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Loughcrew House, Co. Meath – Gilded Magnificence

Photo: James Fennell.

Situated just outside the County Meath village of Oldcastle, Loughcrew House has always been a building of note. The original architect was a master of the Greek Revival and Loughcrew was one of his most remarkable creations. It lies within a stone’s throw of the birthplace of Saint Oliver Plunkett. The Naper family for whom the property was built continue to reside there to this day.

The Naper family descend from Sir Robert Naper, Chief Baron of the Exchequer of Ireland during the latter years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. His grandson William managed to secure for a bride a rich young lady from Hampshire called Dorothy Petty. She was a sister of Sir William Petty, the English economist who surveyed Ireland on behalf of Oliver Cromwell and made a vast fortune in doing so.

William Naper benefited from his brother-in-laws prosperity, being granted the Loughcrew estate in about 1655 and serving as High Sheriff for Co. Meath in 1671. His lands originally belonged to the Plunkett family. Indeed tradition holds that the unfortunate Saint Oliver Plunkett was born in a 16th century tower house on the property in 1625. The Plunkett’s family church is certainly on the estate and can be accessed today when the Naper family open their gardens to the public.

Over the ensuing century, William and Dorothy Naper’s descendants inter-married with other well-established landed gentry and aristocratic families such as the Earls of Darnley and Leicester, the Ingoldsbys, the Duttons and the Tandys, from whom the enigmatic 1798 rebel Naper Tandy claimed descent.

In 1821, another William Naper commissioned the English neo-classical architect Charles Robert Cockerell (1788 – 1863) to build a new stately home for his family at Loughcrew. Cockerell, who trained with Sir Robert Smirke, had returned from a life-changing visit to Greece four years earlier. He set about applying his knowledge of Greek architecture to his new commission.

Eight years and £22,000 (approx €2 million in today’s currency) later, the building was complete. A vast austere cube of beautifully cut limestone ashlar, enlivened by a tall Ionic portico on the entrance front and a pedimented fronts-piece with round-headed windows on the garden elevation. Cockerell wasn’t happy. He thought the structure “plain” and swore he would never go for the Ionic again. He went on to design the  Hanover Chapel on London’s Regent Street, Cambridge University Library and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

When Emily Naper and her late husband Charles came into the Loughcrew estate, the task ahead must have been exceptionally daunting. Cockerell’s original masterpiece was no more than a shell. The once indomitable mansion had been the victim, some say, of an ancient curse. “Three times will Loughcrew be consumed by fire. Crows will fly in and out of the windows. Grass will grow on its doorstep“. The last of the three fires took place in 1964, reducing the house to a state of roofless dereliction, its only tenant a Massey Ferguson tractor.

The Napers were a determined couple. The original house was clearly beyond repair but that need not hinder them from building a new house. In 1982 they recruited the architect Alfred Cochrane and set about converting the roofless Orangery into their family home. The rooms that make up the house were originally the palm houses, the azalea houses and the furnace rooms.

The present hall was a hole in the ground on the eve of the restoration. Today it serves as a warm and engaging entrance, painted a deep red to counteract Ireland’s notoriously cold winters. Michael Dillon, Ireland’s foremost muralist and a family friend, painted a series of murals depicting Diana the Huntress and other mythological themes to lend a sense of artistic spirit to the hall. Dillon also devised the stunning trompe l’oeil murals in the patio area next door. The doors leading off the entrance hall were painted in a blue-grey colour wash, then oil gilded. The walls are adorned with the head of wild boar and bear shot by Charles’s grandfather.

Photo: James Fennell.

The main body of the house was effectively a windowless single storey shed with, at either end, very tall ceilings and high windows. The shed, a vast space of 65 ft and 20 ft, now doubles as the sitting and dining room. Bright and airy in summer and cosy in winter, the walls are sallow pink with a raspberry glaze while the pine floor is painted an uplifting yellow. The dinner service, glassware and silverware are ingeniously stored in a pair of columns at the entrance, designed for the purpose by Cochrane. Emily’s stamp on the room is everywhere. She remodelled the chintz curtains from bed covers, designed the dining room chairs and personally gilded the 19th century mirror and oil painting frames.

The exquisite gilded theme should come as no surprise to those familiar with the work of Emily Naper, one of Ireland’s foremost gilding authorities. A descendent of Sir Francis Dashwood, founder of the original Hell Fire Club, she studied at the Ecole de Louvre and the City & Guilds in London before working as an apprentice to Vilmo Gibello. The old laundry has been converted into a studio where Emily restores frames and gilded furniture and manufactures a range of decorative accessories, ranging from piano stools and console tables to cherubs and photograph frames. She maintains she can replace virtually any carved piece by using a special mould composition of rabbit skin, glue and very fine chalk.

Adjacent to the dining room is the Conservatory, formerly home to the Naper’s azalea collection. The floor was covered with limestone slabs, the empty ceiling was given a new roof of wood and glass. The original walls were in surprisingly reasonable condition, perhaps a testament to their early Victorian creators who used a mixture of horse and cow hair, ox blood, plaster and brick. Today this room provides an alternative entrance to the house as well as a dining area in summer and a table tennis room for the Napers’ children.

But it is the unbridled energy of the Napers which shines brightest at Loughcrew. For many years, Emily’s School of Gilding and Decorative Finishes produced gilders of exceptional skill. They also restored the magnificent restored gardens where, every summer from 1999 until 2013, the high rollers of Irish society assembled to watch an outdoor garden opera. Ally and I caught a performance of La Boheme at the Loughcrew Opera Festival shortly after we returned from honeymoon in 2006.

In 2021, there was a light show based on Alice in Wonderland. The setting is perfect for such wonders, not least as the area around Loughcrew boasts one of the most extensive prehistoric settlements in existence. The Loughcrew Hills have 32 passage graves featuring curiously decorated stones and dark tunnels in which the ashes of chieftains, dead for perhaps 6,000 years, await the rising sun. The most famous is the grave on Slieve na Caillighe (“The Hill of the Witch”) where a celebrated hag held court in ancient times.

Today, all that remains of the original Loughcrew House is its portico entrance, subsequently reassembled to look like some sort of mini-Acropolis. Charles Cockerell would probably smile at its new name, the Temple of the Rains. But the Naper’s achievement was nothing short of monumental. Their home stands testament to the ancient truism that when you put your mind to it, anything is possible.

Versions of this article appeared in Hong Kong’s Home Journal (October 2003) and Ireland’s Homes Interiors & Living (Feb 2006).