Hell Fire

It’s taken me a while to visit this notorious site which is situated on a summit of the Dublin Mountains. The view across the city from the 390 metre peak is stunning:

It’s the stories and the folklore that attracted me to this place, long known as the Hell Fire Club. In the eighteenth century ‘Speaker’ Connolly built it as a hunting lodge. According to tradition he used the stones from a prehistoric monument that was previously on the hill. It’s now known from recent excavations that at this location was one – or two – passage tombs dating from the Neolithic Period (4500 – 2000 BC). This – or these – were surrounded by a circle of large boulders known as a cairn. Today, some fragmentary traces of the earliest use of the site can be detected. The best information on the neolithic site is found in the Abarta Heritage report, here. An earlier description, dating from 1779 in fact, was written by Austin Cooper, who visited in that year:

. . . Behind the house are still the remains of the cairn, the limits of which were composed of large stones set edgeways which made a sort of wall or boundary about 18 inches high and withinside these were the small stones heaped up. It is 34 yards diameter or 102 yards in circumference. In the very centre is a large stone 9 feet long and 6 feet broad and about 3 feet thick not raised upon large stones but lying low with the stones cleared away from about it. There are several other large stones lying upon the heap . . .

William Connolly (Speaker of the Irish House of Commons) was one of the wealthiest men in Ireland; he had a house in the city and a country estate at Castletown, near Celbridge. It is said that he deliberately used stones from the ancient tomb in the construction of the hunting lodge at Mountpelier. Shortly after it was built the roof, which was originally slated, was blown off in a great storm. Locals attributed this misfortune to the work of the devil, in revenge for the destruction of the cairn. Following this event the lodge gained a reputation as a place where evil prevailed. However, Connolly replaced the slated roof with a stone vault which still exists today, although the building is effectively a ruin.

The Irish Hell Fire Club members were some of the elite of society, and included peers of the realm, high ranking army officers as well as wealthy gentlemen and artists. Here is a portrait of some of them by James Worsdale (himself a Club member); it is in the collection of the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin.

From left to right: Henry Barry 4th Baron of Santry, Colonel Henry Clements, Colonel Henry Ponsonby, Colonel Richard St George, and Simon Luttrell, 1st Earl Carhampton. Biographies of all of them are summarised here – also from the Abarta reports. Their lives in general were debauched and relatively short. Missing from the portrait are father and son Richard Chappell Whaley and Thomas ‘Buck’ Whaley, who was to become ‘the most famous Buck of all’. Richard’s nickname was ‘Burn-Chapel’ Whaley because of his hatred of religion and in particular, the Roman Catholic church. He would amuse himself on Sundays by riding around Dublin setting fire to the thatched roofs of Catholic chapels. The Whaleys were related through their ancestry to Oliver Cromwell. Their family residence was Whaley Abbey, Co Wicklow: you can find more on this in Finola’s post today.

Mountpelier is a significant mountain top overlooking Dublin, and is now fully accessible to all. A warning, though – in good weather the Coillte car-park very soon fills up (at all times of the year) and there is nowhere else nearby to leave your vehicle – get there early!

It could be said that the ruin of the lodge is ‘maintained’ in that it is stabilised and unlikely to fall down. If you are exploring, look out for the lintel over the large fireplace, which is supposed to be a standing stone removed from the passage grave site.

The Hell Fire Club is, of course, haunted! Not that we saw anything untoward when we visited on a glorious spring day. But the stories abound. They are probably best told through the accounts in the Schools Folklore Collection:

. . . About six miles from Dublin the Hell Fire Club is on a hill. It is a medium size old castle. When the owner of it died nobody else claimed it. All the men of the district came to play cards in it every night. One night when all the men were playing their nightly game one of the men cheated. The men rushed upon him over-powered him. The bound him hand and foot and put him in a barrel of whiskey. Then they set fire to it burning him alive. That was a cruel thing to do but then men did not care. From that day on that old castle was called the Hell Fire Club . . .


