Abandoned ireland

 

Mountshannon House,

County Limerick.


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Rural Exploration

By far the largest and most impressive house to be erected in the Castleconnell area was Mountshannon Mansion. It not only laid claim to have been one of Ireland's most beautiful mansions, but also earned its place in the annals of Irish history by virtue of its association with the controversial personage of the notorious first Lord Clare, Black Jack Fitzgibbon.


Erected on a 900 acre estate of the best of arable land, about two miles on the Limerick side of Castleconnell, Mountshannon was bounded on the west by the Shannon and by the Mulcair river on the south and the estate extended from Newgarden to Annacotty. Almost half the domain was once covered in trees, Mountshannon Wood, that skirted the estate and secluded from prying eyes this noble and often mysterious mansion where few apart from the aristocracy dared to venture near.


Magnificent Mountshannon with its seven-bay entrance portico on four huge Ionic columns. It is said that the house had three hundred and sixty five windows, one for every day of the year and that the entrance hall was so wide that a coach and four could easily be driven through it.


The estate and house were serviced from the working area where there was quite a number of buildings including servants' quarters, stewards houses, stables, coach houses, laundry, its own gas making plant and several other utility buildings which made this area in itself larger than many an Irish village.


Some of the great features of the estate were its beautiful gardens and rolling parklands which were laid out and landscaped by John Sutherland, one of the most famous landscape gardeners of the time and who was responsible for designing many of the splendid country gardens of Great Britain and Ireland. In its heyday Mountshannon employed an army of gardeners and estate workers. In summertime work for the gardeners began each day at first light as they had to have the day's work finished and everything in order before the guests of the mansion rose to take breakfast on the lawns and spend their days in the delightful surroundings of the estate gardens. During the summer months as many as a hundred guests would be in residence there.


The Fitzgibbon Years


Mountshannon House was erected by Silver Oliver of Kilfinane where after many years of work the place was finally occupied in 1750. Soon after, the famous White family bought the estate and it came into Fitzgibbon ownership around 1765. John Fitzgibbon from Ballysheedy, a Catholic who had studied medicine in his youth, decided to change his profession and his religion to become a lawyer.


He converted to the Protestant faith because at that time Catholics were debarred from practicing in the Irish Courts. He amassed a great fortune and bought Mountshannon. Along with being a brilliant lawyer, having written many papers and books on law that made him very successful and wealthy, he was noted too for his humane treatment of his tenants, an honest man who preferred the privacy of his beloved Mountshannon to the public glare of the courts of justice and were it not for the shameful activities of his notorious offspring he might have been remembered with more honour and respect. When he died in 1780, his son John, later known as Black Jack, inherited Mountshannon.


Born in 1748 at Ballinguile House in Donnybrook, Dublin, he was educated at Trinity College and called to the bar. He entered politics in 1780 and soon made his mark, rising quickly to the position of Attorney General. In 1789 he was appointed Lord High Chancellor of Ireland. He was knighted in 1795, becoming the first Earl of Clare. But already success had gone to his head and he turned his back on the Irish and became much hated for his opposition to Catholic Emancipation and moreso for his part in putting down the rebellion of 1798. His well-recorded saying that he would make the Irish as tame as a mutilated cat evoked more hatred and bitterness towards him and he was in constant danger of being attacked.


On one occasion, when returning to his Dublin house in Ely Place, a dead cat was thrown into his carriage which was surrounded by a mob of several hundred, armed with clubs, forks, aledges and other implements. Luckily for Fitzgibbon, the mob dispersed on hearing of the approaching military, but not before his carriage was stoned and he received several head injuries. Following this escapade Black Jack had an iron fortress erected around his Dublin home. Even in Mountshannon he lived in constant fear and there was a further attempt made on his life when the mansion was attacked and one of his servants killed while defending the place.


Fitzgibbon's final sell-out of his country came when he backed the Act of Union which brought about the uniting of the Parliaments of Great Britain and Ireland and came into effect in 1801. His last act of treachery was to oppose the granting of civil liberties to Catholics. Following the Act of Union Lord Clare, as he was now titled, took his seat in the House of Lords. During a debate there in which Fitzgibbon ranted and raved, the great British statesman, William Pitt, was heard to remark, "Good God, did you ever in all your life hear such a rascal?" Pitt's famous remark is probably the most accurate and apt summing up of the character of Black Jack Fitzgibbon.


