Saturday 7 December 2019

The Birr house that ate itself

This unique home outside Birr still has the remains of its biggest half stored in the basement

Clonbeale House in County Offaly
Clonbeale House in County Offaly
The Belfry courtyard which faces the rear of the house
The dining room which has an original Kilkenny black marble fireplace and, right, the living room with wood burning stove
The 'holy well'
Mark Keenan

Mark Keenan

Can you keep a house in your basement?

Apparently so. In the 1950s when thieves stripped a load of lead from the roof of Clonbeale House in County Offaly, the rain streamed in and severely damaged the main front block of the once magnificent two storey over basement residence.

Sadly the great house at Rath, near Birr, was damaged to the point where a repair job had become prohibitively expensive for the new owners, the Baileys -- who had just acquired the jaded country house from the Weldons -- the last big landlords to reside there.

In any case the Bailey family decided that the T-shaped mansion -- once the last great seat of The Molloy of Ficeall -- was too big for them and were using the only structurally sound wing of the house, the annexe.

They decided to demolish the main part of the house.

Now they had the headache of what to do with the masonry and debris. So they hit on an idea -- the massive cellars under the house were still accessible. So bit by bit, they stuffed the debris inside until the cellar was full and the main house was gone.

Clonbeale House in County Offaly

In this manner, Clonbeale House can be said to be the only the only Irish house to have swallowed itself.

Two-thirds of the original mansion including its signature frontage are still stashed down there today which begs the interesting question -- could it be put back together again if someone had the money to dig it out. It would surely become the country's biggest Lego set.

A consolation is that the still substantial 18th century annexe is an attractive building in its own right -- charming enough to seduce the current owners in the early 1970s when they first encountered it, acquired the house and began restoration works which including a complete rewiring and replumb.

The Belfry courtyard which faces the rear of the house

It's only when you're on the property for a while that you will start to wonder why a four bedroom two storey farmhouse comes with such a grand pillored entrance, a long driveway, an absolutely massive cut stone paved courtyard with stabling and outbuildings, its own bell tower and a football pitch-sized walled garden. The property, which has just been brought for sale through Ganly Walters, has 250 acres of land attached and it is expected to make more than its AMV of €1.35m at auction on Wednesday, June 25 this year.

The 'holy well'

The O'Molloy chieftains were among the last of the old Irish to hold on to their lands amidst the Cromwellian redistribution and large scale confiscation.

Somehow, through adept politicking, ducking and diving, they managed to hold on to their substantial estate despite the attentions of the new Cromwell imported Anglo aristocracy which included the well-known dynasties of Rosse, Digby, Sunderland, Lansdowne and Malone. The Weldons, who lived in the house through the 1950s, inherited the house through the Molloy branch of their family.

The original Clonbela House (as it was then known) was constructed in 1778 by John Molloy. Today's house includes what would have been the back servant's stairs and many of the original house's ancillary function rooms.


"Big house" features remaining include original sash windows and shutters, period marble fireplaces, cornicing, doors and architraves. The drawing room contains large French doors to the garden and a Carrerra marble fireplace with a wood burning stove which heats the radiators.

The dining room has an original Kilkenny black marble fireplace.

Situated off the hall is a cosy study and a rustic kitchen which is the heart of the house.

There are extensive fitted units and an oil-fired Stanley cooker which heats the water, bathroom and master bedroom.

Off the kitchen is a large boot room and door to the courtyard and fitted pantry/utility room.

A neat and elegant staircase leads to the first floor via a large window on the return and landing. Upstairs are four large bedrooms, a family bathroom and separate toilet.

The dining room which has an original Kilkenny black marble fireplace and, right, the living room with wood burning stove

The gardens surrounding the house are predominantly laid out in lawn and there is a chalybeate spa well nearby on the roadside, also regarded as a 'holy well' which was restored by the current owners.

Finally the Belfry courtyard still contains the original brass bell once used to call in the labourers from the land in times gone by.

The courtyard faces the rear of the house and has pillared entrances to the avenue, farmyard and a wonderful stone arch to the lands. The courtyard contains stables, tack room, two storey grooms quarters, large barn, garage, coach house, store houses and kennels.

A working farm includes 75 acres of planted timber containing oak, Norwegian Spruce and Sitka.

And if the house is too small for your needs, don't panic -- there's a mansion in the basement.

Enquires to Ganly Walters (01-6623255).


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