2013 marked the hundredth anniversary of the destruction of the original Brackenstown House by fire. Standing six and a half miles from Dublin city in the parish of Swords, barony of Nethercross, it gave hospitality in its day to Oliver Cromwell during his grim mission north. Jonathan Swift took the air on horseback there and a young Mary Molesworth ran free through its fields and quiet river valley before her domestic imprisonment after marriage.
Brackenstown House circa 1976. Courtesy of the Patrick Healy Collection
There have been many variations on the spelling of the house's name. In the Eighteenth Century its owners, the Molesworths, always called it Breckdenstown (or Breckdenston).The earlier Down Survey of 1654 referred to the area as Bricknanstowne. The name is likely to have been derived from the Gaelic, Baile Ui Bhreacain, in the same way as the town of Balbriggan.
The house and lands were associated in early records with the Bysse family, who had settled in Dublin in Tudor times. Christopher Bysse was believed to have purchased Brackenstown House from the Nugent family in the reign of James I, (1 )although other accounts suggest the original owners were the Burnell family until 1611 (2). The Bysse family were involved in the legal profession with Christopher’s eldest son, John, becoming recorder of Dublin during the Protectorate(3). It was during this time that Oliver Cromwell stayed at Brackenstown, billeting his officers and horses there briefly and dining at the table of John Bysse before bringing his military campaign north.
The Place of Spells
Brackenstown estate encompassed the lands of Knocksedan, which was made famous by the inclusion of its name in Sean O'Casey's play, Shadow of a Gunman. The name is thought to be from the Gaelic, Cnoc Seidean, loosely translated as “the hill of the blast” , “fairy hill” or “the place of spells” (4). Some local historians, for reasons unknown, also attribute the name to “the hill of the quicksand”. (5) An ancient ring fort on this hill overlooks both the Knocksedan crossroads and the Ward River Valley. It was the best known feature in the area. Scattered human remains were visible there up to the Seventeenth Century, including those reputed to be of an eight foot giant. Although it is possible that a battle was fought near the site, older historians suggested the remains may have come from the Battle of Clontarf. (6) The antiquarian, Sir James Ware, (1594-1666) was one of the first to document the mound in a place he identified as Forrest, Barony of Coolock. He described it as a "valcoster burial", a practice associated with the Danes, which consisted of the laying of the dead from battle in a heap followed by coverage with a large earth mound. (7) Ware also made note of the giant’s remains complete with a twenty inch-long tibia. It had been buried with its head to the north and its feet to the south. (8)
Brackenstown came into the possession of the Molesworth family through the marriage of John Bysse’s daughter, Judith, to Robert, first Earl of Molesworth. (1656-1725). The Molesworths were essentially a military family who had served with the parliamentary forces in Ireland and had subsequently done well in business and land acquisition around Dublin (9). Robert Molesworth had a great interest in gardening and devoted many years to improving the Brackenstown estate. His letters give clues about how the place looked in the early Eighteenth Century, and reveal how little was left to chance. The oriental principal of Sharawadgi, popular in gardening at the time because of the works of Sir William Temple, was much in evidence at Brackenstown . The sea, the nearby church steeples at Swords, the valley of the Ward or Swords River which meandered through the estate, the ancient fort at Knocksedan - all were used as pleasant backdrops to the man-made parts of the estate. Roque’s map of the area in 1760 shows that there was also a windmill , known as Swords Windmill, on the Brackenstown Road. (10) This too formed part of the all- important backdrop. The walks about the estate were designed to be deliberately close and narrow to mimic nature and to contrast with the open vistas of its large meadows . Tree-lined avenues, straight as a dye, were laid out to radiate from the house like spokes of a wheel. (11)
The garden was planned in part by Italian designer, Alessandro Galilei, whom Molesworth invited over to Ireland in 1716. Galilei was gifted at harnessing the power of water and this was his chief selling point to Molesworth . By the time of Robert Molesworth’s death in 1725, Brackenstown Demesne boasted the most elaborate set of artificial waterworks in Ireland(12). These included a forty yard -wide canal lined with lime trees, a water summerhouse, numerous basins and fish ponds, and water features on high ground designed to cascade down to ponds underneath.
