06 March 2017

Visiting Cahermoyle House,
a Venetian-style palazzo in
the Co Limerick countryside

Cahermoyle House near Newcastle West … once the home of the family of William Smith O’Brien (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

I am still finding my way around the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of parishes, exploring the towns and villages, coming across graveyards and disused churches I have yet to learn the story of, and travelling up side roads and bohereens that end up in farmyards or flooded fields.

Two of us were on our way to Newcastle West late last week when we decided to visit Cahermoyle House, halfway between Rathkeale and Newcastle West, just outside the village of Ardagh.

Ardagh has given its name to the Ardagh Chalice and the Ardagh Hoard which were found near here almost 150 years ago in 1868. Rathronan Church was the parish church of the O’Brien family who once lived at Cahermoyle House, and I also wanted to see the house as one of the great works by the architect James Joseph McCarthy (1817-1882), who inherited the mantle of AWN Pugin in the Gothic revival in Ireland.

JJ McCarthy was born in Dublin on 6 January 1817, and is said to have been apprenticed at an early age to William Farrell, and may have worked in England for Charles Hansom (1817-1888).

From 1846, he started to make a name for himself in Dublin as a Church architect working in the Gothic revival, and in 1849 he was a founder member of the Irish Ecclesiological Society. He became Professor of Ecclesiastical Architecture at All Hallows’ Missionary College, Dublin, Professor of Architecture at the Catholic University of Ireland, and Professor of Architecture in the Royal Hibernian Academy.

He supervised Pugin’s Fitzpatrick mortuary chapel in Clough, Co Laois, and when Pugin died in 1852 he took over the completion of many of his unfinished works in Ireland, including his cathedrals in Killarney and Enniscorthy, his church for Anthony Cliffe in Bellevue, Co Wexford, and his work at Saint Patrick’s College, Maynooth. He also took over Richard Pierce’s work on the ‘Twin Churches’ in Wexford after Pierce died in 1854.

For much of his career, McCarthy worked from 32 Great Brunswick Street (1846-1855) and 183 Great Brunswick Street (1861-1881). McCarthy died on 6 February 1882 at Charleston House, his home in Rathmines.

McCarthy’s monumental works include his cathedrals in Armagh, Cobh, Derry, Ennis, Monaghan and Thurles. His works in the Limerick area include Saint Saviour’s Dominican Church in Baker’s Place, Limerick, and Roman Catholic parish churches in Foynes, Kilmallock, Newcastle West and Rathkeale.

Cahermoyle House near Newcastle West … one of the few works of domestic architecture by JJ McCarthy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

But Croom House and Cahermoyle House are probably his only two private houses in Co Limerick. Cahermoyle House was designed in what has been described as the ‘North Italian style’ for Edward W. O’Brien, son and heir of the patriot and politician William Smith O’Brien (1803-1864).

Cahermoyle means ‘the stone fort of the soft ground.’ About one-third of the circular stone wall of the Caher, probably dating back 2,000 years, still survives 100 metres west of the house. Cahermoyle became the property of the Norman FitzGeralds shortly after the arrival of the Anglo-Normans at the end of the 12th century.

After the Desmond rebellion and forfeitures in 1583, Cahermoyle escaped because it was part of the dowry of the rebel earl’s daughter, Lady Catherine FitzGerald, who had married Sir Daniel O’Brien of Carrigaholt, Co Clare.

John Bourke, a wealthy merchant who rented Cahermoyle, was MP for Askeaton in the Parliament of James II. He died there in 1702 and is buried in the Bourke vault in Ardagh.

Sir Edward O’Brien, 4th Baronet, of Dromoland Castle, Co Clare, married Charlotte Smith, the heir to Cahermoyle, in 1799, and eventually Cahermoyle was inherited by her younger son, William Smith O’Brien. His elder brother, Sir Lucius O’Brien (1800-1872), would succeed as 13th Lord Inchiquin in 1855, while his sister, Mother Harriet Monsell, was a leading figure in the revival of women’s religious communities in the Anglican tradition.

William Smith O’Brien was educated at Harrow and Trinity College Cambridge, and was the Conservative MP for Ennis, Co Clare (1828-1831) and then for Co Limerick (1835-1849). In 1832, he married Lucy Gabbett of High Park, Co Limerick, a daughter of William Gabbett, Tory Mayor of Limerick (1819-1820).

