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Building of the Month - February 2014

Shankill Castle, SHANKILL Td., Whitehall or Paulstown, County Kilkenny

‌Shankill Castle is located on the outskirts of the village of Whitehall or Paulstown, north of Paulstown Castle where a branch of the Butler family, the Earls of Ormond, resided from 1395.  Shankill Castle was likewise a Butler towerhouse, and its medieval fabric suggests its origins date back to the late sixteenth century.  Since that time it has served as the home of the civic-minded Aylward family and more recently as a working farm, artists' residency and tourist attraction.

The early Butlers prospered and by 1641 owned over 500 acres in Shankill including an ancient church now in ruins adjacent to Shankill Castle.  These lands were confiscated circa 1654 but James Butler (1610-88), the first Duke of Ormond's loyalty to Charles II saw him appointed as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland after the Restoration and his family's lands in Shankill returned.  His granddaughter, Elizabeth (d. 1708), was co-heiress to the estate when she married Peter Aylward of the ancient Waterford-based family of shipping merchants.  Peter purchased the estate from the Butlers upon their marriage, most likely near the turn of the eighteenth century.

Shankill Castle 01 – Representative View

Figure 1: A view of Shankill Castle, the seat of the Aylward family, whose complex footprint underscores its protracted evolution over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  The pyramid roof-topped projection, adjacent to the portico, can trace its origins back to a late sixteenth-century towerhouse.  Photograph by Don Allen

Although plans for material improvements to Shankill Castle were likely in place prior to her death, Elizabeth's passing may also have spurred a desire for renewal.  Between 1708 and 1713 her husband supervised a campaign of refurbishment that saw the medieval towerhouse take on much of the form that it presents today (fig. 1).  It was extended to form a symmetrical frontage in an early Classical idiom, and a similar sense of formality was articulated in the interior.  A central hall opened into reception rooms on the north and south, a drawing room occupying the repurposed towerhouse and a dining occupying the opposite side.  Kilkenny marble chimneypieces still front the corner fireplaces of both rooms.  Beyond the hall a saloon overlooked the grounds to the rear of the house.

Both the principal stairs and the servants' stairs occupy the space behind the medieval towerhouse.  The light scrolled handrail of the principal stairs suggests that it was updated in the late eighteenth century.  The bow-ended walls were subsequently lined with Sienna marble in 1894.  On the other hand, the servants' stairs shows little or no alteration and its heavily carved and ramped handrail still rises from basement to attic level.  With robust newel posts at each landing, it survives as one of Shankill Castle's most important early features (fig. 2).

Shankill Castle 02 – Servants’ Stairs and Fireplace

Figure 2: Associated with the utilitarian functions of the house, the servants' stairs and the large fireplace escaped the fashionable refurbishment visited on the remainder of Shankill Castle and today embody much of the eighteenth-century character of the house

A corridor spanning the entire first floor level gives access to the private bedrooms.  The servants' bedrooms occupied the attic space while the kitchens and pantry were located in the basement.  Here, the formality of the house gives way to a functional, almost vernacular aesthetic.  A large fireplace, typical of the early eighteenth century, is located beneath the hall and features a bread oven (fig. 2).  Downstand beams support roughly-cut timber joists between which an undulating lath-and-plaster ceiling finish gives much character to the room.  Where the flagstone floor steps up into the adjacent rooms, the deep wall mass of the medieval towerhouse is readily apparent.

The formality of the house was echoed in the treatment of the estate, the architectural and landscape features' symbiotic relationship intended to have an effect on both the approaching visitor and the resident.  Unlike the typical Irish garden of the early eighteenth century, which saw the formal landscape conceived as an immediate extension of the house, the ornamental gardens at Shankill lay to the north of the house, separated by a series of pleasure grounds and paths, suggesting their provenance in the mid to late eighteenth century.

Shankill Castle 03 - Lake

Figure 3: An expansive rectangular lake to the rear of the house dates to the eighteenth century and, when viewed from the far end, Shankill Castle is reflected perfectly on the water's surface.  This remains one of the estate's most dramatic and memorable views

Shankill Castle 04 – Claire-Voie Gateway

Figure 4: A pair of rusticated limestone ashlar piers marks the original entrance on to the Shankill Castle estate.  Positioned on an axis with the principal front, the gateway opened onto a straight avenue planted on either side with lime trees.  A statue on the opposite side of the road stood as an eye-catcher visible from the dining room and drawing room

A pair of early eighteenth-century rusticated limestone ashlar piers originally formed a simple, yet striking claire-voie gateway on axis with the principal front of the house; a statue stood as an eye-catcher on the opposite side of the road into the nineteenth century (fig. 4).  Although no longer used as an approach, a portion of the lime allée planted alongside the avenue still achieves a sense of ceremony.

Shankill Castle 05 – William Robertson (1770-1850)

Figure 5: The late Desmond Fitzgerald, Knight of Glin, attributed William Robertson (1770-1850) with this drawing proposing elongated wings either side of a polygonal breakfront, presumably the remodelled towerhouse, with an oversized Georgian Gothic porte cochère approached by a cascade of steps.  While the design was not carried out, the fashionable historicism of the nineteenth century still saw the eighteenth-century Georgian house reinterpreted as a neo-Gothic manor house.  Courtesy of the Irish Architectural Archive

It appears that the house and estate were little altered until the early nineteenth century when William Robertson (1770-1850), a local architect, revived the medieval origins of the house and embellished the towerhouse portion with imposing battlements; simpler battlements embellish the projection on the opposite side of the hall.  A crow stepped portico carries the Alyward family crest over the central door.  Hood mouldings were added to the window openings and battlemented piers mark the corners of the new dining room on the south front.

