Sunday, 18 October 2015

Knockaderry House
 Newcastle West , Co. Limerick

An Irish Pilot (Lady Heath) 1928
Oil on Canvas
76.2 x 63.6 cm
Lady Lavery Memorial Bequest through Sir John Lavery, 1935

The lady depicted in this portrait had an enigmatic smile, however behind this demure face is a confusing and dramatic story. Confusion arises as to whether this is actually a portrait of Lady Mary Heath, Ireland's first female aviator. Lady Heath, like her Limerick home, has become over looked and forgotten. This lady, born Sophie Peirce-Evans led an unhappy and unsettled life having married three times and lived in numerous locations around the world. One of her marriages was to an elderly man and Mary made no qualms that she was marrying him in order to have access to his money. Numerous successes in her flying career had her aeronautical exploits making front page news around the world, yet she died destitute at a relatively young age. Little did thousands of spectators know at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics when they craned their necks to admire the aerobatic display above their heads, that the pilot had shaken off the limitations of being a woman and Irish, in an age when both were seen as obstacles in the new world of aviation. She was the first woman to get a commercial pilot’s licence, to parachute and fly from Cape Town to London.

Knockaderry House the home of Lady Mary where she was born and also the place where her father murdered her mother in the mid 1890's.

A view of the side of Knockaderry House which was formed the centre of the Peirce Evans Estate
( Copyright John Cussen, Newcastle West, Limerick)

The painting by Sir John Lavery, now in the possession of the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin, has many titles and arguments abound of who is actually depicted in the painting. Bearing in mind that Lavery gave the painting the title of 'Ireland’s First Air Woman', it must surely be Sophia Theresa Catherine Mary Peirce-Evans. She was born on November 17th 1896 at Knockaderry House near Newcastle West in Limerick. Knockaderry was surrounded by a farm of 350 acres which was owned by Sophie’s father John Peirce-Evans. Her childhood was not to be a peaceful one as her father was found guilty in 1897 of murdering his wife, whom he bludgeoned to death with a stick in the house. They had only been married two years and John's history of mental illness caused him to carry out unspeakable acts of violence on his wife, Kate Theresa Dooling from North Kerry. She had been previously married to a solider in Tralee, where she had been employed as a servant in the house of a shop keeper in Castle St. Tralee. After the death of her first husband, she moved to Limerick where she was employed as a servant by John Peirce Evans. The marriage did not bring John happiness and neither did the large estate that he inherited from his uncle, Thomas D'Arcy Evans. John's abysmal management of his finances resulted in the Court of Chancery taken control of his property from which they provided him with an annuity. A few months before he murdered his wife, he left Limerick and traveled to Cork with his infant daughter. He kept the child in a trunk and was returned to Limerick when a lady in a lodging house became concerned with his treatment of his child and called the police. When Kate's body was discovered by local member of the RIC in the kitchen of Knockaderry House in 1897, the victim’s young infant daughter was found to be sleeping nearby. Scattered on the floor was a bent iron fire tongs and a broken hazel stick. John was sent to mental asylum in Dublin where he died in 1916 while his infant daughter was sent to live with out to her two maiden aunts in the nearby town of Newcastle West. Knockaderry House was a simple farm house with delusions of grandeur, some of it features trying to emulate a grander country mansion. It is a two story over basement house built in the 1780’s and was the ancient seat of the D'Arcy family in the area. It appears that the house always had an eventful history, in 1822, when Knockaderry was the then home of JD Evans, it was attacked by 20 men. They tried to enter the house by removing the window cill of the parlour. However the dogs of the house were alerted and roused the servants. The men trying to enter the house were discovered and soon dispersed. In 1837 the house was the home of Thomas Evans D'Arcy who married in 1814 the second daughter of Richard Taylour of Holly Park, in Limerick but they had no children. Thomas had assumed the additional surname of D'Arcy when he inherited the fortune of his maternal uncle Colonel James D'Arcy. When Thomas died in 1833, he was succeeded by his brother James who in turn bequeathed Knockaderry to Sophie's father.

