Thursday, February 28, 2008

Bert House

I read in the papers recently that Bert House, that magnificent mansion just off the main Athy/Monasterevin Road, is for sale at a price in excess of €3 million. In my young days Bert House was owned and lived in by ‘the Lady Geoghegans’. Lady Geoghegan and her sister were long time residents of Bert House, having moved in around 1909 and it was sometime in the mid 1960’s, after one of them died, that the survivor moved out to live in a new bungalow in the locality. I don’t know anything about the family background of the elderly ladies whom the locals always referred to as ‘the Lady Geoghegans’. In any event Bert House was sold off for the first time almost 60 years ago when in 1968 or thereabouts Joe Kelly, a racing driver, purchased it from the last of it’s long time residents. I gather Kelly did a considerable amount of work on refurbishing the house, although he never lived there. It was subsequently sold and since then has passed through a succession of new owners, none of whom have ever equalled ‘the Lady Geoghegans’’ length of residence in what is the largest mansion in South Kildare.

Bert House was built between 1720 and 1730 for Captain William Burgh who was Comptroller and Accountant General for Ireland to a design prepared by his brother Thomas Burgh of Oldtown. Thomas was Barrack Overseer in Ireland, a position to which he was appointed in 1701 and was responsible for the building of Trinity College Library, Dr. Steevens Hospital, Dublin and Collins Barracks in Dublin. The latter building is now part of the National Museum of Ireland. The original Bert House consisted of a central block of seven bays, three storey high over a basement. The overlapping side wings were added early in the 19th century. It’s a house steeped in history and the people who lived in Bert House figured prominently in Irish history at various times.

Captain William Burgh, the first owner of the house, was born in 1667, son of Ulysses Burgh of Dromkeen, Co. Leitrim. He was succeeded by his only son Thomas Burgh whose sister Elizabeth was married in 1734 to Chief Baron Anthony Foster. Their son, John Foster, was to be the last Speaker in the Irish House of Commons. Thomas Burgh was born in 1696 and while he sat in Parliament as Member for Lanesboro in Co. Longford he never represented Athy in that capacity. He was however a freeman of Athy Borough and served as Sovereign of Athy Borough Council in 1755. He married Ann Downes, daughter of the Bishop of Cork and Ross whose wife was Catherine, sister of Robert, 19th Earl of Kildare. His wife’s brother Robert Downes was later to sit as a Member of Parliament for Kildare and was appointed Sovereign of Athy Borough Council in 1749. Thomas Burgh, while resident at Bert House, was the owner of extensive tracts of land in and around South Kildare. The present house has approximately 165 acres of land surrounding it.

When Thomas Burgh died in 1758 he was succeeded by his eldest son, William, who was just 17 years of age. William was the first Burgh of Bert House to represent Athy in Parliament which he did between 1768 and 1776. He later lived in England and he died in York in 1808. A monument to his memory by the famous sculptor Sir Richard Westmacott is to be found in York Minster.

When William left Bert House his younger brother Thomas succeeded him as Member of Parliament for Athy and he continued to do so until 1790. Thomas, who had previously resided in Chapelizod, Co. Dublin succeeded to the Bert House estate in 1808 but was to die just two years later.

The Parliamentary connection was maintained by Thomas Burgh’s sister Anne who in 1767 married Walter Hussey. Born in Donore, Co. Kildare, Hussey who was regarded as the finest Orator of his day represented Athy Borough Council in the Irish House of Commons between 1769 and 1776.

On the death of Thomas Burgh of Bert in 1810 he was succeeded by his only son, Ulysses. Born in 1788, Ulysses married Maria Bagenal of Bagnelstown in 1815. He was a member of the Borough Council of Athy until it’s disbandment in 1840 and served as Sovereign of Athy in 1834 and again in 1840. In that latter year he was succeeded as Athy’s Town Sovereign by Rev. F.S. Trench, the local Church of England Rector, who held that position when the Borough Council was abolished.

Ulysses Burgh succeeded to the title of Lord Downes in 1826 on the death of his cousin William Downes who had been appointed Lord Chief Justice in 1803 following the assassination of Lord Kilwarden during the Robert Emmet Rebellion. William Downes, son of the former Sovereign of Athy Robert Downes, had been created Lord Downes in 1822 on his retirement as Chief Justice. Dying without male issue the title passed to his cousin Ulysses Burgh of Bert. It was Ulysses Burgh who as Lord Downes presented a clock to the people of Athy in 1846 which is presently on the front wall of the Town Hall.

When Lord Downes of Bert died in 1863 he was succeeded by his eldest daughter, Charlotte who had married Lt. General James Colborne in 1851. Colborne was the son of John Colborne who led the 52nd Light Infantry in the decisive manoeuvre which secured the English victory of Waterloo. He was later Commander in charge of the British Army in Ireland and was raised to the title of Lord Seaton in 1839. Charlotte’s husband, James Colborne, succeeded to his father’s title in 1863 and it was as Lord and Lady Seaton that James and Charlotte came to live in Bert House following the death of Lord Downes. The house remained in their ownership until 1909 when it was sold to ‘the Lady Geoghegans’.

Bert House is not only the largest mansion in this area, but also retains an enormous amount of links with the history of South Kildare and Ireland generally. It is hoped that whoever buys it, Bert House will once again become an integral part of the social and economic life of Athy and the surrounding areas.

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