Saturday 22 November 2014

Up Coming Events

Irish Country Houses - Portraits & Painters

'The Great Houses of Connaught'
Wednesday 26th November 
Talk & Book Signing
Castlecourt Hotel, Westport, Co. Mayo
featuring some of the houses below


Lissadell House, Sligo
Sunday 7th December
Book Signing


'The Great Houses of North West'
Ocean FM
Sunday 7th December ,9am
I will be featured in a Radio Documentary
about Lough Eske Castle in Donegal


Book Signing in
Book Shops in Cork City
Bandon Books Plus, Bandon, Cork
Saturday 13th December 

Saturday 1 November 2014

Northland House
Dungannon, Co. Tyrone

Uchter John Mark Knox, fifth Earl of Ranfurly, 1903 by Christian Wilhelm Allers, 1857-1915 Charcoal and watercolour, on sheet 700 x 550 mm
Accreditation- Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand

The name of the man in the portrait is revered on the other side of the world in New Zealand but very little acknowledges his existence in Dungannon in Co. Tyrone in Northern Ireland, where his expansive ancestral home was once located.  While few could claim to have heard of Uchter John Mark Knox, fifth Earl of Ranfurly, anyone with a passing interest in ruby will be aware of the Ranfurly Shield that he donated in 1902, which is still New Zealand’s premier rugby trophy. The fifth Earl was the Governor of New Zealand in the early 1900s but in 1875 he had inherited the family estate in Dungannon, after the accidental death of his brother in a shooting accident. Today nothing remains of the substantial Northland House but a distinctive solitary gate lodge along the main road in Dungannon. The decline of the Ranfurly estate was as a result of the common problems that beset landed families in the early twentieth century, death and taxes.  In 1915, the fifth Earl lost his son and heir in the First World War and afterwards he was plagued by financial problems when meant he could no longer maintain Northland House. The artist, Christian Wilhelm Allers, who painted this homely portrait of the fifth Earl in New Zealand in 1903 also originated in Europe. He travelled to New Zealand to escape a scandalous series of events and had hoped to restart his career under a different name.

The Ranfurly crest is a falcon standing on a perch hence the reason for their appearance on the pillars on either side of the gate lodge. The main house was located some distance from the road and a lengthy drive lined with laurel which passed a lake as visitors made their approach to the main house.
Accreditation- The National Library of Ireland

The gate lodge of Northland House is all that survives today of the ancestral home of the Earls of Ranfurly in Dungannon.  The decorative falcons that once stood on either side of the gate lodge are now long gone rather like the former owners.
Accreditation- Photograph by Ellie Ross

The Earls of Ranfurly had a long association with the town of Dungannon in County Tyrone, beginning with the original house of the Knox family built in the seventeenth century. The estate had been in the procession of the family since 1692 when it was purchased by Thomas Knox, a Glasgow merchant who had settled in Belfast. The town and the surrounding estate had been sold by the third Earl of Donegal and in the same year as Thomas Knox purchased these lands, he was elected as a Member of Parliament for Newtownards in Co. Down. Three years later in 1695, Thomas changed his main place of residence from Belfast to Dungannon and afterwards represented the area in Parliament. Thomas’s first house in Dungannon was replaced by a farmhouse which stood in the demesne on the outskirts of the town. Northland House which was the third reincarnation of the home of the Knox’s which was built in the area and replaced the smaller residence which was then used to house their servants.  The family would also come to own a Dublin town house which also shared the same name as the Dungannon mansion. The Irish townhouse named Northland House was located at 19 Dawson St., Dublin.  In the following generations the family began to rise through the peerage which culminated in Thomas Knox IV being created Baron Ranfurly in 1826 and five years later was elevated to the Irish Earldom of Ranfurly. The Earldom of Ranfurly originated from the Irish peerage but the holder of the title could sit in the Home of Lords in England as Baron Ranfurly. The Ranfurly’s owned the greater part of the town of Dungannon in County Tyrone which was once located at the centre of the linen industry.  Thomas, the first Earl did not spend much time in Dungannon as he had a home in London and also spent a great deal of time in Paris. Despite not spending much time in Dungannon, upon his marriage in 1785 to Diana Jane Pery, an heiress from an aristocratic Limerick family, Thomas’s father decided to build Northland House.

The lengthy and imposing entrance front of Northland House, you will note that the entrance portico to the house shares a striking similarity with the surviving gate lodge.
Accreditation- The National Library of Ireland

The garden front of the house with its curvilinear roofed conservatory was likened by the local people in Dungannon to the Crystal Palace in London. In the foreground can be seen the tennis courts.
Accreditation- The National Library of Ireland

The ancestral home of the Earls of Ranfurly was set within 600 acres and was near the site of an earlier castle built by a chieftain named Donald O’Neill in the fourteenth century.  In 1799, it was recorded that Robert Woodgate, an architect, made an addition to the house of Thomas Knox and that it cost £4,000. It was said that this architect was possibly also responsible for the gate lodge that survives as a relic of the estate today. Northland House was recorded as under going further improvement between 1840 and 1846 and was then described as a three storey, irregular mansion with classical influences; the entrance front was described as large, austere and imposing. The garden front of the house had a lengthy colonnade of Ionic columns which had an orangery at one end. From this side of the house one of its most impressive features could be viewed, a conservatory with a curvilinear glass roof which was often likened by the locals to the Crystal Palace in London. The grounds of the house were extensive and the people of Dungannon were allowed to walk the outer park where the Earl allowed them to play cricket. The parkland around the house had lawn tennis courts and was large enough to accommodate a 18 hole golf course for the private use of the family. The grounds of the demesne were accessed by one of two sets of white stately gates, found on either side of the gate lodge which were flanked by cast iron falcons that formed part of the Ranfurly crest. The avenue was lined with beech trees and the drive that passed the lake in the grounds was lined with laurel.

