Borris House, County Carlow

contact: Morgan Kavanagh, 087 245 4791

www.borrishouse.com

Open dates in 2021 (but check first due to Covid 19): Feb 2-7, 9-14, 16-21, 27-28, June 1-3, 8-10, 15-16, 22-24, 29-30, July 1, 6-8, 13-15, 20-21, 27-29, Aug 3-5, 10-12, 14-22, 24-26, 31, Sept 1-2, 12 noon -5pm.

Fee: adult €10, child €5, OAP/student €8.

I had been particularly looking forward to visiting Borris House. It feels like I have a personal link to it, because my great great grandmother’s name is Harriet Cavanagh, from Carlow, and Borris House is the home of the family of Kavanaghs of Carlow, and the most famous resident of the house, Arthur MacMurrough Kavanagh, was the son of a Harriet Kavanagh! Unfortunately I don’t think there’s a connection.

We were able to park right outside on the main street of Borris, across from the entrance. My fond familial feelings immediately faded when faced with the grandeur of the entrance to Borris House. I shrank into a awestruck tourist and meekly followed instructions at the Gate Lodge to make my way across the sweep of grass to the front entrance of the huge castle of a house.

We brought our friend Damo along with us – here he is with Stephen at the entrance arch. The National Inventory of Architectural Heritage tells us that this entrance was designed by Richard Morrison, in around 1813. It has an arch opening with crenellations, flanking turrets and buttressed walls. [1]
a view of the arched entrance from inside the demesne.

Unlike other section 482 houses – with the few exceptions such as Birr Castle and Tullynally – Borris House has a very professional set-up to welcome visitors as one goes through the gate lodge. The website does not convey this, as it emphasises the house’s potential as a wedding venue, but the property is in fact fully set up for daily guided tours, and has a small gift shop in the gate lodge, through which one enters to the demesne. Borris House is still a family home and is inhabited by descendants of the original owners.

approach to the front of the house from the gate lodge
standing at the front of the house looking to our left at the beautiful landscape

Originally a castle would have been built in the location on the River Barrow to guard the area. From the house one can see Mount Leinster and the Blackstairs Mountains. The current owner, Morgan Kavanagh, can trace his ancestry back to the rather notorious Dermot MacMurrough (Diarmait mac Murchadha in Irish), who “invited the British in to Ireland” or rather, asked for help in protecting his Kingship. The MacMurroughs, or Murchadhas, were Celtic kings of Leinster. “MacMurrough” was the title of an elected Lord. Dermot pledged an oath of allegiance to King Henry II of Britain and the Norman “Strongbow,” or Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke, came to Ireland to fight alongside Dermot MacMurrough against Dermot’s enemies. As a reward, Dermot MacMurrough offered Strongbow the hand of his daughter Aoife. Succeeding generations of MacMurrough family controlled the area, maintaining their Gaelic traditions.

In the late 14th century, Art mac Murchadha was one of the Irish kings who was offered the a knighthood by King Richard II of England. Henry VIII, in the 1500s, sought to reduce the power of the Irish kings and to have them swear loyalty to him. In 1550 Charles MacMurrough Kavanagh (the Anglicised version of the name ‘Cahir MacArt’ MacMurrough Kavanagh) “submitted himself, and publicly renounced the title and dignity of MacMorrough, as borne by his ancestors.” [2] (note the various spellings of MacMorrough/MacMurrough).

We gathered with a few others to wait outside the front of the house for our tour guide on a gloriously sunny day in July 2019. Some of the others seemed to be staying at the house. For weddings there is accommodation in the house and also five Victorian cottages. We did not get to see these in the tour but you can see them on the website. Unfortunately our tour guide was not a member of the family but she was knowledgeable about the house and its history.

The current house was built originally as a three storey square house, in 1731, incorporating part of an old castle. We can gather that this was the date of completion of the house from a carved date stone. It was built for Morgan Kavanagh, according to the Borris House website, a descendent of Charles MacMurrough Kavanagh. [3] It was damaged in the 1798 Rebellion and rebuilt and altered by Richard and William Vitruvius Morrison into what one can see today. According to Edmund Joyce in his book Borris House, Co. Carlow, and elite regency patronage, it was Walter Kavanagh who commissioned the work, which was taken over by brother Thomas when Walter died in 1818. [4]. The Morrisons gave it a Tudor exterior although as Mark Bence-Jones points out in his Guide to Irish Country Houses, the interiors by the Morrisons are mostly Classical.

