Ballysallagh House, Johnswell, Co. Kilkenny R95 A6P1

Opening dates in 2023: Mar 1-20, May 1-31, Aug 12-20, 9am-1pm

Fee: adult €7.50, OAP/student €5, child free.

Ballysallagh House, County Kilkenny, February 2022.

Ballysallagh House dates from 1722, as we can see on the date stone set in the wall next to the front door. [1] It is a Classical style house built on a T shape, with the stairs in the stem of the “T,” or the single bay full-height return, at the back of the house. The house is of two storeys over basement, with a dormer attic, and is five bays across, with a full-height pedimented entrance breakfront in the centre of one bay width.

The house has a tooled-cut round-headed Gibbsean doorcase with keystone and a Gothic glazed fanlight. A Gibbsean doorcase is an eighteenth century treatment of door or window surround seen particularly in the work of the British architect, James Gibbs (1862-1754), characterised by alternating large and small blocks of stone or intermittent large blocks and a head composed of five voussoirs (the wedge-shaped blocks forming an arch) and a pediment or entablature. [2]

The pediment of the breakfront has a lunette window at attic level. The National Inventory of Architectural Heritage description tells us that the attic level may have been added later. [3]

Ballysallagh House, County Kilkenny, February 2022.

Owners Geralyn and Kieran welcomed us on our visit, and we stopped outside so that they could introduce us to the special features and details of the house and its history.

Kieran speculated that the central breakfront may be the oldest part of the house, with the corner quoins part of a later addition, which makes sense since they do not quite mirror each other. The limestone dressings include a chamfered plinth course to the basement (i.e. a chamfered edge is a surface formed by cutting off a square edge, usually at an angle of forty-five degrees and a plinth is a projecting base beneath a wall or column). The window openings to the basement are camber-headed (i.e. slightly upward curved) whereas the rest of the windows have square headed openings. The windows on the lower level are taller than the windows at the upper level.

The Historic Houses of Ireland website describes the house: “Unlike most early houses, which are gable ended, Ballysallagh has a steeply pitched hipped roof with pronounced sprocketing, a fanlight with gothick glazing and a miniature lunette window in the pediment. The combination of an unspoiled early house with intact surroundings is rare in Ireland today.”
The 1722 date stone next to the front door at Ballysallagh.

Eight limestone steps lead up to the timber panelled front door, with iron railings. Around the house is a ha-ha, created so that from the house the landscape looks continuous, but in reality the ditch around the house prevents animals such as cattle and sheep from approaching too near the house.

The ha ha, which keeps horses, cattle and sheep from coming too close to the house.

The National Inventory describes the entrance gates:

Gateway, c.1725, to south-east comprising pair of limestone ashlar piers with cut-limestone capping, iron double gates, iron flanking pedestrian gates, limestone ashlar outer piers having cut-limestone capping, and painted rendered curved flanking walls over random rubble stone construction having cut-limestone coping.” [see 2]

Entrance gates to Ballysallagh.

The land of Ballysallagh was owned by the Purcell family, who came to Ireland during the Anglo-Norman incursion in the twelfth century. Ballysallagh land was in the hands of the Purcells by December 1571 when Nicholas Purcell fitz Edmund of Ballysallagh was pardoned by the crown authorities, according to Robert O’Byrne. [4]

Richard Purcell was granted the feudal title of Baron of Loughmoe (in County Tipperary) in 1328 by the first Earl of Ormond, James Butler. [see 4]  

A “baron” is a title related to land – a baron is the head of a barony. A good explanation of the term “baron” can be found on the website of  “The Baronage Press.” It tells us that in classical Latin baro means dunce or fool. In Low Latin baro means slave or servant – but servants in the houses of the greater nobles of the eleventh century tended to be young men from noble families. The website also tells us that in the early feudal times this was extended to allow the king’s barons, his tenants-in-chief, to have their own barons through a process of “subinfeudation,” but the continuation of this practice was restricted in England when King Edward I [1239-1307] recognised the danger it represented to his centralised power and fiscal efficiency. By 1328 Edward III  was king. The 1st Earl of Ormond was palatine Lord of Tipperary (a palatine was an area ruled by a hereditary nobleman enjoying special authority and autonomy from the rest of a kingdom), and granted the feudal title to the Baron of Loughmoe. [5] There were several palatine districts in Ireland, of which the most notable were those of the Earls of Desmond and the Earls of Ormond in Tipperary. The latter continued until abolished by the County Palatine of Tipperary Act 1715. A Baron does not hold a peerage, so did not have a right to sit in the House of Lords. [6] One feudal title that continued until recently is the Knight of Glin.