Inside Cahermoyle House, home of the O’Brien family until the 1920s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

But after a radical shift in politics, O’Brien became a leading figure in the Young Ireland revolution in 1848. When he was defeated at the Battle of Ballingarry, Co Tipperary, he was arrested, convicted of treason, and sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered. However, his was sentence commuted to penal servitude for life, and he was exiled to Tasmania.

In the early 1850s, while he was still in exile, his mother’s estate in Co Limerick included lands in the parishes of Clonagh, Kilscannell, Nantinan and Rathkeale in the Barony of Connelloe Lower, Ardagh and Rathronan in the Barony of Shanid, Ardagh and Killeedy in the Barony of Glenquin, Cloncagh in the Barony of Connello Upper, and Effin in the Barony of Coshma.

O’Brien was pardoned in 1856, the same year his mother died. After some years in Paris, he returned to Cahermoyle. He had expected to regain the house and lands, which he placed in trust for his wife and their eldest son, Edward O’Brien, before the Battle of Ballingarry. However, Edward did not support his father’s nationalist commitments and William never regained Cahermoyle. He lived there until his wife’s death and then moved to Bangor in Wales where he died in 1864.

His body was brought back to Ireland on the mail boat. From the North Wall in Dublin he was brought along the quays to Kingsbridge, by train to Limerick, and to Cahermoyle by hearse drawn by four white horses. On the following day, 12 Church of Ireland and 24 Roman Catholic priests led the cortege to Rathronan cemetery where he was buried. At one point, contemporary reports said, the cortege stretched two miles all the way from Rathronan back to Cahermoyle.

In the 1870s, Edward O’Brien’s estate amounted to 4,990 acres. In the early 1871, he commissioned McCarthy to design a new house, replacing the earlier house that had been inherited through his grandmother, the Dowager Lady O’Brien.

Cahermoyle House shows how JJ McCarthy was strongly influenced by John Ruskin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

McCarthy designed Cahermoyle House in the style a Venetian palazzo, with the influences of Venetian, Tuscan, Lombardic Romanesque and Gothic styles, popularised in these islands by John Ruskin. One local historian has written that the house would look more in place by a canal in Venice than in its remote rural setting.

The emerging Irish Revival is significantly highlighted in the use of Irish limestone and indigenous craftsmanship. The house combines rusticated and domesticated limestone and sandstone, with carved limestone decorative, features, ballustrades, window frames, quoins and dressed limestone eaves.

A strong element of technical skill can be seen in the rough-hewn masonry, and there is a clear decorative emphasis in the structural polycromy. Features such as balustrades, arches and columns are carried from outside to the interior of the house, adding to its grandeur.

A typical reception room at Cahermoyle House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Cahermoyle House is a detached, four-bay, two-storey former country house, dated 1871, and completed in 1875. It has a square-plan single-bay, single-storey, flat-roofed porch to the east or front elevation.

There is a single-bay, three-storey block to the north elevation, with a full-height canted bay window and a single-bay single-storey projecting bay with a cut limestone balustrade to the top of the south elevation.

The house has a multiple-bay, two-storey block to the rear or west elevation, with a single-storey projecting arcade having a cut limestone balustrade to the south elevation.

Milking maids and hunting scenes with horses and hounds decorate the column capitals in the lobby at Cahermoyle House (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The entrance to the house is through the east elevation. Inside, there is a double-height lobby, with a central square with ambulatory to the ground and first floors, divided from the lobby by rendered arcades with column capitals, depicting different scenes, including cows and milkmaids, hunting dogs and boars.

The rendered balustrade incorporates marble columns to the first floor. The staircase begins at the west end and is incorporated into a section of the arcade.

There are timber panelled doors to the reception rooms. The ceiling in the front reception room has timber battened panels and a carved timber cornice. The ceiling in the library has timber framework with decoratively painted render panels and a stencilled timber cornice.

There are modern extensions to the north elevation. At the entrance gates, there is an inscribed limestone plinth to a pier with a bronze moulding of William Smith O’Brien. The inscription reads:

Cahermoyle, home of William Smith O’Brien MP 1803-1864. Leader of the Young Ireland rising 1848. ‘That dear old brown house with its ivied keep haunted by ghosts and grim and dismal tales’.