The Morrisons kept the original square three storey building symmetrical. Edmund Joyce references McCullough, Irish Building Traditions, writing that “The Anglo-Irish landlords at the beginning of the 19th century who wanted to establish a strong family history with positive Irish associations were beginning to use the castle form – which had long been a status of power both in Ireland and further afield – to embed the notion of a long and powerful lineage into the mindset of the audience.” In keeping with this castle ideal, the Morrisons added battlemented parapets with finials, and the crenellated arcaded porch on the entrance, with slightly pointed arches, as well as four square corner turrets to the house, topped with cupolas (which are no longer there). They also created rather fantastical Tudor Gothic curvilinear hood mouldings over the windows, some “ogee” shaped (convex and concave curves; found in Gothic and Gothic-Revival architecture) [5]. These mouldings drop down from the top of the windows to finish with sculptured of heads of kings and queens. These are not representations of anyone in particular, the guide told us, but are idealised sculptures representing royalty to remind one of the Celtic kingship of the Kavanaghs. As well as illustrating their heritage in architecture, Walter commissioned an illustrated book of the family pedigree, tracing the family tree back to 1670 BC! It highlights the marriages with prominent families, which are also illustrated in the stained glass window in the main stairwell at Borris.

an ogee shaped hood moulding

The guide pointed to the many configurations of windows on the front facade of the house. They were deliberately made different, she told us, to create the illusion that the different types of windows are from different periods, even though they are not! This was to reflect the fact that various parts of the building were built at different times.

The crest of the family on the front of the house on the portico features a crescent moon for peace, sheaf of wheat for plenty and a lion passant for royalty. The motto is written in Irish, to show the Celtic heredity of the Kavanaghs, and means “peace and plenty.”

The Morrisons also added a castellated office wing, joining the house to a chapel. This wing has been partially demolished.

view of the chapel from the front of the house, and beyond, the path leads to the gate lodge. In between the chapel and the house you can see the wall which once housed the kitchen, with the octagonal chimney stack built into the wall.
side of Borris House, with the later wing that was added, that stretches toward the chapel
the square tower contained the nursery, the guide told us.
side of Borris House with the chapel in the foreground.

Charles MacMurrough Kavanagh’s son Brian (c. 1526-1576) converted to Protestantism and sent his children to be educated in England. One of them, Sir Morgan Kavanagh, acquired the estate of Borris when he was granted the forfeited estates of the O’Ryans of Idrone in County Carlow. When Protestants were attacked in 1641 by a Catholic rebellion, the MacMurrough Kavanaghs were spared due to their ancient Irish lineage. Later, when Cromwell rampaged through Ireland, they were spared since they were Protestant, so they had the best of both worlds during those turbulent times.

The tour guide took us first towards the chapel. She explained the structure of the house as we trooped across the lawn. She pointed out the partially demolished stretch between the square part of the house and the chapel. All that remains of this demolished section is a wall. The octagonal towerlike structures built into the wall were chimneys and the demolished part was the kitchen. The square tower that joins the house to the demolished kitchen contained the nursery. The wing was demolished to reduce the amount of rates to be paid. The house was reoriented during rebuilding, the guide told us, and a walled garden was built with a gap between the walls which could be filled with coal and heated! I love learning of novel mechanisms in homes and gardens, techniques which are no longer used but which may be useful to resurrect as we try to develop more sustainable ways of living (not that we’d want to go back to using coal).

As I mentioned, the house was badly damaged in 1798, when the United Irishmen rose up in an attempt to create an independent Ireland. Although the Kavanaghs are of Irish descent and are not a Norman or English family, this did not save them from the 1798 raids. The house was not badly damaged in a siege but outbuildings were. The invaders were looking for weapons inside the house, the guide told us. The Irish Aesthete writes tells us: “Walter MacMurrough Kavanagh wrote to his brother-in-law that although a turf and coal house were set on fire and efforts made to bring ‘fire up to the front door under cover of a car on which were raised feather beds and mattresses’ [their efforts] were unsuccessful.” [6]

Edmund Joyce describes the raid in his book on Borris House (pg. 21-22):

“The rebels who had marched overnight from Vinegar Hill in Wexford…arrived at Borris House on the morning of 12 June. They were met by a strong opposing group of Donegal militia, who had taken up their quarters in the house. It seems that the MacMurrough Kavanaghs had expected such unrest and in anticipation had the lower windows…lately built up with strong masonry work. Despite the energetic battle, those defending the house appear to have been indefatigable, and the rebels, ‘whose cannons were too small to have any effect on the castle…’ the mob retreated back to their camps in Wexford.”

