Around 11pm on June 4th 1974, John Hely-Hutchinson, 7th Earl of Donoughmore and his wife Dorothy returned to their home, Knocklofty, County Tipperary having been out to dinner. As the couple got out of the car, a number of men ran towards them waving guns. They seized the elderly pair and when Lord Donoughmore, then aged 71, resisted, he was struck on the head a number of times. He and his wife were then forced into a car and driven away their eyes covered so that they could not see where they were being taken. The kidnap made international headlines, not least because there appeared to be no motive for the crime. In fact, the Donoughmores had been picked almost at random, their captors being members of a maverick IRA unit who sought to influence official policy on an on-going hunger strike in British jails by five IRA prisoners, including the Price sisters. But at the time this was unknown and the family thought that perhaps ransom money was sought. Later the couple explained that once they reached their place of captivity, they had been well treated and well fed. Senior Stewart of the Irish Turf Club, Lord Donoughmore was always keen to hear the racing results, and was provided with newspaper sports pages, the details of which he was evidently happy to share with his captors. ‘We did not talk about politics with them,’ he said, ‘but they know a lot more about racing now.’ Meanwhile, nationwide efforts were underway to find the couple and protests held in the local town of Clonmel against the kidnapping. Those responsible now found themselves in bad odour with senior IRA figures because a ntionwide police and army search had caused considerable problems for the organisation. Then, happily ongoing mediation led to the hunger-strike being called off and after four days, the Donoughmores were driven to Dublin and in the early hours of the morning released in the middle of Phoenix Park.
The Hely-Hutchinsons can be traced back to the Ó hÉalaighthe or O’Healy clan in County Cork, based around Donoughmore which lies some 12 miles south-west of Mallow. Like so many other families, they lost much of their territory and power during the 17th century, However, by the early 18th century one Francis Hely, described in contemporary reports as a gentleman, was living in Gortroe, to the west of Mallow. In 1724 he and his wife Prudence had a son, John Hely, who after studying at Trinity College Dublin was called to the Bar and rose to become one of the most notable lawyers and politicians of the period, also serving as Provost of his Alma Mater for many years. In 1751 John Hely married Christiana Nickson of Wicklow, great-niece and heiress of one Richard Hutchinson whose own forebear had been granted by the English crown some 1,200 acres of land around Knocklofty in County Tipperary: the married couple duly changed their name to Hely-Hutchinson. Despite his brilliant career, John Hely-Hutchinson declined a peerage but instead his wife was created Baroness Donoughmore, a recollection of her husband’s family background. Their eldest son Richard duly inherited the title on his mother’s death, before in turn being created Viscount Donoughmore and then in 1800 Earl of Donoughmore. He commissioned the construction of the present house at Knocklofty, the entrance front of which had a central block of seven bays and three storeys flanked by gable-ended two-storey wings that come forward to create a forecourt. At some point, a third inner bay was added to these wings while in the early 19th century along the front of the house a single storey corridor was added, with a three-bay domed projection at its centre. Other extensions were made to the building later in the same century, resulting in a very substantial house, along with several adjacent service wings. Inside, curiously, the largest reception space is not the drawing room but, at the centre of the house overlooking the gardens, a double-height library, a wrought-iron gallery running around three sides. Some of this work was presumably undertaken by the second Earl who inherited title and estate from his unmarried elder brother; rising to the rank of General the former had enjoyed a distinguished military career, not least in Egypt during the French Wars, and as a result had been granted his own title as Baron Hutchinson of Alexandria and Knocklofty. But he too died unmarried and so title and estate passed to a nephew John Hely-Hutchinson, from whom subsequent generations were descended.
Seven years after being kidnapped, the seventh Lord Donoughmore died in 1981 and soon afterwards Knocklofty was placed on the market. In 1984 the house and 105 acres were bought by a couple for £750,000 and sections of it developed as apartments in a time-share scheme, then a new concept in Ireland, while the rest was turned into an hotel. A nine-hole golf course was installed in the grounds, a swimming pool in the building and other facilities like tennis and squash courts created. Initially the business seemed to go well but within a decade it had failed badly. Protracted court proceedings with creditors ensued and in October 1991 the property was placed on the market with an asking price of £1.5 million. Failing to secure a buyer, Knocklofty went into receivership and in 1993 was again advertised for sale, this time with an expected price of £500-600,000. The complexity of dealing with the established timeshare commitments made by the previous owners seems to have deterred many potential purchasers. In any case, again there were no takers, so at the end of the year the place was once more offered on the market, this time with a disclosed reserve of £360,000, less than half of what had been paid for it a decade earlier, and less than a quarter of the asking price in 1991. Finally it sold to a local businessman, Denis English, who had previously bought another historic house in the same area, Marlfield (currently on the market) which he divided into self-contained apartments.
After buying the place, Denis English announced his intentions to convert Knocklofty into a series of apartments, as he had already done at Marlfield. However, the place continued to operate as before as an hotel until the advent of an economic recession at the end of the last decade. In 2013 the house was once more offered for sale, this time on 80 acres and for a price of €3 million. Two years later, that figure appears to have dropped to €1.9 million. Matters then grew more complicated when court proceedings were taken by US private equity group Cerberus Capital Management for possession of the property; it transpired that in 2014 the company had acquired a loan portfolio from Ulster Bank, which included a number of loans made to Knocklofty’s owner. He in turn disputed the matter and further legal arguments ensued until, in May 2017, it was announced that the High Court had granted Cerberus the right to take control of the property. All should have been resolved then but, alas, that does not look to have been the end of the matter. Although there has been no further reports on the matter, it looks as though dispute between relevant parties continues. Meantime, the looser in this, Knocklofty, has stood empty and falling into ever-greater disrepair. As these photographs demonstrate, unless circumstances are resolved soon, this has all the makings of a Jarndyce v Jarndyce scenario, with an equally unsatisfactory outcome.