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Big Houses & Hard Times

Feel the layers of history in big houses, along famine roads and on quaysides. Explore parallel tales of wealth and destitution. Discover elegance, nature and dramatic tales as you stroll the iconic gardens of Ireland’s magnificent country houses. And unearth the tragic tales and incredible endurance as you tread in the tracks of Ireland’s Famine lives. Be bold and be awed by history’s abiding presence on this vital journey through Ireland’s iconic past.

Since earliest times, the fertile plains of County Kildare have attracted people of considerable affluence. A heart-shaped gold pendant found in the Bog of Allen and a hoard of gold ornaments unearthed outside Castledermot are reckoned to be at least two thousand years old. The coming of Christianity brought much prosperity to the county, not least when St Bridget’s Cathedral in Kildare town became a great centre of worship for pilgrims.

During the 12th century, the county formed part of the extensive lands conquered by the Anglo-Normans; the knights built castles all across Kildare of which nearly thirty survive. The vast majority are in ruins, or all but invisible, but there are still seven operational medieval castles in the county, including the ‘castle hotels’ at Kilkea and Barberstown, and the White Castle in Athy. Another gem from this period is the 13th century Motte at Ardscull, 5km from Athy, which was probably built at the behest of the mighty Norman knight William Marshall. (i)

Buoyed by lucrative trade links that reached all the way to Jerusalem, the Anglo-Normans funded the construction of a wealth of new abbeys and churches across the county, including three preceptories for the powerful crusading Knights Hospitaller. The Anglo-Norman families of FitzGerald and Eustace were the foremost patrons of both the church and county between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Many of the towns also prospered during this period, such as Castledermot, a walled town, which hosted thirteen sittings of the Irish parliament between 1264 and the early fifteenth century.

A dramatic shift in the cultural landscape began with the dissolution of the monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII, which broke the power of the Roman Catholic Church. This in turn inspired a series of fruitless rebellions by the FitzGerald and Eustace families as a new, primarily Protestant elite took possession of much of the county.

Sir John Alen of Norfolk, who oversaw the imposition of the Protestant Reformation in Ireland, was rewarded with vast chunks of north-east Kildare, which his family held for the next 200 years. Likewise, the Aylmers were awarded with the lucrative manor house of Donadea for their help in suppressing Silken Thomas FitzGerald’s abortive rebellion. By kow-towing to English demands, the FitzGeralds managed to hold onto much of their lands and would remerge as the most influential dynasty in the county during the 18th century.

 

Meanwhile, the 1630s brought the imposing figure of ‘Black Tom’ Wentworth to County Kildare. Also known as the Earl of Strafford, Black Tom was King Charles I’s Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. He used his office to accrue enormous wealth, much of which was pumped into the building of Jigginstown Castle outside Naas. Constructed of redbrick and Kilkenny marble, this was reckoned to have been the largest private house in Ireland.

Local lore has it that a human chain was formed from Dublin to Naas to pass the huge quantity of brick that went into the building. However, work stopped with Black Tom’s fall from power and execution in 1641 and the castle fell into ruin. The landmark structure is set to open to the public “in due course”.

The victories of both Oliver Cromwell and William of Orange in the seventeenth century spelled the end for Catholic Ireland. The country at large was now owned by a disparate collection of acquiescent Gaelic, Anglo-Norman, Old English and new settler stock who sought to establish themselves as vital cogs in the colonial system.

 

Ownership of land, the acreage beneath one’s feet, became the most potent symbol of wealth, as a plethora of mansions, or ‘Big Houses’, were constructed. Oldtown, Naas, was one of Ireland’s first Palladian winged houses. It was built in the early 1700s by the great military engineer Thomas Burgh who also oversaw the construction and renovation of all military buildings in Ireland, including the Royal Barracks (now Collins Barracks) in Dublin. He claimed descent from Charlemagne and his prestigious forbears included Baldwin de Burgh, King of Jerusalem and Ode, Bishop of Bayeux, for whom the Bayeux Tapestry was made. Another prominent family member was Walter Hussey Burgh, one of the most eloquent and charismatic lawyers in 18th century Ireland, who lived at Donore, between Oldtown and Mondello Park.

