Posts Tagged With: Walled Garden

Strokestown Park House. A Living Museum.

I love when I visit a place for one reason (usually music) and discover something totally unexpected. Such was the case with Strokestown in Co Roscommon. I had no reason to expect anything other than long days and nights in one or many of the quaint pubs playing music and sampling the odd Jamesons.

It turns out Strokestown, a planned town, has a pivotal and fascinating history. In the centre of the town is Strokestown Park House, the ancestral home of the Mahon family.

 

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Strokestown Park House

You can’t help but notice the wide avenue that leads to the narrow gate to the grounds.  Aside from O’Connell Street in Dublin, it is the widest street in Ireland. One gets the impression that lined as it is with imposing buildings and Georgian terraces it was meant to create an aura of wealth and prosperity befitting the status of the British landowner; so as they drove the carriage down the avenue his friends would be suitably impressed.  The true state  of the people hidden in the side streets.

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The gateway to Strokestown House in the distance.

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Public buildings.  There’s room to park a bus rear to kerb.

But the family and the name Strokestown has a darker side.  It is now mostly remembered for its connection to the Famine, evictions and land clearances.  That story is told in the Famine Museum attached to the house (which is itself now a museum)  and is an extraordinary one.

The house is a time capsule. The Georgian Palladian style of its architecture reflects the obsession with symmetry at the time and the desire to make the house look bigger than it was. The two wings were largely cosmetic with stables and storage and services. All the living areas were in the main two story house.

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Georgian Palladian architecture.  The central building is the main residence.  To the left are the kitchen and storerooms and to the right the stables.

Built in 1660 the original owner, Captain Nicholas Mahon, was given lands as reward for his exploits with the forces of Cromwell in taking Ireland. The family did well and by the 1840s had an estate of 11,000 acres. An arranged marriage to another prominent British family, the Pakenhams, led to a combined land holding of 30,000 acres spread through Roscommon,.

During the 1700s and into the 1800s Strokestown prospered.  However in the1840s when the potato blight and the consequent famine struck hard in Roscommon, the then owner Denis Mahon implemented a programme of large scale evictions.

In one year alone (1847) he evicted 3,000 people. Though the excuse for the land clearance was the inability of the Irish tenants to pay rent it seemed to be part of a grander scheme.  Immediate steps were taken to advertise the land thus made available in places like Scotland, where presumably Protestant tenants would be more reliable. The clearances were accomplished largely by “assisted emigration” in particular to Canada. As many as 50% of the passengers died amid extraordinary cruelty on these Famine ships mostly through cholera and typhoid and this prompted outrage.  It climaxed in the murder of Denis Mahon at the end of 1847.  The culprits, presumed to be disaffected tenants weren’t identified, but it led to swift retribution against any family that might have had a remote connection as a conspirator.   Much material that relates to this period is on display in the Museum.  In particular there are many original letters and documents which illustrate the plight of the people and the heartlessness of the landlords.

 

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A list of tenants recommended for relief work, 1846.  The notes in blue provide comments as to whether the person had made an effort to pay their rent.  They were favoured.

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A petition from Kilbeg tenants to the owners requesting whether they will be given assisted immigration.  Tenants were keen to go to foreign lands but many never made it.

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A Notice to Quit on Widow Mary Campbell requesting her to vacate the premises.

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A Civil Bill used where rent was over twelve months in arrears.  The tenants’ annual rent was £11 5s and their arrears were £16.  They were to appear in court to be evicted.

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A receipt for £2 to Margaret Brice on surrendering her house, land and manure upon eviction.  Note signed with her mark, an x

Following the joining with the Pakenhams their money enabled the family to survive and prosper into the twentieth century. The last remaining resident however  was Olive Pakenham-Mahon who lived in the house until 1981.

She decided in 1979 to move to a nursing home and sold the house and lands to local businessman Jim Callelly.  He just wanted the land but one day he visited the basement of his newly acquired house and discovered a treasure trove of historical documents that spelt out in intimate detail the story of the house and the evictions. This prompted him to retain the house, restore it and set up a museum based on this archive. And thank God he did.

The house now is furnished exactly as Olive left it. Many of the original furniture and artefacts remain but a lot were sold off to enable her to survive. Olive lived in one room by the end (the Drawing Room) and the rest of the house was essentially abandoned.