The estate was 30,000 acres at one point, but the Land Acts reduced it in the 1930s to 750 acres, which the present owner farms organically. The outbuildings which were built originally to house the workings of the house – abbatoir, blacksmith, dairy etc, were burnt in one of the sieges and so all the outbuildings now to be seen, the guide told us, were built in the nineteenth century.

It is worth outlining some of the genealogy of this ancient family, as they intermarried with many prominent families of their day. Morgan Kavanagh who probably commissioned the building of the 1730s house, married Frances Esmonde, daughter of Laurence Esmonde of Huntington Castle (another section 482 property I visited). His son Brian married Mary Butler, daughter of Thomas Butler of Kilcash. Their son Thomas (1727-1790) married another Butler, Susanna, daughter of the 16th Earl of Ormonde. It was the following generation, another Thomas (1767-1837), who is relevant to our visit to the chapel.

This Thomas was originally a Catholic. He married yet another Butler, Elizabeth Wandesford Butler, in 1825. At some time he converted to Protestantism. It must have been before 1798 because in that year he represented Kilkenny City in Parliament and at that time only members of the Established Church could serve in Parliament. His second wife, Harriet Le Poer Trench, daughter of the 2nd Earl of Clancarty, was of staunch Scottish Protestant persuasion [7]. When he converted, the chapel had to be reconsecrated as a Protestant chapel. According to legend, Lady Harriet had a statue of the Virgin Mary removed from the chapel and asked the workmen to get rid of it. The workmen, staunch Catholics, buried the statue in the garden. People believed that for this act, Lady Harriet was cursed, and it was said that one day her family would be “led by a cripple.”

The story probably came about because Harriet’s third son, Arthur, was born without arms or legs. As she had given birth to two older sons, and he had another half-brother, Walter, son of Thomas’s first wife, it seemed unlikely that Arthur would be the heir. However, the three older brothers all died before Arthur and Arthur did indeed become the heir to Borris House.

The plasterwork in the chapel, which is called the Chapel of St. Molin, is by Michael Stapleton.

While we sat in the chapel, our guide told us about the amazing Arthur MacMurrough Kavanagh. When her husband Walter died, Harriet and her children went travelling. They travelled broadly, and she painted, and collected objects which she brought back to Ireland, including a collection of artefacts from Egypt now in the National Museum of Ireland. When Arthur was 17 years old his mother sent him travelling again, to get him away from his high jinks with the local girls. Arthur kept diaries, which are available for perusal in the National Library. I must have a look! I have a special interest in diaries, since I have been keeping my own since I was twelve years old. Some of Arthur’s adventures include being captured and being cruelly put on display by a tribe. He also fell ill and found himself being nursed back to health in a harem – little did the Sultan or head of the harem realise that Arthur was perfectly capable of impregnating the ladies!

Arthur’s brother and tutor died on their travels and Arthur found himself alone in India. He joined the East India Company as a dispatch rider – he was an excellent horseman, as he could be strapped in to a special saddle, which we saw inside the house, now mounted on a children’s riding horse! I was also thrilled to see his wheelchair, in the Dining Room, which is now converted into a dining chair.

Arthur MacMurrough’s saddle in mounted on the rocking horse. Photograph by Paul Barker, 2011, for Country Life.

When Arthur came home as heir, he found his mother had set up a school of lacemaking, now called Borris Lace, to help the local women to earn money during the difficult Famine years. The lace became famous and was sold to Russian and English royalty. The rest of the estate, however, was in poor shape. Arthur set about making it profitable, bringing the railway to Borris, building a nearby viaduct, which cost €20,000 to build. He also built cottages in the town, winning a design medal from the Royal Dublin Society, and he set up a sawmill, from which tenants were given free timber to roof their houses. He set up limekilns for building material, and also experimented (unsuccessfully) with “water gas” to power the crane used to built the viaduct. His mother built a fever house, dower house and a Protestant school, and Arthur’s sisters built a Catholic school. There is a little schoolhouse (with bell, in the picture below) behind the chapel.

