Rockingham House & Estate, County Roscommon
The Rockingham Estate is mentioned in the Annals of Kilronan as early as the year 1235. The MacDermotts had then ruled Moylurg for centuries and in 1578 a fine house was built by Brian Og MacDermott on the site where the Moylurg Tower now stands. The reign of Elizabeth 1st ensured that all Irish titles were abolished in 1585, by the Composition of Connaught and Irish Chiefs were forced to forfeit there lands to the Crown to be held by English Tenure.
The grand MacDermott house was demolished by Sir John King, an Elizabethan settler and active Cromwellian, when he inherited the lands from his grandfather who was granted the estate by James 1st, King of England, Scotland and France in 1617. He aspired to build a “great castle” in Boyle town in 1707 when the population amounted to just 300, of which 30 were English tradesmen. However, this grand house, now the refurbished King House, was simply a showpiece, the family preferred to live outside the town in a residence named Kingston Lodge, standing in the splendid Rockingham Estate on the shores of Lough Key. The King family enjoyed a quiet country life of equestrian sport and fishing and the house burnt down accidentally some years later.
Robert King became the guardian of John’s sons after his death. The surviving one, John later received his grandmother’s estate at Mitchelstown, County Cork, whereas his uncle Robert’s sons retained the Rockingham estate. These two estates were reunited through marriage when the great-grandson of Sir Robert King married the sole heiress of the granddaughter of John King. During the 18th century the Rockingham estate amounted to some 26,000 acres.
In 1809 Robert King 1st (Viscount Lorton) commissioned the famous architect John Nash to design a house for him in Rockingham. This was a Regency mansion built with a dome and semi-circular Ionic colonade fashionable of the times. The stone used in its’ construction was quarried locally, being pale and bright in the sunlight and dark on a damp day.
The interior was most luxurious and spacious, encompassing a top-lit central hall with a screen of Corinthian columns dividing it from a grand imperial white marble staircase, and a round drawing room. The ‘big house’ was unusual in that it had no obvious ‘back’ and servants had to enter by underground tunnels 300 yards long. Lord Lorton did not wish for the fine prospect of his house to be ruined by the site of tradesmen or servants walking across the landscape. Such tunnels were also in operation at nearby Strokestown House. One tunnel leads to the lake while the other leads to the stables which are built in the style of an 18th century Oxford quadrangle, large enough to turn a carriage and four horses. Servants quarters were provided over the stables facing out over the cobblestone yard. In 1822 a third storey was added to the house in order to provide more bedrooms, to the sacrifice of its’ magnificent dome, thereby making the house rather ungainly. However, the surrounding countryside remained the most impressive feature of the estate with the house commanding a great view over the islands of Lough Key, including the ruined castle of the MacDermotts, to which Lord Lorton added a folly castle.
Lord Lorton continued to improve the demense by the addition of a boundary wall 20 miles long; the renovation of farm buildings, the planting of trees and the erection of several jetties on the shore of Lough Key. During famine times Lorton gave employment to many of his tenant farmers and reduced rents for many by 50%, but if arrears built up over a period of time eviction was inevitable as he sent 128 tenants and their families to Canada during this time. He was also very intolerant of Catholicism, but provided education for the children of the estate, the girls being under the direction of Viscountess Lorton herself.
In May 1863 Rockingham House was struck by fire and its’ lavish interior destroyed. Lord Lorton insisted on its’ refurbishment and it was restored. The house was passed on within the King-Harman family until Sir Cecil King-Harman in 1935. He was a keen agriculturalist, always seeking to use up to date methods of farming. Many of the fine plantations and ornamental gardens reflect this interest.
In September 1957 while Sir Cecil and his wife were at Doncaster sales, Rockingham was once again ravaged by a fire, thought to have started in the basement. Although the fire brigade were quick to respond and extinguished the fire in the basement it soon reached the upstairs storeys, possibly through an old dumb waiter. Many estate workers and people from the surrounding areas came to help carry valuables out of the house, including a grand piano silverware, and valuable paintings. The sky glowed red as great tongues of flames leaped from the windows and roof, being reflected in the lake below. As the building was considered too expensive to reconstruct it was sold to the State and demolished by the Department of Lands.
Sir Cecil moved to County Kildare to start a racing stud farm and later died in 1987 at the age of ninety-two. And so ended the age of the ‘Big House’ and landlordism in Boyle .