Thursday, 22 August 2013

Bessborough House (now Kildalton College), Fiddown, Co. Kilkenny

While many of us who come from the south-east of Ireland will no doubt be familiar with this week's featured country house, we probably know it by its modern name: Kildalton College. As I child I remember going on a school tour to Kildalton, an agricultural college run by Teagesc, the Irish agriculture and food authority. If my memory serves me correctly our visit focused little on the house's long and illustrious history, but was concerned more with matters agricultural! Thus for many years I presumed the house had always been referred to as Kildaton. In more recent times I learned a little more about it and its history, coming to learn that when it was conceived it was given the name of Bessborough House. Named after the earls of Bessborough, the house dates from the 1740s, although much altered in the twentieth century. The family for whom Bessborough House was built, the Ponsonbys, were an aristocratic family of English decent. The peerage 'earl of Bessborough' was created in 1739 (previously the family's senior title was 'Viscount Duncannon' and 'Baron Bessborough') for Brabazon Ponsonby. The first earl had previously served as M.P. for Newtownards in Co. Down and later for Co. Kildare and had recently married Sarah Margetson of Bishopscourt Hall near Nass, Co. Kildare when building began on his new home.

Brabazon's marriage to the wealthy Sarah Margetson may have spurred him onto commissioning his new home near the small village of Fiddown. The architect he favoured for his project was Francis Bindon (d. 1765). Though more well-known as a portrait painter, Bindon's architectural portfolio was not insignificant; his most famous work being Russborough House, Co. Wicklow. Ponsonby's new home was designed in the Classical style: a four storey nine bay central building flanked on either side by extending wings; a common addition to many Palladian houses. The porch seen in the image above was an addition from the late nineteenth century.

Bessborough House continued to be one of the family homes into the twentieth century. In 1923 the house was burnt and severely damaged. A thorough and complete reconstruction, faithful to the original designs, took place and was completed by 1929. However, the Ponsonbys were never again to reside at Bessborough, having relocated to Stansted Park near Chichester in England. Bessborough was house was in turn purchased in 1940 by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a male Catholic religious who established a novitiate there. It continued to be used for this purpose until the late 1960s. In 1971 it was bought by Teagesc who established an agricultural college there.

Lord and Lady Bessborough 

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Moydrum Castle, Athlone, Co. Westmeath

A town of some 20,000 people, Athlone is best-known for being at the geographical centre of Ireland. An historic town enlarged by the Anglo-Normans in the twelfth century, it boasts a number of sites worthy of a visit. Not far from the town is a site not normally on visitors' 'to see' list: Moydrum Castle. While not as ancient as the town's Norman castle, Moydrum nonetheless has an interesting history, connected primarily with the Handcock family. Like a great many of Irish landowning families, the Handcocks came to Ireland in the seventeenth century, in the wake of the Cromwellian conquest. Although  one of the leading landowners in the midlands, they remained without a title, or peerage, until 1812, when William Handcock was created 1st Baron Castlemaine. An MP for Westmeath, this title, we are told, was granted largely as a result of his support for the passing of the Act of Union in 1801, in which the Irish parliament in Dublin was dissolved. William had already married favourably, being wed to Florinda Trench, daughter of the 1st earl of Clancarthy. 

The castle seen in the picture above was largely the work of an early nineteenth century refurbishment of an already existing house. The original house was erected c. 1750, and was most probably a typical Irish country house incorporating elements of the Classical style. As architectural tastes began to change in the early nineteenth century the house was given a Gothic appearance, changing it from a 'house' to a 'castle. This was done so around 1812, under the supervision of Sir Richard Morrison. Morrison obtained an impressive reputation for 'gothicising' houses, one of the most famous examples being Shelton Abbey in Co. Wicklow, which I featured on the blog some months back. From the images one can easily see how the the existing house was given its Gothic appearance; the turrets on the four corners, the off-centred tower with its great Gothic window, and the crenelations, all giving  it  the 'castle' feeling.

The castle remained in the hands of the Handcock family into the twentieth century. Like many country houses Moydrum was caught up in the atrocities committed during the Civil War. In 1921 the house was burned by the local IRA brigade and rendered uninhabitable. The family subsequently relocated to England with the house being left in the ruinous state that one can see today. An interesting aside is that the house was used on the cover of the U2 album The Unforgettable Fire in 1982 and has subsequently become a popular destination for the band's many fans!