Set in lush cattle-country, MULLINGAR, the county town of Westmeath, holds little of interest for visitors, except as a base for visiting Belvedere House, a Georgian mansion in a lovely setting on Lough Ennell.
The house stands in abundant gardens 5km south of Mullingar on the N52. The house was built in the 1740s by Richard Castle as a hunting lodge for Robert Rochfort, later the first Earl of Belvedere, the so-called “Wicked Earl”, whose main pastime seems to have been making life hell for his wife and brothers. In 1743 he falsely accused his wife Mary of having an affair with his brother Arthur and imprisoned her for the next 31 years at their nearby main residence, Gaulstown. It was only when the Earl died that she was released by their son, whom she no longer recognized. Meanwhile, the Earl had successfully pressed charges of adultery against Arthur, who, unable to pay the damages of £20,000, lived out his days in debtors’ prison.
The house itself, which commands beautiful views of the lake, has been painstakingly restored and authentically refurbished by Westmeath County Council. It holds some gorgeous fireplaces of carved Irish oak with Italian marble insets, but is most notable for the exquisite craftsmanship of its rococo ceilings, the work of a French stuccodore, Barthelemij Cramillion. Look out especially for the vivid depictions of the Four Winds, a fire-breathing dragon and a horn of plenty in the dining room, while the library, intended for night-time use, features sleeping cherubs wrapped in a blanket of clouds, a crescent moon and stars, and on the cornice a swirl of flowers with their heads closed.
A feud between Robert Rochfort and his other brother George was behind one of the gardens’main sights, the Jealous Wall. When George commissioned Richard Castle in the 1750s to build Tudenham House, a much larger mansion than Belvedere, just a kilometre away, the Earl of Belvedere spent £10,000 building this huge Gothic folly, three storeys high and nearly 60m long, just to block the view. Other features include a Victorian walled garden, enclosing an unusual collection of Himalayan plants, playgrounds for kids and a café in the old stable block by the entrance. Or you can just take a stroll around the extensive woodlands and lawns: the 45-minute Earl’s Trail, for example, will take you along the lakeshore and back, past an octagonal gazebo, a folly known as the Gothic Arch and a restored ice-house.