Monday, 29 May 2017

Curraghchase and the search for
the elusive Lady Clara Vere de Vere

The house at Curraghchase was the home of the Hunt and de Vere family for almost three centuries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017; click on image for full-screen view)

Patrick Comerford

During the weekend, I went for a walk at Curraghchase Forest Park, through the woods and around the lake, stopping for coffee in the De Vere Café and to see the once great-stately home which has inspired poets and writers through the generations.

Curraghchase is just 6 km east of the Rectory in Askeaton, but this was my first time to visit it since I moved here four months ago. It lies half-way between Askeaton and Adare and about 20 km west of Limerick City. The forest park covers about 3 sq km (774 acres) and includes a number of interesting archaeological remain as well as tourist trails and a popular camping and caravan park.

For almost 300 years, this was the family estate of the Hunt and de Vere families. Many generations of the family are buried in the churchyard at Saint Mary’s, Askeaton, and the family including the de Vere baronets and the poet Aubrey Thomas de Vere.

The house was probably built on the site of Curragh Castle, which is mentioned in the late mediaeval Desmond Roll and was originally owned by John FitzGerald. In 1657, the estate became the property of Vere Hunt, who acquired vast tracts of land in Co Limerick and Co Tipperary in the mid-17th century. He was an officer in Cromwell’s army in Ireland and claimed indirect descent from the Earls of Oxford, who traced their ancestry back to Aubrey de Vere in the reign of William the Conqueror.

The estate continued in the hands of the Hunt and de Vere family for almost 300 years. In 1703, John Hunt expanded the family estates with further land acquisitions and purchases in Co Limerick.

A descendant of this family, Sir Vere Hunt (1761-1818), was given the title of baronet in 1784, the year he married Elinor Pery, a sister of the 1st Earl of Limerick. At the Act of Union, he was the last sitting MP for the Borough of Askeaton.

His son, Sir Aubrey Hunt, who succeeded as the second baronet, changed his surname to de Vere in 1832, becoming Sir Aubrey de Vere. When he changed his surname by royal licence to reflect his descent from the de Veres of Oxford, he also changed the name of the family house and estate from Curragh to Curraghchase.

The house at Curraghchase was rebuilt for Sir Aubrey de Vere by the Regency architect Amon Henry Wilds in 1829 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The existing house dates from the early 19th century, when it was rebuilt by Sir Aubrey de Vere. The new house was designed in 1829 by the fashionable Regency architect Amon Henry Wilds (1784-1857).

Wilds was an English architect who also worked on Pery Square in Limerick. Wilds was part of a team of three architects and builders who are better known for developing Brighton in the early 19th century, with the houses, hotels, churches and social venues that give Brighton its distinctive Regency character.

This was a detached, 11-bay two-storey over half-basement house, built ca 1750, with two adjoining fronts, the shorter one dating to the 18th century, the longer front dating from ca 1829.

Walking through the woods at Curraghchase at the weekend (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Sir Aubrey was a poet and a friend of the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), who was a regular guest at Curraghchase and wrote the poem ‘Lady Clara Vere de Vere,’ still famed for the lines:

Kind hearts are more than coronets,
and simple faith than Norman blood.


It is said that Tennyson wrote the poem to show his close friendship with the family. But the poem shows disdain for the fictitious Lady Clara, her aloof airs and her snobbery – indeed, no baronet would have claimed a coronet and no baronet’s daughter would have called herself ‘Lady Clara.’ Tennyson shows his contempt for these pretensions by dropping her assumed title in the last two stanzas.

Of course, there never was a Lady Clara Vere de Vere. But earlier maps show a ‘Lady’s Island’ on the lake below the house at Curraghchase. During one visit, Tennyson told of seeing the mystic arm of the ‘Lady of the Lake’ thrust above the waters. A century and a half later, it still said that on Christmas Eve each year, the burning figure of a woman can be seen floating along the waters of the lake.

Lines from Sir Aubrey de Vere in the De Vere Café at Curraghchade (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Sir Aubrey married Mary Rice of Mount Trenchard, Co Limerick, and they had five sons. When his eldest son and successor, the third baronet, Sir Vere Edmond de Vere (1808-1880), died without a male heir, the tile passed to his next brother, Sir Stephen Edward de Vere (1812-1904), the fourth and last baronet.

As a student, Stephen de Vere was influenced by the Oxford Movement, and in 1847 he became a Roman Catholic. That year, at the height of the famine, the future Sir Stephen sailed on a ‘coffin ship’ with emigrants to North America to see the conditions that were causing the deaths of so many passengers.

In the 1850s, Stephen built a smaller house on Foynes Island in the River Shannon, adjacent to the port town of Foynes, about 20 km (12 miles) east of Curraghchase. There he wrote poems, political pamphlets and translated several editions of the works of Horace, considered by some as the best English translation of Horace's verses.

He was a Liberal MP for Co Limerick (1854-1859), and was High Sheriff of Co Limerick in 1870. He built Saint Senanus Church, a Gothic church in Foynes designed by JJ McCarthy, and is buried beside it. On his death in 1904 the family title of baronet died out too.