Stewart Somerville, Dundrum School

. . . There is an old ruin called Hell Fire Club on the very top of one of the Dublin Hills. This house was built by a man named Connelly, during the time of the Famine. It was built to give employment to the men. Many men used to got to Hell Fire Club to gamble. It is said that one night they were playing cards and there was much money on the table. One man dropped a card on the floor, and when he stooped down to pick it up he noticed a man with cows feet, and he wore a red cloak. The men were very frightened and they made a great uproar. The man turned into a ball of fire. All the men were burned in the fire. There was one man who had a bunch of medals attached to his coat and he was the only man who escaped from the burning house . . .

Mr Finlay, Rockbrook, Co Dublin

. . . The Hell Fire Club, or the Brass Castle is situated near Rathfarnham in the Co Dublin. My Great-grandfather used to pass by the Brass Castle on his way home from work, (he was a mason) he had a habit of hitting the wall with his trowel to hear the ring of the brass. One night a priest had to go on a sick call. When he was coming home through the mountains he lost his way. Seeing a light he went in that direction. He knocked at the door of the house, which happened to be the Brass Castle – The door was opened by a man who was dressed in black with a black mask on his face. The priest was brought in to a room. Sitting at a large table were twelve men dressed the same as the first one. The men were playing cards. On the table was seated a large black cat. The men defied the priest to put the cat away. The priest ordered the cat down, but it never moved. Again he ordered it down, but the cat did not move. The men laughed at the priest and jeered him. The third time the priest said “Begone Satan”. The cat jumped from the table and disappeared up the chimney with a loud roar. The priest told the men that the cat was the devil. The men were never heard of again. The priest got home safe, and from that time onward the Brass Castle was called the Hell Fire Club. This story is true. It was told to me by mother, because the Brass Castle belonged to her ancestors . . .

Seán Ó Nuamáin, Kilbride, Co Wicklow

The Mountpelier Woods consist of around 5.5 kilometres of forest roads and tracks. The woods offer nature trails and a permanent orienteering course. Lord Massy’s Estate and Mountpelier Hill are also traversed by the Dublin Mountains Way hiking trail that runs between Shankill and Tallaght. It’s an attractive walk at all times of the year, with easy access from Dublin city centre.

A comprehensive application to An Bord Pleanála was submitted in July 2017, seeking permission to establish a Dublin Mountains Visitor Centre with associated works relating to tourism, leisure and recreational activities which would embrace the Hell Fire Club site and the mountain trails. Permission was granted, subject to conditions, on 25 June 2020. Another chapter in the story of this notorious locality unfolds . . .

As a tailpiece, I found this image of a ‘Hell Fire Club Goblet’ dating from c1745. It’s currently in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but it must originate from Ireland: James Worsdale, whose name appears on this glass, was appointed Master of the Revels in the Dublin Hell Fire Club in 1741. It was also he who painted the portrait of Club members illustrated in this post: look at their goblets in the painting!

Wicklow by the Sea

If you can’t be in West Cork – what’s the next best place? Why – County Wicklow of course! It’s also full of wonderful scenery and imbued with Irish history. That’s Wicklow Town, above, in Viking times: there had already been a Bronze Age settlement on this site. In the twelfth century the Normans arrived, led by Strongbow, who we have encountered before, and Black Castle was built (below). They were wild times, and the castle was attacked and destroyed completely in 1301 by local chieftains, notably O’Byrnes and O’Tooles. There were several subsequent revivals, and the gaunt remains we see today probably date from the 17th century.

While at this site, have a look down at the inlet on the coast to the south: that’s Travelahawk Beach, the scene of a bit of Wicklow history that’s sure to stick in the mind. It was there that St Patrick first landed in Ireland!

I have to admit that the beach is only one of several sites on the east coast that lays claim to this historic occasion, but I like the associated story of Travelahawk which tells how the local people, suspicious of this stranger, threw rocks at St Patrick and his crew. One of them hit the saint’s companion, and he lost his front teeth. He was known ever after as ‘Gubby’ or ‘Gap-toothed’ which is translated in Irish Mhantáin. Hence the old name for Wicklow is ‘Chill Mhantáin’ – the Church of Gubby. Today’s name for the town, Wicklow, is of Viking origin, and means ‘Bay of the Meadows’.

