After our recent blizzards, a reminder of what Ireland can look like in the summer: Muckross, County Kerry. Here is the east front of the house designed by Scottish architect William Burn and built 1839-43 for Col. Henry Arthur Herbert whose family settled here in the second half of the 16th century. Famously Queen Victoria came to stay with the Herberts for two nights in August 1861: seemingly so much was spent preparing for this visit that the owners’ finances never recovered. In 1899 the estate was sold to Arthur Guinness, Lord Ardilaun whose wife was related to the Herberts. Later it was acquired by Californian mining magnate William Bowers Bourn who together with his son-in-law Arthur Vincent later presented the house and surrounding 11,000 acres to the Irish state. Muckross accordingly became Ireland’s first National Park.
In 1809 in an effort to put a stop to marine-based smuggling the British government – then at war with Napoleonic France – established a body called the Preventive Water Guard (otherwise known as the Preventive Boat Service). Operating across these islands, the Waterguard was the sea-based arm of revenue enforcement, its members based in Watch Houses around the coast of Britain and Ireland, with boat crews patrolling the waters at night. While they were primarily concerned with bringing smuggling to an end, they also gave assistance to shipwrecks and indeed kept an eye out for foreign vessels entering national waters. In 1821 a committee of enquiry proposed responsibility for the Preventative Water Guard be transferred from HM Treasury to the Board of Customs. Until then, the Board of Customs and the Board of Excise each had their own long-established preventative forces: shore-based Riding Officers for the former and sea-going Revenue Cruisers for the latter. The committee recommended these services be consolidated and so in January 1822 they were placed under the authority of the Board of Customs and renamed the Coast Guard.
The Coast Guard established in 1822 duly inherited existing shore stations and watch houses from the two earlier bodies (as well as a number of coastal vessels) and these provided bases for its operations, with additional properties being constructed as deemed necessary. The first Coast Guard instructions were published in 1829: while still primarily occupied with the prevention of smuggling they also stipulated that when a wreck took place the Coast Guard was responsible for taking all possible action to save lives, taking charge of the vessel and protecting property. By the 1850s, coastal smuggling was no longer so serious a matter and so responsibility for the Coast Guard was transferred from the Board of Customs to the Admiralty. Over the following decades the service began to operate more like a supplementary naval service, although it still was responsible for carrying out rescues and protection of property in the event of a shipwreck.
The Coast Guard service was based in stations right around the island, with fifteen of these in County Kerry. The stations were usually built to a standard design. Typically they comprised a terrace of five or six houses set back from the shore but within easy reach of it. There would also be a watch tower and, by the sea, a boat house and slipway. Each terrace included residences for the chief boatman, his men and their families. Inside would be a sitting room and kitchen (plus scullery) on the ground floor, and bedrooms upstairs. As a rule the entrance to each house was to the rear (away from coastal winds) with just windows on the front looking out to sea. These stations survived until the early 1920s when, like other centres such as army and Royal Irish Constabulary barracks, they were attacked and burnt during the War of Independence and ensuing Civil War to ensure they could not be used by the enemy. Many of them, like this example in Ballinskelligs, County Kerry, now stand empty and ruinous, a largely forgotten aspect of the country’s maritime history.
The remains of St Patrick’s, Killowen located on the outskirts of Kenmare, County Kerry. The church was reported in good repair in 1806 and enlarged six years later but replaced in 1856 by another building closer to the town centre, it being declared at the time ‘the old church was so small the increasing number of Protestants could not be accommodated.’ Since then it has fallen into ruin but the graveyard is notable for being the burial site of English-born composer Ernest J Moeran who from 1930 onwards spent the greater part of his time living in this part of the country (both his father and grandfather had been an Irish Anglican clergymen). Moeran died after falling into the river Kenmare in December 1950.
A story is told that at some ancient date two brothers, members of the O’Connell family, occupied Ballycarbery Castle as constables for the MacCarthy Mór, lords of much of south Kerry. The elder sibling lived on the lower storey, the younger on the upper and both wished to offer dinner to their lord on the same night. Accordingly to settle the dispute MacCarthy Mór declared he would eat with whichever brother had the meal prepared first. The elder then ordered his servants to block up all access to the upper floors and stand guard so that nobody could enter or exit. When his younger brother discovered this scheme, he arranged to have all his pots filled with Spanish wine in which the food was cooked, and by this means he had dinner ready first and was able to entertain the MacCarthy Mór.