He soon found himself out of favour and unwanted even by the British who now saw him for what he was and even despised him for his betrayal of his own country. The pity was that Fitzgibbon, the ablest of politicians and a brilliant mind who had achieved the greatest honours possible for an Irishman then did not use his high position and influential status for the benefit of Ireland and his countrymen. But in his blind obsession with more power he rejected his nationality and lost sight of all integrity. His shameless pandering to gain favour with the British proved to be his eventual downfall.


In fairness to Fitzgibbon, however, it must be said that he was not completely devoid of human feeling and there were occasions when he showed a different and more pleasing side to his character. He was once in a duel with John Philpot Curran, when Fitzgibbon, a crack shot, fired wide of his opponent so as to spare his life. He was also instrumental in saving the lives of several of the United Irishmen after the rebellion of 1798. There were many more acts of mercy and good deeds attributed to the much-maligned Earl and it may be that he has been treated somewhat too harshly by history. But then history is a poor respecter of sentiment and, in Fitzgibbon's case, the scales weigh too heavily on the more unsavoury side of his career.


Dejected and disenchanted with the world of politics, Fitzgibbon retired to Mountshannon and busied himself with the running of the estate and there are many tales of his cruel treatment of the workers and tenants there.


Every year about a hundred women were employed to harvest the estate's huge corn plantation and Lord Clare himself supervised the work and was present there every morning and after satisfying himself that all the workers were present and everything was in order he would give the signal to commence work. He was in complete control and insisted that the day's toil should not begin unless he was present. What was not generally known was that Black Jack was an excellent farmer and several farming methods were initiated and used by him including his ingenious Liquid Manuring Scheme, by way of streams through the land farming skills that were to be copied and used by many generations of farmers.


One morning, after the Lord had wined and dined to excess the night before, he did not arise at his customary time to oversee the starting of work despite the appeals of his servants who informed him that the women workers were waiting and growing restless.


In a rage he ordered his servants to set the dogs on the workers and drive them off the estate. His orders were carried out and many of the women were savaged by the animals. One woman in particular was badly torn about the face. Later in the day, when Fitzgibbon had come to his senses and his better nature appealed to him, moved by remorse he sent his servants to bring back all the workers. Each woman was paid a full day's wages and given the rest of the day off. The woman with the badly injured face was given £1, a good amount of money at that time.


Following a fall from his horse at Mountshannon in the Christmas of 1801 Lord Clare was badly injured and, on the advice of his doctors, he set out to travel to the Continent for special treatment. He had only reached his Dublin house on the first leg of the journey when his condition deteriorated and he died on 28th January 1802 in his early fifties. He was buried at St. Peter's Church in Dublin where the bitterness and hatred he had once aroused surfaced again with the appearance of the dead cats thrown on his coffin and grave.


It was an ignominious finale for poor Fitzgibbon, the man who, in his relatively short life, had attained so much yet lost so much more. John Fitzgibbon is remembered in happier times in a life-sized portrait by the Dublin painter, Hugh Douglas Hamilton, showing the Earl in full dress and robes of office of Lord Chancellor of Ireland, complete with beautifully embroidered bag containing his seal of office and other important documents. The painting, the property of the National Gallery of Ireland, can be seen at Malahide Castle in County Dublin. Clare Street in Limerick and Dublin's Fitzgibbon Street commemorate his name.


The Second Earl


Black Jack's son, also named John Fitzgibbon, then became the second Earl of Clare and in 1803, just one year after taking over Mountshannon, he built a school for the education of the children of his estate workers. Here, in the little stone building, still there, opposite the present schoolhouse at Rich Hill, boys were taught reading and writing while the young girls, for some strange reason, were taught needlework only.


During his career the Earl spent much of his time in foreign parts and even became Governor of Bombay for some years. There is a story told locally of how, while on an inspection visit to the construction site of a new pier in Bombay, he recognised a face among the convicts carrying out the work. On questioning the man he found that he was a blacksmith from Lisnagry [a townland adjacent to Castleconnell] who had been transported five years previously for a minor transgression. Lord Clare had the man reprieved and immediately arranged for his free passage home to Ireland.


When the Earl died fifty years on his youngest brother, Richard, became the third Earl of Clare.


He represented the county and city of Limerick in parliament for many years. He was noted for his many acts of charity and his concern for the poor was well known to whom he constantly supplied food from the estate and firewood from his woods. He also contributed handsomely on several occasions to the building of the Catholic Church in Castleconnell. His son, John Charles Henry Fitzgibbon, died at Ballaclava in 1854 while leading his troop of Royal Irish Hussars in the famous charge of the Light Brigade. A statue to his memory was erected on the Wellesley Bridge (now Sarsfield Bridge) in Limerick city but was destroyed in an explosion in 1930. The site is now occupied by the 1916 Memorial.


