Abandoned ireland


Knocknatrina House,


Documenting our Heritage



Research and write up by Mark Thomas:

Knockatrina House is a somewhat severe but nevertheless impressive ruin on the edge of Durrow. Its front faces the Ballyragget road and to the east it overlooks the River Nore. The house is of two storeys and has a curved bay, gables and tall chimneys. It is one of six mansions which once dominated the surrounding landscape.

Both the house and much of Durrow itself were the creation of the Flower family. They were settlers first recorded as paying "hearth-tax" in co. Laois in 1664. In 1708 Colonel William Flower had laid out the town of Durrow in its present form. In 1716, he built the splendid Castle Durrow a large classical mansion. In 1733, after serving as MP for Kilkenny and for Portarlington in the Irish House of Commons, he was made 1st Baron Castle Durrow. His successor Captain Henry Flower, the 2nd Baron was made Viscount Ashbrook in the Irish peerage in 1751.

Until the Famine, Durrow flourished. Its population was around 1000 by 1810 and by 1845 about 1500. Thereafter it went into decline. After the Famine it was dominated by retailers, millers and big landowners. However the Hon. Robert Flower (b. 1836) refused to meekly accept its decline. He was a dynamic, creative man who had travelled widely and studied mechanics and engineering. He began to try to encourage new industries to revive it. So the burning of culm (the dust of coal and anthracite), brick-making and carpet-production were introduced to the area. Robert's greatest achievement in all this seems to have been a patented invention of 1904. It was an automated hand-loom for weaving carpets. Another change which made a serious impact was Knockatrina the house he built.

Knockatrina(1) was Robert Flower's home from 1869 onwards. It was built in a neo-Jacobean style which had become common in new Irish mansions since the 1830s. This style was used by Irish architects like William Deane Butler, William Vitruvius Morrison and William H. Lynn. However it has been suggested that Scottish architect Robert Armstrong (1799-1875) was Knockatrina's designer. It seems likely that he was a pupil of the leading Scottish mansion designer William Burn. Starting as a clerk of works, by 1842 Armstrong had developed into an architect. One of his English designs bears strong stylistic resemblances to Knockatrina. This is the opulent Stansted Hall in Essex, designed in 1871.

Unfortunately by the time Robert moved into Knockatrina, his family had financial difficulties. This is shown by the divorce case of Ashbrook v. Ashbrook and Baillie (in 1877). The petitioner, Henry Jeffrey Flower, 6th Viscount Ashbrook could only settle £800 a year on his wife Emily Abingdon on his succeeding to his title in 1871. 'The Times' newspaper(2) reported that this was because of "encumbrances" on the Flower family properties. He also could not afford a house in London as his wife wished. Worse still, she refused to live in Ireland. Later in June 1874 she started an affair with Captain Hugh Sydney Baillie. After the hearing Lord Ashbrook was granted a divorce. This painful marital break-up failed even to help him much financially.

Later more financial trouble followed and neither the 6th nor 7th Viscount Ashbrook produced an heir. The money difficulties affected both Robert Flower the inventor (who became 8th Viscount Ashbrook in 1906); his daughter Frances Mary and her husband Henry Ernest White(3). On January 23rd 1908 the 'Irish Independent' reported that Henry had been committed for three weeks at Maryborough(4) Quarter Sessions. He had failed to pay an installment of £7, 8s. 11d. out of a debt of £13 14s. 10d. owed to George Diamond, a Maryborough pharmacist. In January 1913 the 'Irish Independent' reported that Robert Viscount Ashbrook and his daughter Frances Mary White were in a legal battle with money-lender Mr. B.G. Thomas of Charing Cross, London. They owed him £300 - on which they were paying an exorbitant 60% interest. The court was told that Lord Ashbrook had a yearly income of £6000. If this figure is accurate then he was not vastly wealthy. In another legal case in early May 1918 Olivia H. Stubber of Grogan, Ballybrophy took both Viscount Ashbrook to court over an unpaid debt. She succeeded in getting the court to appoint a receiver over a Flower family annuity to obtain repayment.