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The Drawing Room

Visitors are now able to tour the house. What I enjoyed is that lived-in feel. Peeling wallpaper, organised clutter. Pictures exactly where she had left them. Monogramed personal items lying around.  A toy room with original toys used by her children.  A nursery with original clothes hanging behind the door.  A classroom.  A massive and elegant dining room.

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Entrance foyer

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The Master’s bedroom

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The Lady’s bedroom

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The Nursery

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The schoolroom

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The toyroom

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The Dining Room

 

There is an amazing kitchen with original stoves, furniture and kitchenware. Our guide related the story that Olive had decided the kitchen was too large and wanted it demolished and a smaller modern kitchen built.  The architect was very reticent and came up with a scheme with false walls and ceilings and modern appliances.  The original kitchen was preserved behind these walls.  Jim Callelly had heard a rumor of this and dismantled it to reveal a treasure frozen in time.  Everything was in place and untouched.

 

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The old Kitchen with its massive range

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Beautiful original cast iron cooking range

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Original Strokestown jug

 

The library is also impressive. A chippendale bookcase said to be one of the best in Ireland. A pecctacular Grandfather clock. Beautiful globes. Certaily a life style very different to that outside these walls.  A classic retreat for the males in the house as was the custom.

 

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The Library

 

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Original 17th Century wallpaper lines the walls of the Library

 

 

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Rare Irish Chippendale bookcase in the Library

 

Many magnificent paintings adorn the walls.  One is of  an ancestral relative, General Pakenham who led the British Army in the Famous Battle of New Orleans. We all remember the history as told by Johnny Horton in his 1959 song

In 1814 we took a little trip
Along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip.
We took a little bacon and we took a little beans
And caught the British running in the town on New Orleans……..

We fired our guns and the British kept a comin’ …..

You know the rest.  The poor General did not survive but was regarded as a bit of a hero back home.

 

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Portrait of General Edward Packenham hanging in the Foyer

 

Unfortunately as was the case with many Anglo-Irish families when they came upon hard times many paintings and treasures had to be sold.  We are reminded of this when we see the faded areas of the original 17th century wallpaper where these paintings used to hang.

 

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Walls of the Dining Room showing faded areas outlining where original pictures hung.

 

One such painting was a priceless portrait by Bernardi Strozzi of the acclaimed Cremona composer Monteverdi.  The portrait was painted in c1630 and was sold by Olive for £2,000.  A somewhat amateurish copy hangs now in the Drawing Room in its placewhile the original was returned to Venice.

 

An intriguing feature of the house is the Servant’s tunnel.  Entered from behind the stables it heads under the house exiting at the back door of he kitchen.  Built to ensure deliveries and movement of servants took place with no interaction with the house, it is easily accessed today.

 

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Servants’ tunnel under the house

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Entrance to the tunnel

 

Adjacent to the house is a restored walled garden. A large walled garden of around 4 acres.  After a ten year restoration it was opened to the public in 1997 and many of the original features of this pleasure garden have been retained.  There is a croquet lawn and a Summer House, a Lawn Tennis court, a beautiful lily pond, impressive herbaceous borders (the longest in Ireland), a formal rose garden, beautiful manicured hedges and a pergola. lawns and wildflower areas.  I loved it.  But as with the Vandeleur Garden in Clare which I wrote about in a previous blog, the cruel history of the famine sits uneasily with the beauty and bucolic pleasures of this garden.

 

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Herbaceous borders line the walls

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There are formal and informal pathways

 

 

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Croquet Lawn and Summer House

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Detail of Summer house with Autumn foliage

 

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Beautiful ornamental lily pond

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Secluded pathways

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Perfectly manicured hedges

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Numerous hidden spaces lie behind hedges

Another treasure of the estate is the Woodland.  There is a circular walk through this leafy mossy retreat with huge oak and beech trees and thick undergrowth.   It was first planted in the early 1700’s by Thomas Mahon and some of the original trees still exist. During the 1800’s, to increase the pleasure of the shoot, laurels were planted creating a thick undergrowth.  Eventually it took over but it was sensitively restored in 2011.  The fairies have gone a little overboard though and seem to have occupied nearly every tree.

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When old chairs become an art installation.

 

Truly the house, the museum, the garden and the woodland will keep you occupied for four or five hours.  They will be four or five hours well spent.

 

Categories: My Journey, Real Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Vandeleur Walled Garden, Kilrush. Of Fragrance and Famine.

 

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The Vandeleur Walled Garden is located near Kilrush in the south western corner of Clare. I visited it in the middle of Spring when it was at its charming best. It is a formal garden space within high walls and is now a place of calm, peace and reflection. Especially reflection.

