Story of Bishopscourt by James Fleming, published October 31st 1936 in the Weekly Irish Times
The story of the mansion of Bishops Court from the time when, according to an inquisition taken at Naas in the year 1549, it was found that William Myagh, late Bishop of Kildare at his death in 1548 was seized in right off his bishopric among other lands off Bishopscourt in the parish of Oughterard is analogous to the history off all or nearly all of the residences erectors in that seventeenth century on the sites of or incorporated with the castellated residences of the dispossessed Irish or Anglo-Irish nobles.
The same inquisition has it that there lands of Bishopscourt, containing two hundred acres, were leased in February 1548, to Sir John Alen, Knight, for 81 years. Whether the bishop or his lessee occupied residence on the lands cannot be ascertained, but that they were still held “in right of his bishopric is evident by the statement that, on the 2nd June 1562, Alexander, Bishop of Kildare, obtained license to alienate to Patrick Sarsfield of Baggotrath, the manor and lands of Bishopscourt by Woghterard.
The Alens were an ancient family. Sir John Alen, mentioned in the Inquisition quoted above) was a son of Warin Alen, of Cotteshall, in Norfolk, and derives from Sir John Alen, Baronet, who came into England with William the Conqueror.
Warin Alen had a brother, Edward, whose son John, was through the influence of Cardinal Wolsey, appointed Archbishop of Dublin in 1528.
Archbishop Alen’s tenure of office was tragically ended on the night of the 28th July, 1534. On the outbreak of the rebellion of Silken Thomas, earl of Kildare, he attempted to sail to England, but his ship was driven ashore near Clontarf. He sought refuge in the house of one Holywood, near Artane, where he was discovered and put to death.
Besides John, Warin Alen had two other sons Thomas and William. The latter died in 1558. Sir John came to Ireland as Secretary to his first cousin the Archbishop. He was appointed Lord Chancellor of Ireland in 1539, his heir being his nephew, John, son of his brother, Thomas (then of Kilteel in the County Kildare), as the following extract from his will shows:
“I wish that after my decease owte of the present lyf all my lands and tenements aforesaid, this wht I have purchased or this wht I have of the Kinge ye gifte by his letters patents in Simonstown, Galbedston, Moyston, Laughlenston, Porterston and Colfitche, with their members in the Countie of Kildare, shall remayne and be to my nephew, John Allen, son to Thomas Allen, and his heires mascles lawfally begotten or to be begotten.”
His possessions included the estate of St Wolstan’s. near Celbridge, which had been granted to him in 1535, on the dissolution of the priory there.
The priory of St Wolstan’s was founded in the year 1202, for canons of the Order of St Victor, in memory of St Wolstan, Bishop of Worcester.
“On 1st December 1538, John Alen had a grant of the site, circuit and lands of the late monastery of St Wolstan’s, the manor of Kildrought, the manor of Donaghcomper and other lands in County Kildare for ever, by the service of one Knights fee, rent £10.”
Thomas Alen came to Ireland with his brother, Sir John, and was appointed Clerk of the Hamnaper and Head Chamberlain of the Exchequer (27 Henry VII). On the 5th August, 1550 (4 Edward VI), he was made constable of the Castle of Wicklow for life, and obtained a grant of the dissolved Priory of Kilteel, near Rathmore, County Kildare. He married Mary, niece and co-heiress of Sir John Rawson, last Prior of Kilmainham and of Clontarf Castle, and had, among other issue, two sons:
(1) John of St Wolstan’s (Sir John Alen’s heir) and (2) Edward of Kilteel, who married Ales Alen, daughter and co-heir of Giles Alen, Mayor of Dublin (1577), by whom he had two sons, John of Bishops Court and Thomas, Edward Alen, to whom his brother, John of St Wolstan’s made over Bishop’s Court, was succeeded at his death by his son John.
John Alen of Bishops Court was a Justice of the Peace for the County Kildare. He was married to Mary, daughter of Theobald Walsh, of Carrickmines, County Dublin, by whom he had two sons and fifteen daughters. He died in 1636, and was succeeded by is eldest son Edward, who did not enjoy his tenure of Bishops Court for on the termination of the rebellion of 1641 he was outlawed and his estates forfeited.
