James Howley in The Follies and Garden Buildings of Ireland, one of the books I planned my trip with says “…the Wonderful Barn is… arguably one of the finest follies to be found in Ireland.” It is not on the tourist maps, but I had enough information to find it.
The book says; “The barn was built in 1743 by Mrs. Conolly to close a vista to the east of Castletown.” So, I looked east of Castletown. It is 70 feet tall, so it must be visible from a distance.
I was leaving Leixlip Castle, wandering in the general direction of Castletown. I turned on Celbridge Road and there it was, in the distance. It was unbelievably easy to find. I made a right on a likely seeming road and just drove right up to it.
The Wonderful Barn is really an eccentric building. It was built in a rectangular walled courtyard with two similar looking pigeon-houses beside it. People often ate birds at that time, both hunted and domesticated. People still eat pigeon meat. It is called squab. I am told it tastes like dark-meat chicken. I’ve had Cornish hen. It was delicious. Perhaps pigeon is something like that.
James Howley in The Follies and Garden Buildings of Ireland said of this and similar follies “It is a delightful geometric exercise, built to amuse and delight, and in this case produce pigeons and eggs for the table, even if they were somewhat difficult to collect.”
“Pigeon-houses were often built beside buildings used to store grain; the principle being, presumably, that one’s spilled grain was consumed by the pigeons, thus recovered indirectly as pigeon meat.” James Howley says in the same book.
Without this book I would never have been able to tell how complicated the Wonderful Barn and it’s pigeon-houses are.
- The Wonderful Barn is 70 feet tall.
- A staircase winds to a viewing gallery.
- It is topped by a battlement.
- There are five stories and the top platform.
- The ground floor has four projecting, pedimented bays with pointed-arched vaults that intersect the dome.
- The next four stories are domed, getting smaller as they go up. Each has four windows and a door to the staircase.
- The second, third and fourth floors have triangular windows.
- The fifth floor has oval windows.
- The upper floors each have a circular trapdoor through which the grain was poured to spread below to dry.
- Internally, it is constructed of vaulted brick.
- The outer finish is of rubble stone, in places vertically hung with slates.
- Stone gargoyles project to drain the top platform.
- Above the doors and window are dripstone weather moldings.
- Below the window-sills and above the staircase balustrade are a projecting string-course.
The Wonderful Barn Pigeon-Houses
- There are three stories, all domed, getting smaller as they go up.
- Each has four windows and a door to the staircase.
- The top floors are tall, lined with a honeycomb of nesting boxes.
- The nesting boxes are only accessible by a small square opening.
- Internally, it is constructed of vaulted brick.
- The outer finish is of rubble stone with roughly hewn stone dressings.
- Four stone bands and a shallow projection snake around each pigeon-house, ending at the flat circular cap.
- Toward the top, there are triangular stone ledges on triangular stone brackets for pigeons to land on.
The Bottle Tower in Rathfarnham is quite similar. It was built later, copying the Wonderful Barn.
The large building within the same wall is Barnhall House. It was also built in the 18th century, some time after the Wonderful Barn. It was probably built as housing for some of the Castletown estate staff.
Squire William and Katherine Conolly
The Wonderful Barn and another folly, the Obelisk, on the other side of Castletown House, were built by Squire Conolly’s widow Katherine as a famine relief scheme following the potato famine of 1740-41. They were deliberately planned in the appropriate scale to add interest to the flat landscape and close long vistas when looking from the house.
Squire Conolly had Castletown House built, the first winged Palladian house in Ireland. Every part of the house was made from Irish materials.
William Conolly was the son of an inn-keeper of Ballyshannon, County Donegal. He was fortunate enough to marry Katherine Conyngham in 1694. Katherine was the daughter of Sir Albert Conyngham, hero commander of Conyngham’s Dragoons. Her brother was Brigadier Henry Conyngham of Mount Charles, Co. Donegal. Katherine was known for her strong, charming personality and social grace. The Conynghams were an Ulster Scots family originally from Mountcharles, County Donegal.
Marriage to Katherine moved Conolly into a higher social class. Through Katherine, he was now allied with many of the most influential families in Ulster. And, Katherine brought a marriage portion, a dowry of £2,300. William Conolly was able to make his fortune investing this in land.
Many fortunes were lost and made from land transfers after the Glorious Revolution, the “Williamite War in Ireland.” When William and Mary came to the throne, land was taken away from anyone who had supported King James II. Nearly 5% of the land in Ireland was confiscated.
William Conolly was the largest individual buyer. He became a politician, lawyer and Commissioner of Revenue. Conolly was reputed to be the wealthiest man in Ireland at the date of his death in 1729. He left much of his wealth to his widow. That was not common then.
Katherine Conolly lived another 32 years. She was known for her kindness. She established a Charity School in Celbridge. She hired local farmers, suffering from crop losses in building projects like the Wonderful Barn.
Katherine Conolly died in in 1752, at ninety. A contemporary said on her death, “We have lost our great Mrs. Conolly. She died last Friday and it is a general loss. Her table was open to all friends of all ranks and her purse to the poor. She was I think in her ninetieth year. She had been dropping for some years, but never too ill to shut out company.”
This quote is attributed to a Mrs Delany. I’m guessing this is Mary Delany. Her letters are often quoted. She is best remembered for her amazing “paper-mosaicks” of complex cut, layered paper flowers.
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