Next week, on Tuesday 23rd April the contents of Fort William, County Waterford are due to be auctioned (see www.fonsiemealy.ie for more information). The sale will close a memorable period in many people’s lives; there have been few Irish houses in recent years more welcoming, more filled with joie de vivre than this.
Located a couple of miles west of Lismore and on a superb site above the Blackwater river, Fort William dates from the 1830s when it was erected to the designs of those prolific brothers James and George William Pain, both of whom worked as apprentice architects for John Nash in London before moving to Ireland. The Pains produced houses in whatever style was requested by their clients and at Fort William they came up with a benign form of Tudor Revival. Faced in local sandstone which has a wonderfully mottled appearance, the exterior is ornamented with an abundance of gables and pinnacles and angled chimneys but these are decorative flourishes on what is essentially a classical building, as can be seen by the regular sash windows.
Fort William was built for John Bowen Gumbleton whose family, originally from Kent, had settled in the area by the early 18th century. Their main residence – once called Castlerichard but later renamed Glencairn – lies a little further upriver. The property on that site was substantially transformed around 1814 by John Gumbleton’s father into fashionable High Gothic (complete with faux cloister) and this may be the explanation for Fort William’s appearance: in every sense a chronological continuation of the parent house.
Ever since being built, Fort William has regularly changed hands. On John Bowen Gumbleton’s death in 1858, the estate was inherited by his son 17-year old John Henry but he died at sea eight years later. Ownership of Fort William then passed to his two sisters but they lived elsewhere and so the house was rented to tenants. In 1910 the place was taken by Lt-Col. Richard Keane, whose older brother Sir John Keane of nearby Cappoquin I discussed a few weeks ago (Risen from the Ashes, 4th March). A note in the forthcoming auction catalogue notes that Richard Keane and his wife Alice ‘had two cars, one of which – replete with a cocktail cabinet – was commandeered by the IRA during the War of Independence and never returned.’ Furthermore during the subsequent Civil War the servants’ wing at Fort William was occupied by Free State troops; this may help to explain why Sir John Keane’s house was burnt out in 1923 by the opposition.
Richard Keane died in 1925 following the accidental discharge of his shotgun and seven years later the estate was sold to a local man who continued the established pattern of renting the house; among the tenants at this time was Adele Astaire, sister of Fred, who in 1932 had married Lord Charles Cavendish, younger son of the ninth Duke of Devonshire; for centuries the Devonshires have owned the neighbouring estate of Lismore Castle.
The ducal connections continue because after a brief Gumbleton interlude in 1946 Fort William was bought for £10,000 by the second Duke of Westminster. This was the famed Bend’Or, one-time lover of Chanel (among many others) who following the failure of his third marriage had fallen in love with Nancy Sullivan, daughter of Brigadier-General Edward Sullivan. An outstanding horsewoman she had grown up in Glanmire on the outskirts of Cork city. This may explain why the Duke acquired Fort William, although it is worth remembering that a daughter from his first marriage, Lady Ursula Grosvenor, together with her second husband Major Stephen Vernon lived at Fairyfield outside Kinsale, County Cork. Whatever the explanation, the Duke certainly spent some time in the house: the dining room panelling is said to have come from the interior of one of his yachts and he is also believed responsible for installing the French painted and gilded boiseries in the drawing room. Following his death in 1953 his widow (who only died in 2003) retained Fort William but spent the greater part of her time at Eaton Lodge, Cheshire where her stables held many fine racehorses, not least Arkle who won the Cheltenham Gold Cup three times in succession.
Fort William was sold again in 1969 to an American couple, Murray and Phyllis Mitchell. Following her death, it was bought by Ian Agnew, one-time Deputy Chairman of Lloyd’s. Ian acquired the place on a whim but he had strong Irish connections through his mother, Ruth Moore who had grown up at Mooresfort, County Tipperary. The Moores were an old Roman Catholic family. Ian’s great-grandfather, Arthur Moore was created a Papal Count in 1879; the previous year he had provided most of the funds necessary to establish the Cistercian monastery of Mount St Joseph outside Roscrea, County Tipperary. Curiously Glencairn, the estate immediately adjacent to Fort William is today occupied by Cistercian nuns.
Ian and I never spoke much of his forebears but among the most remarkable was his maternal grandmother, Lady Dorothie Feilding. A much decorated volunteer nurse and ambulance driver during the First World War, in September 1916 she became the first woman to be awarded the Military Medal for bravery in the field. After she died in 1935 her husband Captain Charles Moore moved to England to become manager of the Royal Stud. Continuing those links, Ian’s father Sir Godfrey Agnew was for 21 years Clerk of the Privy Council.
A wonderful man with seemingly boundless gusto, Ian Agnew went to enormous trouble to restore and modernise Fort William while ensuring none of the patina it had accumulated was lost. (He also put in some time trying to teach me the finer nuances of fly fishing on the Blackwater, with less successful results.) The outcome was a house of tremendous comfort and warmth, very much a reflection of his personality and that of his beloved wife Sara. Sadly Ian died four years ago and since then Sara has been literally holding the fort, and continuing the tradition of abundant hospitality already established while her husband was alive. I could not begin to enumerate the charmed days I have spent at Fort William, but I have also managed to work there with equal delight: more than one piece for this blog has been written while sitting at the George III secretaire which can be seen in a corner of the morning room above.
I cherish all those memories because the time has now come for Sara regretfully to pass on the baton, hence next week’s sale. Without question she is going to be enormously missed by everyone in the area but one wishes the new owners as much delight in Fort William as was enjoyed by Ian and Sara – and their lucky houseguests. Below is a final image summing up Fort William in recent years: a passage leading to the ever-welcoming kitchen bathed in sunshine (something the house’s spirit has seemed to radiate even on days of rain). And there on the rug is Alfie who despite his recumbent pose for the camera has been ever a faithful and tireless companion on Fort William walks no matter how far the distance or how bad the weather.
All photographs by James Fennell (www.jamesfennell.com)