Historically it was the private garden of the Vandeleurs, who were the largest landowners in the area. It is completely surrounded by enormous stone walls and was located close to the family home, which was destroyed by fire in the 1890s and demolished in the 1970s and is now a car park.  The rectangular design was oriented to catch maximum sun so today Mediterranean plants thrive.

The original garden design was simple and functional as it was mainly used for produce, fruit and supplies for the household. It also included a large greenhouse. All that is gone and the garden lay forgotten for decades. Restoration commenced in 1997 and it was opened in 2000.   It has been redesigned as a recreational space with lawns, an horizontal maze, an hedge maze, plantings of exotics and an arboretum. It is a lovely space. There is a red theme throughout with furniture and installations matching some of the plantings.

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Remnants of the supports for the roof of the greenhouse

 

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Lawns and plantings cut by gravel paths

 

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Mediterranean plants thrive.

 

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Vigorous growth under the high walls

 

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The Garden has a red theme

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Red theme reflected in plantings.

But despite all this beauty as I stroll around my mind remained troubled.

Near the entrance is a small plaque.  It says “Dedicated to the memory of the people evicted from the Estate of Landlord Hector Stewart Vandeleur. July August 1888”. The effect is somewhat diminished though with the tag “Erected by the Kilrush Tidy Towns committee April 2010”

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Memorial plaque near entrance to Garden

I suspect most people just walk by and give only a passing thought to this hint of the awful history that accompanies the family responsible for this garden. I   wonder further how many people actually are aware of what happened in this place during the 1800s, as their children skip and play on the lawns and chase each other through the hedge maze or as they wander along gravel paths and admire the plantings from all over the world.

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skip and play

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Children take a short cut across the Horizontal Maze

There is no information provided so I too was in the dark. My interest piqued though I explored further a little later.

So who were the The Vandeleurs? Descended from Dutch merchants, they settled in county Clare at Sixmilebridge in the early 17th Century.  In 1712 the Earl of Thomond leased the Kilrush estate to the family who eventually purchased it in 1749,   The lands amounted to almost 20,000 acres spread over a very wide area of West Clare.  John Ormsby Vandeleur played a major role in the development of the town of Kilrush in the early 19th century and built Kilrush House (to which the garden was attached) in 1808. Later the Vandeleurs gave land for the building of the Catholic Church, convent, a fever hospital and, ironically, the workhouse.

The family however is remember more for the large number of evictions that took place in the famine years and then again some forty years later.

As I said the brochures you collect at the entrance make only passing reference to these events with the words that “history must never be repeated”.  But behind this is a painful picture of despair, cruelty and terrible injustice.  I am sure all my readers will be well aware of the Famine. An event that killed one million people and forced another million to flee to other lands. But as I dug deeper the sense of injustice increased and I think it is worth retelling the story at least as it impacts the Vandeleurs.

As the Famine took hold in 1847 and tenants were unable to pay rent mass evictions began. Not just by the Vandeleurs but by landowners all over the country.

County Clare however had the highest level of evictions, relative to its population, of any county in Ireland and Kilrush Poor Law Union had the highest level of mass evictions in Clare. So the Vandeleurs were right in the centre of it.

We are lucky that the records of Captain Kennedy who was the administrator for the Kilrush Union are available and they make extraordinary reading. Captain Kennedy was extremely disturbed by what was going on and though he was diligent in administering the regulations he did what he could to alleviate the plight of those affected and destined for starvation, disease and the workhouse.

A quick word on Kennedy.  He was a good man caught in terrible times.  He later went on to be Governor of Western Australia but he never forgot Kilrush and regularly sent money back there.

In early 1848 he observed in one of his regular Reports.

“I scrutinized a list of 575 families here, and saw each individual; On one estate alone, little short of 200 houses have been ‘tumbled’ within three months, and 120 of this number, I believe, within three weeks! The wretched, houseless, helpless inmates, for the most part an amphibious race of fishermen and farmers, scattering disease, destitution, and dismay in every direction. Their lamentable state of filth, ignorance, destitution, and disease, must be seen to be comprehended.”

In July of that year things were desperate:

“Twenty thousand, or one-fourth of the population, are now in receipt of daily food, either in or out of the workhouse.