The house contained a large collection of paintings which included works by Rembrandt, Titian and Van Dyck. A number of curiosities also existed in the house which included a clock that had a peculiar mechanical arrangement that enabled only those acquainted with its secret to be able to calculate the correct time. The clock was made this way so that the visitors to the house would have no reminder of the time and therefore would possibly stay longer to enjoy the hospitality of the family. The house contained the original Prayer Book and Bible of the Irish House of Commons which had been abolished with the Act of Union and were presented to William Knox, the brother of the first Earl of Ranfurly in 1791. A visitor to the house in 1910 gave an interesting description of the now lost interiors of Northland House. Off the hall in the centre of the house was a wide stone staircase with iron railings. The flooring in this area was black and white marble floor tiles and weary guests said that ‘the newcomer has to learn by experience that the marble affords treacherous footing’. The floor was covered in places with the skins of lion, zebra, bear and tiger which had been shot by family members including the fifth Earl. The walls of the hall were decorated with tapestries and an oak statue of Charity was to be found at the foot of the grand staircase.  Off the hall was located the sitting room of the fifth Earl’s wife which contained many photographs of her children together with her personal books and ornaments. Many of the reception rooms were filled with Chelsea, Mandarin, Worcester and Berlin china which filled large glass display cases. On the first floor there was a gallery where the family’s art collection was displayed, off which most of the main family and guest bedrooms were located. The walls were so thick in this part of the house that the entrances to most rooms consisted of two doors which acted like a lobby to each room.

Governor of New Zealand, Lord Ranfurly, circa 1900, wearing ceremonial uniform
Accreditation- Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand

The fifth Earl of Ranfurly, Uchter John Mark Knox and was born in the Channel Islands in August 1856. He was the second son of the third Earl, he had not received the name Thomas which was a family tradition for the elder son and the holder of the title to be named. His father was Thomas Knox, third Earl of Ranfurly who had died in 1858 making his elder son the fourth Earl as a young child. The family also were descendants of the seventieth century Quaker, William Penn who was the founder of Pennsylvania in the United States. Prior to the auction of the contents of Northland House there had been numerous books associated with William Penn in the library including one detailing his visits to Holland and Germany in 1677. The fifth Earl began his maritime education on H.M.S. Britannia and afterwards attended Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge where he matriculated but did not graduate. Lord Ranfurly succeeded his brother to the estate in Dungannon and the Earldom in 1875 after he died on a shooting expedition in Abyssinia. At this time the Ranfurly estate extended to 9,647 acres in Tyrone and 506 acres in Fermanagh which brought in an income of £11,237 a year. Lord Ranfurly was a keen yachtsman and it was intended that he should adopt the Navy as a career but an illness as a child affected his health which necessitated that he spent time in Australia. He married Constance Elizabeth Caulfeild in 1880 and the new Countess of Ranfurly was the only child of the seventh Viscount Charlemont of Drumcairne, Stewartstown Co. Tyrone. In 1880 their first child Lady Annette Agnes was born but she died in childhood in 1886. In 1882, the firth Earl’s heir was born, and in keeping with family tradition, was named Thomas. Two further daughters followed, Lady Constance born in 1885 and Lady Eileen in 1891.

Governor of New Zealand, the fifth Earl of Ranfurly, seated at a desk in Government House, Auckland, circa 1900
Accreditation- Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand

In March 1897, the fifth Earl was appointed the Governor of New Zealand succeeding the Earl of Glasgow. It was said that he had intended to resign the post as a result of the salary. Not being a man of substantial means he didn’t believe he had adequate funds to travel and move his family to the other side of the world. Three months later, The Earl, his wife and their young family travelled to New Zealand from Europe. Their party which would have included servants and other aides numbered thirty and they carried over sixty tons of baggage. They stopped over in Montreal from which they travelled to Vancouver, sailed to Sydney and then finally to Wellington. The family pet Hamish, a Skye terrier, also accompanied the family to their new home however they had to leave their beloved horses in Dungannon. The fifth Earl had been a Lord in Waiting to Queen Victoria between 1895 and 1897 which was followed by the lengthy term as the Governor and Commander-in-Chief of New Zealand 1897-1904. Constance was a great support to her husband’s time in New Zealand and she entertained the future King George and Queen Mary during their trip there in 1901. 

The Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York and their entourage, with Lord and Lady Ranfurly and their party, photographed at Te Koraha, Christchurch, by an unknown photographer, during the Royal Visit of 1901. Identified people are: Commander Godfrey-Faussett (left), Sir Charles Cust (2d from left), Hon Charles Hill-Trevor (4th from left, rear), Duchess of Cornwall and York (11th from left), Lady Ranfurly (12th from left), Duke of Cornwall and York (13th from left), Lord Ranfurly (14th from left, front), Duke of Roxburgh (15th from left, rear), Prince Alexander of Teck (16th from left), Lord Wenlock (19th from left, seated), Lady Mary Lyon (21st from left, seated), Captain Dudley Alexander (extreme right)
Accreditation- Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand

As a result of the success of this visit the fifth Earl was made a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St. Michael and St. George. During his time in New Zealand, the fifth Earl toured the country becoming involved in local affairs and also using the time to collect specimens of rare birds for the British Museum. Lady Ranfurly spent her time, when not engaged on official duties, sketching and painting the landscape of New Zealand and exhibited these art works at the Wellington Art Exhibition in 1897. During his tenure as Governor, the fifth Earl was remembered as a man who respected his role representing the Queen on the other side of the world. At the turn of the century while the Earl was still posted in Auckland, back in Dungannon a skeleton staff of five was maintained to look after the house and grounds in 1901. Also in 1901 the Earl announced that he would present a cup to the New Zealand Rugby Football Union to be used as a prize in competition. The cup when it arrived was found to be a shield and is still a hotly contested trophy today which still bears the name of Ranfurly. In 1903, the fifth Earl sponsored an appeal to establish a memorial in honour of servicemen who had died during the South African War. The Earl opened a veterans home as he had said that prior to this  the “system of herding waifs and strays of humanity is not a fitting or honourable thing.”