The Palladian mansion of Castletown House, Celbridge, was once the largest private house in Ireland. It was built for William Conolly, the son of a Donegal innkeeper, whose legal shrewdness made him Ireland’s richest commoner. Conolly’s life stands as testament to the fact that, even in the 18th century, a man of relatively humble origins could, if he played by the rules, rise through the ranks to become the most influential man in his country. Two generations later, his great-nephew Tom “Squire” Conolly married Lady Louisa Lennox, a daughter of the Duke of Richmond. Their story forms the backdrop of Stella Tillyard’s acclaimed biography ‘Aristocrats’, which was made into a BBC mini-series in 1999.

Lady Louisa’s sister Emily married the Earl of Kildare (later Duke of Leinster) and lived in much splendour at Carton House, Maynooth, itself a glowing tribute to the eminent German architect Richard Cassels and the Lafranchini brothers of Switzerland. The Lennox’s youngest sister Sarah, considered one of the greatest beauties of her age, also fetched up in Celbridge where she lived at Oakly Park and raised several brilliant military-minded sons.

Nearby Killadoon was home to descendants of Robert Clements, a prosperous wine merchant from Leicestershire who co-founded the frontier settlement of Haverhill, Massachusetts, in the 1640s. His daughter Mary Osgood was arrested for witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials.

 

Clongowes Wood near Sallins was formerly Castle Browne, home to the Browne family, a celebrated ‘Wild Geese’ family whose offspring included Marshal Browne who was killed in action while serving with the Austrian army at the battle of Prague in 1757. Lieut. General Michael Wogan Browne sold the house to the Jesuits who converted it into the school, while his sister Judith founded a motherhouse convent of Brigidines in Tullow, County Carlow. Michael’s great-grandson John Wogan-Browne was tragically murdered in Kildare in 1922.The gate piers in the village of Moone mark the entrance to Belan House, the once mighty mansion of the Stratford family, Earls of Aldborough.

The fourth earl was an inveterate gambler and alcoholic, and sold of much of the estate, including the garden ornaments and gates. The sixth and last earl was a recluse who spent twenty years – and much of his fortune – constructing a giant balloon that was destroyed by fire in 1856. He later moved to Alicante, Spain, where he supplemented his income by breeding dogs and selling Holloway pills. Belan House is now an epic ruin while its great iron gates stand at Carton House.
Harristown House, Brannockstown, was built in the late 18th century by the La Touche family, descendants of a Huguenot refugee from the Loire Valley who served at the Battle of the Boyne and founded the bank of La Touche & Sons, now the Bank of Ireland.

Another architectural rock was Straffan House, known today as the K-Club, where the Ryder Cup was hosted in 2006. The four-storey mansion was built by ‘French Hugh’ Barton, one of France’s most successful wine exporters, and modelled on Madame Dubarry’s Château de Louveciennes near Paris.

Among the many other remarkable homes built in Kildare during the 18th and 19th century were Ballyna, Bishopscourt, Castlemartin, Courtown, Dunmurry, Forenaghts, Furness, Harristown, Lyons, Moore Abbey, Morristown Lattin, Newberry, Palmerston, Sherlockstown, Killadoon, Gowran Grange and Burtown House. These were once amongst the most politically powerful houses in Ireland but today only the last three named still belong to the families that occupied them a century ago. However, Castletown, Carton, Straffan House (the K-Club) and Ballyna are all ostensibly open to the public [is that correct? Any others?], while the gardens at Burtown House, home to the Fennell family, are one of the celebrated wonders of South Kildare.

