History of Hilton Park

There has been a house at Hilton Park since the early 17th Century, although its earliest name was Killshanless until changed to Maddenton, presumably in recognition of the earlier Madden property in Co. Kildare and was finally changed to its present name at the end of the 18th Century. When Samuel Madden purchased the estate for his third son in 1734, he built a house incorporating the original building. In 1803 a servant, answering a call of nature or the bell to lunch, history does not relate which, put down a bucket of glowing coals from a cleaned out grate and burned down the house. It is said to have burnt for two days the glow being seen in Clones. The main and upper floors were completely gutted, many works of art and furniture perished and most of Samuel Madden’s archive, then housed at Hilton, was lost.

I must add a footnote to the foregoing about the fire. In 1984, I was made aware that a painting by Thomas Roberts had recently been sold by the Cynthia O’Connor Gallery in Dublin, which showed the artist sitting painting with his patron, Colonel Madden, looking over his shoulder in an extensive landscape of Upper Lough Erne with Knockninny in the background and most tantalising of all, with the only depiction of Manor Waterhouse to exist today. Tragically the Gallery did not offer this painting to the family before selling it. Apparently this painting was found in a frame behind a portrait in a house in Galway. I have no doubt in my mind that this painting belonged to the family and would have been removed to Hilton, when the family gave up Manor Waterhouse and because of its content I am equally certain that it would never have been disposed of. If I am right, this begs a number of questions. If this painting survived the fire, was it looted? If it was looted, how much else suffered the same fate? If there was much looting, might it be that the fire was started deliberately, as the family were away from home at the time? Which begs another question; how infallible is history?

The house was rebuilt over the following 15 years or so, it is believed to the design of James Jones; meanwhile the family lived in the male servants’ quarters over the stables. The two principal bedrooms and the dining room remain intact from this rebuilding, as does the north end. The dining room has a fine ‘Nelson’ ceiling of ropes and oakleaves, reflecting no doubt that Admiral Lord Nelson had fallen at Trafalgar in 1805 and that Colonel John Madden’s father-in-law, Admiral William Wolseley, had been Admiral of the Red in his fleet.

The next John Madden, a true Victorian ‘improver’, set about transforming his house in the 1870s into an Italian ‘palazzo’, with the technical assistance of the young, local architect, William Hague, who became well known as architect of many fine Roman Catholic churches, including the cathedral in Monaghan. This involved digging out the basement, so that it became the ground floor, introducing a new hall, inner hall, staircase and gallery, as well as a ballroom and boudoir. The exterior was encased in cut Dungannon sandstone; enrichments and a handsome ‘porte-cochere’ were added. The house was then virtually fortified with steel shutters and a massive front door in deference to the Land League, who by then could smell the blood of the landlords.

The Hilton that John Madden bequeathed is today substantially as he altered it, except that it is electrified, centrally heated, every bedroom has its ‘en suite’ bathroom and the ballroom has been divided to make two drawing rooms.

As a ‘piano nobile’ the main floor commands outstanding views over the park, parterre and lake. Hague’s fine watercoloured architectural drawings for these works can be seen on the way downstairs to the breakfast room. Madden records in his diary that he consulted Sir Charles Lanyon, but it is probable that he engaged Hague because he was cheaper and more likely to accept the influence of his patron than the older man.

The house is furnished with period pieces that have been here for generations and musical guests are encouraged to play the splendidly original ‘Erard’ concert grand piano, which is contemporary with Chopin and is exactly the piano he might have played. There is also a fine chimney piece that Colonel John brought back from Naples in his yacht in the first decade of the 19th Century. Through the back windows the colonnaded ride that he built can be seen, under which his horses were exercised on wet days – it is believed to be unique in Ireland.