View of Government House, Wellington, looking south, taken between 1897 and 1903. During the tenure of the governorship, the fifth Earl and his family would have lived here. This house was built in 1868 and was a large timber mansion in the Italian style. It became the Parliamentary debating chamber after the General Assembly was destroyed in a fire in 1907. A new Governor’s residence was built in 1908 and this house was demolished in 1969. 
Accreditation- Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand

In 1903,  the artist Christian Wilhelm Allers completed the charcoal and watercolour half-length portrait of the Earl seated in a leather armchair reading. Allers was born in Hamburg in 1857 and worked as a lithographer in Germany until 1880. In the 1880’s he published a number of collections of prints which became a commercial success. With the revenues from these publications he was able to purchase a villa in Capri in the 1890s where he invited young men to model for him. However this villa became a hot bed of scandal and in 1902 Allers left to travel the world until his notoriety died down.  Another reason for his hasty departure was that a four and half year prison sentence was about to be pronounced upon him. It was while he travelled the world painting wealthy patrons that he came to be in New Zealand in 1903. Allers captured the likeness of the Earl together with a companion portrait of Major Alexander, the private secretary and aide de camp of the Earl. Allers usually completed the portraits within three sessions each lasting about an hour and works cost between 7 and 10 pounds.  During this time the Allers now decided to use the pseudonym W. Anderson to distance himself from his name which had been associated with the scandalous stories at his villa. At this time in New Zealand the Earl was proving very popular with the people of his adopted homeland and at their request; his term was extended to 1904.  After his return from New Zealand to Northern Ireland in September 1904, the fifth Earl was made an Irish Privy Councillor in July 1905.

Lord Ranfurly, his family and staff, at Government House, Auckland, photographed in 1903 on the front steps. Top row (from left); Captain Hugh Boscawen, Hon Charles Hill-Trevor, Hon H C Butler, Lord Northland (the son and heir of the Fifth Earl). Front row (from left); "Shot" (dog), the fifth Earl of Ranfurly and his wife The Countess of Ranfurly and Jock (dog).
Accreditation- Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand

The Ranfurlys upon their return to Dungannon had hoped to reside for the remainder of their lives in Northland House. The Earl was said to be an uncompromising Unionist and was involved in a campaign against Home Rule. As a result Northland House was the setting for a number of notable Unionist demonstrations and was frequently visited by party leaders. Despite the issues with Home Rule, the Earl was said to popular with people of all classes and different political backgrounds. He had great interest in the welfare of those in Dungannon and always had a sympathetic attitude towards his tenants. He had tried to open a cold mine in the area to provide employment but this venture failed as the mine was prone to flooding. In 1908 the Earl travelled to Quebec but was taken ill upon his return, an operation was necessary and the Earl spent a number of months recuperating. The Earl’s retirement was not to be a quite one when in 1909, his son was named in a divorce case involving John Alexander Stirling, a British man and his American wife, a former showgirl. The case was a great scandal and the entire country followed the proceedings in the press with great interest. The court room was packed each day especially on the occasion when Mrs Stirling’s letters to Viscount Northland were read into evidence. Eventually Stirling was granted his divorce and custody of their daughter however damage had been done to the reputation of the fifth Earl’s son. The Ranfurly finances were obviously coming under stain at this time, as in October 1909, an advertisement was placed in the press. Here the fifth Earl stated that he intended to sell by auction in sixty lots, the ground rents, houses and town markets of the town of Dungannon and other nearby town lands.

The Ranfurly Shield presented by the fifth Earl in 1902
Accreditation- Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand

In 1911, the Earl aged 54, his wife aged 52 are living in Northland House which extends to seventy-five rooms. They have a household staff of eleven which includes a butler, footman, ladies maid and chauffeur. In 1915, the Earl and his wife were to receive a terrible blow when their son and heir of the Ranfurly estate was killed in action from wounds received at La Basse in the First World War. The Earl was inconsolable when the news reached Northland House. He had heard from his son a few days previous stating that he was quite well and that he would soon return from the front for a short visit to London see his family and friends. The whole town of Dungannon was plunged into mourning and the church bells in the town tolled during the day. At the outbreak of the war, Thomas had joined the Second Battalion of the Coldstream Guards as he had fought previously with them in the Boer War in 1902. He came of age in New Zealand, the event being celebrated by a ball at Government House in Wellington. In 1912 he married Miss Hilda Cooper and when they returned to Dungannon the town was decorated with bunting and coloured lamps. Their approach was marked by cannon fire and bonfires were lit at each cross road. The fifth Earl had hoped that his son’s marriage to a wealthy heiress would secure the family in Dungannon for another generation. He was to be sorely disappointed, as a result of his son’s early death the effects of the recent marriage settlement the fifth Earl had made became evident. It was his son’s wife who inherited the bulk of his estate and the family silver. The fifth Earl and his wife moved in Royal circles and received a telegram from the King and Queen expressing their sympathies. The heir to the Earldom was Thomas Daniel Knox now styled Viscount Northland who was born in May 1913; the grandson of the fifth Earl. It was said in the press at the time, that as a result of the number of heirs that had been lost in the war that the House of Lords had now become a house of mourning as so many of its members had suffered a bereavement.  During the war, the fifth Earl was a director of the Ambulance Department of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem for which he made was made a Knight of Justice. In 1919 the French Government also recognised the fifth Earl’s efforts and made him an Officer of Legion of Honour for his services during the First World War. The fifth Earl became a Privy Counsellor for Northern Ireland in the 1920s and also served as a Deputy Lieutenant and Justice of the Peace for Tyrone.

In March 1927, the fifth Earl made the hard decision to dispose of Northland House. Since the war, he and his wife Lady Ranfurly had done everything in their power to retain the estate for their grandson until he came of age, but post-war taxation had been too crushing. In May of that year the contents of the house were advertised for auction together with 600 acres of land including the cottages and gate lodge.  In June 1927 the contents of the house were sold and Northland House received a great influx of visitors for the final time. The demesne lands surrounding the old mansion house were offered for sale in March 1929 by auction but despite a large attendance the bidding only reached £4,000 which was considered insufficient and was withdrawn. In 1931 at Dungannon Rural Council meeting it was proposed to acquire Northland House for conversion into a district hospital. The council would not commit to the project and the house was purchased, stripped of valuable materials and demolished . After the eventual sale of Northland House in the late 1920s, the fifth Earl and his wife resided in London until their deaths the following decade. In October 1933 the Earl of Ranfurly died, a memorial service was held in St. Anne’s Church Dungannon in keeping with tradition, it was also held at the same time as his burial service in Bath. The Earl died at his English home, his wife Lady Ranfurly having died in June the previous year. His grandson Viscount Northland succeeded to the title but received very little inheritance besides the privilege to pay the pension of the retired butler from the family’s ancestral home in Dungannon. Today all that indicates that the vast Northland House once existed is its gate lodge, which now marks the entrance to the modern building of the Royal School which now occupies the site. As a fitting tribute to the fifth Earl, in 2009, his overgrown and dilapidated grave in Bath in England has been restored. This work was carried out and was funded by the Auckland Returned Services Association as a fitting tribute to the Ranfurly name which is still associated with the game of rugby in New Zealand over a century later.

