08 August 2017

A return visit to Millstreet
in search of family stories

Drishane Castle, near Millstreet, Co Cork, dates from the 15th century, and was a convent for most of the 20th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017; click on image for full-screen view)

Patrick Comerford

I had plans at the weekend to attend the open day at Glin Castle on Sunday afternoon. However, a telephone conversation with my cousin Dick Barrett brought a surprise invitation to visit Millstreet, Co Cork.

Although my mother was from Millstreet and my grandmother and many of my ancestors on that side of the family are buried in Millstreet and in the cemetery at Drishane Castle, I have seldom visited Millstreet.

Any time I visited Millstreet, I was welcomed by uncles, aunts and cousins, and although I have dim childhood memories of staying with the extended family, it is a part of my background with which I have little familiarity. A holiday weekend visit to Millstreet offered an opportunity to redress the past.

The first place two of us stopped to visit was Drishane Castle and the cemetery there with the grave of my grandmother, Maria (Crowley) Murphy, who died 60 years ago on 8 July 1957 at the age of 72. Her husband, my grandfather, Thomas Michael ‘Corduroy’ Murphy, died in Australia on 10 September 1949, at the age of 67, and is buried in Mackay, Queensland.

As I child, I had been told that this grandmother had expected this grandfather to buy Drishane Castle when it was being sold by the Wallis family, and so I also visited Drishane Castle on Sunday afternoon.

The first castle at Drishane was by the MacCarthy family in the mid-15th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Drishane Castle is north-east of Millstreet, near where the Finnow river flows into the Blackwater. The original castle is a tower house 22 metres tall. It is built of stone with four storeys, with narrow arrow-slits, crenellations on the roof, and a small circular tower next to the castle.

The original Drishane Castle is a tower-house built by the MacCarthy (Mac Cárthaigh) clan ca between 1436 and 1450.It was probably built in the mid-15th century by Dermot Mór McCarthy, the second son of Tadhg MacCarthy, Lord of Muskerry (1390-1428), and a direct descendant of Diarmuid, King of Cork.

Dermot Mór McCarthy is also said to have built the castles at Kilmeedy and Carrigaphooca, while his brother, Cormac Láidir MacCarthy, built Blarney Castle and Kilcrea Castle. Dermot Mór died in 1448, and Drishane was probably completed by his son, another Dermot MacCarthy.

The genealogy of the MacCarthy family is confusing. The Christian names are often repeated, and different accounts of the Drishane branch of the family vary considerably. For example, it is often said that there were two centenarians in the family, both named Donogh. However, the evidence suggests there may have been only one centenarian: the second Donogh MacCarthy, who is buried in the grounds of Drishane Castle, lived from 1597 to 1719, and died at the age of 122.

Teige MacCarthy, the son of Owen MacCarthy, owned Drishane Castle in 1592, when he surrendered it to Queen Elizabeth I and received it back in a re-grant. Teige MacCarthy died around 1624.

His son, Owen Mac Teige MacCarthy, held Drishane Castle when he died in 1637, and the castle was inherited by his son, Donogh MacOwen MacCarthy, the centenarian. He was over 40 at the time, and had married Kathleen Fitzgerald, who also died in 1637. He probably married a second time.

Owen MacCarthy had at least four brothers, Callaghan, Donogh, Phelim and Dermot; this Dermot MacCarthy was killed leading a squadron of horse at the battle of Knockbrack in 1652, fighting the Cromwellian Parliamentarian forces. A year earlier, in 1641, Drishane Castle was garrisoned by the supporters of King Charles I. All the MacCarthy lands were forfeited by the Cromwelliams after the Irish Confederate Wars (1641-1653).

When Charles II was restored in 1660, the MacCarthy lands were recovered by Donough MacCarty, 1st Earl of Clancarty. He was the head of the MacCarthy family, and in 1677 he granted a lease of Drishane Castle to Donogh MacCarthy, with a proviso that Donogh settled what was due to Dominic Coppinger for the mortgages previously raised on the estate.

After the Jacobite and Williamite Wars (1688-1691), the MacCarthys lost their lands at Drishane once again. Drishane was acquired by the Hollow Sword Blade Company, which had helped to finance the campaign of William of Orange in Ireland. In 1709, Drishane was sold to Henry Wallis of Ballyduff, Co Waterford, a younger son of Thomas of Curraglass, Mogeely, Co Cork.

The Drishane estate was acquired by the Wallis family in the early 18th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The Wallis family was living at at Curraglass, since 1596, and there are suggestions that the family connection with Drishane may date from the mid-17th century. Renovations were carried out at the castle in 1643, according to the date on a fireplace, and this bears the inscription ‘W’, perhaps suggesting the name ‘Wallis’.

It is also suggested that Wallis family had a friendship with Donogh MacCarthy, who allowed the Wallises to live in peace at Drishane during his lifetime. Another account says Donogh MacCarthy demised part of the land to Henry Wallis.

Donogh MacCarthy died in 1719, and in 1722 and 1724 his widow leased her part of the remaining lands to Thomas Wallis. In 1703, Thomas Wallis of Curraglass bought part of the estate in the Barony of Muskerry, Co Cork, that once belonged to the Earls of Clancarty, and the Wallis family took full ownership of Drishane castle and the lands in 1728.

Henry Wallis’s daughter, Elizabeth Wallis of Drishane, Co Cork, married her cousin, George Wallis of Curraglass, in 1721, and their eldest son, also Henry Wallis, inherited Drishane.

