The Blackrock mansion built by the Earl who 'made a Prince Harry'

The Blackrock mansion built by the Earl who ‘made a Prince Harry’

South Hill House, Merrion Park, Booterstown, Blackrock, Co. Dublin Asking Price: €2.5m Broker: Knight Frank (01) 237 4532

The tedious business of manufacturing and managing “heirs and spares” is not only a matter of great importance to royalty, but vital to the aristocracy as well.

For nearly a thousand years, among the most successful stewards of their heirs to come have been the Pembroke dynasty, who had a major impact on Ireland and Dublin in particular. Stephen the Usurper, King of England, first bestowed the title on Gilbert De Clare, who was born in 1100.

And for centuries, the Pembrokes have held firm as ruthless Scions managed to strip many once-powerful clans of their titles. The current Earl William is 18th in this line. That’s not to say there weren’t a few speed bumps along the way, though. For example, the 12th Earl, Robert Herbert, seemed hostile to the life he was meant to have from the start, leading to him becoming fully “Prince Harry” sometime in the mid-19th century.


The entrance hall and the staircase

His father, the 11th Earl, and his mother (a Spencer) were first cousins. He was born in 1791 and sent to Harrow. But at the age of 23 he ran away and ended up in Sicily, where he became entangled with Ottavia Spinella, wife of the Prince of Butera. He became the princess’s cavalier slave, a sort of usher, bodyguard, and lover all rolled into one; a position which the prince approved.

This was the European aristocracy’s male equivalent of an official mistress. After the prince’s death in 1814, Herbert married the widowed Italian princess against the wishes of his family. She was 12 years older than him.

Back in London, the news left the earl embarrassed. He used his worldwide contacts to persuade the Sicilian authorities to arrest and separate the couple. Herbert was imprisoned in a fortress while Ottavia went to a nunnery. But Robert fled back to London to plead.


The reception room that flows into the kitchen

The old earl had tried unsuccessfully to dissolve the marriage, finally wearing his heir down to some sort of compromise.

Robert agreed not to see the princess again, but he never married.

Ottavia was understandably upset. Dismissed from the nunnery, she made her way to London, where she settled under the name of Lady Herbert and in 1819 brought a very public case for the restoration of marital rights. Eventually the marriage was annulled and she was awarded a large annual stipend thought to be up to £5,000 a year. The princess never remarried either.


The skylight above the front door

Robert towed the line for a couple of years. He succeeded the Pembroke title in 1827 and entered the House of Lords soon after. But then he said ‘sod this.’ Again.

He handed over management of the lands in England and Ireland to his industrious younger half-brother Sidney and fled to Paris, where he partied and collected art. He had seven children who flitted back and forth through two overlapping affairs, with a ballerina in Paris and a society lady in London.

He died at the age of 70 and was buried in Père Lachaise in 1862. He never produced a legitimate heir.


The front entrance and porch with stained glass

Although he probably never set foot on it, South Hill in Blackrock was built by the Pembrokes during Robert’s county in the 1840s. So he was its first owner. It is an ornate and romantic nine bedroom villa in Merrion Park in Blackrock, Co. Dublin. While Robert chased princesses and ballerinas, sensible brother Sidney made smart investments for him.

It was around this time that the Pembroke estates outside Dublin City were being developed for upmarket houses to be let on Pembroke estates near Ballsbridge and Donnybrook.
What sets South Hill apart from its contemporaries (aside from being pink) is an unusually elaborate use of plasterwork, ceiling rosettes and cornices, but above all the proliferation of beautiful stained glass work, untypical for a home of its day. It suggests sensitive Sidney may have had a romantic streak as well.


Cream colored kitchen units contrast with polished granite countertops

The Pembrokes rented it out until 1942 when they sold it to a businessman, Leo Hannon, who in turn resold it in 1963 to the Dominicans who ran a retreat here until 1987. One of the latest to exercise his retreat function was Garret FitzGerald, who retired as Taoiseach for the last time this year after a decade-long feud with CJ Haughey.

The nuns sold it to Ballymore Homes. Eventually it was bought in October 1992 by its current owners Joe and Catherine (Lily) Layden for IR£250,000. Joe runs the Layden group. It owns, among other things, George’s Street Arcade.

Since then, they’ve even spent more than the purchase price to upgrade it. Last €108,000 refurbishment in 2009 by Sisk.

“We thought it could potentially be beautiful, but it needed updating. The biggest problem was the roof. We had to have it completely replaced.” The cost of this work was €100,000. “We checked the house for rising damp and there was none. We have remodeled some of the rooms, installed new heating and rewired. It was pink when we bought it, so we left it that way.”

Joe says the big house brought “mighty madness” to his four children, Gwen, Siobhan, Anita and Jack, most of whom were teenagers at the time.


Through the stained glass in the conservatory

“They really loved the house and Merrion Park is across the street with all these open spaces. With its interconnecting spaces, the house was perfect for family gatherings, parties and gatherings.” Joe and Catherine were particularly fond of the aforementioned stained glass work featured throughout. And they added. It is found in porch panels, interior skylights and a most unusual conservatory with scenes depicting nature in the background and above, creating a magically lit space for those who retreated here during the Dominican years.

“When we broke the breakfast room into one of the reception desks and created a new entrance, we hired a stained glass artist from Navan to do a new piece for the skylight above, based on the theme of the others.”

And with the mercantile flair of the more sensible Pembrokes on board, the Laydens converted the garden level into two highly rentable 2,000-square-foot apartments that now sit vacant.

Now that the kids are out of the Layden nest, Joe and Catherine act and the house is put up for sale by Knight Frank for €2.5million.
It is entered through a stained glass and carved wood veranda. To the left of the hall is the two-sided drawing room with arched windows, marble chimney and polished wooden floors. Double doors lead to the kitchen and breakfast room with cream wooden cabinets, polished granite worktops and integrated appliances.

At 6,000 square feet, there is a two-sided dining room, also with a bay window, a marble fireplace, and a hardwood floor. This has a smaller entertaining room with its own fireplace. A more informal lounge/TV room is located at the rear of the house whilst there is a glazed ceiling office area. A guest toilet completes the accommodation on hall level.

There are five large bedrooms on the first floor, three ensuite and one family bathroom. On the garden level are the two self-contained apartments, each with two bedrooms. These can also be accessed internally and externally. The gardens are in lawned areas with a sun terrace.

In the end the Pembroke title went to Robert’s nephew George, who was perfectly sane but only lived half as long.

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