The Barons  of Loughmoe built Loughmoe Castle, County Tipperary, which still stands as an impressive ruin, rather similar to Kanturk Castle in County Cork or even Portumna Castle in County Galway, both of which one can visit (Kanturk and Portumna are OPW owned properties, whereas Loughmoe is on private land). [7] The Purcells were allied with the powerful Butler family, and intermarried with them over the generations.

James Purcell (1609-1652) 12th Baron of Loughmoe married the sister of the 1st Duke of Ormond, Elizabeth Butler (1613-1675). He is buried at Holycross Abbey. His son Nicholas was the last Baron of Loughmoe. James and Nicholas lost their lands at Ballysallagh and Loughmoe  in 1653 under the Cromwellian seizures and in the 1652 Act of Settlement. (see [3])

James died in 1652 and his wife Elizabeth married for a second time, to Colonel John Fitzpatrick (1640-1694), son of the 3rd Baron of Upper Ossory, (Florence Fitzpatrick). Colonel Fitzpatrick recovered the land which had been owned by the Purcells, on behalf of his stepson Nicholas. In the Down Survey, as we saw on a large map in the house at Ballysallagh, Nicholas Purcell is listed as owner of the land at Ballysallagh.

The Down Survey was taken in 1656-58, the first ever detailed land survey that was completed on a national scale in the world. It does not have to do with County Down, as I assumed, but the survey mapped “down” the townlands of Ireland. It especially measured land forfeited by Irish Catholics in order to facilitate its redistribution. The survey was carried out by Sir William Petty.

Information about the Down Survey, on information boards in Ardgillan Castle, Dublin.
Information about the Down Survey, on information boards in Ardgillan Castle, Dublin.

Ballysallagh is unusual in that it remained in Catholic ownership. The owners did not rely on land ownership for their income, but were of the professional class, with homes also in Dublin. The house passed from Purcell to Byrne ownership by marriage, and then to the Doyle family, also by marriage.

Robert O’Byrne tells us that in the early 18th century James Purcell was living at Ballysallagh and in 1720 his daughter and heiress, Mary Purcell wed Gerald Byrne from County Carlow. Mary and her husband were assigned the property as part of the marriage settlement. It seems likely the couple built the present house soon afterwards in 1722, as noted on the date stone.

Ballysallagh House, County Kilkenny, February 2022.

Daniel Byrne-Rothwell writes in his book, The Byrnes and O’Byrnes: A Social History of the Clan, volume 2, published in 2010, (p. 92) that Gerald Byrne was the grandson of Edmond mac Hugh Geangach O’Byrne (c. 1652-1737), also known as Edmond “Concagh” of Ballinakill, and his father was Phelim Byrne of Tankardstown, County Carlow.

The house continued to remain in the same family hands until 1939. It passed from Mary Purcell and Gerald Byrne via their only surviving child, Catherine Byrne, who married William Doyle of County Kildare, to their grandson, Gerald Doyle, in 1760, upon the death of Gerald Byrne.

Daniel Byrne-Rothwell tells us that by 1767 a Robert Kelly (d. 1786) was inhabiting Ballysallagh. He was a brother-in-law of the Byrne family, being married to Elinor Byrne (1740-1800). However, Gerald Doyle who had inherited from his grandfather, and his brother Lawrence, were back living in Ballysallagh by 1770. Gerald Doyle of Ballysallagh died in 1816 and his brother Lawrence Doyle of Ballysallagh died in 1812.