A damaged and faded photograph of Knockaderry House but it is interesting as you can see the main features of the front elevation.
( Copyright John Cussen, Newcastle West, Limerick)

A map illustrating Knockaderry House and its outbuildings
( Copyright  OSI)

Here can be seen the entrance porch of Knockaderry House, which has round headed windows with stained glass. Also noticeable are the large statues found on either side of the front door.
( Copyright John Cussen, Newcastle West, Limerick)

At the time of the 1901 census, Knockaderry was empty and it is noted that it is still in the hands of the Court of Chancery. In May 1904, Thomas Hannon took out a lease on Knockaderry House and 56 acres of the land that surrounds it. By 1907 the Hannon family had purchased the house for £502 under the Land Purchase Act. In 1908, it was reported in the local press that the sale of the lands of the Evans estate at Knockaderry were being sold to its former tenants. In the 1911 census there was a Hannon family living in a sixteen roomed house in Knockaderry which must have been Knockaderry House.  It was during her teenage years that Sophia Peirce-Evans adventurous spirit began to develop. However her life at this time had the appearance of taking a more sedate path, as it looked like she was bound for a life in agricultural science. A marriage at  a young age to a British army officer Elliott Lynn in 1916 propelled her in a new direction.

On the left is an image of the painting  by Sir John Lavery, painted in 1919. On the right is an image of Sophie in her uniform during the same period when she drove ambulances during the First World War.
( Copyright John Cussen, Newcastle West, Limerick)

I am of the opinion that Sophie was the subject of two Lavery portraits, one painted in 1919 and one painted in 1928. The first portrait by Lavery was painted when Sophie was in France in July 1919. Lavery was commissioned to paint a series of paintings for the Imperial War Museum to record the involvement of women in the First World War. Sophie  was a member of the transport unit who drove ambulances at this time. This Lavery Portrait eventually passed to Cis Pierce who lived in Ballybunion and the painting now resides in a well-guarded private collection.  However without closer examination of the two portraits no one can be sure that the portrait is the one that was painted by Lavery in 1919 or that Lavery didn’t paint a second portrait of Sophie when she garnered international attention in 1928. The painting by Lavery which is in the collection of the Dublin City Gallery, the Hugh Lane Gallery which was painted in 1928, does confusingly have the names Lady Heath and Lady Drogheda inscribed on the back. Some say the Hugh Lane portrait is actually a painting of John Lavery's daughter Eileen who was also a pilot but one wonders would he have entitled this portrait ‘The First Irish Airwoman’. The 1928 Lavery painting was painted in the same year  when Lady Heath made front page news as the first female pilot ever to fly from Cape Town to London. The painting by Lavery that hangs in gallery in Dublin, may or may not be Lady Heath however when the painting was examined by conservators it was found to have been painted over a different composition. It is hoped that this picture will be x-rayed in the near future proving that this work of art has not given up all its secrets.

On the left is an image of the portrait of Lady Mary Heath by Sir John Lavery, painted in 1928. On the right is a photograph of Mary during her flying career that bears a resemblance to the woman in the portrait.
( Copyright John Cussen, Newcastle West, Limerick)

In 1921 Sophie was a regular competitor at sporting events across England. Her strongest event was the high jump and is 1923 she cleared a height of 1.48 metres. She competed at the Women’s World Games in the 1920’s. She also became a bit of a media personality frequently giving talks on BBC radio about her knowledge of sport.  In 1925 she was invited by the IAAF to address the IOC Congress in Prague and was instrumental in allowing women being allowed to take part in the 1928 Olympics. It was during the flight home from Prague that she became interested in learning to learn how to pilot a plane. The pilot of this plane Captain Reid arranged lessons for his willing pupil in London. Her training paid dividends and in 1926 she became the first Irish woman to hold a commercial pilot licence. Every success in Sophie’s life always seemed to followed by tragedy when in May 1927, Sophie’s estranged husband was found drowned in the river Thames. He had recently returned from the couple's coffee plantation in Africa after this business venture failed. Sophie now threw herself in to a career as a pilot as she flew around England calling at various aerodromes promoting the use of the aeroplane as a means of transport for both business and pleasure. She would often sleep in the hangar where her aeroplane was stored. At dawn each morning she would wheel her plane out, start the engine and fly off. During this time she visited over fifty aerodromes and in July of 1927 she flew from Dublin to Belfast in little over an hour.

