The Coppinger family has been mentioned here before, in relation to Glenville Park, County Cork (see A Life’s Work in Ireland « The Irish Aesthete). They are believed to have been of Viking origin, but long settled in Cork city where in 1319 one Stephen Coppinger was Mayor. Several of his descendants would hold the same position, as well as becoming bailiffs and sheriffs, thereby cementing their position in the area. However, none of this proved sufficient for Walter Coppinger, who emerged in the late 16th century and is always referred to as ‘Sir Walter’ although when he received a knighthood or baronetcy appears unknown. As Mark Samuel has noted, ‘He seems to have been a man of extraordinary vigour and despatch who, alongside a straightforward lust for power and wealth, also had a burning desire to develop his estates, boost productivity and indirectly modernise the whole of south-west Cork.’ In order to achieve these ambitions, Sir Walter, who may have trained as a lawyer, spent much of his time engaged in complex litigation.
As mentioned, Walter Coppinger was very keen both to increase his power and his land holdings. In consequence, he became involved in a long-running legal dispute with several individuals, much of it based around the settlement at Baltimore, County Cork. The lands here had belonged to Sir Fineen O’Driscoll, whose daughter Eileen was married to Coppinger’s brother Richard. However, in 1600 Sir Fineed had leased this part of his property to Northamptonshire-born adventurer Thomas Crooke: the latter then founded the port town of Baltimore as a colony for English settlers. It soon became the centre for a lucrative trade in both pilchards and wine, as well as a base for piracy along the coast: famously, in 1631 Baltimore was attacked by a group of Barbary pirates who carried off a large part of the population, both settlers and native Irish, into slavery. From the start, Coppinger was opposed to this development. In part, this may have been because he was a fervent Roman Catholic and therefore disliked the idea of English Protestants settling in this part of the country. But no doubt the success of Crooke’s venture also irked him, and therefore led Coppinger to embark on a series of lawsuits against the settlers over ownership of their lands, claiming he had acquired rights over them due to a mortgage provided by him to Sir Fineen O’Driscoll’s son Donogh. In 1610 the three men – Coppinger, Crooke and O’Driscoll appear to have reached an agreement whereby they jointly granted a lease to the settlers for 21 years, but litigation continued and was still ongoing at the time of Crooke’s death in 1630. The sack of Baltimore the following year was a blow from which the town never fully recovered, not least because it lost the greater part of its population. This event also seems to have damaged Coppinger’s own financial circumstances: in 1636 he leased Baltimore to one Thomas Bennet of Bandon Bridge and retired to the country where he died three years later.
In 1621 Coppinger embarked on building himself a new residence on a site west of Rosscarbery, County Cork. Like so many other properties constructed during the same period, this was a semi-fortified manor house. Coppinger’s Court, as it is commonly called, was supposed to have a chimney for every week, a door for every month and a window for every day of the year; whether this is true or not, it was certainly intended to display Coppinger’s wealth and authority. The house is Y-shaped, with the main entrance on the north side which is flanked by wings to west and east that project forward in order to create a forecourt. Behind these lies the main body of the building – it would appear the ground floor here was originally divided into a dining chamber and great hall – and then to the south projects an extension that once held the main staircase. Rising four storeys, Coppinger’s Court has gable ends and chimney stacks on every side, together with multiple windows arranged either in pairs or threes, thereby providing more light to the interior than was the case with tower houses built the previous century. The building speaks not only of wealth but also confidence. However, the latter was misplaced because in 1641, just two years after Walter Coppinger’s death and soon after the onset of the Confederate Wars, the house was ransacked and burnt, perhaps by some of those English settlers who had been subject to endless lawsuits from its late owner. Initially forfeited to the Commonwealth, in 1652 the property was returned to James Coppinger (thought to have been Walter’s nephew) after he had been deemed ‘an innocent Papist.’ The restitution was confirmed by Charles II but then in 1690, the family, still Roman Catholic, backed James II and as a result their estate was once more forfeited and this time not returned. Coppinger’s Court seems never to have recovered from the attack in 1641, and thereafter was plundered for stone so that by the mid-18th century, it had fallen into the ruinous state seen today.