This settlement in which Ballintubbert stands has been with us for a very long time. In the graveyard around the church at the start of the tour lies the ruin of a church from 1540 – a Christian church, pre-dating even the Reformation. In that graveyard, on the yew mound, lie the Kellys, the local landowners from the 18th century. Having led a breakaway sect from the Protestant religion, this was reabsorbed into the church in time, leaving just a hymnal – Kelly’s Hymns. Their great house is long since disappeared, leaving these, the estate buildings, on this site.
The old church was replaced with the existing structure in the 1780s, and a little schoolhouse built beside it in 1785. Around the same time, the rectory was built, now the main house on this site – and our home. The church and the house remain largely intact, but the schoolhouse was extended as a family home in the 1990s. When funds allow, it is our intention to restore the architectural balance between the church and the schoolhouse, by modifying Schoolhouse as our main entrance, our restaurant, our shop and our school.
Ballintubbert House itself lies at the centre of the garden. It dates from 1780, and is a small Georgian house. It is our beautiful centerpiece, bowing to the garden, and having the garden bow to it. The relationship between the house and the garden has been a key element in the evolution of the design.
On 27th April 1904, the young rector and his wife living here gave birth to a boy, named Cecil. Their surname was Day-Lewis. The future poet laureate lived here for four years, before his parents moved back to England. His mother passed away when he was still a boy, and he missed her terribly. His return here, in the 1930s as a young poet, to find his Anglo-Irish origins and to find the spirit of his mother, gave rise to some beautiful poetry.
He disliked the name Cecil, and referred to himself as C.Day Lewis. We will honour that preference. Obviously, his talent descended through his children – Tamsin, the chef, and Daniel, who has given us so much joy in film.
During the 20th century, the house moved through many different owners. It will move through us in time, as we also are mere custodians. One remarkable owner was Sebastian Shaw, the actor. He also practiced as a herbalist here, which we will remember through the restoration next year of the Shaw Herb Garden. His most famous role was that of Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars.
In 1970, the property was purchased by the local Little family, who were fruit farmers here. They have left us the Little Orchard.
In 1990, the house became the home of another famous actor, John Hurt, with his wife Jo and their young family. The work of restoring the original garden was started by the Hurts, ably assisted by garden designer Arthur Shackleton. Arthur has also made a beautiful garden, close by us here in Abbeyleix.
We moved here in 1999 and made it our home. Years of enchantment in some of the English gardens mentioned had led to an ambition to make an Irish garden, an Irish Sissinghurst or Great Dixter. Encouragement from some of the great gardeners there led to a resolution. With 14 acres arranged almost symmetrically around the house, in the middle of this divine valley, this was the opportunity.
Working with many great designers, we imagined and crafted, re-crafted and imagined. We are still doing that in most areas of the garden today. We were kept on our architectural journey by the hugely supportive and patient Matthew Shinnors, of Healy and Partners Architects, through the worst days of machines, soil and water, water, water.
Rosemary Verey, who made Barnsley in Gloucestershire, was an elderly lady in her 80s when we first met her in Barnsley in 2000. Her garden was extraordinary in its detailed perfection after some 40 years in the making. After hours of hospitality and conversation, we nervously produced the photographs of these virgin Laois fields. She responded to them memorably:
‘You have no idea how much I envy you these empty fields – and the 40 years that rest between us’.
Rosemary passed on in 2001. Her spirit, and that of many others, attempts to live on here.