A Melancholy Centenary

Ardfert Abbey

Last weekend marked the centenary of the final burning of a big house in County Kerry during the War of Independence/Civil War period, the property in question being Ballycarty, which lay to the south-west of Tralee and had been occupied by the Nash family since the third quarter of the 18th century. In total, 15 such houses in the county were destroyed during the period 1920-23, a list of these appearing in the recently published The Big House in Kerry: A Social History edited by Jane O’Hea O’Keeffe. Amid the 18 properties examined in individual chapters by different authors, four of them are among those lost at the time: Kilmorna (burnt April 1921 and its occupant Sir Arthur Vicars killed), Ballyheigue Castle (burnt May 1921, see Particularly Commodious « The Irish Aesthete), Ardfert Abbey (burnt August 1922) and Derryquin (burnt August 1922). 

Glenbeigh Castle


Ballyheigue Castle

In a fascinating chapter at the start of The Big House in Kerry, historian John Knightly looks at ‘The Destruction of the Big House in Kerry 1920-23’ and the various reasons for these properties being burnt. He proposes that the destruction of two houses was due to suspicions that they might be used by British forces, seven were burnt as a result of land agitation, and six the consequence of looting. It is clear that in the aftermath of the First World War and the economic depression that followed, a large number of agricultural workers found themselves in dire circumstances, leading to agrarian unrest. Initially much of this took place in north Kerry with attacks made on large farms, popularly known as ‘ranches.’ The persons involved sought for these land holdings to be broken up and divided into small parcels for distribution among the local populace. By this time, taking advantage of schemes such as the 1903 Wyndham Act, many estate owners had sold the greater part of their land and only held onto the immediate demesne. Some owners, in the face of threatened or actual attacks on their property, sought to sell up and leave, although given the real or incipient violence, purchasers were not easy to find. A number of owners simply decided to leave. In north Kerry, Rose Trent-Stoughton, last owner of Ballyhorgan, who had already sold much of the estate under the terms of the Wyndham Act, organised for the house’s contents to be auctioned in April 1919. Since she, by then an elderly woman, was living in England, the building was vulnerable to theft: in March 1920 two men were charged at Listowel District Court for removing boards, door frames and a gate from Ballyhorgan. Two months later, the house, dating from the 1750s, was set alight and left a shell: the first of such arson attacks in Kerry. The remains were later demolished and nothing now remains. Glenbeigh Castle, otherwise known as Winn Towers, was next: like Ballyhorgan, it was unoccupied but in this case rumours had spread that the building was due to be taken over by a British regiment. Having stood empty for some time, the castle, designed by Edward Godwin in the 1860s, did not burn easily. The leader of those responsible for its destruction later wrote ‘after sprinkling twelve tins of petrol over the floors, it refused to light, and at dawn I was faced with a problem. It was damp, old and much of it stonework. I noted a lot of shrub nearby, and sent the men to collect and fill up one room with it…’ And so it went on, often in waves, with a series of attacks in spring 1920, another during the same period the following year, a third in summer/autumn 1922 and then, closing the sequence, Ballycarty in January 1923. 


Ardtully


Flesk Castle

It is important to note that while their destruction should be lamented, only 15 Kerry country houses were burnt in the years 1920-23. In another, introductory chapter, John Knightly observes that at the start of the last century there were some 115 properties in the county. These varied in size and age, and the amount of land holdings differed considerably. Three families – the Petty-FitzMaurices, Brownes and de Moleyns – owned estates running to almost 100,000 each, but others might have a few hundred acres. Inevitably, most of them were members of the Church of Ireland but a few, not least the Earl of Kenmare, were Roman Catholic: interestingly in 1913/14 the local president of the Irish Unionist Alliance – formed to oppose home rule – was the aforementioned Lord Kenmare. Knightly estimates that out of a county population of 160,000 in 1911, perhaps between 700 and 1,000 were members of this landed elite. The situation soon began to change, the burnings of 1920-23 being just one factor in this transformation. As Knighty comments, ‘Ultimately, the Land Commission and the Irish State were responsible for more big houses than the War of Independence and Civil War combined. The process begun in 1879 at the start of the Land War was thus completed over 100 years later. High taxes, high rates and falling incomes did the rest.’ Typical in this respect is Flesk Castle, abandoned in the 1940s (although now happily being brought back to use). Knightly notes that today only four Kerry houses remain in the hands of the family responsible for their construction. But others happily survive, such as Beaufort (subject of a chapter by Donald Cameron), a picture of which can be seen below.

