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. 
Accreditation- Photograph by Ellie Ross

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. 
Accreditation- Photograph by Ellie Ross

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’. 
Accreditation- Photograph by Ellie Ross

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. 
Accreditation- Photograph by Ellie Ross

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. 
Accreditation- Photograph by Ellie Ross

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.