Catherine Byrne died at the young age of 26 and her husband William Doyle remarried. He married another Purcell, Frances Purcell of Usher’s Island, Dublin. I am not sure if the two Purcell families are related to each other beyond by the marriage to William Doyle!

William and Frances Doyle nee Purcell went on to have more children. Neither Gerald Doyle who inherited Ballysallagh nor his brother Lawrence had children, so Gerald sold his interest in Ballysallagh to his stepmother, Frances Doyle nee Purcell, in 1785, along with 450 acres. In this way, Ballysallagh remained in the family and passed to a son from William Doyle’s second marriage, another William Doyle, Barrister.

This younger William Doyle, Geralyn told us, also owned property at 46  Rutland Square West (now Parnell Square) in Dublin. The younger William Doyle died unmarried in 1847 and Ballysallagh passed to his brother, Joseph Doyle, a doctor who served as Surgeon to the College at Maynooth, County Kildare. He also had a property at 41 Blessington Street in Dublin.

Joseph Doyle married another Purcell! I do not know his wife’s name, but they had a son, John Joseph Doyle, who inherited Ballysallagh, and lived there until his death in 1890 at the age of 75 (his wife Eliza died in 1900, daughter of Thomas Hartford). In 1876 he is recorded as holding 572 acres at Ballysallagh. John Joseph’s son Gerald Doyle was the last of the family to live at Ballysallagh: following his death in 1939 for the first time the place was put on the market. Gerald had a brother, Major Joseph Ignatius Purcell Doyle, Royal Army Medical Corps, who died in 1913 in France.

Ballysallagh House, County Kilkenny, February 2022.

In February 1940 Ballysallagh was sold, and the following month, the contents of the house were auctioned. There is a poster in the house advertising the sale. Robert O’Byrne points out that the newspaper advertisement listed many of the items for sale, including a ‘large Antique Hanging China Display Press, enclosed by two glazed panel doors of unique design, Ornamental Frieze and Fluted Columns.’ This, however, remains in the Hall of the house.

Kieran and Geralyn White purchased the house in 1987, falling in love with the architecture and the house’s possibilities. They have done much to renovate the house, both inside and out. In recognition of their care, in 2020 they received the inaugural O’Flynn Group Heritage Prize. A newspaper article from December 2020 by Gemma Tipton in the Irish Times tells us that architectural historian Robert O’Byrne created this annual prize of €5,000, which acknowledges the owners’ commitment to the preservation of buildings. [8] In 2021 the owners of Clonalis in County Roscommon won the prize.

The front hall is divided from the stair hall by folding doors which were introduced in 1810. A fanlight stretches across the division, and it matches the China display press. The display cabinet is of a wagon wheel design, and the fanlight is made up of similar spokes, and is made from the same dark wood. The cabinet is beautifully carved and decorative with fluted columns and frieze. There is a pattern of foxgloves on the spokes of the cabinet, which could refer to frescoes of foxglove found in Pompeii. The edges of the fanlight has a sunburst pattern, or what looked to me like a ruffle or the folds of an accordion. This pattern is repeated on the window shutters.

The fanlight over the front door is similarly matched by a fanlight visible from the front hall, over a door leading to the basement and kitchen, reached by descending a few stairs. The front door fanlight is also echoed in both the front and back of the house, in the attic storey. Robert O’Byrne tells us that the one in the front in the attic level was installed by the current owners.

The front hall has a lovely wide plaster frieze and cornice and is quite spacious. Here we paused while Geralyn and Kieran pointed out the special features in the cabinet and fanlight and plaster. The details show that the house was designed for someone with a good eye for detail and with knowledge of contemporary trends, influenced by Europe and even the discovery of the ruins of Pompei and Herculaneum.

The ceiling rose is unusual, with the Prince of Wales feather motif. The front door is the original to the house.

The stair hall is in the single bay full height return.

Ballysallagh house: the single bay full height return which contains the stair hall, photograph from National Inventory of Architectural Heritage.

