The mansions left to fall into decay
RUINED MANSION:An ornate Victorian country house in Co Galway is a majestic example of the many derelict former landowners’ houses that are now in ruins
WOODLAWN HOUSE, a vast crumbling mansion in Co Galway, was so scary in its ruinous state that even the team who produced The Blair Witch Project thought it was one of the creepiest places in Ireland. Visitors who posted a video on YouTube claim they heard a woman crying at the top of the stairs and were chased out by footsteps.
Whether there’s any truth in these claims, the Victorian pile and some 115 acres of land have been in the hands of new owners since 2009. A blogger on archiseek.comreported that “if you venture too close to the main house, CCTV cameras spot you and keep you in sight, followed by loudspeaker requests to remove yourself immediately”.
Woodlawn House features on the cover of Tarquin Blake’s latest book, Abandoned Mansions of Ireland II, which contains haunting images of its still impressive but damaged interiors and ruined outbuildings. There was a fire in the house some 10 years ago, part of the roof was destroyed and the ruin became a venue for “rave” parties.
Located 20 km from Ballinasloe, Woodlawn was the country seat of the Trench family. Originally built in the late 18th century by Frederick Trench, first Baron Ashtown, it was remodelled and hugely extended in the 1860s by his nephew Frederick Mason Trench, the very busy second baron, and remained in the family until 1947.
The minor peerage was Lord Castlereagh’s reward for Trench’s decision to change his mind as an MP for Portarlington and vote in favour of the Act of Union in 1800; such “gifts” became known as “Union Peerages”. His grand-nephew, the third Baron Ashtown, sat in the House of Lords in London as an Irish peer from 1908 to 1915.
The lavish remodelling of Woodlawn House in the 1860s was designed by London-born James Forth Kempster, who had become county surveyor for the east riding of Co Galway in 1838, at the age of 23. Done in an Italianate style, with heavy cornices and tripartite windows, it was a rare enough project of its kind in post-Famine Ireland.
The second Baron Ashtown was a prolific developer, however. He built artisan cottages for many of the 300 staff on the estate during its heyday, as well as a gamekeeper’s lodge, an ice house, family mausoleum, the local Protestant Church and the Gothic-style Woodlawn railway station (1858), which is still in use today.
In the house itself, which extends to 30,000sq ft (more than 9,000sq m), there were 26 bedrooms, numerous reception rooms and a magnificent staircase. Staff included butler, footman, hall boy, cook, housekeeper, governess, lady’s maid, lady’s room maid, three housemaids, kitchen maid and still-room maid – all Protestant.
As Blake notes in his book, “accusations of religious bigotry were defended by Lord Ashtown’s land agent with the fact that 90 per cent of the workmen on the rest of the estate were Catholic”. The Co Galway estate extended to 8,000 acres, half of it run directly as a cattle and horse-breeding ranch and the rest rented out.
The third Baron Ashtown, Frederick Oliver Trench, inherited Woodlawn when he was just 12 years old. Educated at Eton and Oxford, Blake notes that he became “one of the richest landowners in the whole of Ireland, holding more than 24,000 acres, which brought in an annual rent of around £10,000” – a huge sum at the time.
From 1906 to 1910, he edited Grievances from Ireland, a monthly magazine that railed against Irish nationalism, characterising it as “treason”. As a result, Blake writes, “he became a target for the republicans and required the protection of a Royal Irish Constabulary barracks, which was stationed close to the Woodlawn estate”.
Ashtown “adamantly refused to sell any of his land under the Wyndham Land Act” and claimed he could shoot as well as any “hedge marksman”, warning that ambushers “faced big trouble if they dared to tangle with him”. But the cost of publishing his anti-republican tracts was a drain on the estate and put him into bankruptcy in 1912.
Having discharged his debts in 1916, he ran into more trouble in April 1921, when a letter arrived from the western command of the IRA demanding his departure from Woodlawn so that the house could be used to accommodate Catholic refugees from the North. Less than a year later, the contents of Woodlawn – including livestock – were sold by auction.
Ashtown went into exile, but returned in 1922 to find the house ransacked, for which he claimed £1,621 in compensation plus a further €1,113 for the destruction of the local schoolhouse. The 1923 Land Act forced the sale of most of his land, although it took almost years for the process (which he abhorred) to be completed.
In 1947, some 15 months after he died in a Catholic nursing home in Ballinsaloe, Woodlawn was acquired by Derek Le Poer Trench, who lived there until 1973 when he shot himself in the arboretum of Lough Cultra Castle near Gort, Co Galway. It was then sold to a local farmer, whose only interest was in the remaining 115 acres, for £200,000.
Although Woodlawn now has a new owner and the roof has apparently been repaired, it’s a wonder that none of those who made loads of money during the boom was motivated to purchase the pile and restore its opulent Italianate splendour. Instead, many of them preferred to build their own monuments to money.