Arthur seems to have had a great sense of humour. On one of his visits to Abbeyleix, he remarked to Lady De Vesci, “It’s an extraordinary thing – I haven’t been here for five years but the stationmaster recognised me.”

Arthur married Mary Frances Forde-Leathley and fathered six children. He became an MP for Carlow and Kilkenny, and sat in the House of Commons in England, which he reached by sailing as far as London, where he was then carried in to the houses of Parliament.

He lost when he ran again for Parliament in 1880, beaten by the Home Rule candidates. He returned from London after his defeat and saw bonfires, which were often lit by his tenants to celebrate his return. However, this time, horrifically, he saw his effigy being burned on the bonfires by tenants celebrating the triumph of the Home Rule candidates. He must have been devastated, as he had worked so hard for his tenants and treated them generously. For more about him, see the Irish Aesthete’s entry about him. [8]

Jimmy O’Toole’s book gives a detailed description of politics at the time of Arthur’s defeat and explains why the tenants behaved in such a brutal way. Elections grew heated and dangerous in the days of the Land League and of Charles Stewart Parnell, when tenants hoped to own their own land. In the 1841 election, tenants of the Kavanaghs were forced to vote for the Tory candidate against Daniel O’Connell Jr., despite a visit from Daniel O’Connell Sr, “The Liberator” who fought for Catholic emancipation. The land agent for the Kavanaghs, Charles Doyne, threatened the tenants with eviction if they did not vote for his favoured candidate. In response to threats of eviction, members of the Land League forced tenants to support their cause by publicly shaming anyone who dared to oppose them. People were locked into buildings to prevent them from voting, or on the other hand, were locked in to protect them from attacks which took place if they planned to support the Tory candidate. Not all Irish Catholics supported the Land League. Labourers realised that landlords provided employment which would be lost if the land was divided for small farmers.

It was Arthur’s grandfather, Thomas, who undertook much of the renovation work at Borris in the 1800s, with money brought into the family by his wife, Susanna Butler. [9] Under her influence, Italian workmen were employed and ceilings were decorated and Scagliola pillars installed. After hearing the stories about amazing Arthur, we returned across the lawn to enter the main house.

The front hall is square but is decorated with a circular ceiling of rich plasterwork, “treated as a rotunda with segmental pointed arches and scagliola columns; eagles in high relief in the spandrels of the arches and festoons above,” as Mark Bence-Jones describes in his inimitable style [see 5, p. 45]. We were not allowed to take photographs but the Irish Aesthete’s site has terrific photographs [see 3]. The eagles represent strength and power. There are also the sheafs of wheat, crescent moons and lion heads, symbols from the family crest. Another common motif in the house is a Grecian key pattern.

Photograph by Paul Barker, 2011, from Country Life picture library.
Photograph by Paul Barker, 2011, from Country Life picture library.
side of the house

The craftwork and furnishings of the house are all built by Irish craftsmen, including mahogany doors. There is a clever vent in the wall that brings hot air from the kitchens to heat the room.

We next went into the music room which has a beautiful domed oval ceiling with intricate plasterwork. It includes the oak leaf for strength and longevity.

The drawing room has another pretty Stapleton ceiling, more feminine, as this was a Ladies’ room. It has lovely pale blue walls, and was originally the front entrance to the house. When it was made into a circular room the leftover bits of the original rectangular room form small triangular spaces, which were used as a room for preparing the tea, a small library with a bookcase, and a bathroom. The curved mahogany doors were also made by Irish craftsmen in Dublin, Mack, Williams and Gibton.

The dining room has more scagliola columns at one end, framing the serving sideboard, commissioned specially by Morrison for Borris House. It was sold in the 1950s but bought back by later owners. [10]The room has more rich plasterwork by Michael Stapleton: a Celtic design on the ceiling, and ox skulls represent the feasting of Chieftains. With the aid of portraits in the dining room, the guide told us more stories about the family. It was sad to hear how Arthur had to put an end to the tradition of the locals standing outside the dining room windows, and gentry inside, to observe the diners. He did not like to be seen eating, as he had to be fed.