There was a great variety of plants there also. Elm trees were planted thirty or forty feet apart in double rows. There were an abundance of apple and pear trees and fruits such as melon. The grounds were also said to include a fine evergreen oak (13). The great variety of mushrooms in the Brackenstown valley, perhaps on account of its numerous weirs, attracted mycologists from all over the British Isles up to the end of the Nineteenth Century.
Jonathan Swift, a close friend of Robert Molesworth, was a regular visitor to Brackenstown, where he enjoyed the freedom and fresh air on horseback and the “holy solitude” as he called it of the Ward River Valley . In his letters he suggested that the air at Brackenstown may have been a little too fresh as he found it hard to hold his horse there (14), an experience which many riders at the recent riding school on the grounds might relate to.
While much was written about the grounds, the same cannot be said about Brackenstown House itself. It was merely known as a three storey Dutch style country house, very much like Beaulieu House in Louth, which was built around the same time and occupied by Molesworth’s brother-in -law. Nothing is known of the original architect. Brackenstown House had twenty-five rooms and had an east -west orientation. The estate was beside the old turnpike stage coach route from Dublin to the north, with vehicles stopping for refreshments and a change of horse at the nearby Aungier Inn of Knocksedan. (No longer in existence)
Dean Swift couldn't hold his horse there
The Captive Countess
Some of the present trees might well have lined the avenues when the youthful footsteps of Mary Molesworth (1720-1777?) tripped lightly over her parents' country residence. The only surviving daughter of Jane Lucas (died 1742) and Richard , third Viscount Molesworth, (1680-1758), Mary was described as a quiet, thoughtful person but with a keen interest in the theatre. (15) Eerily foreshadowing her own fate, she took the role of "Hermione" in the play The Distressed Mother , the daughter of the King of Sparta who is used in marriage as a political pawn. At sixteen years of age she married the charming, witty and ambitious widower, Robert Rochfort of Westmeath. Rochfort was considered to be a desirable husband. Not only did he have considerable influence in the court of George II (16), but his manners were considered a noticeable cut above those of most Irishmen of the time . The match had certainly been heavily promoted by Mary's father, who saw it as socially and politically advantageous. There was no love lost between the couple from the start, however. Soon Mary was subjected to an extreme form of marital house arrest and solitary confinement that was to last for thirty years.
Her place of imprisonment was the Rochfort family’s house at Gaulston, Westmeath, a draughty old pile dating back to the time of the Plantagenets . (17) The main reason for this cruelty was Rochfort’s suspicion that an affair had been going on between Mary and his younger brother, Arthur, who also suffered at Rochfort’s hands and died in prison . Mary's ordeal only came to an end on the death of Robert Rochfort, then elevated to Earl of Belvedere, in 1774. She outlived him by a few short years and, having converted to Catholicism, she died surrounded by her grandchildren at the home of her daughter, Lady Jane Lanesborough, near Dublin. (18).
2 Bernadette Marks, Fingall Land of Strangers, 1991, page 9.
3 Sir John Tomes Gilbert, A History of the City of Dublin, Vol. 2, page 22. 1861.
4 Bernadette Marks, Fingall, Land of Strangers, page 9.
5 Ibid. Page 9.
6 John D'Alton, The History of the County of Dublin, page 331. Hodges and Smith, Dublin,1838.
7 Sir James Ware, The Antiquities of Ireland, pages 149-50. Translated by Walter Harris, Esq. (1764).
8 Ibid, page 149-50.
10 Margaret Gowen and Co. Ltd, http://www.fingalcoco.ie/Files/Planning/Final%20Swords%20HLC%2011-05-07.pdf Historic Landscape Characterisation Project of the General Swords Area, page 17.
11 Knight of Glin, "Lost Demesnes", Irish Landscape , London 1976. Page 74.
13 Isaac Weld, An Essay on Evergreen Oaks, page 8, RDS, 1829.
14 The Irish Times, Nov 8, 1933, quoting Dean Swift’s 6th Drapier’s Letter of 1724.
15 A.C. Opie, "The Captive Countess of Belvidere". Merry England; Sep 1892; 19, 110; British Periodicals,Collection II pg. 355.
16 Ibid, page 356
17 Eliakim Littell , Robert Littell, The Living Age, Volume 12, page 121. 1847. Boston .