Sophie who was in her 30's with her husband Lord Heath who was in his 70's when they were married.

She married Sir James Heath when he was in his 70’s and she was 31 in 1927. Sophie herself said that her much older husband did not want to marry her but she convinced him what a good idea having a nurse at his beck and call. Sophie had put together a list of suitable men which graded them according to age and wealth. Her new husband was very wealthy and enamored with the exploits of his new wife as an air woman. Sophie now became known by her second name Mary and now had access to sizable funds. She immediately ordered two new aeroplanes including the latest Avro Avian. A few weeks after their marriage the new Lord and Lady Heath  headed off to South Africa on a three week voyage. Mary’s newly purchased plane, purple in colour,had been placed in the hold of the liner. It was her flight back to London that made news worldwide and made Lady Mary a celebrity.

The stadium which was the setting for the 1928 Olympics

Sophie had a flair for the dramatic, when she was selected a judge for the 1928 Olympics, she flew her plane to Amsterdam landing at an airfield near the stadium. Despite being instrumental in allowing women to partake in this great sporting event, she was refused entry as she was not properly accredited. Lady Mary was not satisfied with this rebuff so she hijacked a motorcar and returned to the airfield and readied her plane for take-off. As the plane rose into the sky above the stadium, she sent the plane into a dive during which she deposited a sheet of white paper in to the official judging box in the stadium.  On the sheet she had requested that admission tickets be provided or she would continue to circle the Olympic event. The note continued that once these arrangements were made, a cross should be made from coats in the centre of the stadium. After this she would return to the airfield and land her plane. A waiting car returned her to the stadium where she took her rightful seat in the judging box.

Again tragedy followed success when Sophie crashed her plane in 1929 in the US. The plane nose dived through the roof of a factory near where she was taking part in the National Air Races. She was flying high about Cleveland  when the wing of the plane clipped a wire attached to a factory chimney. Lady Heath appeared lifeless and was dragged from the wreckage by the factory workers. She was seriously injured and it was even reported that doctors had told her that she would never fly again as she had fractured her skull. In London in November 1929 her name was being mentioned in the press but now she was centre of the a legal dispute. Lord and Lady Heath were both sued by  a dress maker for £239 8s for gowns supplied to Lady Heath. It was found that Lady Heath had no right to order these items on Sir James' credit. There were letters presented at the trial from Lady Heath, in which she said ‘Do not sue me. Sue my husband. He is liable’. The judge found against Lady Heath and ordered her to pay costs. After her recovery from her injuries, her marriage to Lord Heath was dissolved by a court in Reno Nevada in 1930.  She was granted a divorce on grounds of ‘extreme cruelty’. She returned to Ireland in 1931 with a third husband Jack Williams buying Iona National Airways and Dublin Air ferries but despite her best efforts these ventures became bankrupt. In July 1930 a story appeared in the press that court case was being taken by the nurse and companion of Lady Heath to have her declared incompetent by reason of a mental disorder. Lady Heath at that time was in a sanatorium undergoing treatment for a nervous condition. Her nurse, a Miss Madden, said that Lady Heath was no longer capable of taking care of herself or her property which consisted of a trust fund from which she received an annual income of £700. 

