A Great House that had Lost its Pride

Half a century ago, in 1968, the big house at Kilballyowen, County Limerick was demolished. As its then-owner Lt.-Col. Gerald Vigors de Courcy O’Grady – whose family have been based there for hundreds of years – recalled some time later, ‘The huge rooms were too big to live in; it was impossible to live in a house of that nature. If you could live there in warm conditions – yes. It was just a necessity. No I didn’t just want to leave it empty, so there are no remains. I do not like living near ruins; there are too many around here.’ His wife commented that by the late 1960s the house ‘was in a terrifying state of repair and we did not have the money to fix it. We had thought of selling just the house, but then we were afraid we might lose the land as well. It was a great house that had lost its pride.’ There was no support for the owners and no state interest in the preservation of such properties. And so, like very many others, Kilballyowen came down.

The surname O’Grady derives from the Irish Ó Grádaigh or Ó Gráda, meaning ‘noble’. The O’Grady family originally lived in East County Clare where they were based in the area around Tuamgraney (where they built a tower house adjacent to what is now the oldest centre of continuous religious worship in Ireland, St Cronan’s which dates from the 10th century). During the Middle Ages various O’Gradys frequently held high positions in the Roman Catholic Church. It helped that clerical celibacy was then not much enforced. Thus in 1332 Eoin (or John) O’Grady became Archbishop of Cashel and, in 1366 his son, also called John, became Archbishop of Tuam. In turn, the latter’s son, another John O’Grady, was made Bishop of Elphin in 1405. At the same time they were frequently at war with other families in the area, not least their distant cousins and former allies, the O’Briens who eventually drove the O’Gradys out of Clare. One of the family, a younger son called Hugh O’Grady had in the early 14th century married a daughter of the head of the O Ciarmhaic family in Knockainy in east Limerick and this would lead their descendants to settle at Kilballyowen. There successive male heirs became the head of the family and were known as The O’Grady.

The core of the now-demolished Kilballyowen was a tower house dating from c.1500, around which a house had been built in the first half of the 18th century, and then further extended by a new wing in 1810: in 1837 Samuel Lewis described the property as ‘a handsome modern building in a richly planted demesne.’ The building had a five-bay façade with a two-bay projecting extension to one side: the garden front featured a three-bay breakfront. Nothing of the house remains but the stableyard to the immediate north-west remains. Set around an open court, the four blocks are of almost equal dimensions and contain carriage houses, stalls and accommodation for the employees who would formerly have worked here. Although in poor repair, the buildings still bear testimony to the character of the old house. Had times been different, had it survived even a decade or two longer, might Kilballyowen be standing yet? What happened here also happened right across the country during the 1950s and ‘60s. While better support mechanisms are now in place to provide some assistance, they are relatively modest, thereby leaving much of our stock of historic houses at risk. The story of Kilballyowen, a great house that had lost its pride, is a too-frequent story in Ireland.

12 comments on “A Great House that had Lost its Pride

  1. Fergal says:

    I once asked a former owner of a similar house which had been demolished in the 60’s, why they hadn’t been able to save it. His response: ‘My dear man, we couldn’t even afford to put scaffolding up!’

  2. Bob Frewen says:

    The book ‘Vanishing Kingdoms’ by Walter Curley has a chapter on the family and a photo of the house.

  3. The Prof says:

    I am thankful the Irish Aesthete shows us the other side of Country House life- custodianship of such buildings is often too great a burden for many owners and they are faced with impossibly difficult dilemmas. My widow neighbour residing in a large, crumbling house of about 1750, spends most days rearranging buckets & basins on the top floor. The list of things that are in need of repair are endless: roof, windows, plaster work &c. The principal rooms on the piano nobile are now uninhabitable. She spends her free time huddled against the Aga (her last luxury). Friends have told her that if she does not move out she will die from falling masonry or hypothermia, she says if she leaves the house she will die of a broken heart. Situ nimis.

  4. I can so relate to the widow neighbour mentioned in The Prof’s comment. It’s similar here at Killegar. People are sympathetic but there is no practical ‘help’ (eg. state funds available). Heartbreaking.

    • The Prof says:

      Lady Sue, You are absolutely right. These homes may appear idyllic & romantic to the outsider, but, as you have experienced first hand the reality is a rather more harsh existence. You must be commended for continuing to do battle against the destructive elements. Your comment reminded me I must make a visit to Killegar when I am next in lovely Leitrim.

  5. BRADY says:

    Raheen House, Tuamgraney, Clare, the former seat of the Brady (O’Grady) family is also gone. The direct descendant of John O’Grady, Bishop of Elphin in 1405, (descended through Bishop Hugh Brady, Bishop of Meath),the Reverend Thomas Brady sold the Raheen estate of 6,995 acres to John W. Harrison Moreland in 1852. It later became the property of the MacLysaght family.There is a picture of Raheen House from 1908 on pg. 58 of David Brady- Browne’s excellent book, “The Brady-Brown Family of Newgrove, Co. Clare”. Another branch of this Brady family owned Marshall House in Carlow which sadly was burnt in 1922 when unoccupied.

  6. Ted says:

    Robert, Just happened on your website and looked up your Limerick entries because of my own family connection to Shannongrove, and to nearby Holly Park where we lived first. Last time I passed by Holly Park there was an ominously rusted padlock on the gate and a mouldering planning notice. I hope all’s well up the end of the long avenue!

  7. Ashington says:

    I believe there is another branch of the Brady (O’Grady) family who settled on church lands at Florencecourt in County Fermanagh in the 1700’s’s still living on the Florence Court Estate (former home of Cole family, Earls Enniskillen with whom there is some connection, now National Trust) in a house called Hollybank.

  8. Aidan Forde says:

    Robert, the stalls in your picture are similar to the stalls in an 1828 coach house by Pain that I am involved in conserving and reusing as a distillery near Killarney – Aghadoe House. Grafton are the architects. I would be glad to show it to you the next time you are in the area. Regards

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