Photographs by James Fennell.
Deep in the heart of north western Ireland there stands a sumptuous Victorian
mansion possessed of a powerful sense of history stretching back to the
13th century. The Knights Templar built their most westerly European
stronghold on this site in County Sligo in 1216. Over the following
centuries, the castle witnessed some of the bloodiest episodes in Ireland's
history. The Perceval family acquired the property in the late 17th
century and built the first Temple House in 1825. By the time of the Great
Famine, the Perceval family estate was in dire financial straits.
It's not every day that the knight in shining armour comes via Hong Kong but such was the case in the dramatic turn around of the Perceval family fortunes in 1862. One year earlier, the Hong Kong Chamber of Commerce was founded. It's first chairman was an ambitious young Irishman named Alexander "The Chinaman" Perceval, a younger brother of the Temple House laird of that time. This erudite young man had arrived in Shanghai a decade earlier and become a partner of Jardine Mathieson. By 1861, he was living on the Peak, contentedly watching his growing fortunes set sail from Victoria Harbour in state-of-the art tea clippers, with one arm wrapped around the waist of his new wife, Annie Nye, James Mathieson's niece. The couple had sailed from Hong Kong to Boston for the wedding.
In the spring of 1862 the Chinaman received word from his native homeland. The situation in Ireland had not improved in the two decades since the Great Famine had halved the population. His mother had died of the fever in 1847 while attempting to help the distressed tenants on the ancestral estate. His bankrupted elder brother had been forced to sell the family home. And now the new owners were causing widespread havoc by evicting all remaining tenants and converting their small plots into pastureland for cows. The dispossessed families had gone to the former Perceval family agent and pleaded with him to somehow convince the celebrated Chinaman to come back to Ireland and buy the family home back.
In 1863, the Chinaman did just that. He wrote a large cheque and Temple House was back in Perceval hands. He then engaged London architects Johnstone and Jeane to substantially enlarge the neo-classical two-storey home his father had built 40 years earlier. The north wing was knocked down and a formidable new entrance front of seven bays with an arched port-cochere was added. Fortunately, the architects were careful to incorporate several interesting reminders of the buildings illustrious past into the new design, including a stone vaulted room on the ground floor from about 1320 and the 16th century Entrance Tower.
The Chinaman then began inviting the original tenant families to return home from their forced exile elsewhere in Ireland and even in Britain and America. He gave them back their land and rebuilt and re-roofed their houses. The Chinaman was hailed as a truly benevolent hero of Colonial Britain. Unfortunately, in 1866, the 44 year old tea magnate died before he could enjoy the fruits of his generosity.
The next century was a difficult one for the Percevals given the evolution of Ireland from colony to republic but the family stuck to their guns and held out. Literally. Today, Temple House Estate consists of 500 acres of grassland and 600 acres of woodland with a substantial blanket of turbary bog which has been immensely popular for woodcock shoots since the 1870s.
The present generation of the family, Deb and Sandy Perceval, opted to open the house to paying guests in 1980. Temple House is situated in County Sligo, a particularly beautiful part of Ireland famed as much for its association with the poet W.B. Yeats as it is for possessing the greatest concentration of Stone and Bronze Age remains in the British Isles.
The visitor enters this enormous house from the porch through a vast hall lined with hunting trophies and family portraits. The hall concludes in a cavernous Italianate vestibule with an impressive staircase. The original 'Big-Dine' has been converted to a pleasant kitchen although the owners have been careful to maintain the colours and character of the other reception rooms, even keeping some of the original 130 year old curtains and carpets. The bedrooms are so large that one is called the "Half Acre". Throughout the house, the elegant Victorian furniture was specifically commissioned by the Chinaman and Annie Perceval. Guests now dine together under the gaze of the Chinaman and other ancestors and next day explore the lake, woods and walled garden or use Temple House as a base from which to tour Sligo's archaeology, lakes and mountains.
Situated in its splendid riverside setting, Temple House still looks as confident a home as its Hong Kong based patron intended. A mystical yet positive air pervades this 'Big House' almost to the point of defiance, as it looks out over terraced gardens and the ruined castle to the lake. The newly planted trees amongst the old oaks and beech in the parkland give a feeling of peace, permanence and faith in the future.
This article appeared in Irish Tatler in 2001.