Turtle Bunbury

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Thomas Burgh of Oldtown (1670 - 1730)

For much of the 16th and 17th centuries, Ireland was an island ravaged by incessant and brutal war. In 1691, the Protestant monarch William of Orange secured final victory over his Jacobite enemies and an era of unprecedented peace now came to Ireland that would last, virtually unbroken, until the 1798 Rebellion.

Peace was good for the construction industry. During the early 18th century, Dublin’s new elite began to rebuild the city. And foremost amongst the architectural engineers who they employed for this job was Thomas Burgh, forefather of singer Chris de Burgh and his daughter, former Miss World, Roseanna Davison.

Thomas Burgh is regarded as one of the first great Irish military engineers of all time and rose to become Surveyor General of Ireland. He was born in 1670 and educated at Delany's School in Dublin. He entered Trinity College Dublin on November 22nd 1685 but probably fled Ireland with his father in the run up to the Jacobite wars. Dromkeen, his family home, was burned by retreating Catholics. His father, Ulysses Burgh, was later generously compensated for this and made Bishop of Ardragh.

On March 8th 1689, Thomas Bourk [sic] was commissioned as Lieutenant in Lord Lovelace's Regiment of Foot. They served with the Duke of Schomberg's army in Ireland. He may have been appointed to the Irish Engineers as early as February 1691 but, following the Williamite victory, he appears to have joined the Royal Regiment of Foot commanded by the Earl of Orkney and left for the continent.

On 1st August 1692, Thomas received a commission as Captain. He subsequently saw action at the battles of Steinkirk (1692) and Landen (1693). At the Siege of Namur in 1695, he was employed as an engineer, probably under the command of the Dutch artillery expert, John Wynant Goor. Two years later, Thomas was ranked as one of the top twenty five engineers in the British Army and the third most senior in the Irish Establishment.

Between 1697 and 1700, Thomas worked under Surveyor-General William Robinson. On 10th July 1700, he pipped Richard Corneille, the second engineer of Ireland, to succeed Robinson, at a salary of £300 per annum.

The following spring, Thomas Burgh was placed in charge of the construction and renovation of all military buildings in Ireland, a commission repeatedly renewed over the next twenty seven years. During this time, he expanded barracks throughout Ireland, completed the rebuilding of Dublin Castle and constructed numerous fortifications and lighthouses along the Irish coastline. His proposal to dredge Dublin Harbour and build a fortified basin to hold ships was ultimately rejected, but he continued to be a forceful advocate that Ireland's inland waterways should be made navigable.

Perhaps it was in reaction to the destruction of his family home in 1691 that Thomas became such a vigorous builder. He did not merely restrict himself to military architecture. The City of Dublin made him a Freeman in 1704 in recognition of his ongoing efforts to beautify the rapidly evolving capital. His first known building is the Royal Barracks (now Collins Barracks) on Dublin's north side. Among his other civic legacies were the original Custom House on Essex Quay, Dublin Castle, the Trinity College Library (1712-1732), the Linen Hall, the Kilmainham Infirmary (1711), St. Werburgh's Church (1715), the Royal Barracks and Dr. Steeven's Hospital (1721 - 1733). It is tempting to think he helped build the Mansion House on Dawson Street in 1710 for Joshua Dawson, certainly in light of the fact Thomas Burgh’s townhouse lay directly opposite on the site now occupied by Ron Black’s pub.

In 1696, Thomas acquired a property outside Naas called Oldtown. The site lay near a holy well where St Patrick reputedly baptised Oillill and Illann, the sons of King Dunlang of Leinster. In 1709, he designed and oversaw the construction of a new house at Oldtown, one of Ireland's first Palladian winged houses. The building comprised of a two storey central block flanked by two storey wings. The centre block was adorned with pairs of Ionic pilasters, rising to just beneath the windows of the first floor. The wings were likewise adorned with Ionic pilasters, all of which carried substantial entablatures. Thomas's masterpiece was to remain the pride of his descendants until the centre block was destroyed by fire in the 1950s and the family moved into one of the wings.

By 1721, Thomas Burgh was a very wealthy man. From 1706 to 1714 he held the office of Lieutenant of the Ordnance of Ireland which, together with the Surveyor-Generalship, made him far the most influential officer in the Irish Ordnance. In 1713 he was elected Tory MP for Naas, which seat he held until his death in 1730. He became a governor of the Royal Hospital of Kilmainham in 1707 and, from 1717, he was a trustee of Dr. Steeven's Hospital.

Aside from the wealth he accumulated from his many and ongoing engineering commissions, he and his partner Richard Stewart ran a very lucrative colliery at Ballycastle, Co. Antrim, which brought in £2000 in 1721 alone. He was also benefiting from the growing affluence and pretensions of his fellow squires. As early as 1702, he was advising the Quartermaster-General Richard Gorges on how to build garden walls at Kilbrew, Co. Meath. That same year he was recruited as a consultant in the building of Archbishop King's Dublin residence. He helped design Marsh's Library seven years later. The O'Brien family called on him for the construction of the original Dromoland Castle at Newmarket-on-Fergus in Co. Clare. He may also have had a hand in the 1724 design of Oakly Park outside Celbridge for Arthur Price, later Bishop of Meath and Archbishop of Cashel.

On 10th July 1700, Thomas married Mary Smyth, second daughter of the Rev. William Smyth, Bishop of Raphoe, Kilmore and Ardagh. Her mother Mary was a daughter of Sir John Povey, Chief Justice of Ireland in the reign of Charles II.

Thomas and Mary had five sons and four daughters. The family lived between the country estate at Oldtown and their Dublin townhouse at 37 Dawson Street (since rebuilt). Thomas died at Oldtown on December 18th 1730 at the age of sixty. Burgh was evidently an affable employer. For much of his working career, he employed the same team of smiths, joiners, bricklayers, plasterers, painters, carpenters, slaters and glaziers.

He was succeeded by his firstborn son, also called Thomas, was MP for Naas from 1731 until his death in 1759. One of Thomas’s grandsons was the Right Hon. Walter Hussey Burgh, one of the most eloquent and charismatic lawyers in Ireland during the late 18th century.