If you enjoyed this you will find more stories about portraits associated with Irish Country Houses in my new book 'Irish Country Houses - Portraits & Painters' . You can purchase a copy by going to the following link

Thursday 30 October 2014

The Legend of 
Loftus Hall
Co. Wexford

In the drawing rooms of many Irish country houses stories abound of the night the devil paid a visit. His usual route of escape, upon discovery of his true identity, was via the chimney as a puff of smoke leaving damaged chimney pieces in his wake as a reminder. Many stories have abounded about satanic damage to fireplaces that may owe their true origin to faulty foundations rather than supernatural occurrences. However there is one story that has endured regarding Loftus Hall in Co. Wexford, of course like any tale, it should be prefaced with the words 'Based on a True Story'.

 Loftus Hall in the early 1900's
Copyright The National Library of Ireland

A house existed previously on the site of the current incarnation of Loftus Hall on the Hook Head Peninsula. It was known as Redmond Hall and it was in this house that the story of the visit of a mysterious stranger emanates. The Tottenham family were in residence the early 1770's where, as the result of a storm, a ship deposited a mysterious man on the beach near the house. Redmond Hall being the one of the few houses in this area, the visitor was drawn to the lights from the windows. He made his equiries at the door and was welcomed in by Charles Tottenham. The young man stayed a number of days and a romance seemed to blossom with Charles's daughter Anne.

A image to set the scene of the card game in Redmond Hall
Interior with Card Players, about 1752, Pierre-Louis Dumesnil, Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Harry G. Sperling, 1971 (1976.100.8). Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource, NY 

One evening the family and their guest sat down to play cards. During the game Anne dropped her playing cards and leant down to pick them up. She was amused to see that the young man had removed his shoes. However when she glanced at his feet, she was disgusted to see her suitor had hooves. The young man seen Anne's ashen face as she arose from beneath the table, he knew his true identity had been discovered. Anne screamed and the man regained his true form as the devil and then disappeared up through the ceiling in a puff of smoke.  Anne never recovered from the shock of her close encounter with Satan and as a result she had a mental breakdown. Her family confined her to the Tapestry Room and the house became a magnet for supernatural activity. Anne remained in the Tapestry Room for the rest of her life, sitting in a hunched position refused to leave the window for fear that she may miss the return of the stranger from the shore. As a result, by the time of her death in 1775, her bones had become fused in this position. A special coffin had to be made and she was buried in the same position in which she had remained in for most of her life. This fact was confirmed when the Tottenham crypt was opened in the 1940's and Anne's unusual shaped coffin was seen. Despite an exorcism, the house and its replacement continued to be plagued by unexplained occurrences. In later years another tragedy was to occur at Loftus Hall when the second Marquis of Ormonde died on the the beach near the house in sight of his family. He and his family had traveled from Kilkenny Castle to Loftus Hall which he was renting from the Marquess of Ely on the 25th September 1854.

The house that now stands on the Hook peninsula was built in 1870 on the ruins of Redmond Hall by John Henry Wellington Graham Loftus, fourth Marquess of Ely. Loftus Hall was built to celebrate his coming of age, having inherited the estate and the title at the age of eight. The Marquess had another house in Fermanagh called Ely Lodge which he had blown up, also to celebrate his coming of age. It was his intention to rebuild this house  but he spent too much on the new house in Wexford that his project in Fermanagh was never realised. Another reason put forward for blowing up Ely Lodge was to prevent Queen Victoria from making a visit, which seems drastic action to take to avoid an unwanted guest. Loftus Hall in Wexford reputedly stands on the foundations of the earlier seventeenth century house and it is said that both houses had a comparable footprint. The current owners believe that the new house was actually a remodeling of the existing house and incorporates numerous features from Redmond Hall. At the time of the rebuilding the Tapestry Room from the old house now became a billiards-room which continued to plagued by ghostly goings on. In later years the house keeper complained about the ghost of Anne Tottenham,  “Oh! Master George, don't talk about her. Last night she made a horrid noise knocking the billiard balls about'. The design of the new house was influenced by Queen Victoria's Osbourne House on the Isle of Wight, as John's mother, Jane Loftus, the Dowager Marchioness of Ely, was a Lady of the Bedchamber to the Queen . The mansion is deliberately aligned on an axis to maximise the vista over looking the Hook Peninsula. The eagle finials on the roof line are said to be relics from the earlier house and the gateway to the house is said to have been designed by Robert Adam for the first Viscount Loftus of Ely.

John Henry Wellington Graham Loftus, 4th Marquess of Ely, who built Loftus Hall when he came of age. He is pictured here with his mother, Jane Loftus (née Hope-Vere), Marchioness of Ely who is said to have influenced the design of the house.
Photographed by John & Charles Watkins, published by Mason & Co (Robert Hindry Mason), circa 1860. Copyright the National Portrait Gallery London.

After the death of the fourth Marquess in 1889 and his wife in 1917, Loftus Hall was used as a convent by two different orders of nuns until 1983. After the departure of the holy orders the mansion was successfully  run as a country hotel by the Devereux family until 1991. The mansion stood empty for a number of years and was sold in October 2008 to a Galway based businessman for around €1.7 million. However owing to the owner's personal circumstances, it was put back up for sale in 2011. The local Quigley family purchased the house, mainly for the surrounding agricultural land but soon discovered the true value of the asset at its core, Loftus Hall. While they do not intend to restore the house, they have secured the fabric of the building by sorting out the leaky roof. The current owners have chosen to embrace the house's troubled past and now use it to its advantage. They now provide ghost tours of the house which have attracted crowds of people. However when some ghostly faces were recently pictured at the windows of Loftus Hall, it has now made the house a popular tourist attraction and gained international attention

The image of the ghostly residents pictured at Loftus Hall, Co. Wexford.

