‘Garrets-town, in this barony, is the seat of Francis Kearny, esq. situated on a rising ground, commanding a prospect of the ocean, on both sides the isthmus of the Old head of Kinsale, and a good part of the neighbouring country, which is here diversified into agreeable hills, and pleasant vales, well cultivated. The house, with the contiguous offices, form a handsome area; the pediments, coignes, doors and window-frames are well built of rustic work, and hewn stone; a considerable part of the ground on which they stand was levelled at a great expence, being hewn out of a deep solid rock. Towards the south is a good orchard, with kitchen and pleasure gardens; in which last is a handsome amphitheatre, the ground being naturally formed for that purpose. Under a high terrace walk, that, to the east, affords a good prospect, is a deep glen, the sides covered with wood, and along the bottom a rivulet falls in several pleasant cascades; beyond this are rising grounds, sheltering the plantation from S. and S.W. winds. On the W. is a large park, well walled, and the whole seat is environed with good plantations of timber trees; among which, the French elm and silver fir are observed to stand the severity of the nipping sea winds, better than any others. On the east, is a fine level tract, now converted into meadows and pasture grounds, which a few years ago, was a deep, red, shaking morass, much frequented, in winter, by wild fowl, but impassable for man or beast. On the west of the house, there were lately made a fine basin and decoy, wild duck being very numerous in this part of the country.’
From The Ancient and Present State of the County and City of Cork by Charles Smith (1750)
Garrettstown has a rather complex history of ownership. According to Charles Smith, the place derives its name from the Core family who once lived in the area ‘many of whom were successively named Garret.’ Originally the land here was part of the territory owned by the de Courcys, Barons Kingsale, but was sold off towards the end of the 16th century and in 1618 some 979 acres here and a further 424 acres at nearby Kilmore were bought by one James Kearney, a merchant in Cork city. The Kearneys were originally from the Kilmallock area of County Limerick but had moved south following the devastation wrought on that part of the country by the two Desmond Rebellions of 1569–1573 and 1579–1583. James Kearney was the great-grandfather of the Francis Kearney mentioned by Smith as being the owner of Garrettstown. Hitherto the family had remained Roman Catholic (and remained in possession of their property), but Francis Kearney, although married to a Catholic heiress Mary Roche, conformed to the Established Church. He also seems to have been a Protestant Discoverer, that is someone who, under the Penal legislation of the time, could file a bill in the Court of Chancery against a Catholic with a legally deficient lease, and claim the lease for his own benefit. On the other hand, there were instances – and given Kearney’s many Catholic connections this may have been one of them – when the claim was in fact, a ‘collusive discovery’. Here a bogus bill of discovery would be obtained by the discoverer, the document seemingly granting the property in question to a Protestant but in fact leaving it with the original Catholic owner. Whatever was the case, through marriage and other acquisitions Francis Kearney managed to enlarge his estate from less than 2,000 to almost 8,200 acres. On his death in 1776, the now-substantial Garrettstown estate was inherited by James Kearney who served as a local M.P. but never married. As a result, when he in turn died in 1812, Garrettsown passed to a cousin, Thomas Rochfort who was Roman Catholic. He and his wife had married relatively late and as a result, once again, there was no direct heir, the estate in due course being left to Thomas Rochfort’s brother-in-law Thomas Cuthbert, on the condition that he took the additional surname of Kearney. Perhaps because Cuthbert was a member of the Church of Ireland, unlike his late brother-in-law, the will was disputed in court in 1832 but eventually he was able to come into his inheritance. There are more changes of ownership in the 19th century, again between family relations, after 1886 the estate being jointly owned by cousins, Abraham Thomas Forster (whose own family had previously lived at Ballymaloe, elsewhere in the county) and Matthew Franks. When Forster died five years later, he left his share to a brother, Colonel Francis Rowland Forster, Master of the Horse at Dublin Castle (and, incidentally, a constant companion of the Empress Elizabeth of Austria during her visits to Ireland in 1879/80). In 1903 Colonel Franks sold his share of the Garrettstown estate to Matthew Franks who in turn took advantage of the Wyndham Act to dispose of most of the land other than the demesne. The Franks family remained in possession of what remained until the middle of the last century; in 1952 the Land Commission acquired house and demesne, selling on the latter to the owners of a nearby hotel who subsequently unroofed the buildings. The property was sold again to the present owners who for many years have operated a caravan park on the premises.
What remains of Garrettstown is rather tantalising. The site, which sits high above the sea was, as Smith wrote ‘levelled at a great expence, being hewn out of a deep solid rock’ in order, it is commonly believed, to construct there a fine Palladian house. Both the wings were constructed but then funds ran out and as a result the central block was never built. Instead, one of the wings served as stables (which was probably always the intention) while the other was steadily enlarged to the rear in order to form a decent residence. This notion certainly makes sense, since the two wings have identical facades facing each other across an open space between them and, at least on one side, the suggestion of what might once have been a colonnade linking it with the unbuilt main house. The date often provided for this development is some time during the first two decades of the 18th century, but it hardly makes sense that a family owning relatively little land would embark on such an ambitious project. More likely it was Francis Kearney, following his marriage to a Roche heiress and his acquisition of many thousands more acres, who in the late 1730s/early 1740s began to build a fine new house for himself – before recognising that its realisation was beyond his means. We know little of what the place looked like even when semi-finished. Samuel Lewis describes Garrettstown in 1837 as being ‘a handsome house in beautiful grounds, laid out in terraces, gardens and shrubberies, with extensive plantations.’ As mentioned, the two wings share the same façade design, of two storeys and five bays, the centre three bays breaking forward and pedimented; tooled limestone is used for the quoins, window surrounds and fine Gibbsian doorcases, hinting at how ambitious Mr Kearney’s house would have been, had his plans come to fruition. The residential wing was perhaps no more than one room deep, but additions to the rear mean its side elevation now runs to seven bays; an adjacent courtyard held further accommodation for staff and other services, meaning the establishment would have been decently substantial. As can be seen almost nothing other than exposed walls remains of the interior. The stable block has been restored and re-roofed, and is now used as office space. There were plans to undertake similar work on the other wing, but these have for the moment put on hold. One must hope they come to pass in due course.