Sophie was obviously a brave woman as she flew her plane from Manchester to Baldonnel Aerodrome in Dublin 1933 in a bad storm. One must remember at this time, a plane had an open cockpit and when she landed her plane on Irish soil, the wind was so strong that other flights had been cancelled. During this visit to Dublin she was shown in The Irish Times taking procession of her new Riley touring car. In 1935 she returned to London where flying injuries and financial worries led to a dependence on alcohol. In March 1935, the headquarters of Dublin Air Ferries opened at Kildonan Aerodrome, Lady Heath made an appearance in a navy uniform and was named as the managing director. In July 1935 she organised a fleet of aeroplanes to accompany the steamer which carried the remains of the artist George William Russell (AE) back to Dublin.  However sporadic periods of public drunkenness were becoming more common. Appearances in court as a result of her drinking became frequent and eventually her alcoholism landed her in prison.   In May 1939, a fatal fall from a tram ended her life aged 42.It was her wish that she be cremated and her ashes be scattered from a plane over Newcastle West in Limerick. 

The only memorial to Sophie is a plaque on the side of the AIB Bank in Newcastle West.
(Image Copyright David Hicks)

Knockaderry House is still abandoned today and even ten years after the death of Sophie Evans Peirce, the Irish Tourist Association surveyor wrote that her home in Limerick was not well kept and was ‘rapidly falling to pieces’. The only memorial to Sophie is a plaque on the side of the AIB Bank in Newcastle West, Limerick, people often pass it and do not even notice that it is there, overlooked, like the legacy of the woman it commemorates. As Knockaderry survives, is this not the time to grasp the opportunity to turn this house into a museum or interpretative center about Sophie/ Lady Mary's exploits and those female pioneers of early aviation.

Knockaderry House, Sophie's/ Lady Mary's home, endures but for how long?

(Image Copyright The Architectural Inventory of Ireland)

Monday, 25 May 2015

Renvyle House
Renvyle, Co. Galway

Roundstone, Connemara (1916) by Jack Butler Yeats  Oil on panel, 23 x 36cm (9 x 14”)

This painting by Jack Butler Yeats was bought by Oliver St John Gogarty at an exhibtion in 1918. Oliver St. John Gogarty was a man who certainly had a zest for life, not being content with a successful career as a surgeon he also was known as a poet, author, playwright, an athlete, pilot and senator. A huge admirer of Connemara, Gogarty, a friend of W.B. Yeats, had acquired Renvyle House in 1917. Jack also knew Gogarty and illustrated his 1918 volume, The Ship and Other Poems.

Oliver St. John Gogarty 

Oliver’s house at Renvyle in Galway was a very old dwelling which had existed on the site since the seventeenth century with the remains of Renvyle Castle being located nearby. When Gogarty purchased Renvyle House in 1917 he had intended to run it as a hotel but decided to keep it instead as a private residence. The house came with two hundred acres but this was divided in half by the Land Commission among its tenants. The house had many rooms including one that had a ghost and a barred window. It was during a visit to Renvyle after the Gogarty purchased the house that the poet WB Yeats and his wife aimed to get to the bottom of the mystery of this haunted room. With the creation of the Irish Free State, Gogarty was appointed as a Senator which made him and Renvyle House a target for Anti-Treaty Republicans.

 Renvyle House, Galway

Three men commandeered Renvyle in February 1923 and stayed the night. The following morning more men arrived and saturated the house and its contents with petrol and set it alight.  Oliver was heartbroken over the loss of the house but being the pragmatic man that he was, he knew it could be rebuilt. However it was the loss of what was contained inside the walls of the house that grieved him more. The portrait of his mother painted when she was a young woman together with many other paintings by artists such as Jack B Yeats and his collection of over 3,000 precious books were incinerated. Oliver recorded that the house now only comprised of ‘ten tall chimneys stand bare on Europe’s extreme verge’. Gogarty rebuilt the Renvyle and opened it as a hotel which it continues as today. Gogarty’s daughter, Brenda, later Mrs. Desmond Williams, inherited this painting and it was part of the Williams’s prestigious collection of Irish art for many years.

