Wednesday 1 March 2017

Rappa Castle
Crossmolina, Co. Mayo
The Mias Tighearnain

The Mias Tighearnáin 
Many times when in Dublin, I visit the National Museum of Ireland and head straight to the first floor. There I find an ancient artifact known as the Mias Tighearnáin or St. Tiernan's Dish, which is now displayed  in a glass case but would have originated in Crossmolina, Co. Mayo. I always stand back and study it for a few minutes, looking for further clues to an ancestor of mine that once owned it, maybe seeing something that I missed previously. The ancestor in question was my great, great grandfather, Annesley Arthur Knox who died in 1897 and who lived in Rappa Castle near Crossmolina in Co. Mayo. A mysterious man, a contradiction, an enigma who took many secrets to the grave with him. Despite having died over 120 years ago, his influence on our family has trickled down through the generations to me today. This artifact in the glass case, known as the Mias Thighernáin, is one of the few things that I know that he held in his hands and would have been housed  in the now bare walls of the ruins of Rappa Castle. Another interesting aspect to this story is that Oscar Wilde’s father would have visited Rappa Castle in the mid 1800’s to study this artifact which is meant to have the power to turn one's face to the back of their head if  a lie was told when swearing upon it.

Rappa Castle as it was in the 19th Century, the home of
the Knox Family found near Crossmolina, Co. Mayo. 
Copyright: ICHC
The Mias Tighearnáin, an alms dish, was said to have been dug out of the grave of St. Tiernan near Errew Abbey beside Lough Conn in Crossmolina, Co. Mayo. There are a number of stories of how it was found including local folklore which says that it was found in Lough Conn when it floated to the surface having lay at the bottom of the lake for centuries. Researchers have differed over the age of the object, as it could possibly date from anywhere between the 6th and 14th centuries, also it appears to have been repaired, embellished and damaged many times over the years. It was preserved for a number of years in the family of O'Flynn who were said to have been the hereditary wardens of Errew. They were induced in the 18th century during a hard summer, when provisions were expensive, to sell it to Francis Knox of Rappa Castle located near Crossmolina. In later years during the 1800's the relic was used by the peasantry of the area for the act of swearing upon with the consent of Mr. Knox. It was said to possess the miraculous power of causing the face of anyone who did not tell the truth, when swearing upon it, to turn round to the back of their head. When the Parish Priest of Kilmore in Erris heard about this practice he had it removed from the people who were using it. The priest brought it to Ardnaree Barracks and the members of the Royal Irish Constabulary had it returned to the Knox Family who were told in no uncertain terms to put an end to this practice. Around this time, the superstition grew up that the Mias  Tighearnáin brought misfortune to those who trafficked in it, whether true or false, the Knox family of Rappa endured a great deal of sadness and their former home is in ruins today.At the time of Griffith's Valuation the Rappa estate included six townlands in the parish of Bekan and one townland in parish of Aghamore, barony of Costello and at least three townlands in each of the parishes of Ardagh,Ballysakerry and Kilfian, barony of Tirawley, county Mayo. In 1876 the Rappa Estate consisted of 6,855 acres in county Mayo and 724 acres in county Galway

The private burial ground of the Knox Family of
Rappa Castle which despite being a unique surviving
feature of the estate is unrecorded and is not
protected in any way by local authorities. 
Copyright: ICHC
In “ A Guide to Irish Country House”, Rappa Castle located near Crossmolina in Co. Mayo  is described as an early or mid-eighteenth century house consisting of a three storey centre block of four bays with two storey wings on either side. The centre block and the side wings also had high pitched gable ended roofs, with tall chimneys in the gable ends. The castle was once home to the Crofton family with a castle being built on the site in the fifteenth century by the Burke family. It eventually came in to the ownership of a gentleman by the name of Francis Knox who was resident in the castle in 1798 and previously in 1786 the house was mentioned as being ‘the pleasant seat of Mr. Knox’. Francis Knox was the third son of Francis Knox of Moyne Abbey and Dorothy Annesley. Francis died in 1813 having married and produced six sons and six daughters. He was succeeded by his eldest son Annesley Gore Knox who died in 1839. He had married Harriett in 1793 who was the sister of Sir Ross Mahon. Harriett and Annesley had eight sons and five daughters.  The eldest surviving son inherited Rappa, also named Annesley was succeeded by his son Captain Annesley Arthur Knox.