Beaufort House

The Big House in Kerry: A Social History, edited by Jane O’Hea O’Keeffe is published by Irish Life and Lore (39.00)

Particularly Commodious


In 1680 two sisters from County Offaly, Elizabeth and Jane Hamilton, were married on the same day. While Elizabeth married Sir Thomas Crosbie, Jane married Sir Thomas’s eldest son (from an earlier marriage), David. Thus the latter’s heir Maurice, future first Baron Branden, was both nephew and cousin of Sir Thomas and Elizabeth Crosbie’s eldest son, also called Thomas. While David inherited the family’s main estate at Ardfert, County Kerry (see An Incomplete Story « The Irish Aesthete), Thomas Crosbie was left another estate further north in the same county at Ballyheigue. The ancient family formerly in occupation here were the Cantillons who supposedly occupied some kind of fortified building; they were displaced in the 17th century by the Crosbies (who, in turn, had been moved by the English government from their own traditional lands in Offaly). The younger Thomas died in late 1730, supposedly after he suffered from exposure and fatigue involved in rescuing the crew and cargo of a Danish vessel, the Golden Lion, which had become stranded on the local coast: the cargo happened to include 12 chests of silver valued at £20,000. A complex drama involving the disappearance of at least some of this silver, and the possible involvement of Thomas’s widow, Lady Margaret Barry (a daughter of the second Earl of Barrymore) then followed; what exactly happened and who benefitted from the theft has never been clearly established. In any case, a new residence was built at Ballyheigue c.1758 by Colonel James Crosbie, heir to the younger Thomas. Seemingly this was a long, low thatched property, by then somewhat old-fashioned in style, and surrounded by an orchard, gardens and bowling green. It was his grandson, another colonel also called James and an MP, first of the Irish Parliament and then, after the 1800 Act of Union, of the Westminster Parliament, who gave the house, renamed Ballyheigue Castle, its present – albeit now semi-ruinous – appearance. 





Two early 19th century engravings exist showing Ballyheigue Castle. The first, engraved by W. Radclyffe and published in 1819, depicts the battlemented building dramatically towering over the edge of a cliff with a precipitous drop straight to the sea. Six years later, James and Henry Storer produced an engraving for J.N. Brewer’s Beauties of Ireland (1826) which shows the castle standing so close to the seashore that waves almost lap the entrance. Both images were highly fanciful, testament to the era’s fondness for romantic settings. In truth, the building is located on ground that gently slopes down to a beach with expansive views across Tralee Bay. As already mentioned, the house was given a comprehensive overhaul shortly before either engraving appeared. Like so many other estate owners of the period, Colonel James Crosbie turned to one of the period’s most hard-working architects in Ireland, Richard Morrison. Around 1809, the latter invited his talented son William Vitruvius Morrison – then aged barely 15 – to come up with a suitable design for the building; responding to the challenge and ‘to the astonishment of his father, he, in the course of a few days, produced the noble design subsequently erected.’ How true this tale, or how much – like those early images – it is just an entertaining fancy, remains unknown. In any case, when the first engraving was published, an accompanying text in J.P. Neale’s Views of Seats reported that the intention of the architect(s) was to give an impression that the castle had been constructed in two different periods, neither of them the early 19th century. Instead, ‘the entrance front exhibiting the rich and ornamental style of the early part of the reign of Henry VIII; the flank elevation towards the sea has the character and appearance of the castellated mansions of King Henry VI.’ Inside, the same document observed, ‘the apartments are elegant, and are arranged upon a plan particularly commodious.’ Both the text and the engraving were heavily reliant upon material provided by Richard Morrison. 