You can read about the history of Renvyle House and Oliver St. John Gogarty's art collection in my latest book ' Irish Country Houses - Portraits and Painters'

Monday, 16 March 2015

The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
The United States of America

Because every American has an Irish Cousin including the home of the US President

The White House in Washington DC has many connections with Ireland, other than the numerous Presidents who all appear to claim Irish heritage. The famous home of the American President was designed by James Hoban, an Irish man. The White House has undergone many changes since it was built having been burnt in the early 1800’s and also had to be rebuilt again in the 1950’s when the building was declared structurally unsound. As a result the house has lost a lot of its original material but there is something that has survived from its completion in the 1800's, a portrait of George Washington painted by Gilbert Stuart. Stuart was an artist who spent time in Ireland and who painted numerous portraits including two paintings from Kilcooley Abbey in Co. Tipperary (see earlier post on Kilcooley Abbey on this blog from September 2014).

James Hoban featured on a stamp issued in the US in the 1980s

Kilkenny born architect, James Hoban, immigrated to the United States and had set up practice in Philadelphia in 1785. The first President of the United States, George Washington admired the work of the up and coming architect particularly the Charleston County Court House designed by Hoban. In 1792, Hoban was named the architect of choice to design the new presidential residence after an architectural competition. It is said that one of the houses that influenced the design of the future home of America’s President was Leinster House in Dublin which does bear a passing resemblance. The original design was a house with two stories over basement built of sandstone. There was a concern as to whether there would be enough good quality sandstone available as the Capitol building was also under construction at this time. Hoban overseen the construction of the house which had its cornerstone laid on October 13, 1792. The newly built, yet unfinished, White House was ready for occupancy in November 1800 when its new resident was the second president of America, John Adams. When the first occupant moved in to the house, in some rooms the plaster was still wet and other rooms were not plastered at all. The staircase was not installed, and the East Room which was just a shell was used to dry laundry as it was thought inappropriate to have the Presidents laundry on public display. The external walls were white washed to seal the porous sandstone which gave this famous house its name.

Design for the President's house by James Hoban submitted to the architectural competition in 1792.

The front of Leinster House, the seat of the Irish Government, is said to have been the inspiration for The White House in Washington.

In 1745 the foundation stone was laid for the new town house of James FitzGerald, Earl of Kildare. Kildare House – renamed Leinster House in 1766 when the Earl became Duke of Leinster – was designed by Richard Castle as a country house in town.

Charleston County Courthouse in South Carolina was also designed by James Hoban before The White House. The court house was admired by George Washington, the first president of the United States.

The artist, Gilbert Charles Stewart was born in America in 1755 of Scottish extraction; as a result of the Revolution he left America in 1775 for England. He developed a successful career there but was neglectful of his finances and as a result he fled to Ireland in 1787 to escape prison. He was successful in Ireland and became a very sought after portrait painter but he continued the tradition of accumulating debt and returned to the United States in 1794. He left behind him a number of unfinished paintings in Ireland but was unconcerned by this and was recorded as saying that ‘The artists of Dublin will get employment in finishing them’. It was during this time, after his return to America, that he painted the famous portrait of George Washington.  In 1796 he was commissioned to paint a portrait of George Washington to be given as a gift to the British Prime minister, William Petty Fitzmaurice who became the first Marquess of Lansdowne. As a result this portrait of the First American President became known as the Lansdowne portrait. The US government purchased a copy of this portrait from Stuart and it was put on display in the White House in Washington from which it made a miraculous escape.

The full length portrait of George Washington by the artist Gilbert Stuart was rescued from the White House before it was burnt to the ground in 1814.