The present Ballycarbery Castle appears to be of 16th century origin, although built on the site of an older fortified structure. From about 1350 the building was occupied and under the care of the O’Connells, serving their overlord the aforementioned MacCarthy Mór. The main body of the building is substantial, measuring some 74 by 42.6 feet with a projecting tower in one corner that rising four storeys. Sections of a surrounding bawn wall remain. A large vaulted chamber on the ground floor survives, and portions of other rooms at this level: much the same is true of the floor above, accessed by one of the building’s two staircases. It is easy to understand why a castle was erected here, since the spot on which it stands is close to the edge of the Atlantic, with views for several miles south-west towards Valencia Island and beyond, and towards Caherciveen and its hinterland to the east. Whoever held the castle could see the approach of any potential opponent, on either land or sea, well in advance.
Ballycarbery Castle appears to have remained in the custody of the O’Connells until the early 17th century: by this time, a large portion of the MacCarthy Mór territory – including the Lakes of Killarney – had passed into the possession of the Brownes, future Earls of Kenmare. The castle itself seems to have been attacked and badly damaged by English troops in 1652 but enough survived to ensure its survival. In the 18th century a family called Lauder built a new house attached to one side of the bawn wall: it appears in a watercolour made in 1792 by Daniel Grose. Already a ruin when he saw it, this building was demolished at the start of the last century. Grose’s picture shows large chunks of masonry fallen from the southern section of the castle, this damage presumably from the mid-17th century when the building was subject to attack. In 1910 it was noted that a tenant farmer had demolished some twenty-five feet of the southern outer wall and was clearing away quantities of stone work until cautioned to desist. It looks as though little has changed since then.
In recent years there has been some discussion about when the Franciscan Order first arrived in Ireland. A long-standing tradition had it that the earliest friars here established a house in Youghal, County Cork in 1214 (twelve years before the death of Francis of Assisi). However, the earliest contemporaneous account of an Irish Franciscan house dates from 1233, and refers to a property in Dublin which was evidently well-established by then since mention is made of the need to repair a church and house. Whatever the facts, the Franciscans proved highly popular and over the course of the thirteenth century, some 45 friaries had been set up across the country, usually at the behest – and with the funding – of an important local family. Such was the case with the house at Ardfert, County Kerry established in 1253 by Thomas FitzMaurice who would be buried in the church close to the altar following his death in c.1280.
The remains of Ardfry Friary indicate it was a substantial building. The wide body of the church concludes in a five-lancet window. As was usual with mendicant houses, the church had no side aisles but in the 15th century a transept was added on the southern side. This has a handsome nine-lancet window removed from the building in 1670 and installed in nearby Ardfert Cathedral before being returned to its original location in the second decade of the 19th century. To the north of the church lie the remains of the cloister, only the eastern side being still intact. In the 15th century a six-storey tower was added to the complex at the western end of the church, presumably to provide secure accommodation for the friars during a period of considerable internal turmoil when even religious establishments were not safe from attack. Ultimately, like all other such houses, Ardfert Friary was closed down in the 16th century, after which it passed into the control of Colonel John Zouche, an English soldier at the time based in Munster. By the 1630s the property had passed into the possession of the Crosbie family with whom it remained until the last century.
Ardfert Friary today stands in the middle of what was once a landscaped park, with the religious house serving as a romantic ruin. It is hard to appreciate this now because the former Crosbie residence has gone. The family, originally called Mac an Chrosáin, were bards in Laois who in the 16th century moved to Kerry. There Sean Mac an Chrosáin changed his name to John Crosbie, converted to Anglicanism and in 1601 became Church of Ireland Bishop of Ardfert. It was his descendants who occupied the site of the old friary and who towards the end of the 17th century built themselves a new residence, named Ardfert Abbey. Surviving photographs give an idea of what the building looked like with the main block, its breakfront centre pedimented, flanked by two ranges that came forward to create an open forecourt (further outbuildings ran on either side). Internally the most striking room was the hall, its panelling painted in monochrome with a series of classical figures running around the walls. But there was also a fine early-18th century staircase and handsome early classical reception rooms. All survived intact until Ardfert Abbey was burnt in August 1922, the remains being subsequently demolished. As a result, visitors to the friary today only see part of the site’s history and can easily misread the setting in which the building stands. An important part of Ardfert’s history has been forever swept away so that what now remains tells only part of the tale.
What remains of Dunkerron Castle, County Kerry. This four-storey tower house was built on the site of an earlier Anglo-Norman fortification probably around the middle of the fifteenth century when it became a stronghold of the O’Sullivan Mór, chiefs of this particular branch of the family: a stone inscription formerly on the site noted that work had been carried out here in 1596 by Owen O’Sullivan Mór. Burnt during the Cromwellian Wars, the land on which the castle stood was confiscated and granted to Sir William Petty. The building thereafter fell into ruin and in the 19th century a new residence was built close by. More recently a development of holiday homes has been constructed in the vicinity.