In the Civil Survey of 1654 the following entry appears: –
“John (Edward) Allen, Irish papist, in 1640 possessed Bishopscourt, containing 180 acres, valued for letting purposes at £56. There is a castle and other buildings, with an orchard adjoining the said castle, upon the aforesaid lands of Bishopscourt, which said castle and buildings were valued to be worth £1,000 in the year 1640, and being repaired buy Captain Alen are now valued to be worth £500.
The outlawry of Edward Alen and the forfeiture of his estates severs the connection of this old family with Bishopscourt. Before dismissing them from this narrative, however, the following instance of the great prolificacy of a member of the family is worth noting:-
The Dictionnaire de la Noblesse states that Patrick Allen, of St Wolstan’s Knight was twice married. By his first wife he had seven children; by his second, Mary, daughter of Sir James Dowdall, of Athlumney, in Meath, he had twenty-one children.
This Patrick Alen raised, at his own charge, a body of troops for the service of King James II; he served in the capacity as Major-General, and was present at the Siege of Limerick, after which, under the terms of capitulation, he was allowed to preserve part of his estates. He died in 1724.
After the Alen’s departure, it appears that Bishops Court was for a time in the possession of Lord Kingston, formerly Sir John King, who died in 1676; following whom came Major John Margetson, son of the Rt Rev James Margetson Archbishop of Armagh 1663-1678. Major Margetson, who lived at Bishops Court, married Alice, daughter of the first Viscount Charlemont, by whom he had a daughter, Sarah. He was killed at the siege of Limerick.
Sarah Margetson married, first, Hugh Colville of Newtown, County Down. The romantic circumstances connected with her second marriage – to Brabazon Ponsonby, first earl of Bessborough – are told in the article on Bessborough House, which appeared in the issue of Saturday, 26th September:
Brabazon Ponsonby, born 1679, entered the army, and “being a man of noble stature and comely appearance,” he was appointed Captain of the Grenadier Company of his regiment, the 27th Inniskillings.
While in the army he married and the following amusing story is told of his successful efforts to secure a rich wife.
He did not inherit the sober character of his ancestors, but was gay and lively, and plunged deeply into the pleasures of the age, so that in course of time he found himself in pecuniary difficulties, from which he attempted to extricate himself by marrying a rich widow then living in Dublin, Mrs Colvil, grand-daughter of Archbishop Margetson.
This lady, besides her amiable disposition and personal accomplishments, was possessed of a large sum of ready money, as well as an estate in land worth, at that time, not less than £1,800 per annum. These were desirable objects to a Captain of the Grenadiers, whose lively and dissipated turn of mind made him think his pay, and what small stipend his father allowed him, insufficient to support him in the elegant rank of life his address and parts had introduced him
He, therefore, paid his court to this attractive young widow; but this lady, whether she did not chose to re-enter into the hymeneal bond, or was willing to be longer wooed, refused him; but he, like a veteran soldier, was not to be put off thus; he wisely conjectured might be carried by stratagem, though force or negotiation failed.
To effect his purpose he gained over to his interest her woman, and having arranged matters with the latter, he got himself admitted, very early one morning, into a street chamber of the widow’s apartments, where, throwing up the window, he appeared in n elegant nightgown and cap, decorated as was then the custom for bridegrooms to wear.
The city band who had been apprised of a wedding (the custom being to serenade newly-married couples), shortly made their appearance, accompanied with the clamour of beggars, to congratulate the supposed bride and bridegroom on their happy nuptials.
Mrs Colvil, awakened by the commotion, flew to her window, opened it, and beheld a great crowd cheering; while, at the next window, the gallant captain was smiling, bowing, and thanks the people for their congratulations.
He had, by this ruse, proclaimed that he was married to the lady, who surrendered with good grace, and on honourable terms.
A clergyman was immediately sent to perform the ceremony.
