Anglicisation from Gaelic is to blame in some instances (The Argory is a case in point) but quite a few Irish country houses have intriguing names. Jockey Hall and Shandy Hall (the latter in Dripsey) sound fun. Whiskey Hall sounds like too much fun. Bachelors Lodge and Hymenstown are presumably miles apart. Mount Anne or Mount Stewart anyone? The mildly unnerving Flood Hall, Fort Etna, Spiddal Hall and The Reeks. Is Sherlockstown worth investigating? Zoomorphic zaniness: Fox Hall, Lizard Manor, Lyons, Mount Panther and Roebuck Hall. Elphin – Castle? Place names too. Bungalo begs the question: is it full of single storey residences?
Lots of houses without so much as a battlement are called castles: Beltrim Castle, Castle Coole, Castle Grove, Castle Leslie. Castle ffrench joins this list although there are ruins of a tower house on the estate. The double consonant lower case doesn’t disguise the fact the name originated somewhat unsurprisingly in France. The ffrench family were part of a Norman landing in County Wexford in 1169. In time, they became one of the 14 Tribes of Galway. Their single consonant upper class case cousins owned French Park in County Roscommon.
Castle ffrench is a star of Maurice Craig’s seminal work Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size. He notes its plan is virtually identical to Bonnettstown’s in County Kilkenny, despite the 90 mile 40 year gap. A notable feature of both pretty Big Houses is the pair of staircases side by side, like slightly asymmetric Siamese twins. A thin wall between the pair once segregated the classes’ ascent and descent (for richer, for poorer). One is dressed in plasterwork; the other bare. Landings pressed against the four bay rear elevation provide interesting mid storey variations in window positions. Both stairwells are lit by tall fanlight topped windows identical on the outside – only the family one has internal panelling.
The front elevation is more conventional, the grouped middle three bays of a five bay composition gently projecting. Urns and finials sprouting from a solid parapet dot the horizon. A three storey over basement (hidden to the front | semi exposed to the sides | for all to see to the rear) limestone block, this house is the epitome of Irish Georgian style. It even has an archetypal fanlight set in the entablatured triglyphed pilastered fluted rosetted doorcase. Conservation architect John O’Connell calls the building “very accomplished” and recognises the influence of the architect Richard Castle. A niche in the entrance hall is marginally unaligned with the ceiling plasterwork above. A signal that the house is the work of a builder with a pattern book or two at his disposal? Or simply plastered on a Friday afternoon?
Castle ffrench rises above an unruffled patchwork quilt, a landscape of interlocking greens, quieter than Pimlico Tube Station on a Friday evening (are Pimlocals like Peter York too posh to push onto public transport?). So silent. Rural aural aura. Within the vale beyond The Pale. A mile long drive and 40 acres keep the populace at bay. Augustine days of yore aren’t so distant… Indoors, there’s a hooley! The plasterwork, at any rate. The stuccodores’ genius charges towards zenithsphere in the entrance hall and landing (of the family staircase). Neoclassicism and rococo blend and blur in mesmerising jigs and reels of fables and foliage ribboned round Irish harps and ffrench French horns. Wreathes and sheaves and sickles, the whole shebang.
Lady Fifi ffrench (stutteringly fitting phonetics or what?) and her husband John were the last of the original family to reside at Castle ffrench. Sheila and Bill Bagliani, the current owners, have sensitively restored this knockout property, subtly preserving its patina of age. Bertie the Labrador and Sally the Westie run amok through the grounds. Sheila, a talented artist, has a top floor studio to kill for. No really. All stairs lead to a second floor central corridor spanning the full width of the house. This corridor might not have the ornate plasterwork of the spaces below but it’s very much defined by a series of blind and open arches like abstract vaulting. A forerunner to Sir John Soane’s streamlined style. At one end, a door opens into a softly lit corner room with views to die for. There are flowers and canvases and a ghost – a previous owner refuses to leave and who could blame her? – in the attic.