26 July 2021
Ballykeel House, Kilfenora,
a former Comerford home
on the edge of the Burren
Saint Fachan’s Cathedral in Kilfenora, Co Clare, is one of the many cathedrals in the Diocese of Limerick and Killaloe. Although it no longer functions as a cathedral, it remains one of the churches in the Ennis Group of Parishes.
I have visited Kilfenora and the cathedral, with its unique collection of high crosses, since moving to this diocese in early 2017.
But for many people, Kilfenora is associated with either the Kilfenora Ceilí Band or with the television comedy series Father Ted (1995-1998), which filmed many scenes and episodes in Kilfenora as an important filming location. Indeed, Kilfenora is so closely linked with the television comedy that it has often hosted a ‘Father Ted Festival.’
Kilfenora is the gateway to the Burren and is also one of the oldest urban settlements in Co Clare. However, I wanted to return to Kilfenora as part of this year’s summer ‘road trips’ to visit Ballykeel House, or Ballykeale House, just outside the town.
This house was home to a number of generations of the Comerford family. This branch of the Comerford family were merchants in Galway, but they were also closely associated with the tragic events in Kinvara, Co Galway, during the Famine years in the mid-19th century, which I recalled in a blog posting on Sunday evening.
So, after visiting Kinvara and the former Comerford home at Delamaine Lodge, two of us set off through Ballyvaughan and Lisdoonvara to visit Kilfenora and Ballykeel House.
Ballykeel House is a sharp contrast to Comerford Lodge at Spanish Point, another Comerford family home I have visited in recent weeks. Ballykeel House was one of the few ‘big houses’ in north-west Clare. It is said the many guests there over the last two centuries include Daniel O’Connell and Éamon de Valera.
Ballykeel House was originally built by George Lysaght of Woodmount, Ennistymon, in the late 18th century, and George Lysaght was living there in 1814.
Samuel Lewis, in his Topographical Directory, refers to Ballykeale as the seat of the Lysaght family but that a Mrs Fitzgerald was living there in 1837. Two years later, Ballykeel House was bought in 1839 by Henry Comerford (1796-1861), the Galway merchant who almost bankrupted himself and his family by buying the Kinvara estate from Sir William Gregory.
Henry Comerford’s younger daughter, Henrietta Emily Comerford (1837-1881), married Isaac Breen Daly (1835-1871) in 1858, and Henrietta’s father seems to have lived briefly at Ballykeel House in 1861. However, Ballykeel House was inherited by Henry’s eldest daughter, Mary Josephine (1827-1862), who married Captain Francis Blake Forster (1817-1881), High Sheriff of Co Galway in 1878.
Mary Josephine (Comerford) Blake-Forster died on 2 December 1862, but Ballykeel House continued to descend through her descendants in generation of the Blake-Forster family.
Her son, Captain Francis O’Donnellan Blake-Forster (1853-1912), lived in Ballykeel House, Kilfenora, and at Castle Forster, Kinvara, Co Galway. He married Marcella Johnson (1852-1917), in Saint Andrew’s Church, Dublin, in 1879. She was the eldest daughter of Robert Johnson of Arran View, Doolin, Co Clare, and the heiress of Admiral Sir Burton Macnamara.
Francis O’Donnellan Blake-Foster was living in the house in 1906. When he died in 1912, the house was inherited by his son, The O’Donnellan (‘Donie’) Blake-Forster (1886-1938). In 1934, he married Julia Conole (1903-1998), daughter of Michael and Bridget Conole, shopkeepers in Kilfenora.
The O’Donnellan Blake-Forster died in 1938, and Julia Blake Forster was still living in the 1940s, when the paintings in the house are listed in a file in the Irish Tourist Association.
Ballykeel House is a classical house of cut stone with a central bow. It is a detached, five-bay, two-storey over basement house, with three-bay full-height bowed sections at the centre of both the front façade and the rear of the house.
The entrance has a prostyle diastyle Tuscan portico that is approached by a curved flight of steps. Tuscan columns flank the timber panelled door with a simple entablature above.
There are tripartite window openings in the garden front and timber sliding sash windows, although some windows were replaced ca1990.
The house has cut-limestone walls with raised architraves, aprons at the ground floor windows and string course at the sill level on the first floor of bow. There are curved cut-limestone walls in the basement area and at the steps leading up to the entrance. There are four cast-iron chute covers at the cellars with high relief motifs. The flagged basent area has cut-stone vaulted recesses in the external retaining wall.
The house was reroofed in recent years. This is a hipped artificial slate roof with rendered chimneystacks and a moulded eaves course.
A detached, single-bay two-storey gable-fronted outbuilding has pinnacles and eight-bay side elevations. A detached four-bay single-storey byre in now in ruins. It had segmental-arched openings.
The gateway at the front has four cut-limestone piers with curved walls and a pair of square-headed pedestrian gates set in the curved walls.
In recent years, the late Ann Marcella Mellett (née Blake-Forster), a teacher, lived there until she died on 24 August 2018. Her husband Fachtna Mellett, continued to live at the house.
Ballykeel House came to national attention in 1988 when Fachna Mellett accidentally unearthed a flat stone near the house and uncovered a skeleton. The skeleton lay on its back facing the east. His hands were laying by his side, and he had a full set of teeth.
The site was excavated by the Office of Public Works and the radio-carbon date for the skeleton was given as ca 400 AD. This is 32 years before the traditional arrival of Saint Patrick in Ireland, and the site is about 0.5 km from Kilfenora Cathedral.
Was this a Christian burial? Had Christianity a presence in Kilfenora before Saint Patrick? The find gave increasing strength to the argument that Kilfenora is one of the oldest settlements in Co Clare.