The history of Tyrone House, County Galway and its sad fall from grace was discussed here a few weeks ago (see A High House on High Ground, September 18th 2017). Above is an image of the building included in the fifth and final volume of the The Georgian Society Records of Eighteenth Century Domestic Architecture and Decoration published in 1913, showing it still intact. One of the house’s most striking features was the entrance hall, dominated by a mid-18th century white marble life-size statue of St. George Ussher St. George, Baron Saint George. This survived until Tyrone House was attacked in August 1920 when the statue was smashed to pieces: as a result, the photograph below is the only record of the work.
Copies of my new book, Tyrone House and the St George Family: The Story of an Anglo-Irish Family are now available from the Irish Georgian Society bookshop. For more information, please see https://shop.igs.ie/collections/books
‘It is a high house, standing on high ground; without a tree, bush or offices in sight, nothing can be more uncompromising than it looks from this road. We soon after approach two bridges over different rivers, which rise after a subterranean course…the old gentleman [Christopher French St George] built the house and an excellent one it is – finished it in the best manner – with painted ceilings to all the lower rooms, and to the hall, which is large and handsome – he furnished it in the best style of those days – of about twenty years back, lived in it and enjoyed it, and 9 or 10 years ago resigned it to his son, who soon after married Lady Harriet St. Lawrence, and they have lived happily and have seldom left it, never for any length of time – they have six little girls – and they appear very happy – Mr St. George an excellent country gentleman, improving his estate, fond of hunting, shooting and all country sports…’
From the Journal of Mary Beaufort, September 1808
‘In the afternoon Tilly Redington and I drove over to Tyrone House. A bigger and much grander edition of Ross – a great square cut-stone house of three stories, with an area – perfectly empty – and such ceilings, architraves, teak doors and chimney-pieces as one sees in old houses in Dublin. It is on a long promontory by the sea and there rioted three or four generations of St. Georges – living with country-women, occasionally marrying them, all illegitimate four times over. No so long ago eight of these awful half-peasant families roosted together in that lovely house, and fought, and barricaded and drank, till the police had to intervene – about 150 years ago a very grand Lady Harriet St Lawrence married a St. George, and lived there, and was so corroded with pride that she would not allow her daughters to associate with the Galway people. She lived to see them marry two men in the yard. Yesterday as we left an old Miss St. George, daughter of the last owner, was at the door in a donkey trap-she lives near, in a bit of the castle, and since her people died she will not go into Tyrone House, or into the enormous yard, or the beautiful old garden. She was a strange mixture of distinction and commonness, like her breeding, and it was very sad to see her at the door of that great house – If we dare to write up that subject!’
From a letter written by Violet Martin to Edith Oliver, March 18th 1912
‘A correspondent has sent some interesting but sad details of the malicious burning of Tyrone House…It was in the late Georgian style and the finest house in Ireland. The ceilings were all painted by Italian masters and were regular works of art. The mantle pieces were all of rare Italian marble and very costly. In the hall was a fine full sized marble statue of Baron St George the founder of that once great family. It was the work of an Italian artist. The head was broken off the night of the raid deliberately it must be said. All the ceilings are now ruined and the mantle pieces also, and the entire structure an empty shell and ruin. There was no grounds for the report that the military or police intended or were to occupy the house, and agrarian motives are believed to have inspired and instigated this most foul and reprehensible act of purely wanton destruction. Of late years the place was freely allowed to be used by pleasure parties who came out from Loughrea and other places to have a dance which cost them nothing and to enjoy themselves, and who were never prevented from having their pleasure and a dance on the spacious floor of the dining room, and they can now no longer do so, and where in olden days the finest balls in the Co. Galway took place.’
From the Tuam Herald, September 4th 1920.
I shall be speaking of Tyrone House, County Galway and the St George family next Friday, September 22nd at 12 midday during the 2017 Irish Antique Dealers Association Fair in the RDS, Dublin. For more information, please see: http://www.iada.ie/antique-fairs
There are over twenty place names in Ireland incorporating the word ‘Pallas.’ Seemingly this derives from a Norman term, paleis, meaning boundary fence (hence the word palisade which clearly comes from the same source). One such spot is Pallas, County Galway found at the end of a boreen (from the Irish word bóithrín, meaning ‘a little road’). Here can be found, if not quite a palace, certainly the remains of a very substantial tower house and ancillary buildings. Pallas Castle as it is known, is believed to date from c.1500 when it was built by a branch of the Burke family, descendants of the Norman de Burghs, the first of whom William de Burgh had seized territory in this part of the country and in 1203 called himself Lord of Connacht. Rising five storeys, the tower stands within a bawn wall access to which is through an east-facing two-storey gatehouse flanked by similarly propotioned turrets. Immediately adjacent to the tower house on the west side are portions of a 17th century house, its gable end built into the bawn wall, through which separate entrance was created. The walls on either side retain their internal parapets, reached via flights of stone steps.