Despite the growing financial anxiety up to 1919 the Flower family remained in Ireland and kept their mansions Castle Durrow, Cloonageera and Knockatrina in decent condition(5). However on 2nd March 1919 Robert, the old Viscount died at Knockatrina. In the months that followed life became much more perilous for the Flower family. Civil war broke out. Later in 1922 the banks foreclosed on the 9th Viscount Ashbrook. He now had to leave Ireland with his wife Gladys and his children Eileen and Desmond. Part of the Castle Durrow estate was soon bought by Maher Brothers of Freshford. They felled much of its 650 acre plantation of oak, beech and ash. The town of Durrow also now became the property of the Bank of Ireland and remained so for forty years.

From now on both Llowarch 9th Viscount Ashbrook and Frances Mary White fought beleaguered rear-guard actions. Llowarch became President of the Irish Claims Compensation Association, an organisation based in The Strand, London. He protested from England against what he saw as the Irish Free State's indifference to the Southern Irish Unionists' claims for compensation. His organisation was incensed at the damage to their members' property since the Crown forces had left Southern Ireland. In February 1925 the Association claimed that even Irish judicial decrees ordering payment to their members had not been complied with for more than 6 months. They maintained that the decrees had unfair conditions which rendered them useless. They wanted the British Government to establish a judicial tribunal to address their grievances. Llowarch wrote an impassioned letter to 'The Times' on June 29th 1925. It began with the words: "Sir, when will the conscience of the British people awake and contemplate the incredible wrongs inflicted on the Southern Irish loyalists?" Despite his efforts, the De Valera government eventually suspended payment of compensation money owed to Loyalist landowners. His family stayed in England, making their new seat at Arley Hall, Cheshire.

Frances Mary White, still living at Knockatrina was also trying to swim against the tide of events. She farmed, trained horses and tried to withstand all the pressures. She resembled a figure from one of Molly Keane's novels, gamely holding out in straitened circumstances. Widowed in 1923 she soldiered on with some success winning prizes for her horses at events like the 1924 Kilkenny Agricultural Show. However, on June 23rd 1928 the 'Irish Independent' reported that Frances had been declared bankrupt on April 26th. Under examination it emerged that she had borrowed £500 from Mr. F.J. Kerwick of Leeson Park, Dublin to be repaid with 7.5% interest. The interest was to be paid six months in advance and the principal in August 1927. In court Frances testified that the rents obtained from Knockatrina were subject to a mortgage from a Mr. Richardson. The latter, she said, owned 'everything' on Knockatrina's lands. She had to promise the court an account of the cattle and sheep she had bought with Kerwick's money and what she had received for their sale. She said she had used some of the borrowed money for living expenses too.

Against the odds Frances managed to hang on at Knockatrina. On October 2nd 1940 one of her sons, Hans Jeffrey White who lived at Knockatrina married quietly in Dublin. His bride was Mary Catherine Brenan of Eden Hall, Ballyragget. She was the eldest daughter of Richard Brenan, the O'Brenan chieftain. Her family, the O'Brenans of Eden Hall and Nicholastown were old Gaelic gentry. They had once styled themselves Princes of Idough(6). Mary was 30 and her husband 38. However, unfortunately for Knockatrina the newly married couple chose to live first at Coolmore House at Thomastown, Kilkenny and then in 1945 to move to Eastwood House at Bagenalstown, co. Carlow. There Mary established Eastwood Nurseries. This eventually became a well-known producer of herbaceous plants. She was dynamic, life-enhancing and had a love of music, poetry, and literature particularly the Bronte sisters, Dickens and Tennyson. She clearly had a strong interest in others, especially her family. She lived until 2002 and was survived by five children and eventually had fifteen grandchildren. Determined to overcome obstacles and live life to the full she even learnt to drive at the age of 80 after her husband died(7).

While Hans and Mary White flourished, the atmosphere at Knockatrina darkened. The house needed redecoration but was still sound. However perhaps no White family relative seems to have wanted to take it on. In early 1946 Frances Mary White tried and failed to interest the Land Commission in it. Then on March 25th that year Miss Mary Mooney bought both the house and farm. Frances was to die a year later at St. Anne's Private Nursing Home in Kilkenny on April 28th 1947. She was buried at Durrow Church. Fortunately for her she was spared seeing Knockatrina suffer even more misfortune.