Glenbeigh Towers, County Kerry was built 1867-71 for the Hon Rowland Allanson-Winn, its design by English architect Edward Godwin. The latter, whose other Irish commission was Dromore, County Limerick (see Une Folie de Grandeur, 30th December 2013 and More and More Dromore, 3rd March 2014). Both properties suffered the same problems: the budget overran and the walls perpetually leaked. Whereas Godwin’s patron at Dromore, the third Earl of Limerick, suffered these inconveniences, Allanson-Winn was not prepared to do so and sued the architect for the cost of employing someone else to rectify the issue. The defendant settled the case before it came to court but thereafter would advise ‘When offered a commission in Ireland, refuse it.’ Glenbeigh was only ever occupied by staff until taken over by members of the British Military Command during the First World War. It was subsequently burnt by the IRA in 1921 and has remained a striking ruin ever since. Incidentally Allanson-Winn’s son Rowland George Allanson-Winn became fifth Lord Headley following the death of a cousin in January 1913: eight months later he converted to Islam and made a pilgrimage to Mecca the following decade (after which he was known as Al-Haj Shaikh Saifurrahman Rehmatullah El-Farooq). He is also remembered for having been twice offered the throne of Albania, and refusing on both occasions.
In Ireland few painters are better known or more admired than Sir William Orpen (1878-1931), examples of whose work today fetch some of the highest prices for a picture at auction. Yet Orpen’s background is relatively little studied, and his links with County Kerry are accordingly overlooked. Like many families, the Orpens were inclined to give themselves a more distinguished pedigree that was actually the case. So in Burke’s Landed Gentry of 1847 it is claimed that ‘The family of Orpen is of remote antiquity, and is stated to trace its descent from Erpen, second son of Varnacker (maire of the palace to Clothaire I), who was the son of Meroveus, and grandson of Theodorick, son of Clovis, King of France.’ This places their origins back in the sixth century, so that by the time William, Duke of Normandy won the Battle of Hastings in 1066, he was of course accompanied by a knight called Robert d’Erpen who thereafter settled at Erpingham in Norfolk. According to this version of events, the family turns up in Ireland in the second half of the 17th century already long established as members of the landed gentry on the other side of the Irish Sea. Such would have been the story of his forebears likely known by William Orpen. However the year before his death a cousin, the historian Goddard Henry Orpen produced an alternative, and somewhat less distinguished narrative. From this it would appear that the first Orpen to come to Ireland, a descendant of humble English yeomen, did so some time in the 1650s/60s when he acquired land around the area of Killorglin, County Kerry and that by the mid-1670s his son, Richard Orpen was employed as a land agent by the region’s greatest landowner, Sir William Petty. All of which is not quite so splendid as the lineage proposed by Burke but, as Goddard Henry Orpen wrote, ‘it is the truth I seek and not a (faked) illustrious ancestry and, after all, is it not better to rise than to fall?’
So, the earliest Orpens to settle in Kerry did so in the second half of the 17th century and prospered thanks to their association with the Pettys, later Petty-Fitzmaurices and ultimately Marquesses of Lansdowne. As a result they were able to acquire their own substantial landholdings, including the area around Ardtully in South Kerry. Until the 17th century this property was under the control of the MacFineens, a branch of the powerful MacCarthy clan but according to the Books of Survey and Distribution (compiled c.1650-80) during the course of the Confederate Wars, Colonel Donough MacFineen forfeited Ardtully, on which then stood ‘two good slate houses, a corn-mill, a castle, malthouse, barn, and tuck mill, likewise there are iron-mines and a silver mine in the quarter of Ardtully.’ The lands here were granted by the crown to one John Dillon but subsequently acquired on a long lease by the descendants of the original Richard Orpen: following a marriage between the latter’s grandson and Anna Townsend of Bridgemount, County Cork in 1766 the family’s name became Orpen Townsend. Ultimately in the first half of the 19th century the Ardtully estate was first leased and then purchased through the Encumbered Estates Court by a cousin of Richard Orpen Townsend: this was the successful solicitor Richard John Theodore Orpen. Founder of a legal practice still in existence today (as Orpen Franks) he would act as President of the Law Society from 1860 until his death sixteen years later. Knighted in 1866, he was the grandfather of the artist William Orpen and builder of a house still just extant at Ardtully.
