Half a mile of avenue wanders through parkland, its green grass maintained in perfect order with the assistance of sixteen hundred sheep and their lambs. Fine old trees provide the flock with a measure of shade on hot days and, in all directions, there is a screen formed by the woods that cover more than half the area of the demesne. This is no ordinary woodland. In contrast to the young spruces, which are the mainstay of Irish forestry, the trees are native oak, beech, ash, holly hazel, and other broad-leaved species, their ancestors planted in the 18th century, which now seed themselves. They provide a marvellously variegated wood with old and young trees and clearings bright in spring with bluebells and wood anemone. There is lakeside woodland with lichen-covered trees, yielding bilberries, raspberries and wild strawberries and set aside for posterity as a Special Area of Conservation. And there are miles and miles of footpaths to wander and listen to the bird song.
A community of Knights Templars established themselves in a castle by the lake in the 12th century – and left their name in perpetuity. Long before that, Sir Perceval earned fame and honour as one of the Knights of King Arthur’s Round Table. History records that Ascelin Goval de Perceval defended his castle of Yvery in Normandy in 897 and, a few generations later, a Perceval helped to invade England as part of the retinue of William the Conqueror. In the 16th century, a member of the family was granted land in Ireland as a reward for his services to Queen Elizabeth I and a descendant of his married in 1665 Mary Crofton, heiress to the lands of Temple House. With a short, but significant, break in the 19th century, the Percevals have owned the property since then.
Temple House today looks down on its own ancestral dwelling, in the shape of a picturesque, ivy-covered ruin of buildings in brick and stone. There is little doubt that this is where the Templars built their fortress in 1181, but the scene in Temple House over eight hundred years has been one of unending rebuilding and refurbishing and the stones of the first castle have been recycled more than once. As every reader of The da Vinci code will know, the Templars came under suspicion of the authorities in Rome and were disbanded in 1311. Their castle by the River Owenmore was granted to another order of Crusaders, the Knights Hospitallers and they embarked on extensive rebuilding. Their work can still be seen in the form of vaulted chambers on the ground floor of the ruins.
These knights, too, moved on and rented their property to local chieftains, McDonaghs and O’Haras, who seem to have enjoyed it in tranquillity for the two hundred years or so when Ireland was relatively free from invasion or warfare.
Times became hard for the upper classes – and everybody else – from the later decades of the 16th century and through the greater part of the 17th. The castle changed hands several times, sometimes violently. But all seems to have been peaceful from 1665 when the first of the Percevals took up residence. The scene was set for generations of this family to enjoy the scenery and become wealthy on the produce of the farm and the rent from their numerous tenants. They rebuilt the old castle and lived there until 1760 when they built a new home for the family nearby, leaving the servants to occupy the castle. The present building dates to 1825 when Colonel Alexander Perceval decided to move a little way up the hill and embarked on the building of a new house in classical style with room once more for family and retinue together. This was his countryseat and family home, the Colonel having an honourable post in London as Sergeant at Arms in the House of Lords, while his wife Jane remained in Sligo to rear her large family.
At a time when many of the owners of the demesnes of Ireland lived in feudal splendour and extracted crippling rents from their unfortunate tenants, the Percevals distinguished themselves by their concern for the welfare of their poorer neighbours – a noble sentiment which was to end in tragedy. Jane Perceval used to visit the the workers and tentantry with gifts of food and medicine. She died in the winter of 1847 of ‘famine fever’, the fate of many of those good people who had gone to the assistance of the starving peasantry. Her large portrait may be seen in the dining room. A touching letter of the time tells of her reminding those around her ‘not to neglect the tenant families between my death and my funeral’.
The death of her husband, eleven years later, forced the son and heir to sell the entire property. The new owners, from Essex, had a very different view on their duties and became notorious for evicting many families. Then things took a remarkable turn for the better. Christopher L’Estrange, the Agent, a brother in law of the late colonel, reacted positively to the suggestion of some of the dispossessed families to invite Jane’s third son Alexander to buy the estate back.
As the usual practice was at the time, the younger sons left the home to seek their fortunes elsewhere as the estates were passed on, undivided, to the eldest. Alexander had gone to Shanghai and Hong Kong, where he made a more than ordinary fortune and became the first chairman of the Chamber of Commerce. Not only did he buy back the ancestral home, he also paid for a number of the evicted families to return from Britain and America and rebuilt their houses. The big house created by his father did not seem big enough and in 1862 work began to transform it. He built a seven-bay entrance front at right angles to the original, which had five bays and now forms the side elevation. This explains all sorts of intriguing irregularities in the building that stands there now. Hidden from the house by trees, a palatial coach house and stable yard were created and, on the south front, a terraced garden was added.
Alexander, great great great grandfather to Roderick, whose portrait hangs above the dining room fireplace, is known affectionately as ‘the Chinaman’. He died in 1866, a poorer but probably a happy man, secure in the knowledge that he had spent his fortune on undertakings which provided employment and a measure of security for an unknown number of local people. A remarkable revival of times long gone happened when his son Alec married the girl next door, Charlotte O’Hara. The Gaelic O’Hara chieftains, onetime owners of Temple House lands, had been ousted in the 16th century by the Crown and that marriage signified a happy return of their descendants. Charlotte, indeed, became more than the lady of the manor. Her husband died in 1887, only two years after the birth of their son Ascelin. For the next thirty years, she was the ruler of the demesne, seeing it through a stirring time in Irish history, from the times of Parnell and rule from England to the Easter Rising of 1916 and the beginnings of independence.
In the generation that followed, many of the Irish big houses were abandoned by their owners for one reason or another. Temple House has been one of the survivors and part of its charm lies in the sense of continuity of the family and household. The kitchen has been thoroughly modernised and there is central heating. The extensive lawns are kept immaculate by the operation of a motor mower. Cars rather than carriages park in front of the house. But apart from these, you look around and have the feeling that little has changed in more than a century.
Outside, the scene remains pastoral and idyllic. One or two generations of trees have come and gone, and many generations of sheep – but the appearance has scarcely changed. It’s a place where you can wander for hours or perhaps take a boat out and attempt to catch one of the monster pike that inhabit the lake.
In the outside world, the immediate surroundings include the mystical caves of Keshcorran and the fabulous lonely Bricklieve Hills, with their spectacular stone-age cemetery. To the west are the wonders of County Mayo and to the north is Sligo with its mountains, lakes and immortal memories of W B Yeats. Remote in one way in both time and space, Temple House is also very much part of 21st century Ireland.