As he lay dying in the winter of 1845, William Pole-Wellesley must have reflected upon the many failures of his life. He had certainly never come close to the success of his younger brother, Arthur, the famous ‘Iron Duke’ of Wellington. In fact, William’s most lasting accomplishment, albeit unintentional, was to sell the mansion he had loved before his scoundrel of a son could inherit and destroy the property. The mansion was Ballyfin House in County Laoise which opened its doors earlier this year as probably Ireland’s most prestigious five star hotel.
In ancient times, the lands of Ballyfin belonged to the O’More clan, one of the ‘seven septs of Leix.’ However, by dint of trickery and other Machiavellian devices the Tudors seized the O’More’s territory, enabling the plantation of Offaly and Laoise (known as the King’s and Queen’s County respectively) to commence in 1549.
Towards the end of that century, Ballyfin was part of a vast estate purchased by the Patrick Crosbie, a brother of the Bishop of Ardfert, who built a castle here. The Crosbies were effectively stripped of their ownership when they sided with the Irish Confederacy in their ill-fated war against Cromwell.
Most of their estate passed to Sir Charles Coote, one of the most fearsome of Cromwell’s commanders in Ireland. When an officer asked Coote what to do with some rebel children his men had rounded up, Coote apparently replied: ‘Nits will grow lice, kill them.’
The Coote family would also one day own Ballyfin. But for now they were content to own all the land around it.
Meanwhile, in 1666, Ballyfin itself was awarded to Periam Pole, the son of a minor Devonshire aristocrat who had subscribed £200 to London’s campaign to crush the Irish Confederacy in the 1640s. At this time, Ballyfin consisted of 417 acres, including a ‘mansion house’ with a comprehensive collection of ‘outhouses and buildings, courts, curtilages, gardens and orchards.’ Periam Pole swiftly had his new estate ‘bounded round with posts and rayles.’ By 1685, he had extended his landownership to 3,562 acres, mostly concentrated around Ballyfin, with further lands in King’s County (modern Offaly), Westmeath and Cavan.
The Poles were thus firmly established at Ballyfin by the time Perriam died in 1704. During the 1720s, his son and heir pulled down the old Crosby castle and constructed a new ‘modern house’ at Ballyfin.[i]
In 1748, Perriam’s grandson William succeeded to Ballyfin. That same year, he married Lady Sarah Moore, daughter of the 5th Earl of Drogheda. Together this couple did a considerable amount to develop Ballyfin’s landscape, redesigning the gardens, sinking a lake and planting woods in the naturalistic tradition of the great English designer, ‘Capability’ Brown.
When Emily, Countess of Kildare (and mother of Lord Edward FitzGerald) visited in 1759, she enthused: ‘Yesterday I saw a most delightful place indeed … much beyond any place I have seen in Ireland – fine plantations and the greatest variety of trees and flowers almost that ever I saw anywhere.’
As well as the gardens and ‘an elegant and commodious square of offices,’ the Poles added a new neo-classical wing to the house.[ii]
The project nearly bankrupted the Poles who appear to have borrowed heavily from Lord Cavan. In 1777, Lady Sarah Pole feared that his lordship could very easily ‘put it out of our power to live at this place, that we love so much.’
The stress evidently came to bear and she became so desperately ill that when her friend the Rev. Beaufort, visited, he ‘could scarce refrain my tears on twenty occasions’. Lady Sarah died in the summer of 1780. Within eighteen months, William was buried by her side in the small parish church of Clonenagh.
William’s heir was his 18-year-old cousin, William Wellesley, the afore-mentioned brother of the future Duke of Wellington. Born in 1763, he was the second son of a composer called Garret Wesley from Dangan, near Summerhill, County Meath. Three years before William’s birth, Garret was made Earl of Mornington as a nod to his musical achievements.
William was eighteen years old when he inherited the Ballyfin estate. In deference to his new lands, he adopted the name ‘Wellesley-Pole.’ Thereafter, he was simply known as ‘Pole.’
‘I don’t like Pole,’ the Prince Regent and future George IV once remarked. ‘And I am very glad his wife cuckolds him so often and so publicly.’
Pole’s wife Katherine, whom he married three years after succeeding to Ballyfin, was the wealthy heiress of Admiral John Forbes. While she evidently had little problem seducing other men, Pole had less success with other women. As Jane Wellesley recounted in her 2008 book, ‘A Journey Through My Family – The Wellington Story,’ Pole was particularly besotted with Mademoiselle Decamps, a well-endowed French actress, but ‘his beaux eyes’ failed to woo her and he panted at her stage door in vain.
Pole was a Tory Member of Parliament for over forty years. He represented Trim during the 1780s, and Queen’s County (Laois) from 1801 until 1821 when elevated to the peerage as Baron Maryborough. He later succeeded his older brother as Earl of Mornington.