Shankill Castle 06 – Aylward Crest and Georgian Gothic Conservatory

Figure 6: The Aylward family crest surmounts the early nineteenth-century Georgian Gothic portico.  To the rear of the house a conservatory in a similar "Gothick" style was added to the half-landing off the principal stairs.  Supported on a pillared arcade, the splendid timber conservatory features clustered colonettes framing sash windows with Churchwarden tracery glazing bars

Shankill Castle 07 – New Gateway

Figure 7: Robertson also designed the new gateway on to the estate, a light tripartite limestone arch.  This new gateway may have coincided with the introduction of a haha to the front of the house, effectively cutting off the lime allée approach and turning the long expanse into a late picturesque parkland.  Shortly thereafter, Daniel Robertson (d. 1849), best known for his work on the gardens at Powerscourt House, remodelled the gateway by adding a battlemented porter's lodge.  Although the design was originally intended for Dunleckny Manor, County Carlow, its neo-Tudor style works well in the context of the Shankill Castle estate.  Photograph by Don Allen

Although not formerly attributed to Robertson, cartographic and material evidence shows that the nearby outbuildings were also upgraded at this time and may therefore be so credited with some certainty (fig. 8).  The earlier eighteenth-century rubble stone outbuildings feature elliptical-headed openings and half-hipped roofs.  The nineteenth-century stables feature coursed limestone walls, Tudor-headed openings, bipartite windows, and decorative stone work at eaves level, all consciously "designed" and reflecting the mounting wealth of the landowner.

Shankill Castle 08 - Stables

Figure 8: The early nineteenth-century stables boast Tudor-headed openings with good quality timber boarded doors.  Perhaps most interesting are the timber mullions windows: appearing as standard sash windows, the lower panels tilt inward for ventilation without allowing water ingress and feature integrated storage boxes in the inner sills

By 1856, a growing penchant for privacy spurred James Kearney Aylward (1811-84) to call on William Deane Butler (1793/4-1857) to present plans for Elizabethan Revival-style additions (fig. 9).  The dining room was transformed into a Victorian drawing room featuring, as its centrepiece, an impressively-carved white marble chimneypiece purchased in Milan, no doubt on a Grand Tour.  The hall was refitted with floor-to-ceiling timber panelling while the room beyond, previously a saloon, became the new dining room.  It too was refurbished with a large Tudor-headed buffet niche and Gothic detailing about the new bay window.  Surviving plans show that the room to the north of the hall was intended as a billiard room while a study was provided in the new wing.

Shankill Castle 09 – William Deane Butler (1793/4-1857)

Figure 9: A drawing by William Deane Butler (1793/4-1857) of Dublin titled "PLANS OF INTENDED ADDITIONS TO SHANKILL" showing a new wing to the north of the house containing a kitchen, dairy, larder and scullery.  The exterior features crow stepped gables and coupled chimney stacks redolent of the Elizabethan Revival style.  Courtesy of the Irish Architectural Archive

In 1861 a curvilinear conservatory was constructed off the restyled drawing room (fig. 10).  Attributed by various sources to Richard Turner (c.1798-1881) and Joseph Paxton (1803-65), designer of the Crystal Palace, the conservatory was subsequently dismantled in 1961.

Shankill Castle 10 – Curvilinear Conservatory

Figure 10: A later nineteenth-century photograph showing the conservatory constructed off the restyled drawing room.  Courtesy of the Irish Architectural Archive

Griffith's Valuation of 1856 states that James Kearney Aylward owned over 1,880 acres with an annual tax value of £1,553.  Such wealth was fostered by extensive farming, in addition to a flagstone quarry, and doubtless funded additional works on the estate in the later nineteenth century (fig. 11).

Shankill Castle 11 – Gardens  

Figure 11: The improvement of the Shankill Castle estate continued on into the later nineteenth century and included additional outbuildings and a new gate lodge.  The ornamental garden was replaced by a series of glasshouses and several of these remain today, at least in part.  This garden and the adjacent garden are still enclosed by high boundary walls and open onto Victorian laurel lawns, giant Wellingtonias and a moated rose garden.  The polyhedral sundial was given pride of place between house and lake and would have had a corresponding "master clock" in the hall

Shankill Castle 12 – Servants’ Call Bells

Figure 12: Hector James Charles Toler-Aylward (1839-1918) was the son of Mary Aylward (d. 1880) and the Reverend Peter Toler (d. 1883).  Given the surname Toler at birth, he legally assumed the additional surname and arms of Aylward in 1884 on the death of his uncle, James Kearney Aylward.  His sons who fought in and survived the Great War (1914-8) continued to live at Shankill Castle until 1991.  Today, the call bells are still in place outside the servants' hall and the basement flagstone floors are well worn, but they are now traversed by the Cope family

As the twentieth century progressed and brought with it a decline in the country house tradition, so too did Shankill Castle adapt.  The acclaimed Irish artist, Elizabeth Cope, purchased the estate from the Toler-Aylwards in the early 1990s and the estate now functions as a working farm, artists' residency and tourist attraction.  More information can be found at http://shankillcastle.com/.

Sunni L. Goodson BA MSc is currently the Architectural Conservation Specialist with MESH Architects.  She is an active member of ICOMOS Ireland and sits on the Irish Georgian Society's Architectural Conservation & Planning Committee.  Her interests include seventeenth-century timber framing practices in Ireland and the US, conducting archival research and sympathetic reuse

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