Text here…Colonel Crosbie died in 1836 and four years later, when Ballyheigue Castle was occupied by his heir Pierce, it suffered a terrible fire during which, according to a contemporary report, the entire interior at the front ‘was consumed from the roof to the ground.’ However, most of the contents were saved and the place was soon rebuilt, presumably with the same ‘elegant’ apartments. The last of the Crosbies to live in the house was Pierce’s grandson, Brigadier-General James Dayrolles Crosbie. In 1912 he decided to sell the property for £7,700 to his eldest sister Kathleen who wished to keep Ballyheigue in the family. However, with the onset of the War of Independence and the Civil War, she in turn opted to dispose of the place: it was bought by a local man, Jeremiah Leen, for £4,000. He did not have long to enjoy possession of the building. During the War of Independence, Ballyheigue Castle had been occupied for a period by Crown forces and perhaps for that reason, in May 1921 the house was torched on the instructions of the IRA. Although Leen received some compensation for his loss, the castle was not rebuilt, the main block left a shell, although the service wing to the east, which presumably survived, remained in use. In the 1970s, the western section of the house was converted into a series of apartments but the most important portion, that once containing those elegant apartments, remains a ruin. Meanwhile, in the mid-1990s the surrounding demesne land was converted into a nine-hole golf course, with a club house built behind the castle. Accordingly, a restoration appears unlikely.

A Local Landmark



A local landmark, this is the round tower at Rattoo, County Kerry. Due to the flatness of the surrounding countryside, it is possible to see this building from many miles distant. Built of yellow sandstone and rising more than 27 metres, the tower dates from c.1100 and is located next to an ancient religious settlement; the ruined church here is 15th century. The conical top remains but a large portion of it was replaced in the early 1880s, while during more recent restoration work, a sheela-na-gig was discovered on the inner face of the north window, the only known example of such carvings on a round tower. Further restoration work was halted during the pandemic and has not since resumed, leaving part of the base stilll encased in scaffolding.


By Design


Derrynane, County Kerry

Regular followers will be aware that for the past couple of years, the Irish Aesthete has undertaken much research into the evolution of Ireland’s country house gardens, the evolution of which has not always been sufficiently appreciated. One of the areas where such gardens can be seen to best advantage is County Kerry, which enjoys the benefit of lying adjacent to the Gulf Stream as it passes this island’s Atlantic coast. In consequence, historic gardens of quite astonishing fecundity can be found throughout Kerry and these will be the subject of a one-day seminar – Designed Landscapes & Demesnes of Kerry: Their History and Conservation – to be held next Friday, September 30th in Killarney. The Irish Aesthete will be speaking at this event, offering an overview of the country’s designed landscapes (with a particular emphasis on those found in Kerry, of course). The seminar is free, but booking required, and further information can be found here: Designed Landscapes & Demesnes of Kerry: their history & conservation seminar | Irish Georgian Society (igs.ie)