The hero of the foregoing story was created Earl of Bessborough in 1730. By his marriage with Mrs Colvil, Bishopscourt, Co Kildare, passed into the Ponsonby family.
By this marriage, Bishops Court came into the possession of the Ponsonby family, and here Brabazon Ponsonby and his wife spent a good deal of their time.
As an indication of the mode of life followed at Bishops Court at this period, the following letter, written on the 18th February 1726, by Arthur Weldon, of Rahin, to his wife Bridget, sister of Brabazon Ponsonby, is a fair example, not only of the strenuous form of the recreation pursued, but also of the endearing expressions used in correspondence between happily married persons:
“I believe my dearest wife,” he writes, “will be surprised, and I fear be angry, when I tell yo’ yt I went to bod last night at one of ye clock, was on horseback this morning at four, rid eight miles before daybreak, hunted a fox afterwards, came back afterwards here to dinner, and rid a coursing this afternoon till nightfall, and I thank God I cannot say I am much the worse for it. My Jewel, your own for ever.”
John Ponsonby, second son of Brabazon, first Earl of Bessborough, succeeded to the Bishops Court estates on the death of his father in 1756. He was born in 1713, and entered parliament as MP for Newtown, County Down. In 1742 he was appointed secretary to the Revenue Board, and in 1756 he was elected Speaker of the Irish House of Commons, being re-elected in 1761 and 1765.
Of Speaker Ponsonby, Hardy, in his Life of Charlemont, says: “That gentleman, allied to the principal Whig families in both Kingdoms, possessed not only great influence from such connections and his high station, but from his personal disposition, which was truly amiable. His manners were exactly such a parliamentary leader should have. Open, affable and familiar, he had peculiar dignity of person, at once imposing and engaging.”
He it was who built the present handsome and beautifully situated residence of Bishopscourt – a residence which, in a county remarkable for the number of it splendid and palatial mansions, may be ranked among the finest and not least interesting from historical and scenic points of view. It is built of cut limestone, and has a handsome portico. From the great hall springs a handsome grand staircase, which, branching into two, terminates on a landing, the walls of which are decorated with medallions of the Adam type. All the principal apartments are of fine dimensions, and are gracefully decorated.
Perhaps the most distinguished member of the this noble family was George, the second son of Speaker Ponsonby, who during his parliamentary career, was a sterling supporter of Grattan on all the great questions which at the time agitated the nation. He was a strenuous advocate of Catholic Emancipation, and consistently opposed the Union.
His speech, in the Irish House, on the 24th January 1799, when moving the amendment negativing the address as far as it alluded to the Union, created a great sensation.
“It is scarcely to be imagined,” said Barrington, “what an effect such a speech, from a calm, discreet and loyal man, a constitutional lawyer and representative of a high aristocratic family, produced in the House. It was in point of extent and power unexpected from so calm a character, and the impression, therefore was proportionally greater.”
“As a lawyer, a statesman and a loyal Irish subject,” continues Barrington, “he denied that either the Lords of the Commons, or the King of Ireland, had the power of passing or assenting on a Legislative Union. He avowed his opinion that the measure was revolutionary and would run the destructive lengths of endangering the compact between the Crown and the subjects, and the connection of the two nations.”
“The Irish,” he said on another occasion in the course of an inflammatory speech when moving the repeal of the Insurrection Act, “demanded liberty, and liberty they would have, if not at the hands of England, then from France.”
George Ponsonby was called to the Irish Bar in 1790; and in 1792 he was appointed First Counsel to the Commissioners of Revenue at a salary and enrolments of about £1,200 a year. He became Lord Chancellor of Ireland in 1806, and after about a year in office, he retired with the usual pension of £4,000 per annum. He died in London on the 8th July, 1817,
William Ponsonby, eldest son of Speaker John Ponsonby, succeeded to the Bishopscourt estates on the death of his father in 1783. He, it is said, kept the best hunting establishment in Ireland, and lived at Bishops Court in the most hospitable and princely style.