If you wish to visit Loftus Hall and its ghosts, you can find more details by going to the website below:

Monday 13 October 2014

 Irish Country Houses Portraits & Painters


A number of years ago I purchased a painting of gentleman called John Walsh, as it was an affordable way of owning something that had an untold story maybe a mystery that one day I could possibly uncover. While this painting might not be considered a masterpiece or created by a well-known artist, I often wonder about the life of the man in the picture, who he was and where he lived. The only clues I have is his name written on the back of the canvas and a number the labels on the stretcher suggesting that this painting has been on a journey over the decades. Many times when researching photographs for my books, I often give the walls of lost drawing rooms a quick scan to see if John Walsh might be staring back at me. So far I’ve been unsuccessful however the painting has lost none of its appeal as there waits a lost story of a life once lived, locked behind the face on the canvas.

The stories associated with these portraits fascinated me when I was working on my first book. In one instance in 2011, during a visit to Aras an Uachtarain, I noticed a painting of Constance Markievicz hanging on a wall at the end of a corridor. I had never seen this portrait before and as I began to research its background, I learnt about the happy period when Constance Markievicz spent in Paris just after her marriage before her well know involvement in 1916. This painting reminded me of the time when I attended the auction of the contents of Lissadell House in 2003 where I gazed at the famous Sarah Purser painting of Constance and her sister that hung in the dining room of Lissadell. This auction was a rare opportunity to examine this painting up close, in its original setting where it had hung from the time it was commissioned. Luckily after the auction this painting has remained in Ireland however the portrait of the Gore Booths sisters is now separated from the portraits of their parents which still remain in their Sligo home.

When researching this book I became aware of how insular the world of the country house and the artist had become in the early twentieth century. The artist William Orpen was a friend of Oliver St. John Gogarty, who in turn was a friend of Yeats; who in his youth was a familiar figure in Lissadell in Sligo, the home of Constance Gore Booth.  Yeats also visited Coole Park the home of Lady Gregory who was the aunt of John Shawe Taylor, whose cousin Sir Hugh Lane recommended Orpen to the Fosters of Glyde Court.   Sarah Purser painted the Gore Booths in Lissadell and who also set up An Tor Gloinne with encouragement from Edward Martyn who was a cousin of Maurice Moore of Moore Hall.

As I criss-crossed the country gathering information in relation to the portraits, their subjects and the country houses, I was amazed how scattered information relating to these subjects had become. Photographs and information were deposited all over the country in archives, galleries and private collections. However in one rare instance in Drishane House in Co. Cork, much had remained the same. I was delighted to discover that items that appear in the portrait of Violet Martin still remain there today, over 120 years later. Likewise you never know where a story relating to a painting may take you. When I visited Renvyle House in Galway I heard the story of Oliver St. John Gogarty’s yellow Rolls Royce which took me to Northern Ireland where the vehicle has been magnificently restored after being buried in a bog for decades.

Over my time compiling the book I was granted unprecedented access to art galleries, private art collections and some of Ireland’s great country houses where I met some interesting characters, collected wonderful stories and captured numerous photographs along the way. I am indebting to my publisher who has given me this great opportunity to create this book which I hope sheds some light on the portraits of those individuals whom I have gathered together in this book.

My second book is now available from all good book shops and also by clicking on the link below:

Saturday 27 September 2014

Kilcooley Abbey
Thurles, Co. Tipperary

 Sir William Barker, fourth Baronet painted by Gilbert Stuart, Oil on canvas, c. 1791, 37 1/2 x 47 3/4 in. (95.3 x 121.3 cm) Private collection
Accreditation- The Archives of Country Life

This painting of Sir William Barker, the fourth Baronet depicts all the elements in the eighteenth century that led to the creation of the house we see today in Tipperary called Kilcooley Abbey. We have the man who built the house, Sir William, the drawings of the house in his hand, illustrating his ambition and in the background of the portrait is the ancient abbey that gave the house its name. This painting was completed by Gilbert Stewart who went on to paint George Washington, the first president of the United States. This painting of Sir William which used to hang at Kilcooley also had a companion piece; a painting of his wife Lady Catherine Barker (nee Lane) which also featured the boat house which is still identifiable in the grounds of the estate. Kilcooley has been at times a place of scandal with one early resident using a member of staff as a human hot water bottle while a butler who shirked his duties as a father was responsible for a fire in the house in the 1830’s. Kilcooley passed down through the generations mainly unaffected until 2003 when it was placed on the market. Since the house was sold in 2008 it has again appeared on the market for sale, a victim of the recession and property downturn. Kilcooley has now become someone’s broken dream and today signs of its decline are evident both in and around the house. Today the estate is protected by a number of security cameras, while these protect against intruders they don’t deter the age old problem of any country house, neglect, but it has recently been revealed that the house has been sold.

The house was rebuilt in 1843 after a devastating fire in 1839. The butler of the house who had been sacked by William Ponsonby Barker packed the chimney in the library with paper and set it on fire. While it may have been his intention only to start a chimney fire to inconvenience the household, the plan back fired when the whole house burnt down. 
Accreditation- Photograph by Ellie Ross

Kilcooley is situated on the Kilkenny-Tipperary border, four miles from the village of Urlingford. The nearby ancient abbey of Kilcooley which gave the later Barker mansion its name is situated 500 yards away from the house. It was founded in 1182 for the Cistercians when lands were granted to them by Donal Mor O’Brien. It was burnt down in 1445, rebuilt and was often lived in as an occasional residence by the Barker family when it entered their ownership. During the mid-sixteenth century was the property of the Earl of Ormonde from whom in 1636, Sir Jerome Alexander purchased Kilcooley Abbey for £4,200. After his death the Cistercian Abbey became a dwelling for his daughter Elizabeth and her husband Sir William Barker until the end of the century. William Barker was granted 3,300 acres in Limerick in 1667 and 1,300 acres in Tipperary in 1678. He was made a Baronet in 1676 with the title of Baronet Barker of Bocking Hall in Essex which his son mortgaged when he came to Ireland in 1725. His son also named William was born in 1677 became the second Baronet on the death of his father in either 1717 or 1719. He married Catherine Keck and their son William was born in 1704 and became the third baronet after the death of his father in 1746.

The ancient Kilcooley Abbey, which gave the house its name, was founded in 1182 for the Cistercians when lands were granted to them by Donal Mor O’Brien. It was  burnt down in 1445 and rebuilt to be later lived in as an occasional residence by the Barker family. 
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It had always been the intention of the Barker family to improve the Kilcooley estate and rather then living in the ancient abbey they hoped to replace it with a proper mansion. In the 1720’s the second baronet intended to develop a market town with build a suitable gentleman’s residence nearby. He was a sensible man did not want to commit himself financially to such a large undertaking as building a new house at Kilcooley. He made little progress with the project but handed over a financially sound estate upon his death.  In July 1736, as a result of the marriage of William, the future third baronet, to Mary Quin from Adare, his father Sir William wrote that he came to Kilcooley to build ‘as fine and elegant a private gentleman’s seat as any in Europe and inland market as ye country could afford, instead of botching it now about old Abbey walls not proper adapted to be anything called polite’. 

