“The air breathed in is soporific; the distances hold other-worldly gleam.”
Elsewhere erroneously attributed to the better known Irish architect Francis Johnston, the core of the current building was most likely designed by James Jones of Dundalk. The rebuilding followed a fire of 1803 which destroyed much of an earlier house. A letter from Jones to Colonel Madden dated 24 July 1838 refers to various works to be undertaken at Hilton Park. The stables and dovecote, the latter a romantic folly, are probably by Jones. He was also the likely designer of the ‘ride’ which adjoins the rear of the house.
The ride is a distinctive cast iron colonnade erected at the rear of the house to allow the family to observe horses being broken-in away from the inclement County Monaghan weather. It’s now a handy car port.
In 1874 County Cavan born William Hague (no, not him) was paid 100 guineas by the residing Madden to redesign the house. It was a surprising commission from an Orangeman to a Catholic ecclesiastical architect. One of his many churches is St Aidan’s in nearby Butlersbridge. Drawings by Hague line the walls of the vaulted breakfast room. “He provided my ancestor with a ‘pick and mix’,” says current owner Johnny Madden, “including ceiling designs for the main rooms.”
While the campanile, bay window and dome weren’t executed, the Ionic porte cochère, parapet decorations and lower storey rustication were completed. Triangular pediments (without aedicules) float over the piano nobile fenestration. The most dramatic change was the excavation of the basement to form a three storey house. Montalto and Tullylagan Manor are two Northern Irish houses which have been similarly treated, most likely for aesthetic purposes. Johnny Madden believes many of the alterations at Hilton Park were for security reasons:
“You can’t ram the reception rooms when they’re on the first floor. The porte cochère also acts as a barrier. The central rooms on the front elevation all have metal shutters. And the front door is lined with metal. Hague went on to design the west wing of Crom Castle.” Life is more relaxed these days. Below a sliding sash, handily placed steps provide a quick exit to the gardens.
“If you begin in Ireland, Ireland remains the norm.”
Hague was clearly versatile. Crom is neo Elizabethan. Hilton Park is Italianate. Most of his churches were French gothic. “The house isn’t particularly Irish looking,” observes Johnny.
Hilton Park is now a large three storey stone block commanding views over 240 hectares of land. The entrance front is divided into four sections: a five bay breakfront framing the three bay porte cochère; three bays on either side of the breakfront; and a single bay wing to the right. “The house isn’t as large as it first seems,” says Johnny’s wife Lucy. “It’s long and narrow.” This is apparent on the side approach from the driveway which reveals the building is just three bays deep in some parts. Hilton Park appears much bigger when looking at the five bay garden front which is elongated by an ancillary wing.
The entrance door opens into a small gothick hall decorated with polychromatic encaustic floor tiles, coral walls and ribbed vaults. Most of the ground floor rooms have vaulted ceilings, a reminder they were once in the basement. The estate office and morning room are accessed off the hall. A pair of double doors leads into the double height staircase hall which is panelled on the ground floor. The gothick theme continues in the first floor barrel vaulted dining room on the garden front. An enfilade of Italianate reception rooms is positioned across the entrance front.
Stained glass windows add drama to the staircase hall; plate glass windows add light to the reception rooms. The upper section of the staircase is lit by a tall arched Georgian window. Two blind windows in the corner guest bedroom provide balance to the entrance front. All the guest bedrooms are grouped around an upper landing and corridor to the rear of the house. the corridor ceiling slopes under the slant of the pitched roof. The section of the house closest to the driveway is used as the family wing.
“Nothing can happen nowhere. The locale of the happening always colours the happening, and often, to a degree, shapes it.”
Bold quotes by Elizabeth Bowen