Kells Bay, County Kerry 

Bello Loco


‘The Abbey of Killagha [County Kerry] was erected on the site of the abbey of St. Coleman by Geoffrey de Marisco for Canons Regular of St. Augustine, and dedicated to our Blessed Lady. Hervey de Marisco, one of the first Norman knights who came to Ireland, acquired large tracts of land in Tipperary, Wexford and Kerry. He died without descendants, and his large estates passed to his brother, Geoffrey. The latter is mentioned as Judiciary of Ireland in 1215. Smith, in his “History of Kerry”, says Killagha was erected in the reign of Henry III, which would be some time after 1216. Geoffrey de Marisco founded also a house for Knights Hospitallers in Awney in Limerick, and built the castle of Castleisland.
It is to be regretted that the records of the Augustinian order in Ireland are of the most meagre character. The Canons Regular aimed at a contemplative rather than a missionary life. They sought to realise the spirit of an à Kempis rather than a Dominic. Hence they were not bound up in such close relations with the people among whom they lived as were, for example, the Dominicans or Franciscans. When the ties were broken in the sixteenth century that bound the Canons Regular to their abbeys, they did not look back with the same wistful longing as did the members of these two orders, to recover their lost homes and renew old relations. As a consequence, we see the Dominicans and Franciscans dwelling once more beside their old monasteries, while hardly an instance occurs of the Canons Regular returning to the place that they left.’





‘The Abbey of Our Lady grew into importance soon after the Canons Regular had taken possession of it. It received large tracts of land in different parts of the county. Tithes and glebes were added, and the abbey became very wealthy. The Canons Regular happily united industrious habits of life with contemplation, and probably spent part of their time in manual labour. Lands were tilled and woods planted, and the surroundings of Our Lady’s Abbey became quickly changed. The place came to be recognised as one of unusual beauty, and the abbey henceforth to be known as Killagha, or the Abbey of Our Lady de Bello Loco…
…I have very little to record of Killagha during the intervening years down to the sixteenth century. Some improvements were made in the church, most probably in the fifteenth century. The beautiful east window was put in, also a handsome double-lancet window at the south side of the chancel, an aumbry within the sanctuary, two Gothic doors leading to the church from the south side, and a square window of three lights in the western gable. The insertion of these windows and doors has led Archdall to conclude that the foundation of the abbey is of more recent date than that assigned to it. “The architecture,” he says, “which is of a dark marble, bespeaks the structure to be much more modern than the time before mentioned.” The windows and doors that I have named are, indeed, more modern, but the other parts of the building, which are altogether different in character from the insertions, date most probably from the time of Henry III.’ 





‘The church is the only portion of the abbey buildings that at present remains; a few feet of masonry attaching to the south side of the chancel are all that we now see of what was once the abbey of Killagha. I am inclined to think that the materials of the abbey were removed soon after it was destroyed in 1649, as Smith and Archdall make particular reference to the church, but make no reference to the abbey structure…
The church is of rubble masonry, and though of plain workmanship, is solidly constructed. Though still in a fair state of preservation, there are evidences of approaching decay. Rents appear in the western gable, and the southern wall; and the joints are becoming much open in the east window. The church, rectangular and without aisles, lies east and west, and very long for its width; length 128 feet five inches, and breadth 23 inches five inches. The walls are very massive, those at the sides 4 feet 8 inches, and in parts 5 feet, eastern gable 4 feet 4 inches, western 4 feet 7 inches. It was divided, at intersection of chancel and nave by a steeple, or bell tower.’  


Extracts from The Abbey of Killagha, Parish of Kilcoleman, Co. Kerry by the Rev. James Carmody in The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland , Series 5, Vol. XVI, 1906. 

 

Institutionalised



Despite being built as a private residence, there’s something distinctly institutional about Muckross House, County Kerry; this impression not helped, obviously by the expanses of bleak gravel in front of the building. Replacing an earlier house, the present Jacobethan-style one dates from 1839-43 when designed by Scottish architect William Burn for Colonel Herbert. It was here that the Herberts famously entertained Queen Victoria in 1861 during her visit to Killarney, and seemingly the cost of the royal stay (for which the house was lavishly redecorated) together with declining income from their estates, led the family to bankruptcy; in 1899 Arthur Guinness, Lord Ardilaun bought Muckross for his wife Olivia whose mother had been a Herbert. Then, the property was sold to an American William Bowers Bourn who in turn presented it to his daughter Maud on the occasion of her marriage to Arthur Vincent. But following her early death, in 1932 Bourn and Vincent decided to present the house and surrounding 11,000 acres to the Irish nation and it has remained in public ownership ever since. Standing on the terrace and looking west towards Muckross Lake, it is easy to understand why the house was built here, even if harder to understand why it was built in quite such an unforgiving style.