The carved sacristy door with surrounding panels depicting the crucifixion and St Christopher carrying the child Jesus across a river. A group of fish and a mermaid holding a mirror can be seen in the lower right hand side which is said to represent vanity, pride and lust. 
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A detail from the tomb of Piers Fitz Oge Butler who died around 1526 and is buried in the chancel of Kilcooley Abbey. This is a section from a side panel that depicts ten of the twelve apostles and was sculpted by Rory O’Tunney, his name is known as it is clearly marked on the carving. Accreditation- Photograph by David Hicks

However while William considered his plans and his finances he sent his son to Tipperary to live in the half ruined abbey. So it was the fourth baronet, also confusingly named Sir William, who is said to have been responsible for the construction of the Palladian house but it may have begun while his father was still alive. A stone was uncovered beneath plaster in the stable yard which displayed the date 1762 which would indicate that the house was built in the 1760’s rather than the 1790’s as suggested by some. The ancient abbey can still be viewed through the trees from the garden front of the house and the Cisteran abbey can still be accessed from the gardens of the Barker mansion though a gate and Gothic arch.

In the 1730’s Sir William Barker, the second Baronet, wrote that he intended to build ‘as fine and elegant a private gentleman’s seat as any in Europe and inland market as ye country could afford, instead of botching it now about old Abbey walls not proper adapted to be anything called polite’. 
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The Gothic arch at the end of the garden frames a view of Kilcooley, this provides access to the ancient Abbey of Kilcooley which was used by the family as a home prior to the construction of the house and again when the house was being rebuilt after the fire of 1839. 
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The fourth Sir William Barker was sent to Kilkenny College at the age of ten and then to Trinity before completing his education at the Middle Temple in London in 1757. Sir William, the fourth Baronet, married Catherine Lane in January 1760, who was the only child and sole heir of William Lane of Dublin.  William’s father, the third baronet handed his responsibilities for Kilcooley over to him and in 1764 he became High Sheriff of Tipperary. In March 1770, Sir William, the third Baronet, died followed by his wife Mary, who died in 1776. When he succeeded to the estate in 1770, their son briefly contemplated living elsewhere as he advertised the Manor of Kilcooley, in Finns Leinster Journal, for sale. William retained Kilcooley and began to develop the estate and advertised for tenants. It is said that William and his wife were devoted to the continual improvement of the estate and wanted to increase the protestant population of the parish and reclaim undeveloped lands. Evidence at this time would indicate that the mansion house at Kilcooley was built between the time of Sir Williams marriage and his succession to the estate, which would again point to the house being built in the 1760's. 

The crest of the Ponsonby- Barker family of Kilcooley features a bear which were carved in stone and guard the entrance to the house today. Accreditation- Photograph by Ellie Ross

The entrance front of Kilcooley Abbey which was the home the Ponsonby family until it was sold in 2008. The bay windows that we see here were added to the house after the fire in 1839 replacing the curved bow windows. 
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The house is a large and imposing two storeys over basement mansion with large wings that extend out from either side of the seven bay entrance front. The garden front which faces the abbey is five bays wide with a breakfront centre of four giant Ionic pilasters, the wings on either have pediments. Kilcooley is a substantial house and has a floor area of 25,000 sq.ft. Kilcooley was a happy place in his time and Sir William delighted in entertaining friends, tenants and most of all young people. Another reason for the construction of the house was because of Sir William’s growing extended family. He invited his widowed sister Mary and her two children to live at Kilcooley after the death of her husband Chambre Brabazon Ponsonby in 1762.  Within a few years she had remarried becoming the second wife of Robert Staples, the seventh Baronet of Lissan, County Tyrone and moved to Dunmore Kilkenny. She left her two children from her first marriage behind her at Kilcooley. After her death in 1772, in Sir William and Lady Catherine raised the children as their own. One of the children, a son also called Chambre Brabazon Ponsonby born in 1762, would inherit Kilcooley from his uncle.  Sir William took considerable trouble to improve the estate and 1789 he constructed the lake at a cost of £442 -7-6 to give Kilcooley the water view that he felt it so greatly needed. The lake was stocked with fish and wild fowl supposedly shipped from Canada and Greenland. In 1776, he had bought a large quantity of English Elms at Tullamore to improve the woods. In 1793, he constructed a new drive way and entrance gates to the north side of the house. In the grounds of the house are a number of outbuildings that form a courtyard which were built in 1845. Located near the house is the church built in 1829 where members of the Ponsonby family have been buried in its grounds together with members of the Barker family in their pyramid shaped crypt.

Sir William took considerable trouble to improve the estate and 1789 he constructed the lake at a cost of £442 -7-6 to give Kilcooley the water view that he felt it so greatly needed. The lake was stocked with fish and wild fowl supposedly shipped from Canada and Greenland. The elaborate Gothic elevation hides the simple boat house that exists behind it where small pleasure boats can be moored. This boat house which appears in the portrait of William Barker’s wife, Catherine, from 1791 painted by Gilbert Stuart.
 Accreditation- Photograph by Ellie Ross