“He was,” write a contemporary, “one who of all the men I ever met, possessed more of the keen sportsman in his composition, and understood par excellence as much of the hunting of a pack of foxhounds and crossing a country, as e did of quoting Coke upon Littleon, or expounding the principles of the British Constitution to a united parliament.”
The history of the Kildare hunt has a good deal to say about the Bishops Court hounds, and the following lines taken from an old ballad describing a famous run with William Ponsonby’s pack, throw an interesting sidelight on the sportsmanship of the noble proprietor:
- Mr Ponsonby being the first man up.
- And well prepared he was to go.
- He was mounted on a gallant horse
- Which went by the name of brave Stingo.
When the fox crossed the Liffey: –
- It’s after him he did leap in.
- He sunk unto the bottom deep,
- And for his life was forced to swim.
After which exciting experience, and none the worse for his immersion, Mr Ponsonby continued the chase: –
- They killed the fox which crowned the sport,
- And returned that night by moon so bright
- To the sporting place called Bishops court
where it may be assumed the hunt did justice to a sumptuous supper.
William Ponsonby married, in 1769, Louisa, daughter of Richard, third Viscount Molesworth, by whom he had five sons and a daughter; and in March 1806, he was created Lord Ponsonby of Imokilly, County Cork. He died on the 5th November in the same year, leaving Bishops Court to his youngest son, Frederick Ponsonby, on whose shoulders the mantle of his predecessors was fittingly borne.
Frederick Ponsonby was beloved of everyone and upon his death is funeral was met by the people of Rathcoole, the coffin was taken from the hearse and carried to Oughterard Hill, where his is buried. He was the last of the Ponsonby’s to occupy Bishop Court House, which he had disposed of, in 1838 to John Henry Scott, third earl of Clonmell.
This gentleman, who purchased Bishops Court house on the occasion of his marriage, was a grandson of the famous or notorious John Scott, successively Solicitor-General (1774) Attorney General (1777), and Lord Chief Justice (1784). In 1793 he was created earl of Clonmell, a name which at first he spelled with one L, later he added the extra L giving rise to a contemporary joke: ”give Scott an inch and he will take an ell.”
Barrington, who lived next door to the first earl of Clonmell in Harcourt Street, Dublin, and with whom he was on terms of neighbourly friendship, sums up his character in these words:
“Courageous, vulgar, humorous, artificial, he knew the world well, and he profited by that knowledge: he cultivated the powerful, he bullied the timid, he fought the brave, he flattered the vain, he duped the credulous, and he amused the convivial. Half-liked, half-reprobated, he was too high to be despised, and too low to be respected. His language was coarse, and his principles arbitrary; but his passions were his slaves, and his cunning was his instrument. He recollected favours received in his obscurity and had gratitude to requite the obligation; but his avarice and his ostentation contended for the ascendancy; the strife was perpetual; and their victories alter”
It probably helps to cover a multitude of Lord Clonmell’s sins to record that he never abused his own country and was no participator in the Government policy of goading the people to madness. “Irish Government,” he writes in his private diary, “resembles extremely the state of the Hottentots in Africa. The Irish, divided, oppressed, pillaged and abused as they are, are the Hottentots; the English administration are the Dutch planters, the followers of Lord Lieutenants are the bushmen, or spies or swindlers.”
“Scott,” says Ball in his “Judges in Ireland,” showed himself an extraordinarily able man, and an equally ambitious one. His object in life was personal success, and although he wore out mind and body in reaching this goal, he made it against desperate odds.”
This remarkable figure in the Irish life of the years immediately preceding the Union was the grandson of Thomas Scott, a captain in the army of William III. He died on the eve of the rebellion, namely 23rd of May 1798, and was succeeded by his son, Thomas, second Earl of Clonmell.
The third Earl, John Henry, son of Thomas, purchased Bishops Court, as stated, and resided there, as did both his sons, the fourth and fifth Earls respectively. In 1859 the property passed to a cousin of the latter, the sixth Earl, whose son and successor, the seventh Earl, sold it, in 1914, to the present owner and occupier, Mr Edward Kennedy.