The Towers Walk, around 2.5 kilometres outside the heritage town of Lismore in West Waterford, is one of several gilded, leafy rambles in and around the aristocratic demesne of the Duke of Devonshire.
Glowing with history and feted scenery, Vivaldi’s Spring will be playing in your head on arrival.
Make your first stop the superb Lismore Heritage Centre, for some context, a map and some advice for an entire day out.
I’m sending you past the precipitous view of Lismore Castle, out of town on the R666, and clockwise through the 2km circular route at The Towers.
I think the first ‘ta-dah’ moment is worth it, and it’s a far less arduous climb than taking the three generations of the family the proper direction to the Porter’s Lodge.
Parking at the entrance, set on a modest tributary of the Blackwater, take the steps, turn left and pick your way over the timber foot-bridge.
Stay to the main tracks through the moss-furred, deciduous forest and hoot your way under the hobbity bridge for the most dramatic arrival at this unexpected Victorian fantasy of buttresses and battlements.
Even jaded teenagers will leak a soft ‘wow’ — it’s really something special.
A straddle of Disney-style towers and three arches, the lodge is part of, and completed by, the lofty bridge it sits on.
Built on the orders of Arthur Kiely-Ussher, an Anglo-Irish landlord, this is the first of two fantastic gate lodges to a house that was never even started.
Taken from the Victorian Gothic playbook seen all over Scotland, these are ornamental, castellated buildings, not defensive, but genealogical propaganda set in stone, suggesting a family’s ancient past of struggle and splendour with protective high walls and vaguely silly, toothy turrets.
They say everything there is to say about high Victorian architecture. Mellowed by lichen and time, fringed in dappled dark woodland and crossing rushing skinny rapids — a sensory feast.
Artful architecture aside, it’s impossible to ignore the social history here. Ballysaggartmore Towers were created as a pompous poke in the eye to Kiely-Ussher’s brother, MP for Clonmel, John Kiely, resident at Strancally Castle c1825, near Knockanore. Arthur, with ideas of natural superiority, double-barrelled his name to their more ancient local cousins, the Usshers. Returning from the Napoleonic war, he and his wife were clearly determined to distinguish their branch of the family.
The timing for this building is pushed forward to the years of the Great Hunger in popular memory, intensifying the idea of indifference and suffering between the only two classes in Ireland at this time.
Though commonly dated to 1845 or 1850 in guide books, there was a full, fruity report on the finished Porter’s Lodge and the Bridge Lodge in the Irish Penny Journal as early as 1834 (irishaesthete.com), well before the calamity of the Famine.
Kiely-Ussher was already a hated man, said to have cleared dozens of his tenants’ cabins in his vainglorious ambition, starting a large-scale cattle farm in place of the smaller field patterns on his 8,000-acre estate.
The records show that Arthur did nothing to ease the rent for his beleaguered tenants when tragedy struck in ‘45.
A dreadful report in the Cork Examiner on conditions for 700 souls on the Ballysaggartmore estate in 1847 describes ‘famished women and crying children’ cowering in the ruins of their burned cottages — still sickening today.
Arthur’s brother John at Strancally Castle was said, in contrast, to have acted with direct benevolence to locals in distress, killing his own cows and spending £1,000 in just nine months to feed them.
God spoke, and Arthur ran out of money after aggrandising his original carriageway. In the end he could never afford to build the new house — probably a bigger Strancally, with knobs on.
His property was in the hands of the Encumbered Estates Court by 1853. Republican forces razed the original and modestly elegant Ballysaggart House to the ground in 1922.
The ill-feeling in the local community persisting after the eventual sale of Arthur’s house and lands, and led to the desecration of the Kiely-Ussher tomb during his lifetime. The bones of a daughter were said to have been scattered.
An attempt was made on Arthur’s life (appropriately at The Towers) and this open wound between the Kielys and the community was at least spiritually healed in a quiet religious reparation ceremony in the 1990s.
Today, the first lodge (yes, there’s more to come after tea and sandwiches amid the daisies), though windowless with many of its interior features removed, survives in near perfect condition. It’s just as it would have been seen by a party of puffed up 19th century weekend guests bouncing along in a barouche-landau.
Having taken in this Austen engraving come-to-life, pose in the lower pointy, ogre-headed, medieval-style windows for photo opportunities.
The dank quarters were intended for a grateful yokel, with the duty to clash down a hefty crinolated portcullis behind visiting carriages to Castle Nowhere.
Looking down several stories from the bridge, this remains a feat of engineering in Ireland on par with the great railway crossings of the 19th century, involving teams of skilled workers with winches and heavy horses to pull the massive ashlar sandstone blocks up into position under the direction of engineer John Smyth.
The ambition and perfection of the masonry work with its dressing and polygonal corner piers is still breathtaking.
The gorgeous set of waterfalls in the sylvan picnic area has recently been cleared, providing one of the most swooning spots for a marriage proposal imaginable, applauded by poplars and shaggy 19th-century rhododendron.
Walking over the bridge and under the lodges, turn right on the delightful, flat walk with a steep, wooded crevasse to the right.
Keep your eye open for deer, red squirrel and the many species of native birds enjoying the shifting canopy of ash, fir, beech and oak.
The bowers open up to another prettier, more feminine Porter’s Lodge and arch, the first that visitors would have seen when visiting the Kiely-Ussher family.
Iced up with carving in mottled, striated sandstone, the network of small abandoned rooms is a wondrous hide and seek setting for young children oblivious of fatal adult pretensions.