Given the notoriety of its late 18th century resident, the fate of Mount Shannon, County Limerick seems inevitable. One of the country’s more striking ruins, the house formerly stood at the centre of a 900-acre demesne famous for its trees and gardens: in his 1822 Encyclopedia of Gardening the Scottish botanist and landscape designer John Claudius Loudon specifically cited Mount Shannon as an example of improvements in Ireland, and proposed these had been carried out under the direction of the first Earl of Clare, of whom more anon. Five years later Fitzgerald and McGregor in their study of the history and topography of Limerick city and county likewise refer to Mount Shannon: ‘the plantations are laid out with fine taste, and the gardens are extensive and well arranged.’ Aside from a handful of surviving specimen trees, no evidence of the demesne’s former glories now remains, and much of the land is given over to suburban housing, making it difficult to discern what the grounds must have looked like even a century ago. On the other hand it is still possible to gain a sense of the main house’s former appearance. In 1827 Fitzgerald and McGregor described it as being ‘one of the most superb mansions in the South of Ireland’ and although a hollow shell for over ninety years it clings onto a residue of grandeur.
The original Mount Shannon was built c.1750 by the euphoniously-named Silver Oliver whose family’s main estate was elsewhere in the county at Clonodfoy, later Castle Oliver. Oliver appears to have sold the property to a member of the White family but around 1765 it came into the possession of John Fitzgibbon, supposedly a descendant of the mediaeval White Knights, who had been raised a Roman Catholic but converted to Anglicanism so that he could become a lawyer (Penal Laws then barring this profession to everyone not a member of the established church). Highly successful, he amassed a considerable fortune
which when he died in 1780 was passed on to his son, also called John and later first Earl of Clare.
It would appear from various references that Lord Clare did much to improve and aggrandise Mount Shannon, not just its demesne but also the house. However the latter’s most striking feature was added by his eldest son the second earl in 1813. The immense Ionic portico with Doric pilasters behind was designed by Lewis Wyatt (a member of the prolific English family of architects and a nephew of James Wyatt), and occupies the three centre bays of the seven-bay north entrance front. Behind three round-headed doors gave access to the hall with the drawing room and other main reception rooms behind. The interiors, as a handful of 19th century photographs show, were chillingly neo-classical with scarcely any ornament. The same was true of the exterior which, as can be seen is constructed of brick with cut limestone dressings. The severity of the south, garden facade was relieved by a very large curved conservatory. To the immediate east of the two-storey over sunken basement house is a long, lower extension which would have been used for services and was originally concealed by a curved screen wall that joined the still-extant wall of the old walled garden.
Many stories are told of John ‘Black Jack’ Fitzgibbon, first Earl of Clare, some of them apocryphal, few of them kind. After studying at Trinity College, Dublin and Christchurch, Oxford he became a lawyer like his father before him. He was first elected to the Irish House of Commons in 1778 and five years later was appointed Attorney General. Appointed Lord Chancellor for Ireland in 1789, he was also received his first peerage, as Baron FitzGibbon, of Lower Connello; he was subsequently advanced to a Viscountcy in 1793 and finally received his earldom in 1795. Four years later he was granted an English peerage (entitling him to a seat in the House of Lords at Westminster), becoming Baron FitzGibbon, of Sidbury in the County of Devon.
Unquestionably brilliant, Fitzgibbon was also without doubt bigoted. It has often been noted that he was a hardline Protestant and a member of the Protestant Ascendancy who avidly promoted whatever measures he believed would best preserve that group’s political domination in Ireland. He supported harsh measures against members of the 1798 Rebellion and was openly hostile to Roman Catholicism despite or perhaps because of his father had originally been a member of this faith. When it came to the Act of Union in 1800, of which he was firmly in favour, there was widespread understanding that this would be accompanied by concessions made to Roman Catholics with the Penal Laws being ameliorated. FitzGibbon persuaded George III that any such liberalisation of the status quo would be a violation of the king’s Coronation Oath and thus ensured pro-Emancipation measures were not included in the Union legislation. In so doing he delayed Catholic Emancipation by three decades and encouraged the spread of sectarianism.