His younger brother, the poet Aubrey Thomas de Vere (1814-1902), was a poet and critic too. The younger Aubrey recalled that in his youth the lake at the bottom of the house was a rich meadow when he was in his youth. A slender stream divided this meadow. Across the lake, a monument to the de Vere family stands on a small hill. Near the house, there is a small cemetery for the de Vere family pets.

Aubrey de Vere’s work was influenced by his decision to follow his brother and to leave the Church of Ireland for the Roman Catholic Church in 1851. He was a prolific writer, and his Poetical Works were published in six volumes in 1884. He is best known for A Lyrical Chronicle of Ireland (1862) and his Famine relief tract, English Misrule and Irish Misdeeds (1848).

‘Little Heaven’ ... where Aubrey de Vere meditated (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The younger Aubrey recalled that the lake at the bottom of the house was a rich meadow when he was in his youth. A stone seat behind the house is marked as the place where he sat for hours and meditated. He died at Curraghchase on 21 January 1902, at the age of 88, and was buried in Saint Mary’s Churchyard, Askeaton.

Neither Sir Stephen Edward de Vere nor his younger brother Aubrey Thomas de Vere had children, and so when they died the family title died out too. Meanwhile, the family estates had passed to their nephews Aubrey Vere O’Brien, who inherited Curragh Chase in 1898 and assumed the name de Vere in 1899, and Robert Vere O’Brien, who inherited the farm on Foynes Island.

In 1906, the house at Curraghchase was home to Henrietta L de Vere. By the 1930s, it was the home of Robert Stephen Vere de Vere (1872-1936). He was born Robert Stephen Vere O’Brien but 1899 his name was legally changed by royal licence to Robert Stephen Vere de Vere, so that the de Vere name would continue at Curraghchase. He was a son-in-law of Bishop Handley Moule of Durham, Chief Justice of Seychelles (1928-1931) and Chief Justice of Grenada (1931-1935).

The main entrance to the estate at Curraghchase (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The house at Curraghchase was accidentally destroyed by fire in December 1941. The house has been derelict ever since, and in 1957 the grounds were bought by the State in 1957. The property is now used for commercial timber, with tourist trails, and a popular camping and caravan park.

Although the fire severely damaged Curraghchase, the house retains much of its original fabric, such as its limestone sills and decorative window surrounds. Its imposing size and austere appearance make a notable impression on the surrounding landscape. The surviving outbuildings and yard at the rear of the house add context to the site.

From the house, we walked down to the artificial lake, on the east side of the house. But there was no sign of the Lady of the Lake or of Lady Clara de Vere. Instead, a pair of swans were carefully tending their signets on the lake, while ducks were nestling in the warm early summer sunshine on the edge of the lake.

‘The lion on your old stone gates / Is not more cold to you than I’ … a side entrance to Curraghchase (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Lady Clara Vere de Vere, by Alfred Lord Tennyson

Lady Clara Vere de Vere,
Of me you shall not win renown:
You thought to break a country heart
For pastime, ere you went to town.
At me you smiled, but unbeguiled
I saw the snare, and I retired:
The daughter of a hundred Earls,
You are not one to be desired.

Lady Clara Vere de Vere,
I know you proud to bear your name,
Your pride is yet no mate for mine,
Too proud to care from whence I came.
Nor would I break for your sweet sake
A heart that dotes on truer charms.
A simple maiden in her flower
Is worth a hundred coats-of-arms.

Lady Clara Vere de Vere,
Some meeker pupil you must find,
For were you queen of all that is,
I could not stoop to such a mind.
You sought to prove how I could love,
And my disdain is my reply.
The lion on your old stone gates
Is not more cold to you than I.

Lady Clara Vere de Vere,
You put strange memories in my head.
Not thrice your branching limes have blown
Since I beheld young Laurence dead.
Oh your sweet eyes, your low replies:
A great enchantress you may be;
But there was that across his throat
Which you had hardly cared to see.

Lady Clara Vere de Vere,
When thus he met his mother’s view,
She had the passions of her kind,
She spake some certain truths of you.
Indeed I heard one bitter word
That scarce is fit for you to hear;
Her manners had not that repose
Which stamps the caste of Vere de Vere.

Lady Clara Vere de Vere,
There stands a spectre in your hall:
The guilt of blood is at your door:
You changed a wholesome heart to gall.
You held your course without remorse,
To make him trust his modest worth,
And, last, you fixed a vacant stare,
And slew him with your noble birth.

Trust me, Clara Vere de Vere,
From yon blue heavens above us bent,
The gardener Adam and his wife
Smile at the claims of long descent.
Howe’er it be, it seems to me,
’Tis only noble to be good.
Kind hearts are more than coronets,
And simple faith than Norman blood.

I know you, Clara Vere de Vere;
You pine among your halls and towers:
The languid light of your proud eyes
Is wearied of the rolling hours.
In glowing health, with boundless wealth,
But sickening of a vague disease,
You know so ill to deal with time,
You needs must play such pranks as these.

Clara, Clara Vere de Vere,
If Time be heavy on your hands,
Are there no beggars at your gate,
Nor any poor about your lands?
Oh! teach the orphan-boy to read,
Or teach the orphan-girl to sew,
Pray Heaven for a human heart,
And let the foolish yeoman go.

The house at Curraghchase seen from the lake (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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