No Demesne So Entirely Lovely


‘Probably there is not in the kingdom a demesne so entirely lovely as that of Muckross, the property of W.H. Herbert Esq., one of the members for the county. And now let us visit the renowned “Abbey”; it is in the demesne and close to the old entrance from the main road. It was built for Franciscan monks, according to Archdall, in 1440; but the Annals of the Four Masters give its date a century earlier: both, however, ascribe its foundation to one of the MacCarthys, Princes of Desmond. It was several times repaired, and once subsequently to the Reformation…’






‘…The cloister, which consists of twenty-two arches, ten of them semi-circular, and twelve pointed, is the best preserved portion of the Abbey. In the centre grows a magnificent yew-tree, which covers, as a roof, the whole area; its circumference is thirteen feet and its height in proportion. It is more than probably that this tree is coeval with the Abbey; that it was planted by the hands of the monks who built the sacred edifice three centuries ago…’






‘…The building consists of two principal parts – the convent and the church The church is about one hundred feet in length, and twenty-four in breadth; the steeple, which stands between the nave and the chancel, rests on four high and slender pointed arches. The dormitories, the kitchen, the refectory, the cellars, the infirmary and other chambers are still in a state of comparative preservation; the upper rooms are unroofed.’


Extracts from A Companion to Killarney by Mr and Mrs S.C. Hall (London, 1878) 

 

Quite Batty




The former Roman Catholic church at Derrycunnihy, County Kerry dates from the last quarter of the 19th century and is thought to have been built on the instructions of local landowner Valentine Browne, fourth Earl of Kenmare whose family, despite their large estates, had always remained Catholic. Located close to Ladies View and offering panoramic prospects over the surrounding countryside, the church is almost set into the rocky surroundings, its relatively plain design distinguished only by the polygonal apse. Seemingly it was damaged by fire in the 1950s and then abandoned for services the following decade after which it fell into disrepair. However, the state has now begun restoration work on the property, which is home to a number of protected species including Lesser Horseshoe Bats and Barn Owls.



A Little Strong Castle




‘The police station which lay on our road, and at which we stopped, was a new, neat, spacious building. At a short distance, it looked like a little strong castle; and the natives may probably look upon it as a fort Uri in miniature, to keep them in awe. It lay at the highest part of the mountain, just where the road again begins to descend. All round was a wilderness, and reminded me of the military stations so picturesquely situated in the wild regions of the Austrian frontier. The house contained eight men of the constabulary force, as it is called, and which is a military-armed police, now extended over the whole of Ireland, for the prevention of crime, the discovery and apprehension of criminals, the protection of property, and the preservation of the peace…The sergeant who had command of this station informed me that their district comprised the desolate mountains far and wide, but that there were only 220 inhabitants in it. Eight armed policement for 220 inhabitants – a large proportion in sooth!’
From Travels in Ireland by Johann Georg Kohl, published in 1844.
The former Royal Irish Constabulary Barracks at Derrycunnihy, County Kerry, a building seemingly burnt out over a century ago during the War of Independence and standing in ruin ever since.



Going Green


A 19th century greenhouse in the gardens of Muckross House, County Kerry. The estate was owned by the Herbert family for several hundred years until indebtedness required its sale in 1899 when bought by Lord Ardilaun (whose wife was related to the former owners). The reason for the Herberts’ financial problems is often said to have been the expense incurred in entertaining Queen Victoria when she stayed with them for a few days in 1861, but this rather seems to be an instance of seeking a scapegoat. Long before Victoria thought of coming to the area, the family had demolished their previous residence and built a large new one, plus spent lavishly on their gardens, including the provision of many greenhouses such as this one, so the suspicion arises that even without a royal visit they would have eventually come a cropper.