In 1783, Sir William brought the Irish portrait painter John Trotter to paint a pair of portraits, one to depict himself and his wife Lady Catherine and the other to show his sister Mary and Sir Robert Staples. Both paintings had the landscape of Kilcooley in the background. William’s niece Mary was disappointed with the paintings so  the artist Gilbert Stuart was commissioned to repaint the faces. It is thought that Stuart may have been introduced to Sir William by the Earl of Bective. Pleased with his efforts, in 1791 William asked Gilbert Stewart to return to Kilcooley to paint new portraits of Lady Catherine and himself. The two resulting portraits are thought to be the artist’s best work from his time spent in Ireland. Lady Catherine is depicted working at her embroidery and the other shows Sir William studying the plan of his house. Gilbert Charles Stewart was born in America in 1755 of Scottish extraction; as a result of the Revolution he left America in 1775 for England. He developed a successful career there but was neglectful of his finances and as a result he fled to Ireland in 1787 to escape prison. He was successful in Ireland and became a very sought after portrait painter but he continued the tradition of accumulating debt and returned to the United States in 1794. He left behind him a number of unfinished paintings but was unconcerned by this and was recorded as saying that ‘The artists of Dublin will get employment in finishing them’. After his return to America, he painted the famous portrait of George Washington. Despite selling numerous copies of this famous work it still remained unfinished by the time of his death in 1828. The Barkers had wanted to have a picture gallery at Kilcooley in which their own portraits by Gilbert would form the centre pieces of a collection that would be added to by each generation. In the painting of Sir William, Gilbert has filled it with a number of symbols, the old abbey represents the past and the long association that the family had with the land around Kilcooley. While the drawing in Sir William’s hand represented the long future he hoped his family would have in Tipperary with the drawing of the house he had created. Gilbert took some artistic licence with the architectural elements of the centuries old monastic building and made it more romantic than what existed in reality.

In this portrait of William Barker’s wife, Catherine can be seen the boat house that still exists in the grounds of the estate today. In the companion portrait of her husband, he points to the area on the plans of the house where she is sitting. Accreditation- Private Collection 

Gilbert also created a link between the painting of Sir William with that of his wife, in the portrait of Sir William, he points to the room on the architectural plans where the portrait of his wife was painted, the dining room which over looked the Gothic boat house to be found on the entrance front of Kilcooley. Sir William wished to fill the house with the best that money could buy and, purchased, on a visit to Bath, a dinner service from the Worcester factory afterwards a special set of china was made with his family crest, a bear, on it. Silver was procured for the house from the fashionable Dublin silver smiths Wests. Sir William lived mainly at Bath but did visit Kilcooley every year to see that all was being kept in good order. In 1807 it was recorded that a decorator came from Waterford to do up the whole house prior to Sir Williams return. In October 1818, Sir William died and his will was probated the following month. On his death his baronetcy became extinct and the estate passed to the son of his sister Mary whom he had raised as his own child. Chambre Brabazon Ponsonby inherited Kilcooley on the condition that he adopted the name of Barker. He married Lady Henrietta Taylour, daughter of Thomas Taylour, First Earl of Bective in 1791 but Chambre had problems with his finances similar to his grandfather the third Baronet. Before his marriage could take place, his grandfather Sir William and his future father-in-law had to pay off his excessive debts. Chambre died in 1834 and Kilcooley was inherited his eldest son William Ponsonby-Barker. 

In the 1830s, William Ponsonby-Barker took a human hot water bottle to bed each night chosen from among the female servants after the family said their prayers in the evening. One night, a lady he took to bed who produced a powerful stench that it was necessary that William got up in the dark to fetch eau de cologne. He splashed the liquid liberally over his sleeping companion.  It was only in the morning when he discovered that his sleeping companion now had a blue face that he had actually doused her in ink. This louche attitude towards morals was something that peculated down to the male members of staff which would have dire consequences for the Kilcooley. In 1839, a woman appeared at the front door of Kilcooley carrying a child and demanded to see the butler Mr Ashby. It was insinuated by this woman that the butler had fathered her child but now ignored its existence and contributed nothing towards their upkeep. William Ponsonby Barker was shocked by the behaviour of someone who worked under his roof and dismissed the butler on the spot. Ashby packed his bags but disgruntled by this treatment by his former employer packed a defective chimney in the library with all the paper he could find and set it on fire. Being the butler of the household he was well aware that the chimney was prone to fires. While it may have been his intention only to start a chimney fire to inconvenience the household the plan back fired when the whole house burnt down. The eventual fire from the chimney spread to the roof and soon the whole house was ablaze. By the following Sunday morning all but one of the side wings was a gutted smoking ruin. William Ponsonby-Barker had intended to build another house with ambitious plans being prepared around 1840 but found that he could not afford to build such a grand house. Newspaper reports at the time of the fire reported that the ‘splendid old Gothic mansion’ had been burnt to the round and was the residence of Mr Ponsonby Barker who was at the time a Conservative candidate for the County of Tipperary. The furniture and everything but the family silver and portraits had been consumed in the blaze. William and his wife who had been sleeping in the house at the time the fire broke out and had a very narrow escape. They made their escape by the bedroom window and descended 40 feet by a ladder to the ground below, a few moments later the floor of their bedroom collasped. The house was insured for the sum of £13,200 and during the rebuilding the family again occupied the old abbey.

The interior of the house dates from the 1840’s after the house was restored from the devastating effects of the fire. This photograph of the entrance hall was captured when Kilcooley was still owned by the Ponsonby family prior to the sale of the house.
 Accreditation- The Archives of Country Life

The interior of the mansion at Kilcooley today largely dates from after the fire, the finest space being the large double height entrance hallway and has a gallery on all sides which provided an ideal area to display the surviving family portraits. The house was rebuilt by 1843 and it was during the rebuilding that the bay windows were added on the entrance front which breaks the natural line of the original house. The renovated house drained the family finances despite trying to use the ruins of the previous house. The renovations from the 1840s  resulted in the interiors that survive today, the entrance hall which has a gallery also has timber panelling, parquet flooring and ornate cornicing. Surprisingly the main block of the house has only four, albeit large, bedrooms as a lot of space on the first floor being sacrificed to accommodate the double height entrance hall. A basement runs under the entire length of the main block which may have survived the fire of 1839.  Here was housed the kitchen, staff bedrooms and the wine cellar. One of the wings of Kilcooley housed the nursery wing where the children’s bedroom and the nanny’s quarters were accomodated.

William died in 1877 and Kilcooley was inherited by his brother named Captain Thomas Henry Ponsonby. At this time the estate extended to over 8,000 acres in Tipperary, 3,426 acres in Limerick, 3,260 acres in Kilkenny and 329 acres in Kildare. Together with the house and estate, Thomas had also inherited his brother’s debt some of which came from the rebuilding of the house and his first act was to reduce the burden of debt on the estate.  Thomas and his heir, his son Chambre, received permission to break the entail contained in William’s will in 1878. This would have previously prevented the sale of estate lands of which 2,210 were eventually disposed of under the Encumbered Estates Act.  In 1873, the heir to the Kilcooley Estate, Captain Chambre Ponsonby had returned to Kilcooley with his new bride, Hon. Mary Eliza Sophia Plunkett the daughter of the sixteenth Lord Dunsany. They were greeted by illuminations, a triumphal arch and a large bonfire at the entrance to the demesne. Their carriage was pulled by the tenants of the estate which was a popular custom. This being prior to the death of the bridegroom’s uncle William Ponsonby-Barker who provided whiskey and beer so that the celebrations continued all night. When Thomas died in February 1880, his son Chambre Brabazon Ponsonby succeeded to the estate Kilcooley.