The Ascendency were renowned for devoting their lives to the joys of hunting, shooting, fishing, feasting, drinking, gambling and – until it was outlawed –duelling. (Even Daniel O’Connell found himself blazing guns in a deadly duel fought in a field at Oughterard.) However, many of Kildare’s elite also took their position in society with great seriousness and did what they could to improve the state of both the land and the people across the county, albeit ensuring their own status at the top of the hierarchy remained rock-solid. As well as their great houses, they built roads, churches, schools, mills, factories, workhouse and, in some cases, entire towns and villages. They paid for not one but two canals – the Grand and the Royal – which both passed through Kildare and, in time, they sponsored much of the railways, with at least fifteen stops and many fine stations in the county.

They employed the men who landscaped extensive parklands, converted bogs and stony ground into lush, short-grass fields, and planted magnificent woods and majestic gardens. The trees that grow on Cloncurry Hill [or is that Lyons Hill?] were planted in celebration of Wellington’s victory at Waterloo 200 years ago. Elsewhere Sir John Kennedy of Bishopscourt planted an abundance of the deciduous copses and coverts that now tower over the land.

Sir Gerald Aylmer was eighteen years old when he succeeded to his father’s heavily indebted 18,000-acre estate at Donadea. Along with the Duke of Leinster, he oversaw the drainage and reclamation of large tracts of bogland around Rathangan and built the tower on the Hill of Allen, as well as the stone labourers cottages in Donadea, a school, the demesne wall, an ice-house, an artificial lake and the main road from Prosperous to Donadea.

The Bartons likewise invested substantial wealth in the improvement of their holdings throughout North Kildare while the La Touche family not only enclosed the Harristown demesne within a six-foot high wall but also built a new road and bridge over the Liffey, as well as the Baptist chapel.

The Ponsonbys of Bishopscourt had their own personal brewer, a man by name of Richard Guinness whose son Arthur would go on to establish the world-famous brewery. Wolfe Tone descended from a French family who were tenants on the Wolfe family estate outside Clane. Sir John Kennedy proved the adage that a poacher makes the best gamekeeper when he enlisted the services of Dennis Garvin, ‘the doyen of the fox-stealing profession’ at which ‘fox stealing ceased in the Kildare country as if by magic.’

Kildare’s gentry and aristocracy were almost exclusively loyal to the British crown. Jack Ponsonby, who built the fine neo-Classical house of Bishopscourt, Straffan, went to Scotland with four companies of horse to fight against Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite rebels in 1745. Another Ponsonby of Bishopscourt led the famous charge of the Scots Greys at the battle of Waterloo. Colonel John Conolly of Castletown was one of the first recipients of the Victoria Cross in the Crimean War; his brother Arthur was killed at the battle of Inkermann. Lieutenant Richard Wolfe of Forenaghts was among those slain by the Mahdi during the attempt to relieve General Gordon’s beleaguered garrison at Khartoum,

However, there were those who rose up against the Crown, including Lord Edward FitzGerald of Carton House, who was one of the most charismatic leaders of the United Irishmen’s Rebellion in 1798. Lord Cloncurry of Lyons House and Wogan-Browne of Castle Browne (now Clongowes) were also heavily implicated in the rebel cause. James Medlicott of Dunmurry won considerable praise from the people of Kildare when he intervened to save the life of a parish priest who was about to be lynched by a loyalist mob during the rebellion.

Away from way, the elite were no strangers to benevolence. Katherine Conolly, the widow of the Speaker, emerges from the past as a ladyof particular kindness and fortitude. As well as erecting a Charity School in Celbridge, she commissioned the erection of the obelisk known today as ‘Conolly’s Folly’, designed by Richard Cassels, and completed in 1740. Local farmers, wjo has suffered greatly when a brutal frost wiped out their crops earlier that year, were paid to build obelisk, thus generating a much needed income.

In the next century, Lady Louisa Connolly, the wife of Squire Tom, established Ireland’s first Industrial School by the Castletown gates. Dedicated to “the poor of Celbridge”, boys were taught carpentry, tailoring, shoe-making and basket weaving, while girls learned how to cook, knit, sew and plait straw for the celebrated Celbridge straw-bonnets.