The arts and crafts style ceiling in a reception room at Cahermoyle House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Cahermoyle House was sold by the O’Brien family in 1919, and it was bought in 1922 by the Oblate Order. It became a novitiate, and the Oblates later added an extra 20 rooms to the house, a refectory and community rooms, and a chapel, and they ran a model farm.

McCarthy’s loggia and the later chapel at Cahermoyle House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

During my visit to Cahermoyle last week, I was not able to visit the cruciform-plan one-and-half storey chapel adjoining the south elevation. This chapel has a five-bay nave, single-bay chancel, and square-profile single-storey transepts to the east and west elevations.

As many as 30 Oblate students were there in the 1950s. However, falling vocations farced the Oblates to sell Cahermoyle and the surrounding lands. The farm was sold in separate lots and Cahermoyle House is now a nursing home.

The O’Briens of Cahermoyle worshipped in nearby Rathronan Church, and William Smith O’Brien is buried in the churchyard.

A younger son of William Smith O’Brien was the Very Revd Lucius Henry O’Brien (1842-1913), Dean of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick (1905-1913), who is commemorated in the cathedral in a pair of stained-glass windows by Catherine O’Brien. Dean O’Brien’s sister, Lucy Josephine (O’Brien) Gwynn (1840-1907), was the mother of the Revd Professor Robert Malcolm Gwynn (1877-1962).

Looking out onto the countryside surrounding Cahermoyle House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)


Unknown said...

Thank you for that interesting account of cahermoyle and w s o brien. I have just come across an interesting letter of April 1857 to John George Adair, who was campaigning for the Limerick County Seat, and has sought o brien's backing. O Brien did not commit himself to such support but did praise Adair for his role in the Irish Council of 1847 and for having testified in favour of Charles Gavan Duffy at his trial in 1849. So an interesting letter giving insight to the earlier career of J G Adair, now generally only known for his notorious evictions at Derryveagh in 1861.
raymond blair

Unknown said...

Thank you for posting this. My ancestor Owen Ahern was the head gardner for William Smith O'Brien. I was fortunate enough to visit the home a little over 10 years ago with my family. What a blessing!

Tim Ahern
Westlake Village, California
805 390-3559

Mags said...

What was the actual year the house was built originally?

Patrick Comerford said...


Unknown said...

How can I get information about the staff of the house circa 1901? I have reason to believe that my great grandfather was the land steward at that time but lost his position in 1905.

Patrick Comerford said...

Perhaps you might search the 1901 census, Patrick

JohnnyLocksmith1 said...

Patrick, I admire your writing. From some of your previous posts I learned, if I'm not mistaken, that you were Vicar of the C of I church in Rathkeale. Given your interest in the history of that region, I wonder if you have any suggestions for me in trying to trace a family (incoveniently) named Smith. My great-great grandfather, Robert Alexander Smith, born in 1826, gave his birthplace in British Army records variously as Rathkeale and "Reencross" (which I believe to be Reen's Crossing, a little over 4 km west of Rathkeale). Family accounts cite his place of origin as Ardagh. I've been told there are no surviving parish records from either the Roman Catholic or C of I churches in Rathkeale. Is that correct? I believe Robert was likely a Protestant as he was married by a Protestant army chaplain in Malta at the age of 22 and subsequently received a battlefield promotion from Serjeant Major to Ensign during the Crimean War. I saw online that there is a house that was on sale a few years ago called Reens House - built around 1810 - at Reen's Crossing. A national architectural heritage site says there may be some connections between this house and the Smith O'Brien family of Cahermoyle (which is a little over 7 km from Reen's Crossing). When I passed through Reen's Crossing about five years ago it looked as though there were fewer than a dozen structures in the vicinity. I'm guessing that when my ancestor was born in 1826 Reen's House might have been the only one. I wonder if there's any chance the occupants of Reen's House in the 1820s could have been a less prosperous branch of the Cahermoyle Smiths. Any suggestions on avenues for further research? Professional genealogists point to the lack of parish records and the number of Smiths in County Limerick and say I'll never figure it out. Regards, John 1-703-638-2108