Following his death in 1845, The Times rather meanly described Pole as ‘an undignified, ineffective speaker, an indiscreet politician, and a man by no means skilful in the conduct of official transactions.’ Nonetheless, on the back of his younger brothers’ military success, he also held a number of high offices, both in Britain and Ireland.[iii]
As such, Pole did not spend much time at Ballyfin, despite the fact contemporary held it ‘might justly be considered the most elegant country seat in that part of the Kingdom.’ He did however comply with William Pole’s wishes to maintain the garden ‘in the grandest style possible.’[iv]
In July 1812, Pole’s elder brother Richard Wellesley launched a disastrous campaign to become Prime Minister of Britain. His failure undoubtedly contributed to Pole’s decision to sell Ballyfin.
However, another reason why he put Ballyfin on the market was that his only son, later known as ‘Wicked William’, had just married the heiress Catherine Tylney-Long, regarded as the richest commoner of the day.
William, described as ‘the epitome of the self-destructive Regency buck’ by Kevin Mulligan, was born at Ballyfin in 1788, educated at Eton and numbered Lord Byron and the Dublin poet Thomas Moore among his closest friends. His military career ended in failure when his uncle, the Duke of Wellington, dismissed him from his service during the Peninsula War. His seduction of Miss Tylney-Long was nonetheless impressive; her numerous suitors included the jowly Duke of Clarence, later William IV. At the wedding, the bride wore a necklace worth £25,000 but the handsome groom, rather tellingly, forgot to bring a ring.
Whether Pole anticipated his son’s spendthrift ways or not when he sold Ballyfin is unclear. In any case, within a few years, Wicked William had blown £300,000 of his wife’s ready cash. He hosted endless and extravagant parties at Wanstead House, his wife’s Palladian family home in Essex. When his uncle defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, he threw a garden fete for 1,000 dignitaries, including the Prince Regent.
However, his debts proved so costly that he later knocked Wanstead House and fled to Italy. Before long the dissolute rake embarked upon an affair with the wife of a Coldstream Guard. Catherine was appalled when news reached her that the lovers had been seen making love on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. Her suffering was much amplified when she contracted venereal disease from her husband, leading to her premature demise in 1825.[v] When Wicked William ‘died a pauper through his extravagance’ in 1857, his obituary claimed ‘he was redeemed by no single virtue, adorned by no single grace.’
Meanwhile, his father had sold Ballyfin House to Sir Charles Henry Coote. Raised in Ash Hill, Kilmallock, Co. Limerick, Charles was a ten year old boy when, in 1802, he inherited Ireland’s premier baronetcy and 50,000 acres from his cousin, the 7th and last Earl of Mountrath. Centred on he town of Mountrath in Co. Laois, this vast inheritance was held in trust until he reached his majority in 1813.
Sir Charles may have owned a massive estate, but he had no family mansion. As such, the timing of the sale of Ballyfin House was serendipitous. Between 1802 and 1813, his wealth had accumulated to such an extent that, when he came of age, he had ample money to buy Ballyfin, the ‘most elegant seat’ in the region.
In 1814 Sir Charles married Caroline Whaley, a niece of the infamous ‘Buck’ Whaley, and the couple settled in Ballyfin. Seven years later, they decided to remodel and enlarge the house. However, Dominick Madden, their chosen architect, was not equal to the task and was dismissed amid allegations of ‘nightly drunkenness and prostitution’.
The Cootes then commissioned the hugely influential architectural duo of Richard and William Vitruvius Morrison. The Morrissons were clearly an inspiring pair and persuaded Sir Charles to build a completely new house.
And so one of Ireland’s greatest neo-classical houses was built. Boasting thirteen bays on its main front, the two-storey mansion featured a massive Ionic portico upon which the Coote coat of arms were displayed. The portico lead through to an entrance hall and from there to Ballyfin’s magnificent trove of comfortable, self-contained rooms – the Saloon where the grand piano stood, the circular Rotunda, the bowed Library, the Gold Room, the Dining Room, the bedrooms and, at length, the Turner Conservatory.
By the time of its completion, Ballyfin was as splendid as any country house of its type in Ireland or Britain, with some of the finest stuccowork, statuary and carpentry in Europe.
To help meet the costs of the project, Sir Charles sold the town of Jamestown, County Leitrim, which his namesake had founded 200 years earlier. He had hoped to conclude his works by procuring a peerage but the Prime Minister – the Duke of Wellington – declined.
Sir Charles and his wife enjoyed the grandeur of the home they built for forty years and were pillars of Anglo-Irish estate during the early Victorian Age.[vi] During this time, they also purchased the remainder of the wastrel Wicked William Wellesley-Pole’s estate, including almost 8,000 acres surrounding the Ballyfin demesne.