In 1841, the Mias Tighearnáin was exhibited by W.R. Wilde at the Royal Academy in Dublin having been lent to him by Annesley Knox. William Robert Wills Wilde, was an Irish doctor who specialised in afflictions of the eyes and ears and was also the father of the famous literary figure, Oscar Wilde. He had a particular interest in the archaeology and folklore of ancient Ireland which explains his interest in the Mias. Again in 1846, the Mias Tighearnáin was brought before the Royal Irish Academy by W.R. Wilde and at this time two very accurate drawings of the artifact were made and deposited in the pictorial catalogue of the museum of the academy. It appears that Doctor Wilde was extremely interested in the piece and concerned about its safety, as in 1851, the Mias Tighearnáin  was deposited in the Museum of the Royal Academy, at the insistence of Dr. Wilde. However it was noted later that the relic was returned to Mr. Knox of Rappa Castle.

William Robert Wilde, the father of
Oscar Wilde, whom took an interest
in the Mias Thighernain.
In 1882, a visitor to the castle found the Mias Tighearnáin  in the procession of Captain Annesley Arthur Knox. They give the following description of their visit and the relic ‘The owner of Rappa Castle, a landlord against whom nothing in the way of blame is said, was assuredly of as much interest to us as the relics which his house possessed. A tall, fine looking, kindly faced man, rosy with health, courteous and pleasant, came into the room. We told our errand and the Captain went for the Mias Tighearnáin and placed it in our hands. It is evidently only part of the original dish, the socket where the upper part rested being still there. It is very heavy, formed of three layers of thin bronze bound at the edge with brass - evidently a later thought, and done for preservation. There are three bands of silver across it, which show the remains of rich figuring. There was originally a setting of three stones, one of which still remains and looks as if it might be amber. It is as large as a soup plate. Something is among the layers of metal which rattles when shaken. It is one of the oldest relics in the country. Whoever made it had no mean skill in the art of working metals. According to a certain Father Walsh it was used to wash the saint's hands in at mass. This dish, after lying at the bottom of Lough Conn for a hundred years, come up to the surface and revealed itself. It has been used as a revealer of secrets ever since it came in to the hands of the Knox family. We requested afterwards to see the clock of Moyne Abbey, and were taken by the courteous captain across the other rooms to the flagged kitchen, where the clock ticked as it has done for 300 years - or since the abbey was dismantled, how long before history hath not recorded. The case of some dark wood beautifully carved. I thought it was bog oak, Captain Knox said mahogany, which would make the case to be much younger than the clock. The Captain assured us that it was the best time-keeper in the worked. It only requires winding once a month, used to show the day of the month, but some meddler disarranged that part of the machinery. The dial plate is of some white metal, brilliant and silvery. Captain Knox said it was brass, but I have seen things look more brazen that not so old.’

