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.