From a distance Killegar, County Leitrim looks quite splendid. The house is approached via a long and densely wooded drive, with occasional glimpses through trees and meadow of a slender lake, Lough Kilnemar. Finally the approach enters more open ground dropping down to the left and offering views across the parkland to Killegar itself, a building of two storeys and eight bays, the centre pair forming a pedimented breakfront with handsome engaged Tuscan doorcase flanked by windows. The house faces south-east, a sequence of terraces descending to the lake’s glistening surface. One understands how John Kilbracken (who died almost eight years ago) could write in 1955, ‘It’s easy to love Killegar, as I realised more than ever when I came here for the first time after my father’s death. I can imagine selling it when I’m in Portofino, or Manhattan, or Paris (and imagine the villa, penthouse or atelier I’ll buy instead)…’ But he never did so, his love for the place overwhelming any urge to make money from it (thus proving him a most unlikely Irishman). But the consequences of passion combined with penury grow all too apparent the closer one draws to the house.
As seen today, the greater part of Killegar dates from c.1813, the same year the estate’s then-owner John Godley married Catherine Daly, a daughter of Denis Daly of Dunsandle, County Galway and his wife Lady Henrietta Maxwell (for more on Dunsandle and its lost interiors, see Dun and Dusted, December 9th 2013). But there was an older property on at least part of the site built around 1750 and incorporated into the new house. This takes advantage of the sloping site to have two storeys at the front but effectively only one at the rear where a courtyard was created. As so often, the architect is unknown and indeed one may not have been employed since Killegar’s design was always relatively simple. One curiosity is that the principal entrance, having initially been placed at the centre of the garden elevation, was subsequently moved to one side where a large pedimented porch was added. Thus visitors to the house stepped not into the main hall but into a rather narrow passage from whence they moved to the small drawing room. This was the first of an enfilade of rooms running the length of the main block. Above them were the bedrooms with a wonderful prospect of Lough Kilnemar (otherwise known as House Lake) although the view from the passage to the rear was of the service yard.
The Godleys were the latest in a succession of owners of the land on which Killegar stands. For centuries this part of the country was under the control of the O’Rourke clan, but as part of the plantation policy in the 17th century they were dispossessed and in 1640 Charles I granted a large parcel of some 2,784 Irish acres to the Scottish settler Sir James Craig: this territory subsequently became known as Craigstown. However further generations of Craigs did not manage their Irish estates well. They appear to have been prone to bickering, fell into debt and in 1734 were declared bankrupt. Craigstown was accordingly put up for sale and bought for £5626, eight shillings and four pence by a Dublin merchant Richard Morgan who had made his money in textiles. Richard Morgan’s only daughter, Mary married the Rev Dr William Godley, a landless clergyman who was rector of Mullabrack, Co Armagh and whose father had also been a Dublin merchant and alderman. The Godleys had arrived in Ireland at some date in the 17th century, probably from Yorkshire.
Killegar came into their ownership because although the estate was left by Richard Morgan to his son (also called Richard), the latter despite two marriages only had a single daughter who died while in her teens. And his only brother, William, a pupil and disciple of John Wesley (and an early Methodist) died in Dublin at the age of 20. So on the death of Richard Morgan the younger in 1784 there were no direct male heirs. The estate ought then to have passed to Mary Morgan’s eldest son, John Godley, a lawyer. However, despite his background the will was disputed and was only settled after twenty-six years of litigation in 1810. By then John Godley had died and so it was his son, another John Godley, who took possession of Killegar. It was he, hitherto a city merchant, who married Catherine Daly and decided to build the present house.
