A Vanishing Narrative

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As many readers will be aware, right across Ireland can be seen the remains of hundreds, possibly thousands, of former fine residences dating from the seventeenth century onwards. Even in ruin their scale makes them prominent marks on the landscape, testaments to our country’s history, witnesses to an order which once prevailed but has now passed. Because of the societal and economic imbalance they represented, many of today’s citizens understandably do not mourn their passing. Nevertheless they are part of the national narrative. We ought at least to know their stories, so that they can better inform our own. Unfortunately their mute condition today often means we know little or nothing of each building’s distinctive tale, of how they came into being and then fell into decline. Once this information was familiar, if only to those who occupied the property, or worked on the estate. Now it has frequently been forgotten and another property’s unique character becomes part of the generic ‘Big House’ story. This seems to be the case with Nettleville, County Cork, yet another ruin about which relatively little information is available.

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Around 1630 John Nettles moved here from Herefordshire around 1630: inevitably he is described in Burke’s Landed Gentry of 1871 as springing from ‘an ancient English family’ (perish the thought that anyone’s background might not disappear into the foggiest mists of time). Evidently he flourished here since in 1666 he was confirmed by Charles II in a grant of land of 1,258 acres in Counties Waterford and Cork, although his residence was in the latter at Tourin, later to pass into the ownership of the Musgrave family. It was his second son, Robert Nettles, who came to live on an estate where the remains of Nettleville can now be found. On the failure of this line of the family, the Cork property passed back to the main branch, and in the second half of the 18th century was inherited by Captain Robert Nettles. Ambrose Leet’s 1814 Directory lists Nettleville as occupied by the Rev Bazil Orpin, who had married one of the Nettles daughters. However, his tenure was only temporary. Although Captain Nettles and his wife had five sons, four of them died young either through accidents or in warfare (one, Ensign William Nettles being killed at the Battle of Waterloo). That left a single heir, Richard Nevill-Nettles who on the death of his father in 1828 inherited Nettleville. He in turn was succeeded by his only son Robert Nettles, listed in the 1870s as owning 1,684 acres in County Cork. Seemingly Nettleville was still occupied by the Nettles family at the start of the last century but thereafter there does not appear to be further mention of them, leading to the supposition that they died out. Interestingly in September 1919 the Irish Builder mentions Cork architect Bartholomew O’Flynn being employed at Nettleville to carry out alterations and additions, so evidently someone was still living there.

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And so to Nettleville, which in the national register of buildings is listed as being built c.1800, although one suspects this is speculative since what survives of the building makes it difficult to discover any specific design features that would allow more precise dating. The south-facing front of the house, now completely immersed in vegetation, is of two storeys over basement but since the site slopes the rear – which looks down to a point where the river Lee loops around on itself – is of three storeys. On this side, to the east of the house is a single-storey extension with narrow arched niches but there does not seem ever to have been its equivalent to the west. While in the main built of dressed sandstone, the house’s windows feature cut limestone sills and red brick voussoirs; no doubt the whole exterior was originally rendered to give a uniformity of appearance.
A short distance to the south-east lies a large yard, the greater part of which is in better condition than the house it was created to serve. Centred on a fine arched gateway, its pediment extended to accommodate a bell, the yard effectively divides into upper and lower sections, assisted once more by the sloping site. Handsomely constructed, and still, at least in part, serviceable, it demonstrates this was once a thriving estate. Now, however, Nettleville is just another ruin on the Irish landscape and its voice in our historical narrative grows weaker as the old buildings grow closer and closer to complete disappearance.

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16 comments on “A Vanishing Narrative

  1. Well said, again. Somehow we must bridge the gap on preservation. Goal Number 1 for 2017

  2. liam mansfield says:

    Query. Robert do you now live in the cork area you used to be based in Dublin ,school gonzaga etc.

  3. Fergal says:

    Hi Robert. The Robert Nettles who was living there in the 1870’s married Elizabeth Walton Knolles of Oatlands House, near Kinsale. Her brother was Thomas Walton Knolles – well known as a huntsman with the South Union Hunt. When they married on 20th August 1835, the Belfast Telegraph published this rather ‘racy’ poem to mark the occasion:
    ‘On Grassy Knolls in beds will settle
    The wild and stinging ‘plaguy’ nettle
    No sting has it if tightly grasped
    No pain it gives when closely clasped.
    Now, as we wish no pretty ‘Beth ills,
    We give the hint to ‘manage’ Nettles’.

    Robert Nettles also features heavily in ‘The Slow Sunrise’ by Michael Galvin – a study of the Land War in West Cork.
    Thanks
    Fergal

  4. Sheila Robinson says:

    Not just the Big Houses but sadly more modest buildings and even gates and their pillars. Grand stone eagles brought to the ground.

  5. James Canning says:

    Great piece. What a shame that Bill Gates takes no interest in this subject matter.

  6. eamonncork says:

    It’s been a tremendous pleasure reading the Irish Aesthete this year. The posts are always erudite, interesting and beautifully written. Thank you Robert and congratulations on a wonderful achievement.

  7. William Conran says:

    Fine article on the Nettleville Estate……wondering if there is a family cemetery there? Happy New Year from Reno Nevada

    • Thank you for making contact, and belated Happy New Year to you too. As for a cemetery on the Nettleville estate, I certainly didn’t see one. I shall try to remember to ask about this next time I am in the locality (altho’ that may not be in the immediate future…)

      • William Conran says:

        I did indeed locate Esther Conran Nettles ,the mother of Ensign William Nettles in the Magourney Graveyard,thanks to Fergal.I know one son was killed from falling off a horse and another died in the Maroon War,leaving one unaccounted for? The Nettles family may have been involved in a publishing company in Cork City. Cheers Bill C.

    • Fergal says:

      The majority of the Nettles family are buried in Magourney Graveyard, Coachford, Co. Cork.
      Incidentally, Ensign William Nettles, son of Captain Robert Nettles, was killed at Waterloo in 1815. He was with the 52nd Foot. Supposedly he was ‘killed while carrying the King’s Colour, which was found under his body’.

  8. William Conran says:

    Fergal, thanks for the info. Wm.Nettles had gotten his entry into the 52nd. on a rec from his uncle Captain William Conran of the 21st. unfortunately killed at New Orleans. Capt. Robert Nettles was married to a Conran lass,possibly descended from a Philip Conran mayor of Dublin,..1793 or so. The year they got Trinity up and going. The other Ensign in the 52 nd. was William Leake who wrote the history of that Rgt. Cheers Bill C.

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