The White House amazingly had just stood for over a decade when it was destroyed during a war which began between the United States and the United Kingdom in 1812. In August 1814, when British soldiers approached Washington, the President at the time, James Madison was the custodian of the White House. He had left Washington to join those confronting the British in Maryland leaving his wife Dolley behind in Washington. Dolley occupied herself by organising a dinner party however no one accepted an invite as they were too busy packing up and leaving town in fear of the approaching British army. Dolley passed her days on the roof of the house scanning the horizon for the approaching British. Eventually the time came to leave, a carriage was readied with what items from the vast house that could be carried and packed into the small wagon. As she was leaving the house, Dolley noticed the portrait of George Washington by Stuart hanging in the State Dining Room. There was no time to unscrew the painting from the wall so the picture frame was broken and the canvas removed. Dolley and the portrait escaped unharmed but unfortunately the same could not be said for the White House. The British troops vandalized the house, looted valuables and piled the furniture in the centre of all the State rooms to be burnt. The house was set on fire and by the following morning was a blackened shell. 

Shown above is the White House ablaze and below are the blackened walls of the Presidential residence after the fire which destroyed its interior and contents. 

It was decided that the house would be rebuilt preserving the exterior walls. Again James Hoban was called upon and was instructed to make it ‘as it was’ with no further embellishments. In 1817 after the renovations were completed the Washington portrait by Gilbert was returned and displayed in the White House. Today the portrait of George Washington hangs the East Room, a setting for important events but was used as a laundry when the house was first built. Hoban would return to his Washington commission on a number of occasions, in 1824 to add the portico to the house and in 1829 to make some further changes. Hoban died two years later in 1831, yet his name would live on forever because of his association with one of the most famous residences in the world.

President Barack Obama in the East Room of the White House with the portrait of George Washington which was rescued before the house was burnt in 1814

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Houses featured on Irish Banknotes
( those before the introduction of the Euro)

Avondale,Co. Wicklow
Home of Charles Stewart Parnell

Aras an Uachtarain Dublin
Formerly The Vice Regal Lodge which became the home of the Irish President beginning with the first holder of the office, Douglas Hyde 

Derrynane, Co. Kerry
Home of Daniel O'Connell

Monday, 16 February 2015

Mount Shannon
Castleconnell,Co. Limerick

Accreditation- Picture by David Hicks

Mount Shannon House is a superb example of a neo-classical mansion that is situated near the village of Castleconnell in County Limerick. Modern houses have sprung up like trees around the ruined mansion shielding it from the view of any curious passer by. Over the years I have seen many pictures of its impressive portico and I am saddened to see it is showing signs of distress and possibly collapse. This entrance portico is one relic that echoes the glories of Mount Shannon’s illustrious past and the beauty of the interiors that once existed within. Now that the roof is long gone, its interior is a mass of brambles, trees and weeds. The house which was built in the mid-eighteenth century has seen its far share of colorful characters pass through its doors. This mansion once sat at the centre of a 900 acre estate, its parkland surrounded by woodland that kept the mansion at its heart free from prying eyes. The compound that surrounded Mount Shannon contained the necessary facilities essential for the upkeep of any big house and its occupants. These expansive ancillary buildings were made up of servants’ quarters, outbuildings, green houses, laundries and the house even had its own plant to produce gas to illuminate its many rooms. The gardens and surrounding parkland were landscaped by John Sutherland, one of the eminent landscape gardeners of his time. In order to maintain a house and gardens of this size, an army of indoor and outdoor staff were employed. The produce in the kitchen garden supplied the house with fresh vegetables and the green houses, heated by hot water pipes, supplied exotic fruits like peaches and nectarines. In front of the large portico there was a large gravel turning circle which would allow the carriages to arrive and turn in a dramatic fashion.