In addition to the main house, John Godley built a church, school and school-teacher’s house at Killegar, together with the two gate-lodges and eight other cottages on the estate before dying in 1863 at the age of eighty-eight. By this date his eldest son, John Robert Godley, had already died. The latter is generally deemed the founder of the Canterbury region of New Zealand, settled in the mid-19th century as a colony following the beliefs of the Church of England. He served as leader of the settlement that became the city of Christchurch but then returned to England where he died two years before his father. Therefore in 1863 Killegar passed to the next generation, John Arthur Godley, then in his teens and at school. A few years after leaving Oxford, he served as Assistant Private Secretary to the Prime Minister William Gladstone and in 1880 was appointed Commissioner for Inland Revenue, a position he held for the next two years. In 1883 he became Under-Secretary of State at the India Office, remaining there until his retirement in 1909 when he was raised to the peerage as Baron Kilbracken of Killegar.
But of course, a career as a senior civil servant in London meant he had little time to spend on his estate in Ireland. Killegar was instead given on a long lease first to his uncle Archibald Godley and then in turn on his death in 1907 responsibility for running the place passed to Archibald Godley’s only child Anna who lived until 1955. As a result, Arthur Godley’s son Hugh, second Lord Kilbracken, never spent much time at Killegar, only bringing his own family to Ireland for the first time in 1927.
The first Lord Kilbracken had been a Liberal and, perhaps as a result of having worked for Gladstone, was fully supportive of tenants’ rights to buy the land they farmed. Unlike the great majority of Irish landlords, he encouraged the sale of his estate with the result that even before the passing of the Wyndham Act of 1903, all but Killegar’s home farms had passed out of family ownership.
While certainly admirable, an obvious consequence of Lord Kilbracken’s action was that it left subsequent generations of Godleys with limited income from land: thus the second Lord Kilbracken qualified as a barrister and, like his father before him, spent the greater part of his professional life in London, with only holidays at Killegar. Although he moved into the main house on his retirement in 1943, it was already apparent there were insufficient resources to sustain the place and so at the time of his death in 1950 Killegar and the remaining 420 acres, was on the market with two identical offers made of £8,000.
At the time of his father’s death, John Godley, third Lord Kilbracken was travelling overland to New Zealand to take part in celebrations marking the centenary of the foundation of Christchurch. Initially he was prepared to go ahead with the sale of Killegar but by the time he reached Sydney, Australia he had come to the conclusion that the estate ought to remain in the family, and the following year he came back to Ireland determined to take over responsibility for the place. Clearly although he never regretted this decision, it had consequences he could not have foretold.
John Kilbracken, journalist and bon viveur, was throughout the course of his long and hectic life the very embodiment of the impoverished Irish peer possessed of big house and small income. A man of exceptional intelligence and charm, his various books are to be recommended, not least for their ability to make sundry travails sound highly entertaining. For example, in Living like a Lord (1955) he devotes a chapter to recounting the story of how he almost came to play the part of Ishmael in John Huston’s Moby Dick, parts of which were filmed in the County Cork port town of Youghal. Typically, as a result of having amused Huston one night over dinner, he found himself caught up in a six-month maelstrom of screen tests and costume fittings before eventually being relegated to the part of an extra carrying a live pig onto a vessel. However, owing to technical issues the scene had to be re-shot with someone else as pig carrier. Thus he never made the final cut, although he did work as a supplementary script writer, for which – naturally in his narrative – he received no screen credit.
But in relation to Killegar perhaps the greatest challenge he had to face occurred in 1970 when the house was gutted by fire. A rebuilding programme followed, testament to his devotion, but sadly many of the contents were forever lost. he struggled on and since his death in 2006 Killegar has been occupied by his second wife Sue and their son Seán. As the pictures above indicate, it remains as much a battle as ever to keep the house from falling into desolation. With little land (and proportionately little income) Killegar is now at a turning point in its fortunes, the last big house in County Leitrim to remain in the hands of the original family – but for how much longer? There comes a moment when the struggle becomes overwhelming with an outcome insufficient to justify the effort. One feels Killegar is nearing that moment. It is on the brink, from which there can be no return.
‘So there she is for you: beautiful Killegar, happy Killegar, funny tumbling-down Killegar, waiting to open her seductive arms to me.’ John Kilbracken, 1920-2006.