We saw the portrait of Lady Susanna’s husband, whom her sister Charlotte Eleanor dubbed “Fat Thomas.” Eleanor formed a relationship with Sarah Ponsonby, and they ran away from their families to be together. As a result, Eleanor was taken to stay with her sister’s family in Borris House, and she must have felt imprisoned by her sister’s husband, hence the insulting moniker. Eleanor managed to escape and to make her way to Woodstock, the house in County Kilkenny where Sarah was staying. Finally their families capitulated and accepted their plans to live together. They set up house in Wales, in Llangollen, and were known as The Ladies of Llangollen They were visited by many famous people, including Anna Seward, William Wordsworth, Sir Walter Scott, Charles and Erasmus Darwin, Sir Arthur Wellesley and Josiah Wedgewood.

Mark Bence-Jones describes an upstairs library with ceiling of alternate barrel and rib vaults, above a frieze of wreaths that is a hallmark of the Morrisons, which unfortunately we did not get to see. We didn’t get to go upstairs but we saw the grand Bath stone cantilevered staircase. The room was originally an open courtyard.

We then went out to the Ballroom, which was originally built by Arthur as a billiard room, with a gun room at one end and a planned upper level of five bedrooms. The building was not finished as planned as Arthur died. It is now used for weddings and entertainment.

In 1958 the house faced ruin, when Joane Kavanagh’s husband, Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Macalpine-Downie, died, and she decided to move to a smaller house. However,her son, Andrew Macalpine-Downie, born 1948, after a career as a jockey in England, returned to Borris, with his wife Tina Murray, he assumed the name Kavanagh, and set himself the task of preventing the house becoming a ruin. [11]

We were welcomed to wander the garden afterwards.

I was delighted with the sheep who must keep the grass down.

[1] https://www.buildingsofireland.ie/buildings-search/building/10400804/borris-house-borris-borris-co-carlow

[2] p. 33, MacDonnell, Randal. The Lost Houses of Ireland. A chronicle of great houses and the families who lived in them. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. London, 2002.

[3] https://theirishaesthete.com/2013/11/04/an-arthurian-legend/

The Borris website claims that the 1731 house was built for Morgan Kavanagh, but the Irish Aesthete Robert O’Byrne writes that the 1731 house was built by Brian Kavanagh, incorporating part of the fifteenth century castle. I have the date of 1720 as the death for Morgan Kavanagh and he has a son, Brian, so it could be the case that the house was commissioned by Morgan and completed by his son Brian.

[4] Joyce, Edmond. Borris House, Co. Carlow, and elite regency patronage. Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2013.

[5] https://irishhistorichouses.com/2020/04/18/architectural-definitions/

and Mark Bence-Jones. 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.

[6] https://theirishaesthete.com/2013/11/04/an-arthurian-legend/

This entry also has lovely pictures of the inside of Borris House and more details about the history of the house and family.

[7] p. 130. O’Toole, Jimmy. The Carlow Gentry: What will the neighbours say! Published by Jimmy O’Toole, Carlow, Ireland, 1993. Printed by Leinster Leader Ltd, Naas, Kildare.

[8] https://theirishaesthete.com/2013/11/04/an-arthurian-legend/

[9] for more on the Butlers see John Kirwan’s book, The Chief Butlers of Ireland and the House of Ormond, An Illustrated Genealogical Guide, published by Irish Academic Press, Newbridge, County Kildare, 2018. Stephen and I went to see John Kirwan give a fascinating talk on his book at the Irish Georgian Society’s Assembly House in Dublin.

[10] p. 115. Fitzgerald, Desmond et al. Great Irish Houses. Published by IMAGE Publications Ltd, Dublin, 2008.

[11] p. 134. O’Toole, Jimmy. The Carlow Gentry: What will the neighbours say! Published by Jimmy O’Toole, Carlow, Ireland, 1993. Printed by Leinster Leader Ltd, Naas, Kildare.

The Old Rectory, Killedmond, Borris, Co Carlow

contact: Mary White

Tel: 087-2707189

https://www.blackstairsecotrails.ie/

Open dates in 2021 [check due to Covid 19 restrictions]: July 1-31, Aug 1-31, 9am-1pm

Fee: adult €10, OAP/student €6, child free

A five bay two storey Tudor-Gothic Revival house with three dormer windows and a loggia.