The main reception rooms lie on either side of the entrance hall. In the Drawing Room, Geralyn told us about the portraits which she was fortunate enough to identify and to bring back to their home, a marriage pair of John Doyle and Frances Savage from 1770 attributed to Thomas Pole Stevens. According to the Adams Catalogue which I found online when “googling” their names, John Doyle died May 1819, and is recorded in the archives of the Royal College of Surgeons as being of 14 Usher’s Island, Dublin. Geralyn told us that Frances Savage was John Doyle’s second wife, and that she was from Finglaswood House (formerly owned by the Seagrave family [9]), which was also called King James’s Castle as King James II was said to have stayed there when fleeing the Battle of the Boyle.

The duck-egg blue drawing room has a good white marble chimneypiece, and carved panelled shutters. Some of the shutters and other repairs to the house are salvaged from Long Orchard House, County Tipperary, home of Barrister and Master of the Mint Richard Lalor Sheil (setting of The Big Wind by Beatrice Coogan).

The dining room has brass picture rails and curtain rails, which Kieran told us were covered with layers of paint. It has a black Kilkenny marble fireplace, as does the golden yellow study, or morning room, also on the ground floor. Also on the ground floor, next to the dining room, is a Butler’s pantry with its original shelves and hooks for hanging game, and lovely large windows. The shouldered architrave on the door shows us, Kieran pointed out, that this part of the house was not modernised during the 1810 renovations.

The wooden staircase leads up to a spacious upper hall, with four bedrooms off it. Stairs lead from this hall to the upper level, to which we did not ascend. The large size of the upper hall with its impressive height adds to the grandeur of the house.

Stone stairs lead to the basement, where the kitchen is still located, although it does not feel like a basement as it has newly installed French doors and plenty of sunlight. On the way down, Kieran pointed out the handy built-in “shoe cricket” at the bottom of the stairs – a contraption with a handle and grip for removing boots!

The garden outside the kitchen.

The Whites had a French drain installed around the house to dry the dampness from the basement, and they recently renovated another room in the basement, creating a wonderfully cosy library with some shelving created from doorcases  salvaged from Long Orchard and others newly carved to match.

The gardens of Ballysallagh have been created to complement the sophistication of the house. Geralyn has developed several gardens, the crowning glory being the Winter Garden, which has clipped hedges in a design which Geralyn created to reflect the gothic windows that light the staircase. I had coincidentally only come across the description of a “winter garden” that week having read a review by Fionnuala Fallon in the Irish Times (published Saturday 29th January 2022) of a newly published book by Andrew Montgomery and Clare Foster, Winter Gardens, a book of photographs displaying the sculptural beauty of winter gardens.

The back of Ballysallagh.
The Winter Garden, of beech, box and Irish yew.
The hedging reflects the shape of the Gothic window.
The Winter Garden, Ballysallagh.
The Winter Garden, Ballysallagh.
The Roman Garden
The iron gateposts have the maker’s mark, a crane’s eye, Kieran told us.
The library garden, which is a wonderful suntrap.

Alongside the drive is an avenue of maples. Kieran counted the rings of a fallen larch tree to estimate its age: it was planted around 1761!


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[1] Daniel Byrne-Rothwell writes in his book, The Byrnes and O’Byrnes: A Social History of the Clan, volume 2, published in 2010, that in December 1808 Ballysallagh House together with 50 acres of land was advertised to let and the house is described as “lately built.” The 1722 date stone was discovered in the attic, so Byrne-Rothwell speculates that it may have been recycled from an earlier house.

[2] p. 28. Bence-Jones, Mark. A Guide to Irish Country Houses (originally published as Burke’s Guide to Country Houses volume 1 Ireland by Burke’s Peerage Ltd. 1978); Revised edition 1988 Constable and Company Ltd, London.



See also Robert O’Byrne’s post about the Butler’s pantry:

and a post about the garden:

See also


[6] For a list of Irish baronies, see


[8] Article in The Irish Times Saturday 12 December 2020 by Gemma Tipton

[9] This information was gleaned by me from the Glasnevin Heritage facebook page.