond replaces the spread of the sea.

Local tradition has it that a Russian relation of hers planted the poplars that line the road to Ballacolla. A disgraceful story told of Abbeyleix is that at a family christening in the 19th century the entire company became very inebriated before the ceremony. Driving the short distance to the church in an open carriage they upended themselves in a ditch. In the ensuing confusion Lady de Vesci's pet terrier was wrapped in the swaddling clothes instead of the baby and duly christened in the church.

Another tale of Abbeyleix relates to Arthur McMurrough Kavanagh of Borris who despite being born with no arms or legs managed to live a full life as explorer, sportsman and politician. Arriving at Abbeyleix station one day for a shoot, the station master, as he helped to lift him off the train, said, "Welcome back to Abbeyleix, Mr. Kavanagh". Later in the day while shooting with one of the guns that he had specially adapted to strap onto his shoulders, Kavanagh commented "Amazing, I have not been here for over 15 years and the station master recognised me!". Abbeyleix remains as fine a house as ever.

Rathleague House, near Portlaoise the home of the Parnells has not faired so well for in the 18th century it was described as being one of the finest mansions in the country whose "well ornamented pleasure grounds boasted a conspicuous temple". The Parnell responsible for the improvements was a great socialite but was born dumb. His nephew, Charles Stewart Parnell, had no such problems!

By the 1840's the house had fallen into considerable disrepair and the present house is but a pale shadow of the mansion that once stood there. It's neighbour, Sheffield, a mid 18th century three storey gable ended house of the Casan family with a door case identical to Roundwood, has completely disappeared. Stradbally Hall is still the home of the Cosbys, the only one of the Queens County tribes to have survived in their ancestral lands until the 20th century.

Described by Brewer in his Antiquities of Ireland in 1826 as a commodious and eligible mansion, the first house was an O'Moore fortified tower which was obtained by the Cosbys during the reign of Queen Mary. This first Cosby fell in battle with the O'Byrnes at the age of 70 in 1580 having built himself a new castle with the stones of a Franciscan Friary.

The house was enlarged in 1714 and a new front was added sometime after 1740, possibly to the designs of John Aheron, but in 1772 everything was demolished. The new house was built under the direction of one Arthur Roberts. This was the building which was enlarged and reclad to the designs of Sir Charles Lanyon in 1866-69. Inside there are some rooms with their original simple late 18th century plasterwork and others, like the top lit gallery at the head of the oak staircase, display the height of Victoriana with pink marble columns and elaborate decorative details. Sir Jonah Barrington has a delightful account of a dinner party at Stradbally at which a certain half blind Dr. Jenkins was sitting next to his host, Admiral Cosby.

Mistaking the admirals gnarled brown fist for a bread roll he thrust his fork into it with uproarious consequences. Just outside Stradbally is Ballykilcavan, the home of the Walsh Kemmis family. It's most famous occupant was actually a member of the staff - William Robinson (1838-1937). He was born in Stradbally and became head gardener at Ballykilcavan. His book, "The Wild Garden", published in 1870, was a reaction against the Victorian formal garden and brought about the fashion for the more naturalistic borders of the cottage garden - "unadorned nature" was his style. He left Ballykilcavan in 1861 having had a violent row with his employer and on the night he left he extinguished all the heaters in the greenhouses and opened the windows so that the following morning the entire collection of tropical plants were dead. The land was bought from the Hartepoles in 1639 by the Walshs of the Mountain, a Kilkenny clan.

The present house incorporates the late 17th century house built by the second Walsh to live there but it was enlarged and modernised both at the beginning and the end of the 18th century, though the latter improvements were never completed due to the rebellion of 1798. Gracefield which is also in the east of the county, was the seat of the Grace family, whose name was originally Le Gros - "the fat". From 1785 to 1814 Gracefield was unoccupied and the early 18th century house fell into severe disrepair. Nash, the prince regent's architect was commissioned to design a new house, William Robertson overseeing the work.

A contemporary description still accurate: "It's varied outline, irregular exterior, and the gothic labels over the windows give it an animated and picturesque character". It cost 5,000 to build at a time when skilled masons and carpenters were being paid 12.5p a day, while labourers got 5 pence. Sutherland, who was working at Ballyfin, laid out the gardens.

Heywood at Ballinakill still has fabulous gardens. It was built in 1773 Frederick Trench, the only man, according to Mark Bence Jones, ever to name a house after his mother-in-law for Heywood was his mother-in-law's maiden name. Trench was an amateur architect who had worked with Richard Johnston on the Assembly Rooms next to the Rotunda Hospital.