This is such a pretty house, a “cottage ornée,” a little like a gingerbread house! According to the Irish Historic Houses website, the Old Rectory in Killedmond, near Borris in County Carlow, is:

“a mid-19th century house in a restrained Tudor-Revival style, which looks out over the valley of the River Barrow to the Blackstairs Mountains beyond. Designed by the architect Frederick Darley for the Kavanagh family of nearby Mount Leinster Lodge, the house is an accomplished and dramatic arrangement that uses gables, dormer windows, bargeboards and finials to produce a symmetrical five-bay façade. The three central bays on the ground floor are recessed behind a glazed loggia, flanked by the end bays, which break forward and terminate in wide gables.” [1] [2]

I arranged with Mary White to visit in the first week that the Covid 19 lockdown lifted. Mary and her husband Robert run a business, the Blackstairs Eco Centre, from their home, as can be seen on the lovely wooden sign outside their gates. They have four sweet “shepherds huts” for overnight stays, and hold tree trail walks and wild food courses on the property. [3]

In the article in the Irish Times which first prompted me to embark on the project of visiting Section 482 houses, there was a picture of Mary swimming in her own lake. That to me looked like heaven. We had a few minutes to wander in the gardens around the house before we met Mary so I was delighted to find and photograph the small lake, which is fed by mountain streams. It lies in front of the house.

One can walk all around the lake, and cross the stream on one of the several small granite bridges.

We were greeted warmly by Mary. We walked around the gardens before entering the house.

Mary and her husband moved into the property about forty years ago, and have done massive amounts of work on the garden (and on the house). On the left, when facing the house, through a lovely old arch, is a fruit garden.

IMG_2107

On the right hand side, facing the house, toward the front of the property, is a vegetable growing area complete with a wonderful large polytunnel.

I envied the White’s long, productive asparagus patch.
The greenhouse, with a herb garden to one side.

I have an allotment so Mary and I bonded swapping notes on our vegetable production.  Their production is all organic and they even use a “vegan” manure! I had to think hard to picture what that must be – no animals involved of course!

The trees near the vegetable growing area can be identified by the time they were planted. In forty years, the Whites have built up an interesting tale in their trees. One was a wedding present. One was planted when their daughter was born. Another is the “election tree” when Mary was elected to be a Green TD in government.

Beyond the vegetable garden, the shepherds huts sit dotted carefully around a lawn, each positioned in such a way that their windows don’t look into another hut so each is supremely peaceful and private.

The website describes the huts:

“The Shepherds Huts are centrally heated and very cozy with a double bed in each – suitable for two. Each Hut has three windows including a half door to look out onto a completely natural wooded area set beneath the Blackstairs Mountains. All you will hear is the soft cooing of wood pigeons!”

We peered into one, which was prepared to receive guests at the weekend, and it looked lovely. You can see photographs of the interior of the huts on the website. [see 3] It is a short distance to the barn, which is also a protected historic structure but which has been fully adapted for use as a kitchen, toilets, sitting room and demonstration area for wild food preparation. It has been carefully refurbished maintaining historic structure, with recycled materials, natural wooden furniture, cedar doors and ecological heating and electricity, which also provide the house.

The wildflower meadow next to the barn.
Inside the barn: the kitchen and demonstration area, with large tables for gatherings including hen parties, which can be fully catered. The kitchen can be used by those renting the shepherds huts, as well as the relaxation and reading areas.
Inside the barn.
Upstairs in the barn, a place for visitors to relax.

The Barn is separated from the house by a cobble courtyard. The guests also have use of an outdoor eating and barbeque area:

I had to stop to have a go on the swing, hanging from a large beech tree.

We definitely want to return to stay in one of the huts, and to walk the Celtic tree trail. The property has an example of each of the 21 trees native to Ireland. The sculpture of an ogham stone, by sculptor Martin Lyttle [4], has the cut line lettering representing each type of native Irish tree. As part of the Tree Trail we will get to see the sixteen minute film that has been made about the trees on the property.

Ogham is the earliest form of writing in Ireland and dates to the fourth century A.D. The alphabet is made up of a series of strokes along or across a line. The letters each relate, also, to a species of tree. The letters were carved on standing stones often as a memorial to a person, using the edge of the stone as a central line. The letters are read from the bottom up. [5]

We noticed the electric car charger near the barn when wandering the gardens:

I was also thrilled to see a solar panel array in a field:

Mary and her husband cultivated a rose garden, surrounded by a small canal, forming a “parterre” or patterned garden.

Canal by rose garden. See the granite bridges, and the barn in the background.

