Stephenstown House & The Fall of the Great Irish Estates

by Steve Downes

Stephenstown House in mid county Louth today stands as a majestic shell of what was once one of Ireland’s many fine 18th century mansions. It is emblematic of the slow decline of these structures which in Ireland simultaneously (and sometimes contradictorily) represented the Anglo-Irish landed gentry, British oppression, employment and opportunity for the lower classes and social focal points for the creation of village/rural communities. Stephenstown House was all of these things, depending on where you viewed it from in history and society, more importantly it, and other great estates like it, formed an indelible part of our shared cultural experience in Ireland.

The politics of Independence has long been blamed for the decline and, in many cases, the destruction of the great Irish Estate House. However despite the cataclysm of the War of Independence and the Civil War in the 1920’s many of the landed estates of Ireland, with their splendid Georgian piles of brick and stone struggled on for decades, some continuing to be in family ownership into the 1980’s and 1990’s.

It was largely Acts of the consecutive Irish Governments that caused the abandonment of many of Ireland’s big houses. Immediately after Independence much of the vast farmland that supported the creation of these houses was divided up among tenant farmers. Death duties and other hefty taxes forced families to sell the remaining estates, including the houses, and dozens of notable Anglo-Irish family names disappeared across the channel and settled permanently on their British domains.
One of the most barbaric attacks on Irish Heritage by government was the so-called ‘Roof Tax’ which, from the late 1950’s, led farmers to remove the roofs off many historic building on their land to avoid paying such taxes. This Act alone caused the destruction of thousands of historic sites in Ireland.

Stephenstown House was built in 1785 by Matthew Fortescue for his new bride Marian McClintock; it is set in expansive gardens, with a mill, ponds, coach and farm buildings. It had a medieval Motte and a small 15th century castle (also called Stephenstown) which was the original Anglo-Norman structure on the site to control trade along the nearby Glyde river (these were both used as garden features).
The Great House itself is a square Georgian building of two storeys over a basement five bays long and five bays deep. It was extended in 1820 by the addition of two wings of one storey over a basement. One of these wings was demolished later in the 19th century. Sometime in the earlier part of the 19th century the windows were given Tudor-Revival hood mouldings but later the house was refaced with cement and the hood mouldings replaced by Classical pediments and entablatures.
Stephenstown House remained in the Fortescue family until recently. During its lifetime as a working estate it saw the Golden Age of Irish Georgian society, with its grand balls and rich excesses; it would survive the upheaval of the Land Wars, the Home Rule Movement, the First World War and the chaos that accompanied Ireland’s struggle for Independence.
After the death of Mrs Pyke-Fortescue in 1966, Stephenstown was inherited by her nephew Major Digby Hamilton who sold it in 1974. It was let fall into ruin in the 1980’s, when the roof collapsed.

Even as a ruin Stephenstown is an impressive reminder of one of Ireland’s greatest architectural Ages. Its windowless façade still dominates the local landscape and its influence over the nearby village of Knockbridge (rebuilt to serve the needs of the Great House) is still echoed today in local folklore and place names.
Through the 1970’s and 80’s Stephenstown was stripped of anything valuable, sometimes illegally. As its classical interior disintegrated, explorers into the House found that it comprised not of one household but actually two. Concealed beneath the rich wood veneer of high society was the basement and backstairs’ world of Stephentown’s many servants, who lived and worked for decades behind the scenes.

Something could still be salvaged of these forgotten great Irish Houses, their history is not separated from Irish history, they are an endemic part of a collective Irish Culture and it is my hope that their preservation in one form or another will see them passed onto the next generation of history lovers.

Steve Downes, M.A.,
Co-founder Hidden History Ireland

Picture : Ian Russell, Hidden History Ireland. Front of house with 1880s photo overlay.