While the portico of Mount Shannon remains unchanged, whole sections of the side of the house have collapsed leaving the desolation of the interior exposed.
Accreditation- Picture by David Hicks

Photograph from between 1910 & 1920 of the front elevation of the Mount Shannon House showing its impressive portico and the arched windows of the entrance hall
Accreditation- Picture from Limerick City Museum

The house was built by a gentleman with the unusual name of Silver Oliver and was constructed over a number of years before finally being inhabited in 1750. It was soon afterwards purchased by the White family and eventually came in to the ownership of John Fitzgibbon by 1765. John was a Limerick man, who, after initially exploring the option of a career in medicine decided to abandon it in favour of law. As a result of the Penal Laws of the time it was necessary for him to change his religion from being a Catholic to a Protestant in order to allow him to practice in the Irish Courts which debarred Catholics. He became very successful in his chosen field and died in 1780 a rich man. Mount Shannon was inherited by his son also named John who had also excelled in the field of law and specialized in cases of a political nature. In 1780 John was elected to the Irish Parliament as a university member for Trinity College and in 1783 he became Attorney General. Three years later in 1786 he married Anne Whaley in Dublin. By 1795 he was made the first Earl of Clare in connection with the passing of the Act of Union in 1801.

John Fitzgibbon, 1st Earl of Clare
( From the Collection of The National Library of Ireland)

 This support of the Act did not carry favour with the general public and his life was often under threat. His home at Mount Shannon was attacked and one of his servants was murdered. In 1802 he died and as his coffin was being lowered in to the grave, a dead cat was thrown in by someone who was in disagreement with his previous comments regarding the Act of Union. He had once said “that he would make Ireland as tame as a mutilated cat” hence the appearance of one at his funeral. Mount Shannon was now inherited by his son who became the second Earl at the age of 10. He attended school at Harrow in London and then proceeded to Oxford University. He married the Honorable Elizabeth Julia Georgina Burrell in 1826 in Surrey England. He was appointed Governor of Bombay between 1830 and 1834 and he held the office of Lord Lieutenant for County Limerick between 1848 and 1851.

In 1813 an architect named Lewis William Wyatt prepared designs for the addition of a portico to the house for John Fitzgibbon, second Earl of Clare. It is believed that a man by the name of James Pain may have supervised the work. In 1840 James Edward Mc Connell supervised the erection of several horticultural buildings and a great deal of machinery at Mount Shannon. The house which had been enlarged by the first Earl was subsequently remodeled and decoratively enhanced by the second Earl in the 1850s. During his life the Earl traveled the continent and used this opportunity to furnish Mount Shannon with works of art. As he made his way across Europe, crates and wagons returned to his estate in Limerick stuffed with marble and bronze statues, paintings, furniture and rare books. When he died in 1851 in Brighton, England, the title and Mount Shannon passed to his brother Richard Hobart Fitzgibbon, who became the third Earl of Clare. 

This picture of the corner detail of Mount Shannon exhibits the talent of the stone mason

Accreditation- Picture by David Hicks

It was Richard’s daughter Louisa who eventually became chatelaine of Mount Shannon in 1864 and by the 1870s her estate extended to over 10,000 acres in Limerick and over 3,000 acres in Tipperary.  After the death of her first husband in 1880, Lady Louisa lived beyond her means and entertained on a grand scale. This feckless spending meant she had to sell the contents of Mount Shannon’s library in Sotheby’s in 1866 to keep creditors at bay. She thought her financial woes were over when she met the General Carmelo Ascene Spadafora, Marchese della Rochella. As Louisa entertained on such a lavish scale her potential suitor was under the impression that she was a rich woman and would be in a position to pay off the debts on his estates in Sicily. Lady Louisa, on the other hand believed that the vast estates that the Marchese owned and bragged about in Sicily would keep her in the lifestyle to which she had become accustomed. It was only after a party to celebrate their engagement in Mount Shannon that sheriffs arrived to seize some of the mansions contents to settle outstanding debts. The game was up and there in front of the assembled local gentry, Lady Louisa and the Marchese both realized that they were penniless. They still went ahead with the marriage to save face as bankruptcy was frowned upon socially but a broken engagement was an entirely different matter. The couple married in May 1882 and the newly weds tried to keep the façade of being wealthy. The lavish entertaining came to an end and they soon found that their fair weather friends abandoned them. After the death of her second husband and with creditors looking for payment, Lady Louisa sold the entire contents of the house in 1888. A catalogue that exists from the auction gives an idea of what the eclectic interiors of Mount Shannon House contained. Items for sale included a bronze model of the state carriage built by Godal for the Earl of Clare in 1800, crimson damask window curtains and a statue of Vishnu that sat on the staircase. Everything went under the hammer from the contents of the kitchen and servants quarters to the full size billiard table.  The sale followed a judgement against Lady Louisa in a court case and a Henry Unwin was appointed the receiver of her estate. Lady Louisa left Ireland to spend the remainder of her life on the Isle of Wight where died there in June 1898.