There is some suggestion that Gandon may have given him some advice on the design of the house as well. The original four bay three storey house has superb Adamesque decoration in the dining room. It was subsequently enlarged in Victorian railway station style in the 1870s and in 1879 and 1880 hosted the Empress Elizabeth of Austria who came to Ireland for the hunting.

Trench devoted great care and attention to the layout and he transported a window form Aghaboe Abbey to create a gothic folly on the avenue. Heywood passed to the Poe family, (cousins of Edgar Allen Poe), and in 1906 William Hutchenson Poe commissioned Sir Edwin Lutyens to design the compartmental gardens.

Terraces, pergolas with ionic columns, a yew garden and an elliptical pool with loggia are all features of the layout, which is the finest early 20th century garden in Ireland. The cost was far in excess of the estimate and although Poe paid up, his influence on Lutyens extravagance nearly lost Luteyns the job of building New Delhi. Close to Heywood is Blandsfort. This house was built on the ruins of an O'Moore keep in 1715 and some rooms still have bolection moulded panelling from that period.

The gardens are by James Fraser, an early 19th century Scottish gardener who was a great influence in breaking away form the Capability Brown type of parkland naturalism. There is also on the demesne an important conifer arboretum.

Another Bland family house is Rath House which was the home of the Dease family from Westmeath from 1838. They intermarried with the Grattans and Blands. A classical house of the early 1800s, it has two storeys over a basement, an oval entrance hall and a fine library or drawing room with ornate plasterwork. There is a Victorian conservatory and a small gothic chapel.

Grantstown Manor also had a chapel in the 1800s. However much of this late Georgian and Victorian house was destroyed by fire in 1977. It was the home of Barney Fitzpatrick, second and last Lord Castletown, who remodelled it. Lord Castletown was a passionate sportsman and entertained Edward VII to duck shooting here. It was finally sold out of the Fitzpatrick family in 1947.

During the War of Independence the I.R.A. came knocking one evening looking for guns. Lord Castletown was reputed to have come to an arrangement with his gamekeeper, who was in the I.R.A.The gamekeeper kept custody of the guns but whenever a days shooting was required they would be available, so the search of the house was fruitless. However he had a long chat with the men, who were not locals, in Irish, much to their surprise, and tried to persuade them to join his family in a rubber of bridge, an invitation they declined on the grounds that their masks might alarm the ladies!

Within sight of Grantstown is Cuffesborough, a distinguished but typical example of the homes of the prosperous middle class farmers of the 18th century. It has a drawing room, a dining room, with a concealed cupb6ard behind the shutters for the chamber pot which was much used after dinner, four bedrooms and a barrack room - a large room where all the guests slept in dormitory conditions. The house has pretensions of great grandeur - the front hall was originally decorated in faux stone blocks alternate white and grey oblongs spattered to give them the look of masonry. The basement is built of rubble stone but when the builders got to the ground floor windows they changed to cut stone blocks - presumably a cheap source of cut stone must have been discovered.

The 400 acre estate got its name from a 16th century vicar of Abbeyleix, one of the first Cuffes in Ireland. In the 1760s it was bought by the young Henry Grattan as , to use today's terminology "a non residential farm". Like many a modern speculator he built the house and yards and sold it on at a profit. It was bought by the Palmers

from whom the show jumper Lucinda Prior Palmer is descended, but when the family moved up to Mayo a Dublin auctioneer called Cuffe acquired it so that he became Mr. Cuffe of Cuffesborough. Sadly when the land commission divided the lands it was allowed to fall into ruin but was rescued at the eleventh hour. During the restoration it was discovered that many of the rooms had been redecorated only once in the last 200 years!

Grattan undertook several such developments in Laois but his closest tie with the county is at Dunrally. Awarded 50,00 in the 1780s by the Irish government for his services to the country (in those days politicians were not paid), he bought a considerable portion of the Cosby 's estate. On the banks of the Barrow he built a house within an old fort at Dunrally. Judging from the ruins that remain this can never have been more than a cottage for picnics and indeed he called it his hermitage.

Near Cuffesborough is Aghaboe, which was once a city of 1,300 dwellings. In the 1770s only one stone house is marked which appears from Taylor & Skinner's maps to have been used as the rectory of Dr. Ledwich, the noted antiquarian.

A rectory was built in 1820 and the old house became the home of a branch of the White family whose homes included Coolnagpor at Coolrain, Ballybrophy or Court Plunket House, (the present ruin near the railway station is an early 19th century two storey over basement five bay house of rendered rubblestone with cut stone pediments over the ground floor windows and a doorway with a wide fanlight sheltered by a porch supported on two pairs of doric columns which they rented from the Duke of Chandos and Buckingham), Raheen at Borris and Knocknatrina, the splendid Tudor-gothic above Durrow.