The Burkes remained in possession of Pallas until the mid-17th century when, like many other families who had risen against the Cromwellian forces, they were dispossessed of their lands and moved further west. The same fate befell another ancient family of Norman origins, the Nugents, formerly Barons Delvin but since 1621 Earls of Westmeath. They too were required to depart their original property and move west, being given part of the former Burke land including Pallas. Following the restoration of Charles II in 1660, the second Earl of Westmeath was allowed to return to his ancestral lands and those in County Galway bestowed on his second son, the Hon Thomas Nugent, created Baron Nugent of Riverston by James II in 1689. As a Roman Catholic and Jacobite he went into exile, dying in 1715 but his sons conformed to the established church and so were able to retain both the family title and estates. Their descendants remained at Pallas until the 1930s, having some thirty years earlier become Earls of Westmeath when the main line of the family died out. Ultimately the Land Commission took over the Pallas estate and divided it up, thereby ending the Nugent link. What remains of Pallas Castle is today a National Monument.
So this is what is left at Pallas, but another very substantial building in the immediate vicinity has since disappeared. In 1797 the amateur architect William Leeson, now best known for laying out the town of Westport, County Mayo, was commissioned by the fourth Lord Nugent of Riverston to design offices and, it seems, a new residence. This building was considerably enlarged by the tenth Earl of Westmeath after he inherited the title and estate on the death of his father in 1879. Surviving photographs show a house typical of the period, with an abundance of plate glass, parapets and balustrades, cement-rendered pilasters and quoins, together with a three-bay extension to one side. Further improvements were carried out on the property in the years immediately before the outbreak of the First World War with the addition of a new library and smoking room, but in the aftermath of the war circumstances were very different. The Nugents left the area for good soon after the death of the 11th Earl in 1933 when the title passed to his younger brother. A sale of the contents took place and then in 1945 the house itself was demolished, followed by an auction of its fixtures and fittings, including no less than 150 interior and exterior doors and a similar number of windows, marble chimney pieces, library shelving and so forth. Despite the building’s scale, today there is no obvious trace of it on the landscape and only the older structures survive at Pallas.
The façade of Portumna Castle, County Galway seen from the outer court. The house dates from 1618 when it was commissioned by Richard Burke, fourth Earl of Clanricarde and his wife Frances Walsingham, who had previously been married to both Sir Philip Sidney and the second Earl of Essex. The building’s design bears similarities to the Clanricardes’ mansion at Somerhill, Kent completed just a few years earlier. At the time it was probably the most sophisticated semi-fortified house in Ireland, with Italianate influences apparent throughout beginning with the Tuscan gateway providing access to the inner court. Few changes were made thereafter to the property, other than the addition of a bow at the centre of the rear elevation. However Portumna Castle was accidentally gutted by fire in 1826 and the family later built a new residence on an adjacent site. The latter was destroyed in 1922 and its stones used to build a Roman Catholic church in the nearby town. The old castle was subsequently acquired by the state and re-roofed although, having stood exposed to the elements for over 150 years, its interior retains few original features.
Robin Bury’s recently-published Buried Lives: The Protestants of Southern Ireland is, appropriately enough, something of a curate’s egg. However, the book provides a valuable account of the decline in Protestantism within this country, as testified by the numbers of people identifying themselves as such here. According to the 1911 census, there were some 327,000 Protestants living in the 26 counties, accounting for approximately ten per cent of the population: this figure excluded members of the British army stationed in Irish garrisons. A century later, the 2011 census indicated there were 137,000 Irish Protestants, accounting for three per cent of the population. Then as now the spread was uneven. The late R.B. McDowell’s Crisis and Decline: The Fate of the Southern Unionists (1997) reveals that at the start of the last century about a third of the total Protestant population in the 26 counties lived in Dublin and the adjacent counties of Wicklow and Kildare. In the prosperous south Dublin suburbs running from Rathmines/Rathgar out to Dalkey, over sixty per cent of the residents were Protestant. On the other hand, the further south and west one travelled, the fewer Protestants were to be found: in Munster they totalled six per cent of the population, in Connacht under four per cent. Inevitably as numbers started to drop from 1920s onwards, it was in these areas that church attendance, and subsequent closure, was most immediate and widespread.
Pay no attention to decorators, designers, or passing fashions: from one season to the next nothing better becomes a house than a well-stocked bookcase (although a well-stocked cellar is also appreciated). Here are two of them within the library at Ballinderry Park, County Galway, an 18th century house that has been discussed before (see Sturdy as an Oak, January 6th 2014) but deserves regular revisiting, if only to linger over some of the many volumes gathered therein.
