Located 20 km from Ballinasloe, Woodlawn House is one of the most impressive and intriguing buildings in County Galway. Built in the late 18th century by the Trench family, who were influential landlords and politicians, the house boasts a stunning Italianate style, a vast estate of 115 acres, and a private railway station. However, behind its majestic facade lies a history of oppression, eviction, and neglect that has left the house in a state of decay and dilapidation.
The Trench family at Woodlawn were descendants of Frederick Trench, who came to Ireland in the early 1600s and acquired large tracts of land in Galway and other counties. The first Baron Ashtown, also named Frederick Trench, built Woodlawn House in the 1760s as his seat of power and prestige. He was followed by his son, the second Baron Ashtown, Frederick Mason Trench, who married Elizabeth Oliver Gascoigne of Castle Oliver, Limerick, and embarked on an extensive re-modelling and expansion of the house in the 1860s. The lavish re-modelling of the house was done by London-born designer, James Forth Kempster. The house was enlarged to a massive 30,000 square feet, with over 400 windows, elegant interiors, and ornate gardens. The second Baron also diverted the railway line through his estate so that he could have his own station, which was designed by the famous architect John Skipton Mulvany.
However, the Trenches were not only wealthy and influential, but also ruthless and oppressive. They exploited their tenants and workers, who often lived in miserable conditions in contrast to the luxury of the house. They also cleared large areas of land for their own use, evicting thousands of people during the famine and afterwards. The Trenches were hated and feared by the local population, who resisted their tyranny and boycotted their products. The Trenches also faced opposition from nationalist movements, such as the Land League and the IRA, who targeted their property and threatened their lives.
The decline of Woodlawn House began in the early 20th century, when the Trenches lost much of their power and influence due to political and social changes. The Third Baron Ashtown, Frederick Oliver Trench, inherited Woodlawn when he was just 12 years old. Educated at Eton and Oxford, Blake notes that he became “one of the richest landowners in the whole of Ireland, holding more than 24,000 acres, which brought in an annual rent of around £10,000” – a huge sum at the time. However, he provoked many republicans at the time and the cost of publishing his anti-republican tracts was a drain on the estate and put him into bankruptcy in 1912. Having discharged his debts in 1916, he ran into more trouble in April 1921, when a letter arrived from the western command of the IRA demanding his departure from Woodlawn so that the house could be used to accommodate Catholic refugees from the North. Less than a year later, the contents of Woodlawn – including livestock – were sold by auction.
Ashtown went into exile, but returned in 1922 to find the house ransacked. Woodlawn House remained in the possession of the Trench family until 1947, when it was sold by Richard Frederick Trench, the fourth Baron Ashtown. The house had become too costly to maintain, and the family had lost much of their influence and popularity in Ireland.
The house passed through several owners in the following decades, but none of them managed to restore it to its former glory. The house fell into disrepair and decay, becoming a target for vandalism and theft. Many of its original features and contents were lost or damaged, and some parts of the house were demolished or collapsed. The house also gained a reputation for being haunted by the ghosts of its former residents and victims.
Today, Woodlawn House is currently owned by Michael Finnerty, a businessman from Galway who bought it in 2015. He has ambitious plans to restore the house and turn it into a luxury hotel and spa. He has secured planning permission from Galway County Council to renovate the house and build an extension that will include 50 bedrooms, a restaurant, a bar and a leisure centre.
Finnerty hopes to preserve as much of the original character and history of Woodlawn House as possible, while also adding modern amenities and comforts. He aims to create a unique destination that will attract visitors from all over the world, as well as provide employment and economic benefits for the local community. He expects to complete the project by 2025.
Woodlawn House is one of Ireland’s most impressive and intriguing historic buildings, with a story that spans over 250 years. It has witnessed many changes and challenges in its lifetime, but it has also survived and endured. It is now poised for a new chapter in its history, one that will hopefully restore its beauty and dignity.
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