Decline and Fall


Lady Louisa Georgina Fitzgibbon, a sister of the Viscount and daughter of the third Lord Clare, came into possession of Mountshannon on the death of her father. She was a very extravagant and over-charitable woman who gave lavish banquets and balls at the mansion to which all the aristocracy and landed gentry from Limerick and neighbouring counties were invited...


But the world of reality eventually took control as Lady Louisa frittered away the Fitzgibbon fortune and ran up huge debts in an effort to keep up the grand lifestyle to which she had become accustomed. She became engaged to a Sicilian nobleman, The Marquis Della Rochella, thinking his wealth would rescue her from financial ruin, only to discover that her betroth was himself almost penniless and was marrying her for the same reason.


During a sumptuous party in the mansion to announce their engagement the sheriff arrived to seize some of the mansion's valuable effects. Two large paintings hanging in the main hall were among the items earmarked for confiscation, but were found to have holes burned through the canvas when the sheriff's men were removing them. The restored and still very valuable pictures were in later years hung in the hall of Dublin Castle. It was on this occasion that the Marquis discovered that Lady Louisa, like himself, was bankrupt but, noble gentleman that he was, he went ahead with the marriage - even if it was a misguided union.


The Marquis, unaccustomed to the Irish climate, fell into bad health and died a few years later, still pining for his native sunny Sicily. Still struggling to keep face, Lady Louisa was forced to sell much of the contents of the mansion including the priceless collection of books from the family library. Soon the lavish entertainment, the sumptuous feasting and the glittering balls were all gone and the magic that once was Mountshannon disappeared. Gone too were Lady Louisa's wealthy friends, leaving her at the mercy of her creditors who quickly foreclosed on her and she was forced to sell the mansion and the estate.


Lady Louisa left Mountshannon in 1887 and went to live in the Isle of Wight at St. Dominic's Convent where she spent the rest of her life. When she died some years later she was buried in the convent grounds. The remains of a public water fountain, erected by Lady Louisa, can be seen at Carrowkeel near Annacotty, and a chalice presented by her to the parish in 1863 was in the possession of the Presentation Sisters in Castleconnell. The powerful Fitzgibbon line that had stretched across one hundred and twenty years at Mountshannon had finally ended.


Last Days of a Great House


The next owner of Mountshannon was an Irishman, Thomas Nevins, who had made a large fortune in America and returned to Ireland with his wife and three daughters and purchased the mansion and estate. For the Nevins, who were a decent and honest Catholic family, their years at Mountshannon were fraught with trouble and ill-luck, so much so that people said the curse that many believed was on the place must surely have touched on these unfortunate people.


One of the daughters married a Dublinman named William Doyle but the marriage soon broke up and she returned to her parents at Mountshannon expecting a baby. The baby was stillborn and the unfortunate girl died during the delivery. Her husband, William, could not be found and the girl's father, not wishing to carry out the burial until he could be traced, had her remains and that of her baby placed in a little house which had at one time served as a cold storage building where meat and other perishable foods were kept. Doyle, however, never returned and it was learned later that he had left the country.


Shortly after, poor Tom Nevins, like Lord Clare before him was thrown from his horse while riding through the estate and died a few months after from his injuries. His body was also placed in the Cooling House, as was his wife's who died some years later the little building had by then become the family burial chamber. Over the years the vault had been savagely desecrated on many occasions, the lead from the caskets stolen and some of the remains scattered outside the vault. When one of the skulls was found on the roadside near Rich Hill it was decided to brick up the vault entrance permanently. So at last the tragic Nevins family rest undisturbed and entombed in what was once the cold storage house for Mountshannon Mansion.


A Corkman, Dermot O'Hannigan was the last owner of Mountshannon and in 1921, during the War of Independence, in a spectacular and devastating fire, the flames of which could be seen, it is said, from many parts of Limerick city and county, the beautiful mansion was burned to the ground. The estate was eventually taken over by the Land Commission and divided up into several farm holdings. Little remains of Mountshannon Mansion today but the ivy-clad shell of the great house, its four columns at the entrance still stand defiantly against the elements and even time itself, like some battle-scarred warriors still guarding the faded remnants of a grandeur that is no more.

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