Summerhill, County Meath has featured here before (see My Name is Ozymandias « The Irish Aesthete) and is well-known as one of Ireland’s great lost country houses. But its namesake in County Mayo is probably less familiar to readers, although its striking remains are hard to miss when travelling through that part of the island. This second Summerhill was built and occupied by a branch of the Palmer family, which has also featured here (see Lackin’ a Roof « The Irish Aesthete). According to Burke’s Landed Gentry of 1846, ‘This family, long settled in Co Mayo, derives from a common ancestor with the Palmers of Palmerstown and Rush House, and is presumed to have been originally from Kent.’ By the second half of the 18th century, the Palmers owned a number of estates in north Mayo, Summerhill being one of them.
Summerhill may have been built by Thomas Palmer, who died in 1757, or perhaps by his son, also called Thomas (as were successive generations of this branch of the family), meaning it was likely constructed around the mid-18th century. In 1798 the property was let to one John Bourke who, in August, following the landing nearby of a French force under General Humbert, organised to have the house secured. This proved a wise precaution as a number of other such properties in the area, including Castlereagh, seat of Arthur Knox, and Castle Lacken, owned by Sir John Palmer, were attacked and pillaged by a mob. Bourke’s home found itself under siege by the same band until a French officer based in Killala, Col Armand Charost, despatched a number of his troops, as was later reported, ‘to Summerhill to appease the mob, and another party of men to Castlereagh to save what remained of the provisions and liquors. The appearance of the emissaries ended the siege at Mr. Bourke’s house; but the Castlereagh party, which consisted entirely of natives, could think of no better expedient for preserving the spirits from the thirsty bandits that coveted them than by concealing as much as they could in their own stomachs. The consequence was that they returned to Killala uproariously drunk. As for Castle Lacken, it was completely gutted, and the occupant and his large family were driven out to seek shelter as best they could find it.’ Within a few years of these events, the Palmers were back in residence at Summerhill, and recorded as living there by Samuel Lewis in 1837 and also by Burke in his 1846 guide to landed gentry. However, in the second half of the 19th century, the property was sold to the McCormack family, who remained there until c.1929 when what remained of the estate, running to some 296 acres, was broken up by the Land Commission and the house subsequently abandoned.
In his 1978 Guide to Irish Country Houses, Mark Bence-Jones noted certain stylistic similarities between Summerhill and Summergrove, County Laois (see A Gem « The Irish Aesthete). Both houses are of five bays and two storeys over raised basement, with the central pedimented breakfront single bay featuring a doorcase reached by a flight of steps and flanked by sidelights below a first-floor Venetian window. Summerhill’s facade has an oculus within the pediment, whereas Summergrove has a Diocletian window, but certainly the two buildings share many features. However, whereas the latter still stands and is in good condition, the latter is now a roofless shell: photographs from just a few decades ago show the majority of slates still in place, but the house is now open to the elements. When Bence-Jones visited, the interiors were still reasonably intact: he included a photograph of ceiling stuccowork, describing it as ‘in a simple and somewhat primitive rococo, complete with the odd rather amateurishly-moulded bird.’ All now gone, as can be seen, and inside the house nothing left but bits of timber and plaster.