The beautifully ordered rear elevation of the house with its curved conservatory that extended out from the façade overlooking the well maintained gardens.
Accreditation- Picture from Limerick City Museum

On the May 27, 1890 under the direction of La Marchesa della Roccella a.k.a Lady Louisa Fitzgibbon, Mr. F.W. Mc Carthy offered the Mount Shannon Estate for sale. The estate comprised of the mansion house, pleasure grounds, gardens, farm buildings, offices and 947 statute acres of dairy pasture, meadow lands and wood land. The estate was broken down into eleven lots, with lot number 4 comprising of the house, out buildings and forty-two acres. The house is described as having sixty rooms, elegantly appointed and “fitted in the highest decorative art”. The brochure for the sale also states that a hydraulic ram provided the house and grounds with an abundant supply of water and the domestic lighting was provided by a miniature gas works. The house had three gate lodges together with dwellings for the land stewards and gardeners. The house is listed as having spacious front and back halls, drawing room, boudoir, library, dining room and a study which had beautiful views of the of the parkland. The upper rooms were accessed by a Portland stone staircase together with two additional back staircases for the servants.

An image of the empty library in the house in 1918 gives an impression of the beautifully detailed rooms that once existed in Mount Shannon
Accreditation- Picture from Limerick City Museum

The house remained empty for a number of years when it was purchased by an Irish American named Thomas Nevins in 1893. Nevins who had made a large fortune in America returned to Ireland with his wife and three daughters. He was originally from Mayo and had emigrated to America in 1864. After working as a contractor he eventually purchased a quarry which laid the foundations of his wealth. He graduated into the development of town tram systems and railroads in Detroit and by the time of his death he was a large shareholder in electric traction, railroad and gas companies in America. The family did not have much luck living in Mount Shannon and met tragic deaths during their tenure of the house. An ice house on the estate became the family’s mausoleum and in The Irish Tourist Association survey of 1942, three massive coffins were to be found in the former ice house.  Thomas Nevins died of heart failure in Mount Shannon in August 1902. High Mass was held in the drawing room of the house with his burial afterwards in the improvised family vault. His passing was of such importance that it was reported in the New York Times in August 1902. After his death the estate was owned by his wife Esther until her death in 1907. In the census of 1911, a 21 year old American called Robert Marshall is living in the house with his Irish born wife. Judging by the presence of jockeys, grooms and horse trainers, Robert must have been running some kind of equestrian related enterprise at Mount Shannon. The estate was eventually divided up by the Land Commission and the house was purchased in 1915 by Mr. D. O’ Leary Hannigan from Co. Cork for £1,000 plus fees.  When the house was sold in 1915 the following description was provided of the house which was made up of five reception rooms which included a library 60ft x 21ft, a lofty hall with handsome staircase that led upstairs to the twenty-two bedrooms, five dressing rooms, bathrooms, and lavatories. The house had excellent domestic accommodation and the residence was now wired for electric light. The out buildings included three workmen’s cottages, gardens of six acres and ornamental planted grounds. The house when sold at this time was described as being potentially suitable for a school, college, institution or suitable for a religious order. Mount Shannon House was burnt down on the night of Monday June 14, 1920 and has lingered in this ruined state since. 

Many beautiful trees that have survived still dot the parkland surrounding the house.  Mount Shannon even in its ruinous state still commands attention from any curious passer by.
Accreditation- Picture by David Hicks