We popped over to Wicklow on a mild February day for a change of scene – and to absent ourselves from Nead an Iolair while some upgrading works were taking place. I was impressed: I had never explored the town before. Finola, however, was brought up in County Wicklow, and her impressions of the county town today were embellished with memories of times past. There’s much about the place that’s picturesque: I was taken with the number of painted murals about the place. The pier has, appropriately, a whole series of ships on the breakwater wall. There is an example, above . . .

. . . And here’s another. In fact, this one is the 50th mural to be painted by Pat Davis, who is the local postman. Each one depicts a vessel which has visited the harbour. It’s a wonderful and colourful record of one aspect of the maritime town’s history.

Here’s Pat at work. The image is courtesy of Ceaneacht O Hoctun, and appeared in the Wicklow People newspaper in 2020. Pat started painting the ships in the 1970s.

This one will be familiar to West Cork folk. It’s the Saoirse, a 42ft ketch built in Baltimore in 1922 for her designer, Conor O’Brien.

. . . This unique sailing ship was also a maritime inspiration for the new Ireland, uncertain of itself in an uncertain world. For this was Conor O’Brien’s characterful 42ft ketch Saoirse, which he designed himself, and with which – between 1923 and 1925 – he pioneered the round the world route south of the Great Capes, an ocean voyaging “first” which was forever written into world sailing history. . .

Afloat.ie

When O’Brien returned from his record-breaking voyage in 1925 he made his first landfall in Ireland in Wicklow Harbour. O’Brien designed a larger version of Saoirse to be the inter-islands communications vessel for the Falkland Islands: this – the Ilen – was also built in Baltimore. Back in 2015 we visited Oldcourt boatyard on the Ilen River to see the restoration of the larger ketch, which was then underway. That work was completed in 2018, and the same team embarked on a complete rebuilding of Saoirse, which had been wrecked in Jamaica in 1979. Our own West Cork photographer, Kevin O’Farrell has beautifully documented these projects at Oldcourt in his book, published in 2020.

The Asgard, above, was famous for gun-running at Howth by Irish Volunteers in 1914. Below is an Irish Navy vessel, LÉ Gráinne – a mine sweeper. Gráinne was a legendary princess who was promised to Fionn Mac Cumhail but ran away with his young follower Diarmuid. The ship was decommissioned in 1987.

We found that the town of Wicklow has so many maritime associations – everywhere you look there are reminders. But also it’s a thriving commercial centre and we were impressed by what is on offer there: great eateries, and a most wonderful bookshop. I think there might be another post in the making . . .

Glencree

On our most recent trip to the east of this beautiful country – County Wicklow – we experienced the first snows of winter lining the edges of the remote roads that penetrate the mountains here. It’s a magnificent although often bleak wilderness: immersed in such vast, empty tracts of moorland you feel as far away from the civilised world as you can get without leaving these shores, yet Dublin city itself is just a stone’s throw distant – another of Ireland’s remarkable idiosyncrasies.

The 1790s was an era of conflict and change across the western world. News of independence in America and revolution in France inspired Catholic and Presbyterian communities in Ireland. In 1791, the Society of United Irishmen was founded, with the hope of uniting all religious persuasions in pursuit of Irish independence. In the late 18th century, the wild, inaccessible Wicklow mountains provided ideal shelter for insurgent groups who set out to disrupt British and loyalist forces. The deep valleys and fast strongholds of the natural terrain hid rebels from reprisals long after the United Irish forces had succumbed in other areas of the country. This group of ‘outlaws’ was so troublesome that the authorities resolved to forge a road across the impenetrable landscape:

. . . Construction of the road began in 1800 through parts of the county “infested with insurgent plunderers”. The road commenced from Rathfarnham in Dublin to Killakee and continued over the Featherbed Mountain to Glencree, where a major camp was formed. There were four work parties of fifty men each. Soldiers were paid a shilling a day and overseers earned five shillings daily; but very few local civilians could be induced to accept work and no “dependence” was placed on those that did . . .

http://www.glencree.ie

The Sally Gap and Wicklow Gap roads built by the British are still the main roads through the Wicklow Mountains today. The network of military barracks that they link are still to be seen at Glencree, Laragh, Glenmalure, and Aughavannagh. Intended to stop local unrest, ‘Wicklow Military Road’ is today a scenic reminder of the dramatic events of that time.

