A Life’s Work in Ireland

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In December 1880 William Bence Jones published The Life’s Work in Ireland of a Landlord Who Tried to Do His Duty. Although intended as an apologia, the book only brought further notoriety to a man already widely reviled here: the Cork Examiner described him as ‘the most thoroughly disliked man in the county.’ How did this come about? Bence Jones had inherited an estate in County Cork originally bought by his grandfather William Jones, son of an Archdeacon of Llandaff, who came to Ireland after marrying Elinor Winthrop whose father had been Mayor of Cork in 1744. Both William Jones and Bence Jones’ father, another William, were absentee landlords, never even visiting their property, but in 1838 when still in his mid-twenties he had settled on the estate after discovering his agent had been embezzling the family. Bence Jones devoted himself to improving the 4,000 acres in his possession, directly farming a quarter of the land while the rest was let to tenants. However, he expected higher rents to be paid as a result of his improvements and this is what led to trouble. Following a number of bad summers and poor harvests in the late 1870s, his tenants sought to have their rents reduced. Bence Jones refused the request and the Irish National Land League, founded in October 1879 with Charles Stewart Parnell as its President, became involved in the dispute. A grave was dug outside the front door of the Bence Jones house, he was sent threatening letters, then boycotted and the workers on his land forced to leave. His elder son and unmarried daughter, assisted by the butler and a gardener, took over responsibility for feeding and milking the estate’s herd of cattle while soldiers from the local barracks guarded the property. It was under these circumstances that Bence Jones wrote his book, hoping thereby to elicit sympathy for his circumstances. However within Ireland the opposite was achieved, not least thanks to his disparaging comments on the indigenous population. Eventually a new work force came over from Britain and Bence Jones with his family moved to London from whence he engaged in a war of words with the County Cork Roman Catholic priest and Land League supporter, Fr John O’Leary. Bence Jones died in 1882, and his fight with the Land League might have been the only way the family was remembered in Ireland had it not been for the literary career of his great-grandson, Mark Bence-Jones.

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The estate owned by William Bence Jones was called Lisselane and here he built a house in 1851-53 to the designs of English architect Lewis Vulliamy. Currently on the market with 315 acres for €9 million, Lisselane is usually described as being in the ‘simplified’ French chateau style, no doubt thanks to its Mansard roof and a corner turret. Sited on rising ground above the Arigadeen river, the house was extended by William Bence Jones’ son Reginald who bought a large glass conservatory made for the Cork Exhibition of 1902 and five years later knocked several rooms together to create a large library-hall lined from floor to ceiling with oak bookcases. Reginald had sold most of the estate under the terms of the Wyndham Act, using the money not only to improve his house but also to buy a smart Mercedes limousine with silver flower vases in the passenger compartment. Meanwhile his wife Ethel Bence Jones had the funds to improve the gardens at Lisselane: an existing terrace above the river was extended, the river itself widened, a rose garden created along with a bog garden, rock garden and American garden. Yet opportunity to enjoy these new features was limited: come the outbreak of the First World War, the house was closed up and then in the aftermath of the Troubles it was sold by the family. Reginald and Ethel Bence Jones’ younger son, Colonel Philip Bence-Jones, was an engineer who worked on the Blue Nile dam and had helped to rebuild the old Waterloo Bridge in London. The story is told that as a young soldier in the First World War he once told Winston Churchill he had got the wrong hat. ‘When Churchill looked doubtful, Bence-Jones threw the hat in the air and shot two holes clean through it with his revolver. “You’re right,” agreed the astounded Churchill.’ In 1925 Philip Bence-Jones married May Thomas, a Roman Catholic from Alexandria and converted to her faith; five years later their only child, Mark Bence-Jones was born.

