(Above) The ancient ancestral home of
the Blake Family
For me, Menlough Castle in Co. Galway is the real-life embodiment of the fictional country house, Manderley, destroyed by fire in the novel Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. Like Manderley, Menlough is an ancient structure added to by generations of one family, in this instance, the Blake’s of Galway. The ancient castle on the left bank of the River Corrib was built in 1569 and was the ancestral home of the Blake family until July 1910, when it was destroyed by fire. The old castle formed part of a building comprising of many different periods, situated about a mile from the city of Galway. A pier wall extended for about one hundred yards along the river in front of the castle, upon which once sat a small cannon and a telescope. Located here for the detection of approaching intruders in times past. In 1910, Menlough Castle was the home of Sir Valentine Blake, the 14th Baronet, his wife and their invalid daughter Miss Eleanor Blake. In July of that year, Sir Valentine and Lady Blake travelled to Dublin for a number of days as Sir Valentine was undergoing an operation. At this time, Menlough was said to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited castles in Ireland. It’s paneled reception rooms contained numerous paintings, tapestries and various heirlooms of the ancient family. All the rooms of the castle were sumptuously furnished, wainscoted with black oak and the impressive central staircase was made from the same material. On the fateful night in 1910, a fire broke out on the suite of rooms on the upper floors occupied by Miss Blake. She could not escape because of a disability. The only other persons on the premises were the coachman James Kirwan and two servants Miss Browne and Miss Earley.
The castle, the morning after the fire
James Kirwan was awakened at 5.40 am on the morning of the fire by the screams of the two female servants. He was sleeping in a bedroom located over the hall door and when trying to make his escape he was met with flames and blinding smoke. Realising his escape by the staircase was impossible he exited by the window and lowered himself to the ground fifty feet below using the thick ivy that grew on the façade of the building. On reaching the ground with some difficulty, he could now see that the whole castle was ablaze. Large plumes of smoke were pouring from all the windows on the river front of the castle. When Kirwan raced to the rear of the castle, he saw the unfortunate sight of the two servant girls trapped on the roof screaming for someone to save them. When the fire broke out, the maids escaped on to the roof of the castle through a skylight when they found their escape route cut off by fire and smoke. Kirwan rushed to the gate lodge to get help and eventually procured a ladder which was found to be twelve to fifteen feet short of reaching the women nearly four floors up. Bundles of hay were placed on the ground and the girls were urged to jump. Miss Earley jumped but was killed, Miss Browne fared better however she was still in a terrible state and conveyed to the County Hospital. Despite the best efforts of various fire appliances there was no hope of saving Miss Blake or the castle which was a complete inferno. Eventually the roof and floors collapsed, crashing down into the basement of the castle below. As Miss Blake’s remains were never recovered a Memorial Service was held in St. Nicholas’s Church in the city which was attended by a large congregation. The Blake Family was represented by Mr Thomas Blake, the brother of Miss Blake; her parents were unable to attend. As the memorial service took place, the remains of the castle were still smouldering and debris lay seven to eight feet high. Despite the intense heat the search continued for Miss Blake’s body, this search was in vain and today a memorial still exists in the grounds of the ruined castle remembering her loss.
The entrance front of Menlough Castle shown as it was before 1910 ( above)
The surviving maid who jumped from the roof of the castle on the night of the fire was Miss Mary Anne Browne. She sued her employers under the Employers Liability Act as she had suffered severe injuries after her forty-foot jump. She still suffered from partial paralysis and doctors could not confirm if this would be permanent. Sir Valentine Blake had great sympathy for her situation, but as the fire was an accident, he declared that he was not responsible. The judge presiding over the trial agreed and her case was dismissed together with a subsequent appeal. A relative of the unfortunate maid who was killed when she jumped from the roof of the castle tried to sue Sir Valentine for her loss. The case was also dismissed as the relative could not be classed as a dependent of the deceased. Two years after the fire, Sir Valentine Blake died at Longford Terrace, Monkstown, Co. Dublin. He was 76 and had succeeded to his title in 1875. He had been the Justice of the Peace for County Galway and in 1872 acted as High Sheriff for the county. He was succeeded by his son Mr Thomas Patrick Ulick John Harvey Blake. When Sir Valentine was buried there was a large police presence which ensured the event passed peacefully. This was necessary as when Sir Valentine’s father died in 1875, the man who was a Catholic was buried as a Protestant. This did not sit well with the mainly Catholic tenantry around Menlough. A riot broke out at the funeral and several people received prison sentences. In recent years a local businessman proposed to restore the castle and grounds retaining the upper floors of the building for his own personal use. He had proposed to invest over € 12 million in the project which was supported by many, however the economic downturn ensured that the project was mothballed.