The gate lodge and entrance gates to Rappa Castle
which survive today. Copyright: ICHC
In 1897, Captain Knox died and his estate, castle and contents passed to his nephew Ronald Annesley Knox who was only a six year old child at the time. Captain Knox had a brother Ross, the father of Ronald, but he was by passed in favour of his son. Captain Knox’s will was probated in Dublin by the executors of the will, Richard Francis Knox of Thornfield, Ballina and Charles Knox Kirkwood of Bartra House, Killala, Co. Mayo. His estate was valued at £4,342 3s 6d. In 1900 the estate was being administered in the Chancery Division of the High Court. The Mias was now in the custody of the Accountant General and it was noted that he 'had not, so far made an order for its sale'. The importance of this relic was recognised at this time as Sir Thomas Esmonde, wished for the Chief Secretary to ask the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland if he would make inquiry as to the possibility of procuring it for the National Museum in Dublin. Captain Knox left his estate to his nephew Ronald Knox on his attaining the age of 25 years. In the intervening period Ronald's father, Ross Mahon Knox, had the use of Rappa Castle, plate , furniture, vehicles and harness together with a yearly allowance of £300. Ross Mahon Knox had married Violet Florence May Knox Gore in 1890 in Killala Cathedral, who was also a cousin, her father originating from Broadlands, a Knox house located near Ballina.  Their son Ronald was born in 1891 and a daughter Una in 1895. Violet, Ross and their children now occupied Rappa Castle after the death of Captain Knox, but were visited with much misfortune. It appears that Ross and Violet did not have a happy marriage and in 1903 Violet left Rappa Castle taking her two children with her. It was said she returned to her native Cork due to the violent nature of her husband. Ross initiated legal proceedings to have the children returned and was successful. However Ross and Violet's daughter Una died a year later in 1904, in her grandfathers house in Youghal, Cork aged only ten years and by 1907, Ross and Violet had separated for good. It is recorded in the 1911 census that Violet was now living in Park House in Youghal in Cork with her father. In 1916, Ronald Knox came of age and was now in control of Rappa Castle however he never enjoyed good health and died in 1918 of TB. He was buried with his sister on the hill near Rappa Castle where many generations of the family had been interred. His father, Ross, also succumbed to the same disease as his son and died in 1920. Ironically it was the one person that was banished from Rappa Castle who would inadvertently come to own it and determined its future. It appears that Ross and Violet had never divorced and as a result Rappa Castle, land and its contents including the Mias Tighearnáin came into her ownership after the death of her estranged husband. It appears that Violet intended to sell everything, in October 1921, an advertisement appeared for the sale of the rabbits of the estate and for further particulars, the manager of the castle was to be contacted. In 1923 the timber around the demesne was sold which included a large quantity of ash, beech, larch and scots pine, in total about 1,500 tress were on offer. Permission was also given by Violet Knox to set up a temporary saw mill. In December 1924, Violet put the contents of the castle up for sale and sold the castle with its remaining land to the Land Commission. Bitterness existed in the extended members of the Knox family, as Violet sold a number of items that were in the Knox family for generations. She was classed as an ‘outsider’ despite the fact that she was a cousin of her husband and that her grandfather would have originated from Rappa Castle also.

Rappa Castle in ruins today after it was dismantled
in the 1930's
Copyright: ICHC
In January 1925, Violet Knox, (Ross's widow), married Thomas Dodd Lowther of Queen Ann’s Mansions Westminster London. It is obvious that she took the Mias with her to England as it later appeared for sale in London.   It was said that the reason the sale occurred outside Ireland was that Violet wanted  to make it as difficult as possible for it to be purchased by the Knox’s or the National Museum of Ireland. In December 1930, it was reported in the press 'that an ancient alms dish which was brought to London by the last of the Knox family' was to be sold at the Grafton Galleries.  It was said to have been sold for between £750 and £800 as accounts differ. In October 1934, Mrs. V.F.M. Knox Lowther of London and formerly of Glasgow and late of Castlerea and Rappa Castle, Co. Mayo, wife of Thomas Dodd Lowther died and left a personal estate in Britain valued at £11,992. Rappa Castle fell in to disrepair after 1925 and by 1938 was dismantled and had its roof removed. The Mias had been purchased by the Marquees of Bute and became part of his private collection at Mount Stewart, Rothesay, Isle of Bute in Scotland until in 1999, it was purchased by the National Museum of Ireland. The Mias did return briefly to Mayo in 2004 when it was displayed in the Museum of Country Life in Castlebar.