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In 1934 Philip Bence-Jones was appointed head of the engineering school at Lahore and the family moved to India. On their return to Europe in 1945 they returned to the country of his birth and bought Annemount on the north shores of Cork Harbour. Four years later the house was destroyed by fire and so the family moved again, this time to Glenville Park. The land on which the house stands originally belonged to the Nagles whose main residence was Carrigacunna Castle overlooking the Blackwater river. Sir Richard Nagle was James II’s Attorney-General in Ireland and Speaker of the Irish House of Commons. In the aftermath of the Williamite Wars, this portion of the Nagle property passed to the Coppingers, an old Cork mercantile family: in 1319 Stephen Coppinger was Mayor of the city, and several of his descendants held this position as well as becoming Bailiffs and Sheriffs of Cork. The Coppingers remained Roman Catholic and could therefore only afford to build a relatively modest residence at Glenville, of two storeys and five bays fronted by a semi-circular courtyard with a gate at either end. At some point in the late 1770s/early 1780s they sold the place to Dr Edward Hudson, a successful dentist who otherwise lived at the Hermitage, County Dublin, a house renamed St Enda’s in 1910 when Patrick Pearse moved his school there.
At Glenville, Dr Hudson constructed a new house not far from the old one and at right angles to it, a three-storey, three-bay property with two-storey single bay wings on either side. This was subsequently inherited by his eldest son, the Rev. Edward Hudson an Anglican clergyman who became Dean of Armagh. On his death without children, Glenville passed to his brother William Elliott Hudson, a barrister renowned for collecting ancient Irish literature and music: he was also a composer whose work includes The Memory of the Dead (better known as ‘Who Fears to Speak of ’98). Following his death in 1853 Glenville passed to a nephew, Edward Kinahan who in 1887 was created a baronet and became Sir Edward Hudson-Kinahan. That same year he enlarged and remodelled Glenville to the designs of Dublin architect Sandham Symes. A new two-storey front was built onto the old house, thereby making it twice as deep as had previously been the case. The building was also considerably extended in length, the whole faced in grey cement. This is the house bought in 1949 by Colonel Bence-Jones from Sir Edward Hudson-Kinahan’s grandson.

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In April 1963 the late Mark Bence-Jones, doyen of Irish country houses and their owners, published an article in the Irish Times about the property his parents had bought fourteen years earlier. The piece is affectionate in tone, although he acknowledges that when there is rain, ‘the grey stucco of Glenville looks dark, almost forbidding. But the morning sun makes the long low facade and the gate piers in front of it turn almost pink; the lines of windows shimmer.’ The cement render can indeed the make the east-facing front of the building look harsh, but that impression disappears once inside the building which rambles in an agreeably disordered fashion. The entrance hall is twice its original size, the former entrance now marked by a large arch halfway down its length. To left and right, tall slender doorframes with segmental pediments lead to drawing room and dining room respectively, the latter’s walls still retaining their 19th century wallpaper in a now-faded yellow and grey and featuring an older inlaid marble chimney piece which may have survived the Victorian make-over. Beyond the drawing room is a smaller sitting room and behind this a pair of book rooms (not surprisingly the house is overflowing with books). In the dining room, its walls painted a Pompeian red by the Bence-Joneses, hang a variety of family pictures. Behind it lies the old inner hall with an immense fire place. From here a passage runs down to a single-storey bow-fronted pavilion, presumably built for use as a billiards room.
Back in the main block, to the rear of the entrance hall rises the staircase with its original arched window on the return and leading to a substantial first floor landing off which run sequences of bedrooms along north and south corridors. At the end of the north a short flight of steps descend into a chapel created from three small rooms by Colonel and Mrs Bence-Jones; it contains stained glass windows by Stanley Tomlin and Patrick Pollen, and a letter dated December 1949 from the then-Bishop of Cork granting permission for services to be held here whenever a priest stays in the house. Glenville Park was Mark Bence-Jones’ home until his death in April 2010 and remains a testament to his own life’s work in Ireland.

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6 comments on “A Life’s Work in Ireland

  1. Ree says:

    lovely the houses which have survived…all the house burning of the 20s is tragic…

  2. Daniel Vulliamy says:

    Huge thanks for this, only just stumbled across; a fine mixture of landscape architecture with social and political history, with a minor walk-on role for my relative, Lewis Vulliamy, himself a first generation migrant.
    Daniel Vulliamy

    • Thanks for making contact, how interesting that you are a descendant of Lewiw Vulliamy: I hope to be going through the Bence-Jones papers before too long and, time permitting, will try to find out if there is any information there relating to your ancestor…

  3. […] to The Irish Aesthete, Exploring West Cork by Jack Roberts, The Stolen Village by Des […]

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