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Saturday, 16 January 2010

AUSTIN COOPER (c1614 –bef1690) AND THE HEAPS OF DUNG


Another gardener in my family tree! And another Austin Cooper, my 8x great grandfather. He’s known as Austin the Settler because he’s the man who brought the family to Ireland in 1661. (They stayed there for 300 years and more than 20 of them are named after him.)

They had a nice life in Surrey up until then. His father, it’s believed, had a position in the court of Charles I at Hampton Court, and they were Royalists during the Civil War. They were also pragmatists, and when land adjacent to their property at Byfleet came up for sale, they jumped at the chance to extend their estate. 

Unfortunately the vendor was one Colonel Thomas Hammond, a Cromwellian soldier. After the Restoration in 1660, and despite his loyalty to the crown, Austin Cooper was obliged to forfeit his lands for dealing with the enemy. He sold up, and with the proceeds (a massive £1500) took his family to Butterhill in Co Wicklow, where they began a new life as yeoman farmers.

 Blessington House from the north
with the town of Blessington beyond

In 1669, the nearby manor of Blessington was created and awarded to Michael Boyle, the Archbishop of Dublin at the time. Boyle first set about building a town on his new estate, presumably to provide revenue for it and housing for its workers. When he began work on the house and grounds in 1672, Boyle turned to Austin the Settler to lay out the gardens. 

It’s not at all clear why Boyle should have considered Cooper the right man for the job. Perhaps it was Austin’s experience of the royal estates at Hampton Court. But he came up with an ambitious geometric plan of avenues and orchards. One report describes fruit being forced there, and there is a bill for £16 13s 6d “for 6 collomes to ye garden.”


Estate map of Blessington, by Langford (1804)

The works seem to have been carried out pretty much as envisaged. When I visited Blessington in the early 2000s, the house itself was long gone - burnt down in troubles in 1798, now just a few stones in the corners of the farm fields to which the once grand estate had been turned. But Austin’s long straight avenues were clearly visible in the landcape, and still in use by farm traffic; and the ornamental pond in front of the house was still there.


I’m glad I saw Blessington when I did. It was already earmarked for a massive development of housing, shops and hotels as a dormitory town for Dublin, ironically a planned new town arising on the manor on which Boyle built his own new town in 1669. What’s more, much of the original Cooper estate at Butterhill has been drowned forever under the vast network of Blessington Lakes which were created to form a crucial water supply for Dublin.

Blessington Shopping Centre
(not what Austin had in mind)

There’s a lovely description of Austin the Settler in Burke’s “ Irish Family Records” which may in part suggest why Boyle chose Cooper for his landscaping. Austin was, we read, 

“famed for his feats of strength such as taking two men, one in each hand, slapping them together and throwing them on a dunghill! … If he held on to a cart, the horse could not go … taking a man in one hand, pulling down his breeches with the other then buttling his backside in the River Weye …”  

Quite a character to found a family dynasty.

1 comment:

  1. Austin the Settler had a daughter Mary who married a Cairncross and had two sons. Do you know anymore? Cairncross is an extremely rare name in Ireland and I think came from Archishop Cairncross of Glasgow who was demoted to an Irish post in 1693

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