'We found silverware hidden under the floorboards from 1916' - Owners of Dollardstown House are selling up
With history in the walls and family silver under the floorboards, Dollardstown comes with its own aga saga, writes Celine Naughton
From medieval times, the FitzGeralds were such prominent aristocrat players in a country of tangled and bloody politics, that they could have inspired a conniving clan 'house' for Game of Thrones. They were part of the ascendancy and dynastic heavyweights who held power, wealth and vast swathes of land in Kildare and further south. Yet, from the 16th century Tudor era onwards, they also had a long history of clashing with the British crown. One of their number, Lord Edward FitzGerald, fifth son of the first Duke of Leinster, revived that tradition when he broke ranks with the establishment to become one of the leading figures in the 1798 rebellion. And it brought consequences for the family.
In the Kildare County Library & Arts Services' History Journal, local historian Edward A Daniel recounts that Athy was the focus of much loyalist activity in those turbulent times, with troops regularly searching local farmhouses seeking information on collaborators.
"If suspicious information was found, suspects were strung up and flogged to get more information, and then their homes were burned," he writes. One night during the rebellion Dollardstown House was attacked and ransacked by crown loyalists. At the time, it was occupied by Patrick Dunn and his wife Mary (FitzGerald), a cousin of Edward FitzGerald who was known to have been a visitor to the house.
So the loyalists were out for her blood. Despite being heavily pregnant at the time, Mary escaped through the back of the house when the armed mob arrived and attempted to make her way cross country to Kilkea Castle. But before she could reach safety, she gave birth in the fields to a son. Local lore says her boy grew up to become secretary to Pope Pius IX in Rome. With the rear of Dollardstown House dating back to the Elizabethan era, the main structure is listed in the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage as having been built in the 1780s. The current owner, Andrew Behan, has reason to believe the yeomanry of 1798 may have tried to burn the house down, as he discovered scorch marks while having the building rewired and replumbed a few years ago.
"We found joists with smoke stains," he says. "In a period property like this, you discover history in the most surprising places. While rewiring we found a load of silverware - teapots, trays and cutlery - hidden under the floorboards. They'd been wrapped in newspaper dated 1916. The house was then owned by the Campbell family, who must have been concerned that their home would be ransacked during the Easter Rising."
When the Campbells from Scotland bought Dollardstown in 1903 it was the first time in over 600 years that it hadn't been owned by a FitzGerald. The Campbells sold it to the Allen family and then the Behans bought it in 1970.
Rewiring and replumbing a country pile this size is no easy task. Spread over 5,489 square feet - almost six times the size of an average three-bed semi - the house is laid out over three floors, with the main reception rooms on either side of the grand entrance hall. To the rear of the house are a kitchen, larder, shower, study and garden room.
First floor accommodation includes three bedrooms with a shared bathroom at the lower level, and three further bedrooms with ensuite facilities on the upper level. The second floor has four further bedrooms.
"I grew up here," says Andrew. "My mother Mary started a B&B business in 1998. When she fell ill in 2004, my wife Antoinette and I moved back to help out and we've been here ever since. We've kept the B&B running and done some modernisation in the intervening years. We spent €150,000 rewiring and replumbing, and recently tackled the roof at the front of the house. That was a bit daunting because we didn't realise the full extent of required repairs until we stripped it down, but it had to be done. New beams were installed, the roof retiled and leadwork replaced. That cost €25,000."
He reckons it could take another €150,000 to replace the kitchen and utility room and renovate the top floor, and it's up to the new buyer to decide what he or she wants to do beyond that. There's certainly scope for development, with outbuildings including a traditional stone farmhouse and a Dutch barn that could be converted, subject to planning, into self-contained accommodation, studios, cookery school or spa retreat, for instance. The four bedrooms on the top floor could also be modernised if an owner wanted extra living space or more rooms to let.
As a professional horticulturist, Andrew Behan looks after the grounds himself. The house stands on 12.89 acres, including gardens, parklands and five acres of grazing paddocks which are currently rented to a neighbouring cattle farmer. While saying goodbye to his family home is something of a milestone for Andrew, the 46-year-old is about to embark on a mid-life career change by going back to college.
"My wife Antoinette works as a dietician in Dublin and I plan to study law, most likely in Maynooth, so it makes sense for us to move closer to the city," he says. "When we came back to look after Mum, we hadn't actually planned to stay so long. We've thoroughly enjoyed our time here, but it's time for us to move on and let somebody else bring their own lease of life to a property that's so soaked in history."
Of potential home-grown buyers, agent James Butler reckons Dollardstown House will appeal either to a young family looking to upsize and generate a secondary income from the property, or perhaps for two generations of the same family looking for a place where they can be together yet have lots of space to do their own thing. Or some Campbells, looking for the family silver.
Dollardstown House, Athy, Co Kildare
Asking price: €700,000
Agent: Savills Country Residential (01) 663 4350