Following Sir Charles’s death in 1864, his son succeeded as 10th baronet. He took little interest in Ballyfin during his thirty years as family head, preferring to live in London. Fortunately his father had anticipated such an attitude and empowered Ballyfin’s trustees to maintain the same state of grandeur.
In 1895, the 10th baronet was succeeded by his 79-year-old brother, the Rev. Sir Algernon Coote, who returned to live at Ballyfin and spent his four year tenure improving, repairing and redecorating the house.
The life of Algernon Coote, the 12th Baron, coincided with the downfall of the Protestant Ascendancy and the birth of the Irish Free State. He and his wife had orchestrated some considerable parties and fetes on Ballyfin’s lawns before the First World War.[vii] During the War of Independence, Sir Algernon spoke out against the “unconstitutional manner of government being administered in Ireland by the British Parliament.’ In September 1920, he resigned as Deputy Lieutenant and he died the following month.
As Ireland tumbled into Civil War, Sir Algernon’s eldest son, Ralph, now 13th baronet, could see no point in staying at Ballyfin. He shut the house up, removed the contents and pragmatically installed a local man with useful Sinn Fein connections as caretaker. And so, while many similarly sized mansions blazed across Ireland, Ballyfin survived.
The halls where the bells once echoed with the butler standing close by, the corridors down which footmen and chambermaids scampered and scurried, the kitchens where scullery maids and Scottish cooks cooked puddings and spilled stews, the bedrooms where baronets, ladies, governesses and children once snored and dreamt.
In the 1920s, the entire demesne passed intact to the Patrician Brothers, a Roman Catholic teaching brotherhood, who set about converting the house and its 18th century stable court into classrooms and dormitories. While the Brothers are to be commended for keeping the property intact, the building was one of Ireland’s most endangered by 2000 when the Irish Georgian Society initiated a fund-raising campaign to highlight the plight of the house.
Largely abandoned, the mansion was a quagmire of sagging ceilings, rotten windows, cracked marquetry and mosaic floors and crumbling stonework. Even the demesne walls were collapsing beneath the weight of fallen trees.
In 2002, a Chicago based couple, Fred and Kay Krehbiel, purchased the property. They joined forces with Jim Reynolds, one of Ireland ’s leading landscape designers, in what has been a formidable project to restore the mansion, along with its Turner conservatory, out-buildings, gardens and parklands. Nine arduous years later, Ballyfin reopened its doors and was instantly hailed as one of the greatest houses in Ireland.
[i] Perriam’s 24-year-old son William succeeded in 1704. ‘Tall & lusty bodied [with a] very handsome good humoured countenance,’ William had lately married Anne Colley of Castle Carbury, County Kildare. It was a good union on paper, and would later link the Pole family to the Wellesleys. However, William was berated for being ‘too much governed by his wife who had not the best of judgements and not half his sense.’ William died in 1727, William Along with the cost of ‘his wife’s going constantly every winter to Dublin,’ the construction of the new house ensured that William ‘died worth no ready money.’ Little is known of his eldest son, Periam, save that he died unmarried and childless, in 1748.
[ii] This incorporated a hall, drawing room, dining room and library as well as several bedrooms. The results of the Poles endeavours were captured on canvas in a group of small paintings by William Ashford.
[iii] ‘Not without intelligence, he lacked the power of persuading people and many considered him unlikeable. He was opportunistic and, though he had been Arthur’s most trusted brother during the Peninsula War and remained close to him until the end, he would probably have aligned himself otherwise ‘if the dice had fallen in a different way.’ – ‘A Journey Through My Family – The Wellington Story’ by Jane Wellesley (Orion, 2008).
[iv] In William Pole’s will, he instructed that his heir must ‘engage and employ a skilful gardiner at the salary of one hundred pounds Sterling a year to attend and take care of the improvements.’ It was his heir’s duty ‘to keep and preserve the same in good and compleat order, repair and condition.’
[v] In her will, Catherine requested that the Duke – rather than Wicked William – stand as guardian over their three young children. Eighteen months of legal wrangling ensued as Wicked William tried to secure control of his children, or rather their money. When he failed, he took to slandering his own family in the press, not least his uncle, the Duke, who became Prime Minister in 1828. He also published lurid and libelous accounts of the Longs, accusing them of being incestuous lesbians and drunken blasphemers. The Duke duly broke off communications with his nephew, concluding, ‘it is not desirable that there should be much intercourse between us. Believe me ever yours most affectionately Wellington.’
[vi] When their only daughter died giving birth to a child in 1848, they commissioned a massive stone tower which still overlooks the demesne today.
[vii] Over 400 guests were entertained in the house between 1901 and 1904 – gentry, peers and distinguished citizens like the art connoisseur Sir Hugh Lane and ancient history professor Sir John Pentland Mahaffy. In 1904, some 200 guests, mainly estate employees, were entertained to dinner in celebration of his heir’s marriage.