In 1836 the Poor Inquiry Commission hailed the landed gentry and aristocracy of County Kildare as the most generous in Ireland, noting how the women had done much to distribute blankets, clothing and beds during a particularly hideous cholera epidemic.

The Great Famine of the 1840s also triggered a strong response from many in the upper classes. “I am fond of hunting but I will part with hunters, hounds and servants rather than let my tenants want,” declared Lord Clonmell of Bishopscourt in 1847. Lord Kildare raised almost £84,000 (over €8 million today) for famine relief, while the Clements and Henry families orchestrated major fund-raisers at Killadoon and Lodge Park.

Nonetheless, the famine bit deep and during 1847 – or Black ’47 – over one third of the population of the county was in receipt of public relief, while a combination of cholera, typhus and emigration saw a decrease in the population by 16% or 18,765 people between 1841 and 1851. The barony of Naas South lost 30% of its population in that time, the highest figure recorded across Kildare’s fourteen baronies. John La Touche, whose home at Harristown was located in the barony, culled his deer herd to provide food for his tenants and ordered ‘no white bread or pastry to be made, and only the simplest dishes to appear at his table’. The gentry were also involved in the establishment of workhouses in Naas, Athy and Celbridge, as well as the sanatorium in Kildare; the riverside arches by Naas Hospital recall these dark days when workhouse inmates were obliged to wash themselves in the river.

By the early 20th century, the political landscape of Ireland was changing rapidly. The Great War brought death to many of the county’s young men who served at Gallipoli, Jutland, the Somme and other such battles. Among those who distinguished themselves were Admiral Jack de Robeck, who led the naval invasion of the Dardanelles, Admiral Sir Frank Kennedy who commanded a battle cruiser squadron at Jutland and Brigadier General Charles FitzClarence who died leading a successful counter-attack against the Germans during the first battle of Ypres.

Nationalism also came to the fore at this time. John Devoy of Kill, the head of Clan na Gael, funded the Easter Rising of 1916 which ultimately metamorphosed into the War of Independence. Kildare was inevitably embroiled in the revolutionary turmoil; the Earl of Mayo’s mansion at Palmerston House was destroyed, barracks were attacked and the Black and Tans raided Naas. A number of policemen and rebels were killed but perhaps the county’s darkest hour came in 1922 when seven Anti-Treaty men were captured on the Curragh and executed.

While some of the ‘Big House’ families abandoned Ireland in the wake of independence, many others kept their heads down and carried on. Straffan House still boasted a thriving community of twenty people living in the house in the 1920s, sixteen of whom were paid servants. When Lillian Barton realised the flowers clashed with her dress ahead of the annual hunt ball at Straffan House, she ordered the flowers to be changed. And yet the Bartons also retained a keen sense of benevolence. Straffan was one of the first estates to provide a medical dispensary for its employees; it stood opposite the entrance to the Church in Straffan village. Joan Barton operated as an unpaid district nurse to the surrounding countryside and, unusual for those times, she also employed a professional mid-wife to go to the estate cottages and attend to expectant mothers.

Today just three of Kildare’s ‘Big Houses’ remain in the hands of the families that lived there a hundred years ago, namely Killadoon, Gowran Grange and Burtown House. Those associated with the Big House include the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, the tenor County John McCormack, the photographer Derry Moore, the businessman Tony O’Reilly, the Ryanair founder Tony Ryan, the singer Chris de Burgh, his model daughter Rosanna Davison, the botanical artist Wendy Walsh, her photographer grandson James Fennell, the actor Paul Newman, the cosmetics queen Elizabeth Arden, the film director John Huston and his daughter Anjelica, the model Jasmine Guinness and her grandparents, the Hon. Desmond Guinness who, with his late wife Mariga, co-founded the Irish Georgian Society.

Big Houses & Hard Times is by Historian and Author Turtle Bunbury.

[1] Ardscull was the setting for a major battle in 1316 when a Scottish army defeated the English, paving the way for the Scots leader Edward the Bruce to be crowned king of Ireland on Faughart Hill, Co. Louth.   

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