It is said that FitzGibbon once declared he would make the Irish as ‘tame as a dead cat.’ As a result, there are stories of dead cats being thrown into his coach, and of more of the same being flung into his grave when he died in January 1802 following a fall from his horse at Mount Shannon the previous month.
At the time of the Act of Union, Lord Clare arranged for a handsome pension by way of compensation for the loss of his office as Lord Chancellor which was then abolished; this was to be paid both to him and his immediate heir. Thus the second earl, who died in 1851, enjoyed a handsome income not just from his estates which ran to more than 13,000 acres in Counties Limerick and Tipperary but from the munificence of the British Treasury. A close friend of Lord Byron, with whom he was at school, the second earl later became Governor first of Bombay and later of Bengal; he enhanced Mount Shannon by both the addition of the portico and other improvements, but by adding treasures from India and paintings acquired on his travels around Europe.
Since he had no children, his property passed to a younger brother, who duly became third earl. He was to suffer a number of disadvantages, among them the absence of the pension enjoyed by his predecessors, a much depleted income in the aftermath of the Great Famine, and the death of his only son during the Charge of the Light Brigage at the Battle of Balaclava in October 1854: Limerick’s Wellesley Bridge used to feature a handsome statue to the youthful Viscount FitzGibbon until it was blown up by the IRA in 1930.
On the death of the third earl in 1864 the title became extinct. His estate was left to the two younger of his three daughters (the eldest, who had caused a scandal by abandoning her own spouse and children to run off with the elderly husband of a half-sister, appears to have been disinherited). While the middle sister took possession of the FitzGibbon silver and, it seems, the greater part of the liquidity attached to the estate, the youngest Lady Louisa FitzGibbon assumed responsibility for Mount Shannon.
Lady Louisa was as dogged by bad luck as her father. Her eldest son died at the age of twenty, followed by her first husband and then the Italian Marchese she married in expectation of his money turned out to be as penniless as herself. With the advent of the Land Wars rents ceased to be paid, portions of the estate had to be sold, what remained was mortgaged, and money borrowed at high interest rates. All to no avail: Lady Louisa’s creditors demanded satisfaction, following litigation a receiver was appointed, and in the course of a sale lasting several days during June 1888 Mount Shannon was stripped of its contents including a very valuable library. Here is a small quote from the fascinating catalogue compiled by Limerick auctioneer John Bernal: ‘The Family Paintings are Chef Douvres [sic], by the first artist of the period, when they were taken, some of the Paintings, see page 42, were placed in the house about 1790, and will afford the connoisseur and speculator a good chance of getting a valuable Old Master on good terms. There are also some replicas from the Dresden gallery.’ The first such melancholy event of its kind in Ireland, a prelude to many more to follow over the coming decades, the Mount Shannon excited huge interest, with special trains and catering arrangements being laid on. Lady Louisa FitzGibbon spent the remainder of her days in a Dominican convent on the Isle of Wight, an establishment founded by the Roman Catholic convert wife of her uncle, the second Lord Clare; this was something of an irony given the first earl’s virulent hatred of all Catholics.
Five years after the sale, Thomas Nevins, who had been born in Mayo but made a fortune in the United States as a tram and railway contractor, bought Mount Shannon where he died in 1902, just like the first earl following a bad fall from a horse. His widow only survived until 1907 after which the place passed through various hands before what remained of the estate was bought in 1915 by David O’Hannigan of County Cork for £1,000. He did not have long to enjoy Mount Shannon since it was burned down in June 1920 during the War of Independence, the light of the flames apparently seen in Limerick city.
The house remains a shell. To walk through it today is to have a sense what it must have been like visiting a site such as the Baths of Caracalla in the aftermath of Imperial Rome’s collapse, especially as this immense structure is now surrounded by others domestic buildings of infinitely smaller dimensions and aspirations. Even in its present broken-down state Mount Shannon continues dominate the area and to exude an air of greater distinction than any of its neighbours.