The Irish Country House and the Art of John Nankivell: Strokestown House, Co. Roscommon
Posted by IGS
Strokestown House, Co. Roscommon
Here is a side of Strokestown rarely seen, a house so well known since its acquisition in 1979, and familiar now largely as the centre for the commemoration of the Great Irish Famine, with a national museum to the tragedy housed in the outbuildings. A lopsided, creeper-draped bow, filled with big light-giving windows, it represents the elegant terminal wall of a Regency drawing room, an appendage made as part of the alterations to the house in 1819. Strokestown is the first great Palladian house west of the Shannon, where even by 1832 ‘none other approaches near it, whether in extent of demesne or grandeur of mansion’, and yet even with the rare survival of its archive the building history has been poorly documented. It is usually dated to about 1730, and attributed to Richard Castle for Thomas Mahon, although family tradition has always insisted, improbably, that its construction began in 1696, the date carved on a stone preserved at the house that most likely belongs to a predecessor.
The family origins in Roscommon can be traced well before this date to Captain Nicholas Mahon, an officer distinguished for his devoted loyalty to Charles I and Charles II through the Civil Wars, who for that loyalty was granted Strokestown as a royal deer park, with a great estate in Roscommon besides. Thomas Mahon was his grandson and serving as an MP for Roscommon from 1739-1763, became in Parliament ‘father of the house’ so that it naturally befitted his position and dynastic ambitions to build a classical house to rival those of his parliamentary peers. Ensuring such grandiose architecture did not languish in these remote wetlands of Connaught, this vast improvable bog was fully exploited by Mahon and his heirs, their estate eventually prospering and increasing over time to some 30,000 acres, the great house a constant at its centre, set with a benign authority in its rarefied demesne, fixed on the stupendous ringstrasse-rivalling, tree-lined Main Street, its other-worldliness mediated by an arched Gothic gateway.
In 1800, in return for supporting the Union, Thomas’s son Maurice Mahon was granted a peerage, created 1st Baron Hartland. His son Thomas, succeeding as 2nd Baron, immediately began remodelling the house, employing the architect John Lynn who had recently helped complete Nash’s Rockingham, to attempt to give this lumbering Palladian mansion some of the same Regency grace. By adding the shallow bow-ended drawing room Strokestown instantly became à la mode but the remodelled entrance front - given a beaming fanlit doorcase under a tetrastyle Ionic portico - was altogether less successful. As part of the process the heavy, pedimented Palladian frontispiece on the first floor was removed (reused now as a two-dimensional garden temple), and the newly stuccoed façade was broken up instead by a row of tall panelled pilasters overlaid on series of stringcourses, under a thinly moulded cornice and crowning balustraded parapet in stone, the cornice lacking enough emphasis for its purpose; the acroterian blocks above the pilasters and the panels carved with strigillation flanking the plain central die - which all appear a little to indistinctly - are features that are especially reminiscent of Soane, whose work was presumably known to the English-born Lynn.
When his lunatic brother, the 3rd Baron died in 1845, the Hartland title became extinct, and Strokestown passed to a cousin, Major Denis Mahon but the earnest programme of evictions carried out on his behalf on the estate soon cost him his life when he was murdered in November 1847 at the height of the Great Famine. Succeeded by his daughter Grace and her husband Henry Packenham, who assumed the name Mahon, their granddaughter Olive Hales-Pakenham-Mahon was the last of the family to live there, selling it in 1979 to Westland Garage, just before her death in 1981.
The above text, written by Kevin V. Mulligan, is from the catalogue that accompanied the 2018 exhibition 'Vain Transitory Splendours': The Irish Country House and the Art of John Nankivell, and it can be purchased online from the IGS bookshop.
Kevin V. Mulligan is an independent architectural historian.