“I may state in general terms, that about 900 houses, containing probably 4,000 occupants, have been levelled in this Union since last November. The wretchedness, ignorance, and helplessness of the poor on the western coast of this Union prevent them seeking a shelter elsewhere; and to use their own phrase, they “don’t know where to face;” they linger about the localities for weeks or months, burrowing behind the ditches, under a few broken rafters of their former dwelling, refusing to enter the workhouse till the parents are broken down and the children half starved, when they come into the workhouse to swell the mortality, one by one. It is not an unusual occurrence to see 40 or 50 houses levelled in one day, and orders given that no remaining tenant or occupier should give them even a night’s shelter.

“I have known some ruthless acts committed by drivers and sub-agents, but no doubt according to law, however repulsive to humanity; wretched hovels pulled down, where the inmates were in a helpless state of fever and nakedness, and left by the road side for days.

“As many as 300 souls, creatures of the most helpless class, have been left houseless in one day, and the suffering and misery resulting therefrom attributed to insufficient relief or mal-administration of the law: “

I could go on. In total there were close to 7,000 evictions. The event, of course, changed the nation. It was surely inconceivable that it could happen again. But extraordinarily it did; and the Vandeleurs were in the forefront.

A series of bad harvests plagued the country from 1870. This had led to a movement in the next decade for tenants’ rights and land reform with the foundation by William O’Brien of the National Land League.   The ‘land question’ caused major upheaval in the county and people flocked to Ennis in 1880 to hear Charles Stuart Parnell make his famous “Boycott” speech.

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Irish Land League poster from the 1880s

By1885, bad weather, poor harvests, falling prices and declining markets had again taken their toll, and thousands of tenants, especially in the western parts of the county, found themselves unable to pay rents.

The National League introduced the Plan of Campaign in 1886. This was adopted by many tenants who got into trouble. Where a landlord refused to lower his rents voluntarily to an acceptable level the tenants were to combine to offer him reduced rents. If he refused to accept these, they were to pay him no rent at all, but instead contribute to an “estate fund”.

Vandeleur’s tenants adopted this strategy, which was summarily rejected and negotiations went nowhere. And after a long stand off the evictions commenced in October 1887. But the main evictions of the Vandeleur tenants were not until July 1888. It was a massive operation. A procession moved from house to house that comprised hundreds of men and was 1¼ mile in length.  It included detachments of police, hussars, government representatives, the landowners, Emergency men, Infantry, cart loads of observers, visitors and a massive battering ram. It is estimated that up to 10,000 people were there on some days.

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The Irish Collection

23144955540_e65c53e0ef_hThe mob was resolute in its intent and ruthless in its implementation. Here is a description of the demolition of the house of Michael Cleary, near Moneypoint.

Cleary had strongly barricaded the house and was clearly prepared to resist. First of all cordon of police and soldiers were drawn up about the house, but at some distance. Smoke was coming from the chimney – and the first action taken was to block the chimney with straw. Possession was then demanded and the only reply heard was a laugh from some girls inside. The police were now ordered to fix their bayonets, while the bailiffs got to work with crowbars and hatchets, but to little effect. An attack on the door moved it only slightly and hot water was thrown out. The tripod and battering ram were then brought up – and after a long time eventually made a breach in the wall. A shower of hot water was thrown out through the breach.

Finally, a large section of the wall crashed down to a cheer from the Emergency men. Two girls and their two brothers who were in the house were seized by the police The house was then knocked to the ground.

The eviction of Mathaiass Macgrath from Moyasta a week later received the most attention as he resisted strongly and was brutally beaten. His mother, watching this, collapsed and died that night. The evictions ended two days later.

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These Vandeleur evictions were on a much smaller scale than those in the Famine years. only 22 houses were destroyed compared to the many thousands previously. However, Because the event was so well documented and photographed and because of the resistance of the tenants it received wide publicity. This was a factor in reaching a settlement which led to the tenants being able to resume their land a year later.

The photographs above and many others were taken by Robert French and are now in the collection of the National Library in Dublin. They were a major factor in changing perceptions. Maybe more would have been done if the public had been better appraised of what was happening during the earlier evictions.

So back to the garden. Earlier I commented that there was no informaton on these events. But I am now in two minds. Perhaps we don’t need an Interpretive Centre to tell us of these terrible events.  Perhaps it is a place for people to enjoy in their own way.   For some just to walk and contemplate and for others to run and play.

And for others it is a place to honour and respect an extraordinary formative time in Irish history. To reflect on inhumanity and injustice. To ponder on the harm man can do to their own. To contemplate and to evince hope for the future.

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