In the rose garden, we admired the sculpture of Dionysus, sculpted by her friend in college, Alice Greene, and presented to Mary as a birthday gift. [6]

The property contains wooded area with walking trails, which we didn’t explore as it was rainy and we were heading to my cousin’s house nearby for lunch!

According to the Irish Historic Houses website:

“Two other fronts are virtually identical, with the exception of a half-octagonal bay window on the Eastern side, while the vertically paired windows, culminating in a series of matching gables, create an illusion of symmetry that is greatly enhanced by a profusion of plants and creepers on the walls. Their openings all have simple chamfered granite dressings while the sash windows retain their heavy mullions and delicate marginal glazing bars.” [note: “chamfered” means an edge between two faces, usually at a 45 degree angle.] [2]

The Whites carried out extensive repairs on the house over the years. The wooden bargeboards and finials were rotting and had to be repaired. The house was completely reroofed with expensive blue Bangor slates. The windows have thirty six panes, and when windows were repaired the original glass was retained. Mary pointed out where someone has scratched their name onto the window pane – there was a tradition of scratching names into glass in the past, and Mary dates this scratch to about 1905. It reads “W. Pennyfeather” and “Nicholas Pennyfeather.” Nicholas was rector of the parish from 1900 and lived in the house. I have come across several occasions of scratching names on window panes in my reading, and saw a short film that refers to the tradition, “Words on a Window Pane,” by Mary McGuckian, made in 1994, an adaptation of a play by W.B. Yeats about Dublin spiritualists visited by the ghosts of Jonathan Swift and the two women associated with him, Vanessa (Esther Vanhomrigh) and Stella (Esther Johnson).

There is a more unusual scratched illustration on the glass in a bedroom upstairs. Someone has used a diamond to carve the profile of a girl into the window, but has written “Sidney is a very ugly girl”! The girl in the portrait is not ugly though! I suspect some sister came along to mar the effect, out of jealousy, or maybe Sidney herself was feeling extremely fed-up and self-deprecating one day.

We walked back around to the front of the house, past the herbaceous border, to have a tour inside.

The herbaceous border.
The herbaceous border and to the left of the photograph, the “flower tower” or Echium plant.

The Irish Historic Houses (IHH) website mentions the “loggia” at the front of the house. This is a conservatory-like structure, a Victorian sort of folly. Wikipedia describes a loggia as a covered exterior gallery or corridor, where the outer wall is open to the elements and is usually supported by a series of columns or arches. This one does not have a wall open to the elements but as described, it is not meant for an entrance but as an out-of-door sitting room. A loggia differs from a veranda in that it is more architectural in form and is part of the main edifice of the house.

According to the IHH website, the loggia is supported by cast-iron brackets on slender granite columns while the upper level of the central section is treated as an attic storey with tall, gabled dormer windows in the steeply sloping roof. The loggia, Mary told us, is wonderfully warm, and a lovely place to sit.

The house was designed by Frederick Darley (1798-1872), whose father was also an architect and builder. Frederick Darley built many buildings in Trinity College Dublin, as well as many civic and church buildings (including Lorum church, nearby [7]). He built New Square in Trinity, where my husband Stephen lived for a year! His father served as Alderman in Dublin and as Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1808-09. His mother Elizabeth Guinness was the eldest daughter of Arthur Guinness (1725-1803), founder of the Guinness brewery, of Beaumont House, Drumcondra (now the Beaumont Convalescent Home behind Beaumont Hospital). In 1843 Frederick Darley Junior was the Ecclesiastical Commission architect for the Church of Ireland diocese of Dublin. He was a pupil of Francis Johnston, and lived on Lower Fitzwilliam Street in Dublin. [8]

The house a hunting lodge for the Kavanagh family who owned nearby Mount Leinster Lodge. I haven’t been able to find out more about James Kavanagh who owned the house. In Victorian times the house became the rectory for nearby Killedmond Church but was sold in the early twentieth century. Subsequently it passed through a succession of different families. Mary told us that a former owner was a Captain Temple Bayliss, who was a Captain in the Royal Navy, with his wife Patricia and daughter, Philippa, both of whom are accomplished artists. [8]

The historic houses website tells us that the interior is largely original, with good joinery, chimneypieces and plasterwork, and stained glass panels in the original front door. I took a photograph of the beautiful stained glass in the door:

The front hall is floored with beautiful tiles original to the house:

The rooms are a nice size with high ceilings and the sitting room with a bay window, and plaster ceiling decoration in the form of a border with decorative rondelles. The chimneypieces are indeed lovely and as Mary pointed out, they have the traditional white for the drawing room and black for the dining room. I had never heard of that before!

