A craze for decorative living garden hermits was getting underway in Ireland's big estate houses right around the time that time that Marshfield House in Leixlip was being completed in 1711.
The property is being brought to market this weekend by Coonans with a guide price of €975,000 for the house with five acres with a quarter miles of direct frontage and fishing rights to the River Liffey. As for hermits... the late renowned Georgian expert and author Desmond Guinness (who passed away last month), was a good friend of Marshfield's owner John Waldron. It was Guinness who asked if he could come by to take a closer look at an overgrown structure in the Marshfield Gardens.
"We pulled some of those vines and brambles off there and decided not to take off too much more, in case it fell down," says Waldron. "Desmond said it was an old garden folly. It seems it is listed and is likely contemporary to the house itself." The structure in question, an artificially-built cave with two entrances, is one of the few good examples of a decorative garden hermitage left in Ireland, or at the very least a contemplative grotto, typical of garden adornment in the early Georgian era.
From the early 1700s to the early 1800s having a live 'hermit' in residence in your garden was a most fashionable status symbol among aristocratic and wealthy country estate owners.
While no one knows whether the Marshfield grotto did have its own live hermit in residence, the Marsh's who lived here back in the day certainly mixed in the social circles of those who did host hermits in their foliage.
In his book The Hermit in the Garden, Professor Gordon Campbell explains: "Hermitages in the English tradition were often built in Ireland." Campbell attributes the trend to the garden designer Mary Delany, wife of the Dean of Down who was hugely influential here and helped persuade estate owners in every province to opt for them.
Her own gardens at Delville (now Bon Secours Hospital in Glasnevin) had a hermitage and there was another at the Luttrelstown Demesne just down the road between Leixlip and Dublin. The best known surviving examples today are at St Enda's Park in Rathfarnham and at Glin in Limerick.
Marshfield House was at one point home to Archbishop Narcissus Marsh, provost of Trinity College and a contemporary of Delany and her good friend Dean Swift (although Swift and Marsh did not get along). Once you had your hermitage built, the next step was to catch a hermit.
Applicants for the job of decorative garden hermit would be required to live full time in the created garden caves and to dress always in animal skins or 'druid's robes.' They also had to pledge not to wash, shave, cut their hair or nails and to pose pensively with human skulls and outsized hourglasses as props when invited guests came by. Perhaps worst of all, they weren't allowed talk to anyone. Conditions were so bad that garden hermiting was featured in the British TV series The Worst Jobs In History.
The most famous hermitage was created at the Painshill Park gardens outside London by Dublin-born Charles Hamilton in the 1730s. He placed an ad seeking a hermit to serve seven years (the average term) specifying that the successful candidate "shall be provided with a Bible, optical glasses, a mat for his feet, a hassock for his pillow, an hourglass for a timepiece, water for his beverage and food from the house. He must wear a camlet robe and never under any circumstances must he cut his beard or nails, stray beyond the limits of Mr Hamilton's grounds, or exchange one word with the servant."
On the upside, hermits were very well fed and the final payoff was excellent. Charles Hamilton's ad offered £600, collectible after seven years which equates to around €2m today. Unfortunately, Hamilton's first hermit was sacked a few weeks in after being found in the pub.
In an even more bizarre twist, estates which couldn't find a live one commonly substituted automatons instead. When Father Francis, the long-serving Hawkstone Estate hermit passed away in his nineties, they replaced him with an automated version. Miffed guests later wrote that they were not fooled by the new mechanical "St Francis". When automatons were not available, a table was simply arrayed with an open book, eye glasses and culinary accoutrements, to give the impression that your hermit had just left his post. "Aww, you likely just missed him."
Marshfield's hermitage/grotto is at the end of its garden. The house was built on the Liffey in 1711 for Ben Rayner, a local innkeeper who in turn, leased the land from one Mr Joseph Marriot. As part of the deal he was contracted to produce "two dozen trouts every year at Christmas". The fish were netted in the river and then released for live storage into a man-made canal segment.
Originally Marshfield's neighbours included one Arthur Guinness who started his famous brewery here before moving it on to James' Gate. Archbishop Narcissus Marsh, one time Trinity College Provost), lived here for a time. Since then this 300-year home has been associated with generations of the Atkinson, Cavendish, Trench, Irwin and Forsythe families before the current owner acquired it 32 years ago.
New Jersey born John Waldron is a retired businessman who has travelled the world and lived in many countries. He and his Irish wife Maureen lived in the West of Ireland before acquiring Marshfield in 1988. John, who made his fortune in the property business, including a time spent as a realtor in Beverly Hills, is second generation Irish; his parents hailing from Mayo and Tyrone respectively. Since acquiring Marshfield he has upgraded the house substantially to include rewiring and replumbing and today it is walk-in condition.
If it looks familiar, it's because Waldron had placed the house on the market in 2016 for €2m and in 2017 he reduced that price to €1.5m (for the house on one acre) before taking it off the market. This time Marshfield is going for auction through Coonan on October 7 with an AMV of €975,000 with five acres.
An AMV is supposed be within 10pc /15pc of the reserve. So, if the agent sticks with the general rules, it is clear that Mr Waldron is not expecting to take any less than €1m this time out.
As a Queen Anne style country house, it is a relative rarity, with most country homes in Ireland being in the Georgian styles. Unusually for its age, it's also in tip top condition thanks to Waldron's ongoing investment in improvements.
It's located in the town of Leixlip but has a rural aspect and five acres of paddocks with full permission in the bag to build a stable block and garage. It's location 11 miles from Dublin City Centre is an obvious advantage.
Finally, a quarter mile of frontage and fishing rights to the trout and salmon of the Liffey is not to be sneezed at and would suit a fly fishing enthusiast.
Enter through the arched doorway, and a lofted hall shows off Marshfield's original 300-year-old staircase with hand-carved bannisters, rails and treads rising over its three floors.
To the right is the formal drawing room which comes with an Adams style carved white marble fireplace. There's an oriental room, which is dual aspect and has been used for painting.There's a sun room, a formal dining room and a kitchen and breakfast room in the traditional style with a homely oil fired Aga set in an arched alcove as its focal point.
Outside in the passage is the original rack of servant's bells, testifying to days when homes like these had many more staff than the garden hermit.
This house has two conservatories framed in teak, one on the west side and one on the east. Upstairs there are six bedrooms and a family bathroom. On top is a substantial attic which waits to be deployed for additional accommodation.
Mr Waldon has recently downsized to the home's gate lodge which is not for sale with the property. As a neighbour to-be he's also an invaluable source of information on the locale. "In lockdown I'm quite happy with myself here in the lodge. So perhaps I'm the new hermit at Marshfield," he laughs.
Those seeking a comfortable historic home on grounds within reach of Dublin will find Marshfield a splendid prospect for self isolatin. Enquires to Coonan Estate Agents
Marshfield House Leixlip, Co Kildare
Asking price: €975,000 (AMV)
Agent: Coonan Estate Agents (01) 628 6128