The History of Burtown House, the Estate and the Fennell family
Once the centre of a 2000 acre estate and built for the Quaker Robert Power in 1710; Burtown House is marked on early maps as Power’s Grove.
Originally one room deep, wings were soon added; only their faint outline remain. In the late eighteenth century, the house was enlarged with the addition of a bow fronted room on the garden front with a bedroom above and a large kitchen below – with a grand staircase lit by a tall rounded – arch sash window. Particularly fine plasterwork was also added at this time, most notably in an arched alcove in the bow fronted room which is filled with a shallow fan and delightful spray of grapevine flanked by a pair of classical vases surmounting pilasters composed with foliage and naïve Corinthian capitals. This room was probably the dining room and the sideboard would have fit into the alcove.
Members of the Irish squirearchy were well known for their hospitality and the dining room was the largest room in the house. A later inhabitant of Burtown, William James Fennell (1866 – 1928), who was a keen horseman, was ‘asked to leave the Quaker persuasion because of his fondness for driving a carriage with uniform flunkies on the back’ which suggests that the family was retreating from its puritanical Quaker origins.
Elliptical arches mark the openings to the staircase, decorated with borders of foliage and more delicate plasterwork decorates the ceiling. The hall ceiling is decorated with plasterwork in the manner of James Wyatt, with neo-classical swags and medallions, each of the four corners of the room quirkily mounted with a classical bust on a bracket.
South Kildare Heritage Trail - Explorer’s Way
Explorer’s Way is a heritage trail across South County Kildare that links a host of hidden gems, including an early Georgian Villa and Gardens (Burtown), a Quaker Village (Ballitore), an Ernest Shackleton showcase and so much more.
A Quaker Community
Like many Irish houses, Burtown passed through the female line: from the Powers to the Houghtons to the Wakefields, the latter inheriting it in the early nineteenth century. It was during the Wakefield’s tenure that the front of the house was given a facelift: a fanlighted entrance door, recessed in an arch; enlarged sash windows; and a roof with deep eaves. When Mr Wakefield was killed by a cricket ball, the house passed to his sister Jemima, wife of James Fennell. James was descended from Colonel John Fennell (1626-1706), an English officer in Oliver Cromwell’s army who was granted a small estate on the banks of the River Suir outside Cahir, Co. Tipperary. He later became a Quaker, at a time when Quakerism was increasing in popularity and sweeping across the British Isles.
Burtown is close to the village of Ballytore, one of Ireland’s most prominent Quaker strongholds. The former Ballytore boarding school was founded in 1726 by the Yorshire born Quaker Abraham Shackleton, with pupils attending as far away as France, Norway and Jamaica. Its most famous pupil was Edmund Burke the philosopher and statesman. In 1748 an English traveler visited Ballytore and wrote ‘ Our eyes were charmed with the sweetest bottom where, through lofty trees, we beheld a variety of pleasant dwellings. Through a road that looked like a fine terrace walk, we turn to this lovely vale, where Nature assisted by Art gave us the utmost contentment. It is a colony of Quakers, called by the name of Ballytore.’
The Shackleton Connection
James and Jemima’s son, William James Fennell was a keen horseman, a passion that has continued to the present day. He married Isabel Shackleton, who is shown in an old photograph wearing her hunting habit and was a keen gardener. She was a cousin of the famous Antarctic explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton. William and Isabel’s son, Jim, an officer in the Royal Artillery, inherited Burtown and lived there until 1963 when his son, William took over at the age of 21.
Farming, Restoring the Garden and Painting
The walled kitchen garden has been in production for over 150 years. Much of the present flower, vegetable and woodland gardens were reclaimed from paddocks, fields and woodlands by Lesley Fennell and her son James. The Nutgrove, once a formal garden in the 18th century, is perhaps the oldest part of the garden and is now being replanted. Neighboring fields are also being devoted to arboretums, woodland walks and ponds.
William and Lesley farmed about one quarter of the original 2000 acres until the early 1990s when they sold a portion of the land and the old farm steward’s house - an 18th century farm yard and gate lodge nearby. Burtown is still a working farm, with 180 acres of wheat, barley and forestry.
Lesley Fennell now lives across the stable yard from her mother, the botanical artist, Wendy Walsh, while James and his wife Joanna and their children Bella, Mimi and William live in the main house.