Built originally as a British Army barracks, the settlement at Glencree has gone through several mutations. This photo from the nineteenth century (above – courtesy Glencree.ie) shows St Kevin’s Reformatory, established on the site of the then abandoned barracks in 1858 and running through to 1940. One suspects it was a grim place: there are few records existing. It housed up to 300 boys.

Many of the buildings survive today, when Glencree has become the home of The Centre for Peace and Reconciliation. Founded in 1974 in response to the conflict in Northern Ireland, Glencree played an important role in the Irish Peace Process, bringing together those in conflict for confidential dialogue and helping to build relationships across divides. This Irish-based, independent, non-governmental organisation has evolved its expertise on a global basis, and this has been shared in more than ten conflict and post-conflict countries around the world.

There is so much to discover in Glencree. You may be surprised – as we were when we first visited – to come across a German cemetery. Set in a landscaped former quarry, the German Military Cemetery is one of the many German war cemeteries in Western Europe. The bodies of 134 German military servicemen and civilians are buried here, dating from both World Wars. It is a secluded, peaceful garden of memory, marked by art and poetry, and kept in immaculate order.

You could ponder at length on this little graveyard: there are many historical connections. After the nearby Reformatory School closed, the buildings were used for a time as a refugee centre for German children following the bombing of Dresden in 1945. In 1954 the German Legation sent a letter urging the Irish authorities to give consideration to a single cemetery for German war dead in Ireland. These would include German soldiers and sailors washed up on Irish beaches, wrecked or crash-landed after being shot down during the Second World War. Six graves at Glencree remember German soldiers who died in British prisoner-of-war camps in Ireland during the First World War. All the bodies were re-interred here after this cemetery opened in 1961. In pre-Covid times, there would be a series of commemorative events in Glencree every November to pay respect to all victims of all wars.

There is added interest, for us, at Glencree: a grotto established (as far as I can ascertain) in the Marian Year of 1954, dedicated to Our Lady of Reconciliation. It is reached from a path and steps which descend into the stream valley below the church.

The ‘cave’ is much visited, and – as in many other locations in Ireland, particularly holy wells – petitions for the good health of individuals, and personal relics are in evidence.

Glencree is a place apart. You might, as did we, come across it by accident and get drawn into its many strands. You should certainly visit this secluded haven of tranquility in Wicklow, and consider the implications of its transition from a base of an occupying military force in a wilderness haunted by outlaws to a modern-day centre of reconciliation.

East Coast Archaeology

We often find time to visit the east side of the country – where we see everything from a different perspective! But we are just as interested in history and archaeology over there as we are here in our own West Cork. Today I am bringing together three sites from three different eras – all equally fascinating, and all within a stone’s throw of each other, hovering on the borders of South County Dublin and County Wicklow.

From the high ground in these two counties you find stunning views to the north out across Dublin Bay, with Howth in the distance. The twin striped chimneys on the right of this picture are protected historic structures: they date from 1971 and were built to serve the Poolbeg electricity generating station. At 270m they are amongst the tallest artificial structures in Ireland and are a visible feature on the skyline from many parts of the city. The power station closed in 2010.

The first site we are visiting in this little tour is the wedge tomb in Shankill townland, County Dublin. It lies below Carrickgollogan hill, and commands distant views to the two distinctive Sugar Loaf peaks, which are situated in County wicklow. Or – let’s say – it should command those views, but it now reposes in a rather neglected state, engulfed by a modern hedge boundary, which you can see below.