Aghaboe was the birthplace of General White, who commanded the 17th lancers in the Crimea and whose ghost is said to walk the Abbey Field. Aghaboe has gone through many metamorphoses. The old barn to the North and a section of the present house were originally a pair of 17th century houses with identical plans and window layouts. In the mid 18th century a new front of two storeys over basement was added and then in the mid 19th century the house was turned around to face South and the 18th century doorcase was moved to the back of the 17th century house. Aghaboe also stood empty for many years, its woodwork vandalised, its Adamesque black marble fireplaces stolen. Fortunately however it too has found a saviour and is in the course of being restored.

Roundwood at Mountrath was another house which looked set to sink into ruin before the Irish Georgian Society and the late Brian Molloy undertook it's restoration in 1970. Although once attributed to Francis Bindon, the actual architect of Roundwood is still shrouded in mystery. It is typical of that type of house classed by the architectural historian Maurice Craig as being a classic Irish house of the middle size. As at Cuffesborough and Aghaboe the carved stone doorcase is of a different quality from the rest of the stone work. It is a nice idea that in the 18th century you could go to the local hardware store and select your particular door case from the pattern books.

It was built around 1750 for Mr. Flood Sharp, a wool merchant, the front in cut stone, the sides in rendered rubble stone. It has four rooms on each floor with a grand Chinese Chippendale galleried staircase leading to the first floor while the top floor is served only by the modest back stairs. It has cellars rather than a basement and the kitchens, normally to be found in the basement, were in the range of building which remained from the original late 17th/early18th century house.

Roundwood is now the home of Frank and Rosemary Kennan who run it as a most excellent country house hotel, despite the odd ghostly child in the bushes or tombstone in the stables. Sadly many of the country house of Laois are either in an advanced state of dereliction or have disappeared for ever. There are places like the Adair's Bellegrove, Ballybrittas a U shaped Regency house which had an Italianate Romanesque winter garden designed by Sir Thomas Deane, the most talented late 19th century architect working in Ireland. The pillars he copied from the basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome.

J.G. Adair rose to infamy when he evicted all the tenants from his Donegal estate at Glenveigh Castle, though the grandson of one of the tenants having made his fortune in America bought the estate back in 1938. Bellegrove was burnt and then finally demolished in 1970. Ballyshaneduff or The Derries stood next door. It was built in 1810 on the site of an O'Dempsey tower for the Alloway family. Remodelled and rebuilt in the mid 19th century it ended up two hundred feet long with battlements, pointed doors and windows. It must have been an impressive place. Now there are only trees there.

Brockley Park at Stradbally was a targe three storey house built in 1768 for the Earl of Roden by Davis Ducart, the Sardinian architect who designed some of the finest houses in Munster. It had superb plasterwork but in 1944 it was dismantled and more recently completely destroyed. Coolrain House is in ruins, amid 18th century cut stone, pedimented two storey gabled ended house which had a formal canal and a ha-ha in the grounds. Dunmore House at Durrow was a three storey gable ended house of the 1700s demolished within the last twenty years.

Glenmalire House at Ballybrittas stands empty and in need. A fine Regency two storey over basement cut stone house it was built by the Trench family on the site of a Fitzgerald castle. There was Old Derig, near Carlow, once home to John Doyle, Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, a fine three storey house of the 1740s, Thornberry House, Abbeyleix, The Croker's late 18th century five bay house with a wide fanlit doorway in a projecting bow. There was Phillipsborough, a fine three storey house with excellent details and a round panelled front door, a design usually associated with Limerick. It became hard-core in the 1980s.

The walls of the servant's attics at Phillipsboro was decorated in graffiti libelling the Phillips' and dating back to the 18th century. Farmleigh House "built with great taste and judgement" by William Pigot in the 1790s and Annagrove Abbey have gone and Donore, the home of the Despard family is no more than a romantic shell. Designed by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce, the architect responsible for Castletown House, Ceibridge. Knoghtstown, is a very fine two storey house with a cut stone pedimented doorcase, a Venetian window and some interesting mid 18th century joinery. Now it serves as a nest for rooks and rats.

From Garrydenny Castle on the Carlow-Kilkenny border to the ruinous Landsdowne Park, a once elegant and much enlarged home of the Moore family, Earls of Drogheda overlooking the Barrow on the Kildare-Offaly border, from Brittas Castle in the Slieve Blooms to Erke Rectory on the Tipperary-Kilkenny border in the South, the catalogue of Laois's lost or ruined houses has over 70 entries.

John Nick Colclough

Source: Official Guide to County Carlow 1986


The information contained in these pages is provided solely for the purpose of sharing with others researching their ancestors in County Laois.
Michael Brennan July 2001. All Rights reserved

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