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.

Another Gratuitous Loss


The castellated entrance into the former Camlin estate, County Donegal. The land here was bought c.1718 from William ‘Speaker’ Conolly by William Tredennick, who had moved to Ireland from Cornwall. The drive led to a large Tudor-Gothic house which, like the entrance was designed around 1838 by John Benjamin Keane and featured a plethora of battlements and turrets draped over what was essentially a symmetrical, classical residence. The Tredennicks remained here for more than two centuries, the last of them leaving the place in 1929. Some twenty years later the main house was blown up by the Electricity Supply Board, then engaged in the Erne Hydro-Electric Scheme. It was thought Camlin would be submerged by the new lake but in fact the water’s edge never came close to the site of the building so its destruction was entirely gratuitous. The entrance is all that now remains to indicate the lost house’s appearance.

Fit for a New Bride


In Ireland today the name John B Keane is usually associated with a Kerry author of popular stage dramas. In the 19th century however, it would be more likely taken to refer to a successful architect. The date of John Benjamin Keane’s birth is unknown but by 1819-20 he was working as an assistant to Richard Morrison. In 1823 he was listed in Wilson’s Dublin Directory as practising under his own name and for the next two decades enjoyed a busy career. Among his most notable commissions was the design of St Mel’s Cathedral, Longford, recently restored after a disastrous fire in 2009, and Queen’s College in Galway (now NUI Galway) in 1845. Keane’s winning design for the latter was described at the time as being ‘ a magnificent edifice in the style of Henry the Eight’s time.’ In addition to such public properties, he also designed a number of private residences, including Magheramenagh Castle, County Fermanagh.





Magheramenagh belonged to a branch of the Johnston family, large numbers of whom had moved from Scotland to this part of the country in the early 17th century. Successive generations lived in the same area of Fermanagh, the estate being inherited in 1833 by James Johnston who five years later married Cecilia, daughter of Thomas Newcomen Edgeworth of County Longford. It would appear that around this time he commissioned from Keane the design of a home for his new bride. The building was much in the style then fashionable, a loose interpretation of Tudor Gothic indicated by the presence of blind gables, polygonal turrets, castellations and finials. Of two storeys other (than a three-floor square tower in the north-east corner) and all faced in crisp limestone, the main entrance was to the north, the southern front looking down on the river Erne. A large conservatory occupied much of the eastern end of the building while the service wing stood to the west, an enfilade of four reception rooms occupying the space between.





Ultimately neither Magheramenagh nor its architect had a happy ending. Keane’s career was wrecked by alcoholism, he fell into debt and was imprisoned in the Marshalsea Gaol (a debtor’s prison off Dublin’s south quays: it was demolished in 1975) before dying in 1859. Meanwhile James Johnston had died in 1873 and Magheramenagh passed to his son Robert. He in turn died just nine years later, leaving the estate to his son James Cecil Johnston, then aged less than two. James Cecil would be killed at Gallipoli in August 1915, Magheramenagh then occupied by his widow and two young daughters. Unable to manage, they left the property in 1921 and it was bought as a residence for the local Roman Catholic priest: the following May the house was briefly taken over by the members of the British armed forces. Reverting back to the parish, thereafter it remained in use as a presbytery until the 1950s when abandoned and unroofed. Afterwards a large part of the house was demolished: it can be seen what now remains on the site.

A Shaggy Dog Story


The Massereene Hound, a carving believed to date from 1612. According to legend, not long after her marriage in 1607 to Sir Hugh Clotworthy of Antrim Castle, Mary Langford was walking alone in the woods when threatened by attack from a wolf. Fortunately at the same moment an Irish wolfhound appeared and saved Lady Clotworthy by killing the wolf. A second tale has it that the self-same wolfhound also ensured the Clotworthys were spared an assault on their castle by howling and thereby warning them of the imminent danger. Whatever the truth, the sculpture stood on the original castle until the 18th century when it was moved to one of the estate walls. It now stands on a plinth adjacent to the restored walled gardens.

When Moore is More


On February 1st next it will be 95 years since Moore Hall, County Mayo was needlessly burnt by a group of anti-treaty forces during the Civil War. Since then the building has stood empty and falling ever further into ruin. Moore Hall’s history was discussed here some time ago, (see When Moore is Less, June 30th 2014), and at the time it looked as though the house, dating from the 1790s, had little viable future. For many years the surrounding land has been under the control of Coillte, the state-sponsored forestry company, which displayed no interest in the historic property for which it was responsible. However, yesterday Mayo County Council announced it had purchased Moore Hall and 80 acres. The council proposes ‘to develop the estate as a nationally important nature reserve and tourism attraction’, its chief executive declaring this will ‘ensure that the natural, built and cultural heritage of Moorehall is protected yet developed and managed in a sustainable manner for current and future generations.’ Further details have yet to be provided, but one initiative Moore Hall’s new owners could immediately undertake is to clear away the trees that now grow almost up to the front door, thereby reopening the view to Lough Carra and explaining why the house was built on this site.

A Swift Entrance


The entrance gates to Swiftsheath, County Kilkenny. The estate takes its name from Godwin Swift who built the original house here: he was the uncle of Jonathan Swift who is believed to have lived here while a student at Kilkenny College. Although it looks much earlier the present entrance of cut limestone and granite dates only from 1874 when designed by Dublin architect Joseph Maguire for R.W. Swifte. The latter’s predecessor was the eccentric Godwin Meade Pratt Swifte who claimed the title Viscount Carlingford (held by a 17th century Swift who had died without male heirs) but also designed and built what he called an ‘aerial chariot’, a form of flying machine. In 1854 he launched this from the top of nearby Foulksrath Castle – with his butler as pilot. The device plunged straight to ground and the butler sustained serious, but not life-threatening, injuries. The Swifte family remained in occupation of Swiftsheath until the early 1970s when it was sold to new owners.

Made Over


Photographed in the midst of a downpour, the Red Lodge at Cloverhill, County Cavan. This was originally a gate lodge probably designed by Francis Johnston (who was responsible c.1799 for the now-ruinous main house elsewhere on the estate). However towards the end of the 19th century the building was enlarged to become a farm manager’s residence. At the same time it was heavily embellished in the arts and crafts style; the architect is not known. What survives of Johnston’s work is the canted side with arched windows, but otherwise the lodge has been given a thorough make-over in which the dominant feature are the timber Oriel windows and corresponding entrance porch on the ground floor.