The picture above is taken a little to the west, to show the full skyline profile. The monument is not in good shape: the photo below (courtesy Ryaner via The Modern Antiquarian) shows the tomb in 2006, when the capstone remained intact on its supports. In less than two decades the capstone has fallen, as you can see from our photos taken a few days ago.

It is quite difficult to penetrate the undergrowth to see what remains of this structure, which probably dates from between 4,000 to 5,000 years ago. It seems a shame that such an ancient survival is not cared for in any significant way by our State. The tomb was recorded (as a ‘dolmen’) by the archaeologist William Borlas in 1897. Just over a century later, it has significantly deteriorated. The extract (below( from the first edition 6″ OS map gives it the title ‘Cromlech’ – and also shows nearby a substantial ring-fort: there is no trace of that remaining today.

We leap forward about three thousand years for our next archaeological site, but we are only a short distance away as the crow flies – in Fassaroe, Co Wicklow, less than half a kilometre. This was a great discovery for me: a very fine carved cross, likely to date from the 12th century. Although it has been moved from its original site, it is cared for, and easily found right beside a strangely deserted modern traffic roundabout with little sign of habitation nearby.

The granite cross face is carved with a crucifixion, but there are also ‘bosses’ on the back, sides and base stone. These are believed to be heads, well worn now but in good light some features can be seen: a pointed ‘ceremonial’ head-dress, and beards.

The clearest view of the carvings (above) is illustrated in The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Volume 88, 1958. An article by P Ó hÉailidhe discusses this cross and others nearby. The carving is popularly known as St Valery’s Cross as it purportedly came from the nearby demesne of that name. Some archaeologists theorize that it was originally brought to that estate from elsewhere.

This extract from the first edition of the 6″ Ordnance Survey map (c1840) shows the location of the cross, not far from St Valery.

It’s about 7km from the Fassaroe Cross to the last stop on our journey. We have to head north on a road that takes us through The Scalp.

. . . Within an easy drive of Bray is a wild ravine known as the Scalp. The road runs over a shoulder of Shankhill Mountain and through this ravine; it presents a very wild appearance, enormous masses of granite being heaped up in grand and picturesque confusion on either side. It looks as if nature, in order to spare man the trouble of blasting a road, had by some mighty convulsion torn a rent through the mountain just wide enough for a high road . . .

Irish Pictures Drawn with Pen and Pencil, Richard Lovett, 1888

The view above accompanies Richard Lovett’s 1888 account. In spite of the topological interest of the Scalp road, our journey took us on and forward a few hundred years to our last stop – the lead workings on Carrickgollogan hill, Ballycorus townland. The hilltop mine chimney which forms our header picture is a well-known landmark in this part of the country.

The mine was established in the early nineteenth century. Many of the lead works buildings remain today in the valley below the landmark chimney, mainly converted to modern dwellings: the photo above (courtesy Joe King via Wiki Commons) shows a distant view of the converted buildings and ‘shot tower’. The ‘Shot Works’ can be seen on the 25″ OS extract, above. This also show the location of the Lead Mine flue and chimney, which was the destination of our archaeological journey. That’s us (below) climbing the hill towards the chimney that’s on the 220m contour line, and offers views towards Dublin Bay.

Open-cast mining commenced in 1807. The Mining Company of Ireland took over the site in 1826 and began to carry out underground extraction. A 2 km long flue (shown in red on the map above) was laid out from the smelting facilities to the great chimney at the summit of the hill. You might think this was an acknowledgment of the poisonous fumes which lead working released, and an attempt to divert those fumes from the main site – but no!

. . . A process had been discovered in the 1770s whereby additional quantities of lead could be extracted from the fumes emitted by reverberatory furnaces if the vapours could be trapped long enough to precipitate the lead. To this end a flue 2 kilometres long running from the lead works and terminating at a chimney near the summit of Carrickgollogan was constructed in 1836. The precipitated lead deposits were scraped out of the flue by hand and many of the workers subsequently died of lead poisoning, giving the surrounding area the nickname “Death Valley”. . .

