Finnstown in the 18th Century

The 18th century proved to be something of a golden age in Irish history. Ireland had been in a state of almost perpetual war since the 1580s. Now it was at peace. Dublin was transformed from a grimy, war-weary Tudor timberland into one of the most glittering cities in Western Europe. Ireland developed as a relatively prosperous economical unit primarily through the industries of textile manufacture and agriculture. As trade links between the colony and the ports of Europe gradually expanded, so too the population of Dublin and its surrounding landscape began to increase. New administrative and judicial buildings were built in the main towns, alongside banks, churches, markets, tholsels and gaols. There was an intellectual and cultural flowering throughout the land, encapsulated in the fiery words and witticisms of Dean Swift, Oliver Goldsmith and Edmund Burke.

Perhaps the most symbolic legacy of this new Golden Age was the so-called Big House, the sumptuous mansions and castles built for the Anglo-Irish aristocracy and landed gentry who effectively ran the country from the King William III’s victory at the Boyne until independence in 1921. By 1750, the area around Finnstown, served by the River Liffey, had become particularly desirable to the Ascendancy. Captain Robert Butler (d. 1763), a brother of the 1st Earl of Lanesborough, was living at Hermitage with his wife, a daughter of Robert Howard, Bishop of Elphin (and ancestor of the Earls of Wicklow). John Hawkins (d. 1758), the Ulster King of Arms, occupied the former Foster stronghold of Ballydowd Castle but, following his death in 1758, the castle was dismantled to make way for a splendid rambling house, Woodville, built for Theophilus Clements, brother of the 1st Earl of Leitrim.

In 1758, the first rumours emerged about the medicinal qualities of the springs at Lucan. Two years later, the celebrated Dr. Rutty of the Royal Society published a detailed account of the spa, citing over fifty cases of various diseases which he had personally seen cured by taking its sulphuric waters. The “petrifying tendency” of water was deemed most effective in the cure of skin diseases such as eczema as well as rheumatism. The Vesey family of Lucan were quick to capitalize on the discovery of the so-called “Lucan Spa”, making it available to the public and erecting an enclosing wall to protect the spa from any potential deluges from the nearby Liffey. A hotel was built to cater to the massive crowds of invalids anxious to bathe in the spa. By the 1780s, the Lucan Spa was rivalling those of Tunbridge Wells and Leamington in terms of visitors. Concerts and balls were held at the hotel while the Leonard family of Brookvale, near Finnstown, hosted annual circuses and carnivals. Every Sunday, thousands of well-to-do Dubliners ventured out from the city on horses, coach, foot and jaunting cars (and later trams) on the short 8 mile journey to enjoy the peace and quiet of the Liffey Valley. Even one hundred years ago, a contemporary declared Lucan to contain “the finest inland scenery in the metropolitan county”. Much of the surrounding land was given to the growing of fruit and vegetables that would be taken by barge on the Royal Canal to the Dublin markets.

Lucan continued to blossom as one of Ireland’s most fashionable summer resorts with the building, in 1772, of Lucan House. The Palladian villa was actually designed by its owner, Agmodisham Vesey, in consultation with Sir William Chambers and James Wyatt. Another important house from this era was St. Edmondsbury, built in the 1770s for Edmond Sexton Pery, Speaker of the Irish House of Commons. Most of the present day houses in Lucan’s Main Street, including The Mall, were built between 1800 and 1830, replacing a number of thatched cottages that stood here previously. A new chapel, St. Mary’s Church, was built in the late 1830s.