The bay window of the Drawing room.

The current owners have two lovely studies, with built-in bookcases and a display of books that Stephen and I admired – Mary and her husband are also book-lovers, and I admired a lovely bound set of Virginia Woolf essays.

The flagstones in the back hallway are also original, and had to be lifted to install geothermal heating.

Mary makes great use of her larder, which was a place formerly used for storing milk and butter, the flagstones keep it cool. Large saucepans hang from original hooks in the ceiling, ready for making jams and chutneys from the garden produce.


I like the style of the kitchen with repurposed cupboards discarded from a local school, and an old Aga cooker. Mary told us that the Aga company contacted her as they keep records of where they installed their cookers, and hers is rather rare. The feature that distinguishes it from less rare versions is, wonderfully, a “full stop” at the end of the warning on its lower door: “Keep tightly closed.”

We got on so well with Mary and had so much to talk about that our tour lasted for two hours! I look forward to a return visit.

Addendum: We returned in August in 2021, to stay a couple of nights in a shepherd’s hut! We stayed in the red hut.

We learned a little more about the shepherd’s huts, which Mary had custom-built, from a book left in the hut for us to read.

We met lovely people staying in the other huts – our first night, only one other hut was occupied, and the second night, a mother and daughter occupied the third hut. We enjoyed trading tips and stories when we met in the barn, for breakfast or when making our dinner. The others went cycling by the Barrow River – one can rent bikes – and also canoeing/kayaking.

One of the couples went kayaking at Clashganny – in 2019, I went swimming there.

From our base at Mary’s, we made trips to Kilfane gardens and waterfall and to Woodstock gardens, both in nearby County Kilkenny. I will be writing a separate entry about our trip to Kilfane, since the gardens are listed in the Revenue Section 482.

Woodstock House, outside Inistioge, County Kilkenny, built in 1745-47 for Sir William Fownes by architect Francis Bindon. The house was burnt in 1922.

In the 1770s Sarah Ponsonby (1755-1831) lived at Woodstock with her cousins William and Betty Fownes (nee Ponsonby), when her dear friend Eleanor Butler (1739-1829) made her way here from from Borris House in Carlow and the two young women escaped their families to go to live in Wales, where they became known in literary circles as the “Ladies of Llangollen.” (see my entry on Borris House).

William Fownes had only one child, a daughter, Sarah, who married William Tighe of Rossanagh House, County Wicklow, thus Woodstock passed in to the Tighe family. William Tighe’s grandson, also named William, married Louisa Lennox, the great-niece of Louisa Lennox of Carton House, and it was she who did much work to create the gardens at Woodstock.

The gardens of Woodstock include an Arboretum of exotic trees planted in the nineteenth century. It includes Montezuma pines, California redwoods, Wellingtonia, cypresses and cedars, as well as beech, chestnut, and an avenue of monkey puzzle trees. The gradual restoration of the gardens began in 1996 under the Great Gardens of Ireland Restoration Programme.

Monkey puzzle tree walk,trees planted in 1861-62 (replacing trees planted in 1845).
The Walled Garden at Woodstock is 1.9 acres
The Turner Conservatory at Woodstock, designed by Richard Turner.
The Turner bench.
Woodstock Gardens.

And finally, on our last day at the Old Rectory in Killedmond, I was able to imitate the photograph that started me on this whole wonderful adventure of exploring historic houses, the photograph that was in the Irish Times of Mary White swimming in her own lake.

Me swimming in the lake at the Old Rectory.

[1] http://www.ihh.ie/index.cfm/houses/house/name/Killedmond

[2] architectural definitions

[3] https://www.blackstairsecotrails.ie/

[4] https://lithicworks.com/

The fact that Martin Lyttle’s sculpture stands on the property is perfect, as Martin’s family lived in the Old Rectory for seven years before Mary White acquired it!

[5] http://www.megalithicireland.com/Ogham%20Stones%20Page%201.htm

[6] https://www.dralicegreene.com/phdi/p1.nsf/supppages/greene?opendocument&part=7

[7] Record of Protected Structures, County Carlow

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_Darley_(architect)

[9] https://philippabayliss.art/