The new owner of Knockatrina was the house-keeper and life-long companion of a wealthy Durrow lady called Mrs. Amy Mercier. The Mercier family had been substantial merchants and property owners in Durrow since the 1850s.They owned The Stores in The Square in Durrow and a mill on the nearby River Erkina. Amy's husband Ernest had been involved with brick-making at Tinweir. He held the lease of Erkin Lodge by the Erkin mill. In 1904 he had made Ormsby House (or Lodge) on the North side of The Green in Durrow his main home. He was a cultured man and a friend of local historian Canon William Carrigan (1860-1924)(8). Canon Carrigan had lived in Durrow since 1897.He had published a monumental four-volume 'History of Ossory' in 1905 after seven years of diligent research. Ernest, Amy and their friends appreciated history and things like furniture and china which they collected. When Ernest died in early 1927 aged only 51, Amy inherited his property. When she died in summer 1954 aged 80 Mary Mooney was left Amy's property.

Mary Mooney was a local person who had spent part of her early life at Cloonageera. She did not however understand how to manage three big houses and the other properties. Instead, she employed farmer Jerome F. Daly to act as her 'steward'. It was like appointing a mortician as a nurse. In late spring 1958 Daly is said to have hired a Co Clare demolition to strip Knockatrina House. On June 20th 1958 the Irish Independent ran an advertisement placed by Conn Shanahan and Co Sales of 5 Cecil Street, Limerick. This publicised the sale of Knockatrina's Slates, Joists, Rafters, Beams, Flooring, Windows, Doors Etc on Tuesday 24th June. All the timber (mostly red deal and pitch pine) was available for view on Monday 23rd June.

With Knockatrina House now a shell, Daly turned his attention to the three farms in Mary Mooney's possession. On 16th September 1960 the sales of these were handled by men from Abbeyleix: Messrs Fitzsimon and Ryan Solicitors and John Baggot, M.I.A.A. auctioneer and valuer. Lot 1 was 84 acres, 2 roods, and nine perches around Knockatrina.Lot 2 was part of the lands of Tinweir (58 acres, 1 rood, and 3 perches). Lot 3 was another section of Tinweir amounting to 84 acres, 2 roods, and 3 perches. The advert for these sales(9) said Knockatrina could easily be converted to a very attractive residence. The truth however was that its only usable assets were now its land and outbuildings. The latter included four slated stone houses, a hay shed, a cattle feeding house, and a walled garden.

A few months later, Daly had decided that he was retiring from farming. According to the Irish Press of Saturday March 11th 1961, he was now selling seventy head of cattle, a large collection of farm machinery, baled hay, and a Landrover at Knockatrina on March 15th 1961. The sale was handled by James Adam & Sons, auctioneers and valuers of 17 Merrion Row and 19 St Stephens Green North, Dublin.

Afterwards, not even Mary Mooney's death could end Daly's mania for selling things. She died aged 70 on March 16th 1968 at Aut Evan Hospital, Kilkenny. On August 8th that year the Irish Independent ran an advertisement announcing the auction of all Ormsby House's contents on Daly's orders. It was to be held on Wednesday 20th and Thursday 21st August. Beautiful things like antique Waterford glass decanters and Hepplewhite furniture were available for viewing on the 18th and 19th August. Admission was only by purchase of a catalogue.

After being reduced to a shell, Knockatrina House refused to die. It lingered on as an eye-catching ruin, fringed with ivy. The use of its outbuildings prevented its site from falling into complete desolation. It is now owned by Canice Farrell Jr. He farms and is a successful trainer of racehorses. He has an affection for the building and wants to reroof and restore it. In 2007 Laois County Council gave him planning permission to construct a new roof and secure the building. He has recently cleared it of ivy and hopes to start its revival soon.

(1) The name means 'hill of the corncrake' in Gaelic.
(2) Report of March 1st 1877.
(3) Second son of the famous General Sir Robert White of Aghaboe House, Co Laois.
(4) Now Portlaoise.
(5) According to John Nicholas Colclough, The Mansions of Co. Laois.
(6) The territory of North Kilkenny.
(7) The Carlow People newspaper Obituary of Mary White, nee Brenan, published Thursday March 7th 2002.
(8) His History of Ossory (in 4 volumes) was published in 1905 and was the product of 6 years work from 1897 to 1903.
(9) In the Irish Press Friday September 9th 1960

Many thanks to Mark Thomas for his excellent research and write-up of Knocknatrina House.