Wikipedia

The lead mine chimney remains – although a brick upper section was removed in the twentieth century for safety reasons (see lower picture) – and so does much of the enclosed flue. A public trail follows its course to the top of the hill. The remaining chimney is a fine granite structure, in reasonably good condition. It’s certainly much visited: Finola – who grew up in Bray – has fond memories of cycling out there with her two brothers, and finding ways to climb part way up the spiral staircase which accessed a viewing platform, in spite of key parts of the stair structure being missing!

All three examples of archaeology we have studied today have one thing in common: they are constructed of local granite. Thousands of years separate the oldest and the most recent, but the inherent strength of the material has ensured survival, at least in part. As with West Cork and all other parts of Ireland, the temporal history is rich, and much of it is largely intact. We have so much more to explore!

Off the M8 – Ballysaggartmore

This post might also have been called A Monument to Imprudence because of the story which it encompasses. But, first and foremost, it is a bit of an architectural wonder, and certainly worth the deviation from the motorway if you are travelling between Cork County and Dublin. It will add only 20 minutes to your journey – plus however long you decide to spend walking the publicly accessible woodland to discover the nineteenth-century extravagances of Arthur Kiely, Esq. Leaving the M8 motorway at Fermoy, head east towards Lismore on the R666: you will reach a car park and trailhead for Ballysaggartmore on the left within half an hour. After your visit, find the R668 heading north and rejoin the M8 at Cahir.

We felt we were capturing the last of the summer as we embarked on the beautiful sunlit trails on the first day of October in this Covid laden year. We were convinced that a week or so later we would be feeling the first cool winds of autumn and undoubtedly be noticing the changing hues in the ash, beech and oak tracts of the Ballysaggartmore Demense. The name in Irish – Baile na Sagart – means ‘Priests’ Town’. I cannot find out which priest is being remembered here, but – as you will see – there is some local lore which mentions a priest – and also Kiely, the unpopular local landlord.

These extracts from the c1840 first edition 6″ Ordnance Survey maps show parts of the Ballysaggartmore Demense. In the upper plan, a house can be seen, probably newly built at the time of the survey. Nothing remains of it now, but some photographs exist, dating from 1904.

It’s time to piece together what can be found on the history of the place and its people. The first Kiely – John – purchased some 8,500 acres of land here in the late 1700s. He had two sons. On the senior John’s death in 1808 the elder brother – also John – inherited good lands at Strancally, on the Blackwater River, and proceeded to build an imposing castle there. The younger son – Arthur – had to make do with the less propitious lands around Ballysaggartmore, and built the modest house pictured above, but apparently harboured notions to match John Junior’s aspirations, embarking on a grand design to upgrade the property, starting with a splendid carriage drive and gatehouse which survives today near the beginning of our walk in the woods.

. . . Sir, Permit me through the medium of the Dublin Penny Journal an opportunity of giving the public a brief description of the situation and scenery of Ballysaggartmore, the much improved residence of Arthur Keiley, Esq, situate one mile west of Lismore, on the north side of the river Blackwater. The porter’s lodge at the entrance to the avenue is composed of cut mountain granite or free stone, of a whitish colour, variegated with a brownish strata, which gives the whole a rich and pleasing appearance; it consists of a double rectangular building, in the castellated style, flanked by a round tower at either end, through which is a passage and carriage-way of twelve feet in the centre, over which is a perpendicular pointed arch, enriched with crockets and terminated with a finial; the buildings at either side of the gateway, although similar, form a variety in themselves; and the situation is so disposed as not to be seen until very near the approach; the gate is composed of wrought and cast iron; and is, I will venture to assert, the most perfect gothic structure formed principally of wrought iron, in the kingdom. It was executed by a native mechanic, and cost about one hundred and fifty pounds . . .

Dublin Penny Journal, December 1834

The ambitions of Arthur Kiely knew no bounds. Egged on by his wife, jealous of her in-law’s estate at Strancally, he continued the carriage drive (today a further part of the picturesque walking trail) towards a humble stream which had to be crossed in order to reach the vicinity of the house which was to be upgraded to – or replaced by – something of suitable substance. The stream could easily have been culverted but no! Only an ornate neo-Gothic three-arched bridge with gate-houses at either end and surmounted by towers and pinnacles would do: a prelude, presumably, to the architectural magnificence that was being planned beyond.

