Balsoon House

Balsoon House sits on the south bank of the river Boyne on a height overlooking Bective Abbey. Baile Samhan means the town of the sorrel. The house at Balsoon was erected from the stones of the ruined medieval castle. Casey and Rowan described Balsoon as a mid Victorian, two storey Italianite block over a basement. They state that this house replaced a redbrick Georgian house. The lower floor of the castle was converted to form an ice house for the new mansion. These were the remains of old cellars of an older house. The locals called them kennels. The orchard and garden are surrounded by old walls. Behind the house and cellars is the old graveyard and ruined church of Balsoon. A house erected to the right of the entrance avenue was erected in 1730 and in 1887 was being used as an estate office.

The Ussher family were living in Co Wexford and Co Dublin in early 1200s and became established at Balsoon by about 1300. Henry Usher held Balsoon in the late 1500s. Henry Ussher was the second son of Thomas Ussher of Dublin. Henry born in 1550, went on to be a founding fellow of TCD and Church of Ireland archbishop of Armagh. Having studied in Cambridge, Oxford and Paris he returned to Ireland as a clergyman. He was fluent in Irish which was very unusual for a Protestant clergyman of the time. Casey and Rowan state that Henry Ussher erected a castle at Balsoon about 1590. Henry Ussher obtained the warrant for the foundation of Trinity College Dublin from Queen Elizabeth I in 1591. In 1595 Henry Ussher was appointed Archbishop of Armagh. He resided at his archiepiscopal palace at Termonfeckin. In 1604 Henry Ussher retreated to his house at Balsoon because of the plague that was raging in Dublin at the time. He seems to have tolerated the appointment of Catholic clergy to positions within his diocese. Lands granted by the king to his diocese were leased out to his family and supporters. He died in 1613 at this palace in Termonfeckin and was buried at Drogheda. His nephew, James Ussher, became Archbishop of Armagh and was a noted scholar. It was James who acquired the Book of Kells which went to Trinity College, Dublin, on his death. Henry‟s fourth son, Marcus, married Margery Elliott and their eldest son, Jocelin, succeeded to Balsoon. Reverend Jocelin Ussher was Precentor of Kildare Cathedral in 1639. The castle at Balsoon was captured by Owen O‟Neill in 1643. Jocelin lived at Balsoon and died in 1657. His son, James, died in 1665 without an heir. The second son, Marcus, lived at Balsoon and was rector of Tara in 1695. His eldest son, Henry was born in 1684 and he lived at Balsoon. He married Barbara Mason in 1708 and they had a daughter, Mary. This Henry Ussher was described as being „too fond of dogs, hunting and sport of all kinds.‟ He died in 1744.

In 1713 Henry Ussher gave a lease of Balsoon for 900 years to the Prestons who lived at Balsoon before building at nearby Bellinter. John Preston of Balsoon was M.P. for Meath. In the 1830s and 1850s Balsoon was in the ownership of the Prestons but occupied by a Mr. Vaughan. In the 1854 Thomas Vaughan was leasing Balsoon from John J. Preston but the house was vacant. In 1901 William Thomas and Catherine Blandford and their three daughters and one of their sons were living at Balsoon. In 1911 Thomas William Blandford, aged 88 and his son Charles and two daughters were living at Balasoon. William Thomas Blandford died in 1914. About 1922 Thomas Roundtree from Deerpark, Bailieborough took up residence at Balsoon. He died in 1948 and his son, Joseph, lived at Balsoon.

In 1969 the American author, J.P. Dunleavy, moved back to Ireland with second wife, Mary, and bought Balsoon House. They lived there until 1972 and moved to Mullingar. The property developer, Patrick Gallagher, purchased Balsoon in 1987 and spent his weekends there with his family. His father had been one of Charles Haughey‟s supporters, and when Haughey was elected Taoiseach in 1979, Gallagher gave him £300,000 as a „loan‟ at the time. The Gallagher group of companies collapsed in 1982. Gallagher later served a two year sentence in Belfast arising from the collapse of Merchant Banking Northern Ireland Limited.

J.P. Donleavy lived in Balsoon House and gives his reminisences:

The following interview excerpt first appeared The Sunday Times, May 14, 2006.

"Time & Place: The donkey hitched a lift"
An author, playwright and artist, JP Donleavy, 80, has published 11 novels, including The Ginger Man and The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar b. Born in New York, he served in the US Navy during the second world war. He is now an Irish citizen and lives in Co Westmeath.

From an interview by Alanna Gallagher:

"I moved into Balsoon House in Bective, Co Meath, when I returned to Ireland from England in 1969. It was a three-storey Georgian dower house, originally part of the nearby Bellinter House estate.

"I had been trying to buy my mother’s house in the Burnaby in Greystones, but it sold for a sum beyond my means at auction. Next day I saw an advertisement for Balsoon in the paper and bought it after one viewing.

"It had been beautifully renovated by a young English couple. I went to my bank, showed the teller a picture of the place and told him how much money I needed to buy it.

"After much toing and froing, he returned with a cheque, remarking that the house looked like it was well worth the money. It was. Balsoon House was classically proportioned, with four rooms on each of its three floors. It stood on a steep hill overlooking the River Boyne and Bective abbey, flanked by large trees.

"To the rear lay the ruins of a castle. There was also a stables and a graveyard with an atmospheric ruined chapel.

"The house had beautiful walled gardens and my gardener took his job very seriously, taking the temperature of the water before showering it over the plants and vegetables. He was adamant that plants were more sensitive than we believed. The results were indeed astonishing, especially his vegetables. The gardener was also devoutly religious and constructed the 14 Stations of the Cross around the garden walls so he could say his prayers at work.

"I commandeered the right corner bedroom as my writing room and during my time there finished The Onion Eaters. There are overtones of life in the big house in the book. Labour was still reasonable and I had five or six staff keeping the house and its grounds. There are also echoes of that way of life in the Darcy Dancer trilogy.

"I wrote daily from about 10.30am until early in the afternoon. I also painted and sketched, often scenes that struck me in the gardens. I wasn’t much of an art collector, instead decorating the walls with anything that caught my interest, from old signs to newspaper cuttings.

"I partially restored the crypt-like basement and the manager of Gilbey’s wine shop came out and stocked it with thousands of bottles, all of course gone now.

"The pub in Bective was a constant source of colour. My favourite story concerns two of my staff, who after a long day in the pub stagger out to find a car passing by with a donkey sitting in the back looking out. Both presume they’ve had too much to drink and say nothing until the same car pulls up outside Balsoon. It turned out that the stable manager had no other way of transporting the recently purchased animal home from the market.

"I lived at Balsoon with my second wife, who loved to entertain. I was never a great partygoer, preferring to make a brief appearance before disappearing into one of the small sitting rooms.

"I lived in Balsoon for about three years until an issue arose over a right of way. I had experienced a similar problem in the first house I owned and knew it could drag on bitterly for years. So I said my goodbyes and, reluctantly, moved on.”