Stories differ about how, when and why the Fetherston Family arrived in Ardagh. Some say they fled Cromwell persecution while others say they were planted here by Cromwell. Whichever is true there are good and not so good stories about various members of the family as there are with all families.
Thomas Fetherston is the first recorded owner of the house and lands of 235 acres having bought it from a Farrell in, or around 1703. He passed it on to his son Ralph who passed it to his son Thomas, a member of the Irish Parliament and then an Irish MP at Westminster. His son George Ralph then inherited the property but having no children it passed on his death in 1853 to his brother Rev. Thomas Francis briefly before his son Thomas succeeded him.
This Thomas did most of the work we see today in the house and village. During his time of ownership he redesigned the village in tribute to his uncle George, extended the house, moved the main street away from the house to where it is now and created the village green. George's wife Frances erected the Clock Tower in memory of her husband.
The last Fetherston to own the Big House was George Ralph Fetherston, son of Thomas inheriting the house at the age of 13. He spent most of his life away from the house and in 1903 sold the farms to the tenants while keeping the house and lands. He was a music composer. There was a fire in the house in 1922 during the time of Irish Independence but with no major damage.
The House was finally sold to the Sisters of Mercy in 1927 who established a convent there. In 1949 the top floor had to be removed as a result of another fire. Over the years the Sisters extended the house and large government grants ensured the renovation of the cobble-stoned stable yard and kitchen gardens. The house was used as a Domestic Science school for girls until it finally closed and sold in 2007. When that sale fell through it remained empty until bought by a private owner in 2012. The house remains empty and the gates remain closed.
Some of the stories that abound about the Fetherston family include the following:
- The most famous connection to the Big House is the writer Goldsmith who is reputed to have based his play "She Stoops to Conquer" on an incident that occured in his own life involving the village of Ardagh and The Big House. Supposedly, a young Goldsmith stopped in Ardagh on a journey (stories vary on this – The Jolly Pigeons on the far side of Ballymahon to Legan or Lissoy to Edgeworthstown) and asked where the best house was to stay in and a local decided to take his words literally and pointed him in the direction of The Big House. Goldsmith naively believed the man and approached "the inn", called for an ostler to tend to his horse, pulled off his boots at the fire and asked for a bottle of wine. Sir George Fetherston played along and gave him the wine which Goldsmith invited the owners of the inn to share with him. He is said to have made a pass at a servant girl ( the daughter of the lord) and was only informed of the facts after he slept in the best guestroom and asked for hot cake and his bill in the morning.
- While most recollect the Fetherstons as "benign" landlords, some of the better ones who took care of their tenants through employment, food, education and so forth they were not all kind. One story goes that a young lord of the house had a favourite sport of throwing coins into the mud at the catholic schoolhouse (now Ardagh Heritage and Creativity Centre) to watch the children pick them up from the mud knowing they would get their only good clothes dirty.
- The old graveyard of the family that is still attached to the estate with its gate open facing the Protestant schoolhouse (now Ardagh Hall) has many of the Fetherston family buried in it but also has the body of Paddy Farrell, leader of the rebels in the Battle of Granard in 1798. What is unusual about this is that the rest of those slaughtered at that battle were thrown in a pile and buried where the church in Granard is now sited.
The House and the Village
The original building at the Ardagh Demesne included four reception rooms and a chapel/ballroom. An extension to the property included a separate kitchen, dining room, a home economics room which had 14 workstations, a gymnasium and an additional dormitory comprising 16 bedrooms.
The stable yards were built of limestone in the 19th century and designed by John Rawson Carroll who also designed the picturesque village of Ardagh. The courtyard comprises two traditional coach houses, a tack room with loft overhead as well as two stables and lofts. The entrance boasts a clock tower. It was completely restored in 1994.
The village, designed in the 1860s features spectacular stone walls and Tudor-Gothic cottages. The inspiration for the village was a Swiss village that the Lord liked and hence the triangular pitched gables on the cottages to let the snow fall down. Features in the cottages include brick chimneys, slated roofs, ornate timber fascia, latticed windows. The centre piece of the village is the Gothic clock tower. Other features are the cast iron gates and railings.
Ardagh Heritage and Creativity Centre
The schoolhouse was built in 1898 and remained a school until the mid 1970s. It was restored as a Heritage Centre in the 1990s, was closed for a period, was a restaurant for a few years and is a creativity and heritage centre promoting self-directed learning along with the heritage and history of County Longford since 2011.
The Neighbourhood Park, kept by Ardagh Tidy Towns and used by the centre, the school, walkers, flora lovers and wanderers features over 2,000 native Irish trees, three trees planted by the Presidents of Ireland, Mary Robinson, Mary McAlleese and Michael D. Higgins and a sculpture of the legendary Midir and Etain by Eamonn O’Doherty.
St. Brigid's Church
The Fetherstons gave a site for this church in January 1859 . It was built to a design of William Hague, a pupil of the famous Pugin, and is regarded as one of the most ornate of the churches designed by him. The altar was built by the father of Padraic Pearse, James Pearse.
The most noticeable feature of this Church is the freestanding Lych Gate erected c. 1863. Lych gates are unusual in Ireland being a typical Anglican Church feature. This is the point where the coffins were traditionally met by a clergyman. The word 'lych' has its origins in Old English and means 'corpse'.