At the same time as directing the building project, Arthur decided that a change of name would be advantageous. Something double-barrelled was called for, and he chose to add Ussher, a family name derived from ancestors on his mother’s side. Arthur Kiely-Ussher certainly has a ring to it. Arthur’s ambitious wife was born Elizabeth Martin of Ross House, Co Galway. Always on the look-out for a West Cork connection, I can tell you that the author Violet Martin was a great-niece of Elizabeth. Violet lived in Castletownshend and famously collaborated with Edith Somerville.

The gate-lodge and ‘Towers’ of Ballysaggartmore are remarkable survivors, and represent the sum total of Arthur’s striving to equal his brother’s show of opulence. After the extraordinary towered bridge the carriage drive peters out, and one assumes the money also dissipated. Kiely-Ussher attempted to revive the fortunes of his estate but this centred on evicting tenants in time of scarcity, which only resulted in the lands becoming less productive. The family lived through the famine but were considered notoriously bad landlords. In the 1850s Ballysaggartmore Demense was virtually bankrupt: the house was sold in 1861 and Arthur himself died shortly afterwards.

Like many another bad landlord, Arthur Kiely-Ussher has entered into folklore. It’s worth reading this lengthy entry from the Duchas Schools Folklore Collection – a superb tale of just retribution being visited on the memory of – not one – but three ghastly incarnations of a man who probably wished to be well remembered, but failed catastrophically.

. , . In Ballysagart there lived three landlords named Ussher Kiely. The three of them were brothers and they were all called Ussher. They were terrible tyrants and they evicted people every time they got the chance, and allowed no one near their land. Of the many stories told about their cruelty here is one: On Ussher’s land there is a Spring well. A very old, goodliving woman lived near the place. One day she had no water. The nearest place she could get water was the well, which was in a field behind her house, but Ussher allowed no one near the land. The neighbours always brought her a churn of water from the Blackwater, but this day she had no one to get it for her. As the Blackwater (which was two miles away) was too far for her to walk, she thought there would be no harm in going to the well for once. When she was bending down to fill her gallon in the well she heard a shout behind her; “Get away from that well and get off my land you cursed wretch. How dare a dying old hag like you interfere with my water or dirty my land with those rotten feet of yours”. It was the eldest Ussher and he made her throw back the water and he threatened to beat her if she did not get off his land immediately. She obeyed and when she was out of his sight she knelt down and cursed him saying “O God, may the brothers of this man, Ussher, who hunted me away without a drop of water, be at his funeral before the year is out, and may he grow silly and his tongue hang out of his head so that he cannot offend you again”. Another woman cursed him saying “May you die in agony, you tyrant”. Before the year was out he grew silly, and he had to be sent to a home where he died in terrible agony. His body is still to be seen in Ballysaggart where his body is embalmed in glass. His mouth is to be seen wide open and his tongue is hanging out and is as black as soot. Another of the Ussher Kielys saw a man crossing his land. He brought out his gun and threatened to blow the man’s legs from under him. The man who was only going home said “Ussher Kiely, I was walking on this land before you and I’ll be walking on it after you, so why don’t you shoot me”. Ussher put away the gun and never used it again. A few days later he complained of pains and only lived two hours. He was embalmed in glass and laid by his elder brothers side. The third Ussher Kiely was worse than the others. Every night a man used to bring cattle on Ussher’s land to graze. Ussher heard of this and one night he lay in wait and without warning shot the man. When the people heard of the shooting they piled curses on Ussher. A few days passed since the shooting when a priest was walking on Usshers land. He was reading his ‘Office’ when he met Ussher. Ussher cursed him and called him every name he could think of as well as ordering him off the land. “All right”, said the priest, “I’ll go off the land, but mark my words, tyrants like you never live a long life”. Two hours later the last of the Kielys dropped dead. The three brothers are to be seen, embalmed in glass lying side by side in a small graveyard in Ballysagart . . . Mr Tom O’Donnel told me these stories – Tom Conway


