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Ballykilcavan, Stradbally, Laois, Ireland

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The House

Ballykilcavan is a charming house of about 1680, in wooded parkland just east of Strabally. The estate was acquired by Oliver Walsh in 1639 and the house was probably built by his son, another Oliver, who died in 1697.

The house has full-height wings like flanking towers at the corners of the entrance front while similar towers on the rear of the house are now hidden by later extensions. These towers were a feature of fortified houses of the seventeenth century and lingered on into the early eighteenth century as decorative features. The house is comprised of a ground floor (unusually at ground level), an upper floor and an attic storey, where the dormer windows have been replaced by skylights. It has been altered and extended many times over the centuries but many rooms retrain their late-seventeenth century dimensions though the decoration is later.

In the 18th century Ballykilcavan was given a more Georgian aspect with a ‘floating’ pediment-gable, a fine cut-stone doorcase and sash windows with thin glazing bars. There is good 1730s plasterwork on the hall ceiling, and even finer work above the staircase and landing. The landing is actually the house’s finest room and originally extended from front to back as a gallery before the main staircase was installed.

The first prominent member of the family was Hunt Walsh, who commanded the 28th of Foot at the siege of Quebec and became a general. He was awarded a valuable estate in Prince Edward Island in a lottery of lands after the Seven Years’ War before succeeding his uncle at Ballykilcavan and becoming MP for Maryborough. General Walsh is likely to have commissioned the magnificent 18th century U-shaped stable block.

The next owner was the general’s brother Raphael, Dean of Dromore, who began an ambitious remodelling of the house. He planned a new front at the rear with a classical cornice and parapet, and a suite of south-facing rooms.

Unfortunately, work was disrupted by the 1798 Rebellion and Dean Walsh only completed half the building vertically, leaving the remainder blank. This provides a single, very large drawing room, entered at the half level from the staircase, and a pair of bedrooms overhead. The drawing room is particularly beautiful, with fine late-eighteenth century woodowork, mahogany doors and a finely modeled cornice.

Dean Walsh was succeeded by his sister’s son, a baronet who assumed the name Johnson-Walsh and the estate passed in turn to his two sons. The second son, Sir Hunt, Rector of Stradbally, was a keen gardener and built a tunnel to his walled garden at the far side of the Stradbally-Athy road. He also employed a promising local man, William Robinson, to oversee his garden and plant collection.

The story is that master and servant fell out and Robinson doused the hot-house fires before quitting his position on a particularly cold winter’s night. Nobody noticed his absence and, by the time the fires were re-lit, many precious plants had perished. In Dublin and later in London, Robinson’s career took-off and he became the doyen of late nineteenth century garden designers, influencing a whole school of gardening with his ‘natural’ plantings.

Sir Hunt was succeeded by his son and grandson, whose only child Oonagh married a neighbour, William Kemmis of Shaen. They subsequently changed their name to Walsh-Kemmis and their grandson, David, and his wife Lisa, are the 13th generation to live at Ballykilcavan.

The 1700s layout and avenues were rearranged in the nineteenth century when a new road was built from Stradbally to Athy. A distant section of this road is now on axis with the front door, and acts almost as an avenue with the spire of a First Fruits Church as an eyecatcher in far distance. Much of the estate is given over to woodland, with some spectacular specimen oaks and Spanish chestnuts, and the record Irish black walnut.


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