The O’Flaherty family are descended from one Flaithbheartach mac Eimhin who lived in the 10th century. Although originally settled on the eastern side of what is now County Galway, they were later driven further west and came to control much of Connemara. But like many other such tribes, they were almost constantly striving to expand the area under their authority and it is said the mediaeval walls of Galway city carried the inscription ‘From the ferocious O’Flahertys O Lord Deliver Us.’ By this time, one of their strongholds was Bunowen Castle, County Galway strategically located by the Hill of Doon and overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
In the sixteenth century, Bunowen and its surrounding lands were controlled by Dónal ‘an Chogaidh’ Ó Flaithbheartaigh (Donal of the Battle) who in 1546 married Gráinne daughter of Eoghan Dubhdara Ó Máille, chief of the Ó Máille clan in neighbouring County Mayo: she is also known as Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen. The couple had three children before Dónal was killed in battle in 1560: a few years later Gráinne left Bunowen and settled instead on Clare Island in her own county. But the castle remained in the family’s ownership until the 1650s when it was captured by the Cromwellian army and the O’Flahertys dispossessed. Bunowen was then given to Arthur Geoghegan whose own lands in County Westmeath had been taken from him before he was transplanted to the west of Ireland. The Geoghegans subsequently married into a local family, the Blakes who were one of the Tribes of Galway, and so became integrated into the region.
In 1808 John David Geoghegan of Bunowen petitioned the British crown for permission to change his surname. The family had long believed itself descended from the prehistoric Irish king Niall of the Nine Hostages and therefore wished to take the name of his descendants. Accordingly they were granted the right to call themselves O’Neill. It is perhaps for this reason that, having assumed control of the Bunowen estate following his father’s death in 1830, John David’s son Augustus John O’Neill embarked on an ambitious building programme to enlarge the house. During the previous four years he had served as an Member of Parliament for the English constituency of Kingston-upon-Hull but had not stood for re-election. There were rumours that one reason for his unwillingness to face the electorate a second time was due to a gambling scandal or unpaid bills, but these allegations were not substantiated. In any case, he did overstretch his resources on Bunowen and, like so many others, in the aftermath of the Great Famine he was obliged to sell his property. In 1853 it passed into the hands of Valentine O’Connor Blake of Towerhill, County Mayo who used Bunowen as a summer residence. The castle was intact a century ago but at some date thereafter abandoned. It now stands a gaunt ruin, still gazing out to the Atlantic as it did when occupied by the ferocious O’Flahertys.
In 1716 the Cork-born Anglican cleric Edward Synge was appointed Archbishop of Tuam, County Galway, holding the office until his death in 1741. At some time during this period, he built a new archiepiscopal palace which to this day remains the largest and most prominent building in the town. Of three storeys over basement and of seven bays, the centre three forming an entrance breakfront, the house was set amidst gardens that to the rear ran down to the river Nanny. Its most significant external feature is the main doorcase, of cut limestone with fluted Ionic pilasters beneath a pediment. The palace was seemingly vacated in the 1950s; it now serves as the adjunct to a local supermarket.
Like many other religious sites, the former Franciscan friary at Ross Errilly, County Galway continued to serve as a burial site long after it had officially been put out of commission during the 16th century Reformation. Later visitors often commented on the poorly interred bodies here: in 1851 the Rev. John Hervey Ashworth claimed he had counted no less than sixty skulls scattered about the semi-ruinous buildings (see To Walk the Studious Cloisters Pale, July 14th 2014). Today there are no corpses to be seen, but many handsome tombstones inserted into the mediaeval walls, such as the two examples seen here dating from the early 18th century.
Situated to the immediate north of Kinvara, County Galway Dunguaire Castle was built in the early sixteenth century by the O’Hynes clan. Few of the tourists who stop to photograph the picturesque building know of its link with one of the great British society scandals of the last century. In 1918 Christabel Hart had married — against his family’s wishes — John Russell, heir to the second Lord Ampthill. Exceptionally tall and nicknamed ‘Stilts’ Russell enjoyed going to fancy dress balls in drag. Meanwhile his young wife spent the evenings in London dancing with a string of what her husband would refer to as ‘detestable young men.’ In June 1921, following a visit to a clairvoyant, Christabel Russell discovered she was five months pregnant. John Russell denied paternity and at once sued for divorce, claiming that no physical contact whatever had taken place between them and that the marriage had, on her insistence, never been fully consummated. In the resultant court case it transpired the couple had shared a bed for two nights just before Christmas 1920. According to Christabel Russell her husband had taken the opportunity to attempt what was referred to in accounts of the resultant court case as ‘incomplete’ or ‘partial’ intercourse; it seems he had already tried to do the same on several previous occasions, which she described as ‘Hunnish scenes, usually preceded by threats to shoot himself and once to shoot my cat, which often slept on the bed.’ Matters became still more confused when it was discovered that Christabel Russell, despite her pregnancy, showed ‘all the signs of virginity.’ One widespread explanation was that she had taken a bath immediately after her husband and had used the same sponge: even in later life her son Geoffrey (the fourth Lord Ampthill) was popularly known as the ‘sponge baby.’ The Russells eventually divorced in 1937 and Christabel, Lady Ampthill moved to Ireland, settling in County Galway where she enjoyed the hunting. For several decades until her death in 1976 her home was Dunguaire Castle.