Sir Richard John Theodore Orpen was clearly very proud of his family, if somewhat deluded about its pedigree, and assembled whatever information he could about his ancestors. He also built up a considerable land holding in County Kerry, amounting to over 12,000 acres by the time of his death. A fine residence in the centre of this property was required, and duly built at Ardtully in 1847. Its architect unknown, the house is customarily summarised as being in the Scottish Baronial style but this seems more a flag of convenience than an accurate description. In truth Ardtully looks to have been a typically Victorian grab-bag of architectural elements, its most prominent feature being a castellated round tower and turret on the south-east corner. Looking towards the river Roughty, the entrance front features a porch topped by the Orpen coat of arms (now damaged), another attempt by Sir Richard to demonstrate his lineage. Inside the house looks to have contained the usual collection of reception and bedrooms ranged over two storeys, the roofline marked by a succession of stepped gables and dormers. A substantial range of service outbuildings lay to the north. A handsome coloured illustration of Ardtully appeared in County Seats of The Noblemen and Gentlemen of Great Britain and Ireland (published 1870): conveniently the author of this six-volume work was Sir Richard’s nephew, the Rev. Francis Orpen Morris. The estate was eventually inherited by another Anglican clergyman, Sir Richard’s second son, the Rev. Raymond Orpen, Bishop of Limerick, Ardfert and Aghadoe. Uncle of the painter Sir William Orpen, he retired from office in 1921 and the same year Ardtully was burnt by the IRA. It has remained a ruin ever since, the link with one of this country’s greatest artists forgotten.
A fortnight ago the Roman Catholic Bishop of Kerry was widely reported as warning that a decline in numbers of clergy meant it would soon no longer be possible to provide services in all parishes. Here, as elsewhere in the country, there are now more churches than priests, with the consequence that many of the former will begin closing their doors. Some have long since done so, such as this building in Cahersiveen, County Kerry. Dating from the mid-18th century, it is a rare survival of a penal chapel, one of the backstreet centres of worship permitted to exist before legislation against Catholics was gradually abolished. When the naval surgeon Thomas Reid visited Cahersiveen in 1822 he reported that such was the throng attending mass here only about a third of the congregation could be accommodated inside the walls.
Much of the credit for the abolition of the old Penal Laws belongs to Daniel O’Connell, who was baptised in this building in 1775 (his parents are buried in a graveyard immediately opposite). One might therefore imagine that given that pedigree the chapel would be cherished and well-maintained. Such is not the case: it appears that only thanks to the strenuous efforts of a local man, chemist Geoffrey O’Connor who died three years ago does the chapel still stand at all. Its present condition is a premonition of what could yet become of many Catholic churches both in Kerry and elsewhere across Ireland.
The entrance front to Dromore Castle, County Kerry. Located above the Kenmare river Dromore is what might be described as a ‘pocket castle’, a middle-sized country house dressed up with turrets and battlements to provide a phantom historicism; although there was an earlier house close by, the present building only dates from c.1831-38 when built to the designs of Sir Thomas Deane for the Rev. Denis Mahony. Dromore Castle remained with his descendants until 1994 when it was sold by Jane Waller.
She tells her story and the history of the house in Jane O’Hea O’Keefe’s recently-published Voices from the Great Houses: Cork and Kerry which chronicles a number of properties in these two counties, some of which survive (and still in the ownership of the original families) while others are lost. The book is based on recordings made by O’Keefe and her husband which were then transcribed and edited; thus these really are authentic voices of people who came from what in Ireland is traditionally known as the ‘Big House.’
Inevitably, given that so much has been lost, often needlessly, a certain poignancy hangs over the work, an impression of a world which has now gone. However, it is worth pointing out that not all the people featured are of English origin. Elizabeth, Lady O’Connell, for example, was born MacCarthy-O’Leary, her bloodline representing both these Irish families united around 1780 when Denis MacCarthy married Helen, only child of The O’Leary. It was the next generation who in 1805 built Coomlogane, County Cork on the site of the O’Leary ancestral home, but by the middle of the last century the house was in ruins and the property sold by Lady O’Connell’s aunt. Likewise Kilcoleman Abbey, County Kerry, built on land owned by the Godfrey family since the mid-17th century, eventually succumbed to dry rot: ‘I remember the stairs were falling down,’ recalls one relative who visited in the late 1950s, ‘but there was a gallery which was still fairly solid, running round in front of the bedrooms.’ Abandoned not long afterwards, Kilcoleman was eventually demolished by the local authority in the 1970s.
Below is an another image of Dromore Castle which happily still stands. Mark Bence-Jones damned the entrance front for possessing ‘a certain grimness’ but judged this, the garden front, as ‘more graceful and friendly.’
Voices from the Great Houses: Cork and Kerry is published by Mercier Press. The original oral histories from which the book derives can be found at www.irishlifeandlore.com