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Hard Luck of the Irish

One in a series of holiday-inspired destinations in co-op country.
This month: St. Patrick’s Day.


John Neilson of Albemarle County helped to define Virginia architecture

by Gregg MacDonald, Staff Writer

United Irishman John Neilson, buried in Charlottesville, Va., lived a hard but charmed life. Born in 1770 in Ballycarry, Ireland, Neilson escaped death after British Redcoats hanged his 15-year-old brother in their family’s front yard. An older brother drowned at sea while being exiled to the West Indies with Neilson, who escaped a similar fate.

Somehow, Neilson survived wandering through the North American wilderness of the late 18th century alone and penniless, slowly making his way, mostly on foot, to Philadelphia.

After being naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 1804, he moved to Virginia, befriended two U.S. presidents and made a name for himself as a master carpenter, draftsman and architect.


Today, his work is well-known in Albemarle, Fluvanna and Orange counties.

“The United Irishmen were an Irish political organization formed in 1791 who, spurred on by the American and French revolutions, hoped to gain Irish independence from British forces,” says Kevin Donleavy of Charlottesville.

“Neilson and his two brothers were actively involved and all three were captured.The British were notoriously brutal in their dealings with this group.”

Donleavy is a longtime member of Clann Mohr, an academic group of Charlottesville-based researchers who specialize in Irish American history.

He says he’s likely the most knowledgeable person still living in America when it comes to John Neilson, and authored a pamphlet about him.

“As a young man, he was apprenticed to Irish architect James Hunter before being banished for life from Ireland, and then when he came to Virginia and took up residence in Albemarle County, he befriended both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and helped to build their respective homes,Monticello and Montpelier, as well as some parts of the University of Virginia,” Donleavy says.

Gardiner Hallock, vice president for architecture, collections and facilities for Monticello, says Neilson had a profound effect on Monticello’s first renovation period between 1804 and 1809.

“Neilson was a master house-joiner and architectural woodworker who did some of the exterior and most of the interior woodwork you see today,” he says.

Neilson is also credited with helping to build Bremo, a plantation estate in Fluvanna County that is privately owned and considered by many to be his masterpiece. Built near the James River, Bremo was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1969 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1971 for its significance as an example of Jeffersonian architecture.

“It’s such a great example that many people to this day still think Thomas Jefferson built Bremo,” says Tricia Johnson, executive director of the Fluvanna Historical Society.

In 1999, Donleavy and Clann Mohr decided that Neilson and his contributions to Virginia should be honored.

“We knew that he was buried in Charlottesville’s Maplewood Cemetery in 1827, but no one knew exactly where, so we dedicated a tombstone in a section of the cemetery that not only is one of the oldest but is also located where many other early Irish residents were buried,” he says.

“Although Neilson could never return to his native Ireland, he could, at least symbolically, rest among his own people again — for eternity.”