The two storey galleried hall is top lit by a glazed dome and is surrounded by a gallery on all sides, where the family portraits were displayed. Accreditation- The Archives of Country Life

In 1880 when Captain Chambre Ponsonby inherited the Kilcooley Estate, seeing no future in Ireland, he departed for the United States to join his brother-in-law Horace Plunkett to become a rancher. Horace would become known in Ireland in later years for agricultural reform but was now in Wyoming which helped alleviate his health problems. After making some investigations to the possibility of making a life for himself and his family in the United States Chambre returned to make arrangements to leave Ireland.  He died on the voyage returning from America on the steam ship Oregon and the estate now passed to his six year old son Thomas.  His widowed mother Mary remained at Kilcooley where she was encouraged and advised on the running of the estate by her brother Horace. The estate was put in to the hands of trustees until the young Thomas Ponsonby would come of age. The chief members of the trust were Thomas’s uncle Horace Plunkett and Lord Longford.  It was on his sister’s estate that Horace Plunkett had tried to establish his first creamery with a site being chosen outside the park gates. A meeting of local farmers was held to establish a co-operative but much ill will was stirred that Mrs Ponsonby withdrew her support and Horace had to go elsewhere. Mary Ponsonby never liked Kilcooley and after her children had grown up, she left and moved to England. She died in July 1921 and had been living in London with her estate being valued at £22,434. In 1900 Thomas came of age which was celebrated when his tenants from his Kilkenny and Tipperary estates were entertained at Kilcooley. During the celebrations Thomas was presented with a silver cup and riding whip by his tenants. In July 1908, Thomas was appointed as a Deputy Lieutenant for Tipperary.

The garden front of Kilcooley faces the ancient abbey from which it took its name, the central block is five bays with a break front in the centre with four ionic pilasters.
 Accreditation- Photograph by Ellie Ross

In 1909 Thomas Ponsonby, after his marriage to Frances May Paynter, had a dance for the gentry of Kilkenny and Tipperary in the entrance hall of Kilcooley Abbey. Kilcooley over the previous years had become dilapidated and the new Mrs Ponsonby set about brightening up the house. New carpets and furniture were introduced and for years to come Frances was seen frequently at auctions purchasing antiques. There was considerable need for modernisation in Kilcooley as at this time there was only one  toilet in the house. During social events it was reserved for the use of ladies only. Visiting gentlemen were directed by the servants towards the shrubbery. As well as introducing modern plumbing, which was installed by Bairds of Abbey Street in Dublin ,who advertised this in the national press , other conveniences were installed which included electricity and central heating. At the time of the 1911 census Thomas Brabazon Ponsonby aged 32 and his wife Frances aged 26 are living in the thirty-five roomed Kilcooley Abbey. They have eight servants which include a butler, cook, ladies maid, a number of house maids and a chauffeur. There are a number of people listed as boarders in the house at this time however they range from plasters to plumbers and carpenters so one assumes that they were involved in the renovations that were being carried out on the house. In 1915, Thomas was looking for ways to make the estate more financially viable and under instruction from his Uncle Horace he began to look at better ways of farming. From 1913 he had visited a number of farms to see  if the techniques and practises being used were suitable for use at Kilcooley. Other enterprises started by Thomas at Kilcooley included a saw mill which was in operation until 1933. Thomas was with his uncle Horace when their car was attached in Merrion Square during the 1916 Rising. The unsettled times that continued in Ireland culminated in the 1920’s and nearly resulted in the loss of Kilcooley only for the quick thinking of its owner. One night in 1922, at 11pm the front doorbell rang and the raiders tried to persuade the family to open the door. The raiders unsuccessful in their attempt to enter by the front door now used a battering ram to enter via the basement. Thomas pulled the main fuse of the house and plunged it in to darkness thus impeding the task of the raiders. He being familiar with the layout of the house returned to his bedroom and put on a pair of rubber soled shoes and proceeded to make his way through the house opening doors as he went. As the raiders only had one flash light between them they soon abandoned their task. Thomas had saved Kilcooley from being burnt down but this fate would befall his uncle’s, Horace Plunkett's house, Kilteragh in Foxrock in the following months. While Thomas had success with agricultural enterprises at Kilcooley it was decided in 1935 to lease 1,200 acres the government for forestry land. It was in the 1930s that a lot of the land that surrounded the walls of the estate was divided up among the tenants by the Land Commission.

Thomas Brabazon Ponsonby died in November 1946 and left an estate valued at £ 64,837 to his eldest son, who because of ill health decided that he could not accept the burden of running the estate. The task was taken up by the second son Major George Thomas Ponsonby who trained race horses at Kilcooley up to his death in 1984. Afterwards Kilcooley was still used for equestrian events and in 2002 the owners of the house were George’s son Peter Ponsonby and wife Faith. When the house appeared on the market in 2003 it had been in the same family since 1770. Locals had hoped that the estate would be purchased by the State but they were to be disappointed. The house was purchased in 2008 but was back on the market again in 2011 with an asking price of €2.75 million which included the eighteenth century mansion, five staff houses, outbuildings 313 acres together with 950 acres on lease to Coilte. Over the years a number of items from Kilcooley have appeared at auction in England and Ireland. In September 2013 a number of portraits from the collection that Sir William, the fourth Baronet had started at Kilcooley Abbey appeared for auction in Christies in London. Today the house and its grounds have become neglected and down at heel with mobile towers of security cameras providing protection. It was recently revealed that Kilcooley has been sold, so one hopes that this great house will now be restored and saved. However as of October 2015, Kilcooley is back on the market once more with the estate lands inflated to 1,200 acres through purchases of the current owner. Despite the expense incurred on the estate lands, the house and stable yard remain in a perilous state of decay. The Kilcooley estate now has a price tag of €8 million.