Duchas Schools Folklore Collection, Volume 0637

If you would like to read in greater detail the fortunes and fall of Arthur Kiely-Ussher I commend you to the excellent account by The Irish Aesthete. The ‘modest’ house at Ballysaggartmore was burned down during the Irish Civil War, obliterating its physical history and committing its memories to fascinating folk recollection. We are fortunate, nevertheless, that we may freely wander a trail and reminisce on misfortune. And justice.

Glen of the Downs

There’s a very attractive woodland walk near Delgany, County Wicklow, to the south of Dublin. It’s well worth an exploration, but be prepared for the intrusive sound of the main N11 road which runs alongside the path as you set out from the public car park: you will leave it behind – eventually – as you climb up into the trees.

It’s a now rare ancient Irish oak wood, once all part of Bellevue Estate, a 300 acre demesne established by the La Touche family in the mid eighteenth century. Through many generations the Huguenot family was known as an ‘ample benefactor of mankind’ who ‘left a record of noble deeds behind them’. During their heyday the La Touches acquired the lands of Upper and Lower Rathdown on which much of modern Greystones has been built, and their name is familiar in the fabric of that town today.

The beauty of this part of County Wicklow has been celebrated by many artists over the years: here are a couple of examples from the late 1700s showing the Glen of the Downs landscape. Always, one or both of the topographical high-points – the Great and Little Sugar Loaves – are prominently featured.

We have photographic records of the La Touche mansion, Georgian Bellevue House – with its famed hot-houses where many exotic plants were cultivated, before its decline in the 1900s and its eventual demise: the crumbling pile was demolished in 1950 to make way for wheat-fields and a golf course.

Hidden away in the oak wood is a remnant of the once vibrant La Touche estate: today it’s known as ‘The Octagon’ because of its shape. Its purpose originally was a banqueting hall, set high up on a platform looking out over the landscape. It must have been quite an undertaking, bringing food, furnishings and serving staff up from the ‘big house’: there are remains of tunnels said to have been used for this purpose. Most intriguingly . . .

. . . The estate at Ballydonagh comprised 300 acres, with fine views across the Glen of the Downs and towards the Irish Sea. David, the younger La Touche, built his favourite country retreat here between 1754 and 1756, at a cost of £30,000, and called it Bellevue. Beautiful gardens were laid out with winding paths and “extras” built by David and his son, Peter, when he inherited in 1785. Among these was the Octagon, built in 1766, with a panther on springs, which could be made to jump out at unwary visitors. The house was most famous for its huge glasshouse, built between 1783 and 1793, in which many exotic plants were grown . . .


Judith Flannery, The Story of Delgany, 1990

There is no doubt that the building was superbly sited to maximise the good views. Beyond that, it’s hard to fathom how the architecture functioned – and the panther on springs remains a puzzle! Over years of exposure to the elements, and inquisitive visitors, the Octagon has gained a patina of graffiti – which adds, perhaps, to its character and attributes.

The practice of ‘making one’s mark’ seems to have migrated to trees surrounding the site: perhaps some of these can be attributed to people who lived in them once! In 1997 eco-warriors staged a protest campaign when plans were put forward to upgrade and widen the N11 road, involving felling over 1,700 mature beech, oak and ash trees. The protesters ‘occupied’ the trees for over two years (below), ‘climbing down’ eventually when the Courts upheld the highway authority proposals.

The road has since been widened, and the intrusive traffic sound within the Glen of the Downs has accordingly increased manyfold. Interestingly, there are currently proposals under discussion to further improve the N11/M11 route in this same locality – including the possibility of a road tunnel which might even remove traffic altogether. Meanwhile, the trees continue to present us with messages for our own complex times . . .

For all its ups and downs, and possibly mixed messages, the Glen of the Downs woodland walk is beautiful, and well worth a visit. Who knows what – or who – you might encounter among the trees?