This time of year always has a special resonance for the people of Wexford since it marks the anniversary of the suppression of the 1798 Rebellion in that part of the country. Readers unfamiliar with Irish history might not be aware of the uprising, initiated by members of an organisation called the Society of United Irishmen. Founded in 1791 this body as its name indicates welcomed members of all religious persuasions and strove to achieve more democratic government within Ireland, inspired by the ideals of the American Revolution. However, it was also stimulated by what was taking place in France at the time and after the British government went to war against the French in 1793 the United Irishmen movement was proscribed, with the result that it went underground and became more extreme in intent: an independent republic was now the goal.
Finally in May 1798 the United Irishmen movement, which now had over 250,000 members, saw key leaders arrested by the government and uprisings in various parts of the country, most notably County Wexford. The degree of violence and destruction which took place here was greater than anywhere else, and one of the houses which is known to have suffered damage during the period was Woodbrook, near Killanne in the north-west of the county.
Killanne is a townland at the foot of the Blackstairs Mountains. It was here that John Kelly, a leader of the 1798 insurrection in Wexford grew up. He seems to have been only 21 when he participated in a battle against government forces on May 30th that led to the capture of Wexford town. Several days later Kelly was involved in the Battle of New Ross where he received a serious wound to his leg. In order to recuperate he moved to Wexford where one of his sisters lived. However, following the Battle of Vinegar Hill outside Enniscorthy on June 21st the British army regained control of Wexford and Kelly was discovered. Sentenced to death, on or near this day 215 years ago he was first hanged and then decapitated, his body subsequently thrown into the river Slaney, his head kicked about the streets before being set on a pike. His remains were later interred in a grave at Killanne. He is remembered in a well-known song:
‘Tell me who is that giant with the gold curling hair,
He who rides at the head of your band.
Seven feet is his height with some inches to spare,
And he looks like a king in command.
Ah, my lads, that’s the pride of the bold Shelmaliers,
Among our greatest of heroes a man,
Fling your beavers aloft and give three ringing cheers,
For John Kelly, the Boy from Killane.’
Woodbrook is believed to date from the late 1770s/early 1780s and was built for the Venerable Arthur Jacob who had purchased the estate on which the house stands in 1752. By the time construction commenced, he had been Rector of Killanne for some twenty years and for much of the same period was also Archdeacon of Armagh. The latter explains why in 1784 Susan his only child and heiress should have married Captain William Blacker whose family lived in that part of the country. The Blackers trace their descent from Blacar, a Norse chief who arrived in Ireland in the early 10th century. Among his more questionable achievements was the plunder of Clonmacnoise in 940 and the following year the slaying of Muirchertach, King of Ailech, after which he sacked the city of Armagh. One suspects there was not much mourning when he finallyy fell in battle in 946.
As for the modern line of Blackers, they are known to have settled more peaceably in County Armagh in the 17th century where in 1692 they built a house called Carrickblacker (after being acquired by Portadown Golf Club it was demolished some years ago). Captain William Blacker, who married Susan Jacob, was a younger son so he had the good fortune to find a rich wife. It may have been his connection with the British armed forces that led to her County Wexford house, Woodbrook, to suffer assault in 1798. Or it may have been because his nephew and namesake Col. William Blacker had been one of the founders of the sectarian Orange Order two years earlier. Or the explanation may simply be that Woodbrook, like a number of other big houses in this part of the country, was attacked by rebels looking for arms and other goods.
Woodbrook as seen today is the result of what must have been an extensive renovation programme by the Blackers in the early 19th century. A big handsome building, the main block is of three bays and three storeys, the south-facing entrance front saved from austerity by the embellishment of a wide tetrastyle Ionic granite portico (and pretty fanlight over the door beyond). There are tripartite Wyatt windows on all three floors (and on three sides) diminishing in size as they rise, so the interiors have an abundance of light as well as wonderful views across the parkland and towards the Blackstairs. The ceilings of the main rooms are exceptionally high and very generously proportioned; the drawing room, for example, is forty foot long with inlaid doors and elegant ceiling plasterwork.
The airiness and grace of Woodbrook is exemplified by its remarkable ‘flying’ staircase which spirals up the double-height hall from ground to first floor. The main structure is wood, with wrought iron balusters and a polished mahogany banister and although linked by metal bands to the surrounding walls in several places, it gives the impression of floating in space, a fancy enhanced by the slight bounce evident as one ascends or descends the steps. One wonders whether the civil engineer Charles Blacker Vignoles who was born in the house in 1793 (his father was a friend of the family) and who in the 1830s was responsible for the design and construction of Ireland’s first railway, running from Dublin to Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) might have had a hand in the creation of this unique staircase.
The last of the Blackers left Woodbrook in 1995 and three years later – on the 200th anniversary of the place being damaged during the 1798 Rebellion – it was sold to Giles and Alexandra FitzHerbert who have lived there ever since and together with their children have made the house marvellously welcoming and vibrant. Woodbrook is always full of activity and entertainment, and always a pleasure to visit. You can find out more about it by looking at: www.woodbrookhouse.ie