Under provisions for ‘discovery’ in the Penal Laws, the Wallis family bought what remained of Drishane for £450 in 1728, although it was valued at £8,000. This led to a local tradition that Donogh MacCarthy’s widow died on the doorstep of the castle from exposure. In reality, the transaction may have been to clarify the entire matter because of claims to the property by the widow’s relatives, the MacCarthy-O’Leary family.

When Dr Smith wrote his History of Cork in 1750, he noted that there was a handsome new house near the castle built by the late William Wallis who had considerably improved his lands. The new Drishane Castle built by the Wallis family is a large three-storey 18th century house, which was extended, improved and remodelled in the following decades.

In 1827, Henry Wallis’s grandson, another Henry Wallis, married Ellen Grice Smyth of Ballynatray, Co Waterford. This Henry Wallis died in 1862, and the castle and Drishane Castle and estate were inherited by his only son, Major John Richard Smyth Wallis (1828-1868).

During the Fenian Rising 150 years ago, Drishane Castle was garrisoned in 1867, but the Wallises appear to have been popular in the area around Millstreet.

When Major Wallis died in 1868, a year after the Fenian Rising, his only surviving son and heir, Henry Aubrey Beaumont Wallis (1861-1926) was then a seven-year-old. The boy’s widowed mother, Octavia (Willoughby) became Lady Beaumont in 1872 when she married Sir George Howland Beaumont (1828-1882), and she continued to take an interest in the Drishane Estate on behalf of her son while he was a minor.

In the 1870s, the Drishane estate totalled 5,000 acres, and in 1876 Lady Beaumont was involved in architectural improvements and extensions to the house. Her son, Henry Aubrey Wallis, inherited Drishane in his own name when he reached the age of 21. The estate was placed in Chancery on an application of insurance companies, but the family remained at Drishane Castle. Slater noted in 1894 that Drishane Castle was still the seat of the Wallis family, although he misspells his surname as Wallace.

However, Major Henry Aubrey Beaumont Wallis was the last member of the Wallis family to live at Drishane Castle. His personal life became a matter of public gossip and salacious newspaper reports when he and his estranged wife, Elizabeth (Bingham) were divorced in 1906. This divorce was legislated for by an Act of Parliament and seems to have been one of only two divorces that were allowed in Ireland until divorce was legalised in 1996.

The couple were married in Calcutta in 1883 in Calcutta, and had lived in New Zealand, Ghana (Gold Coast) and London before returning to Drishane Castle, where Mrs Wallis alleged she had been attacked in 1903 by her husband who was having an affair with a woman in London.

Within four months of the divorce, Elizabeth Wallis had married again and Henry remarried a year later 1907. But Henry’s fortunes seem to have been in decline for some time. By 1911, he was living in Roskrow-Penryn, Cornwall, when he gave his occupation as Justice of the Peace for Co Cork. In 1916, he changed his surname from Wallis to Wallis-Wright, and in 1923, he changed his name back again from Wallis-Wright to Wallis. He died on 23 April 1926 in Cornwall.

Drishane Castle and the convent buildings (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Meanwhile, an auction was arranged for the Drishane estate in July 1901. The auction was cancelled, as Mrs Wallis made a number of unsuccessful efforts to raise funds to buy the estate for herself. Eventually, the tenants of the houses and premises in Millstreet bought out their holdings, and on 4 June 1902, Drishane Castle was sold in the Court of Chancery before Judge Rose to Patrick Stack of Fermoy.

The evidence in the Wallis divorce case in the House of Lords indicates that the Wallis family continued to live at Drishane Castle as tenants until at least 1904. Through the intervention of Cornelius Duggan, the castle and estate were acquired on 9 December 1908 for the Dames of Saint Maud, a French order of teaching nuns also known as the Sisters of the Infant Jesus, who had arrived in Millstreet in 1907. The order was established in France in 1662 by Rev Nicholas Barre, a Spiritual Director of St. John Baptist de la Salle. In March 1909 the first members of the Community arrived at Drishane in March 1909, the first Mass was celebrated there on 25 May, and the official opening took place on 8 September 1909.

The nuns lived at Drishane Castle for most of the 20th century, built a new convent chapel and from 1911 ran a boarding secondary school for girls.

In December 1974, there was excitement in Millstreet when part of the movie In This House of Brede was filmed at Drishane Castle. It stars Diana Rigg as a widowed business executive who turns her back on commerce and capitalism to enter a strict order of Benedictine nuns at Brede Abbey.

The school closed in 1992, and Drishane Castle and estate were bought by the Duggan family. The castle has hosted a number of music concerts and fundraising events, and the initial plans were to turn the former convent into an hotel. But the house a centre for asylum seekers, and refugees from Kosovar stayed there for a year. Today, refugees and asylum seekers from many nations live at Drishane Castle.

The 18th century house known as Drishane Castle is a substantial country house, built ca 1730. Although the house has had many phases of building and rebuilding, it retains the fabric of an 18th century house at its core. The house has many interesting features including lancet, bipartite and tripartite windows. The castle revival form of the house dates from the mid to late 19th century when this style was in vogue.

The porte-cochére was added in 1876 by Lady Beaumont in 1876 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The porte-cochére was added in 1876 by Lady Beaumont and is a fine example of theatrical architecture. It emphasises the importance of the main entrance and provides a strong decorative focus to the façade. The coat-of-arms of the Wallis family above is finely carved heraldic motif and is an example of the skill of 19th century craftsmen. Lady Beaumont also restored the adjacent mediaeval tower house.

The main building is a nine-bay, three-storey main block with a one-bay breakfront having a porte-cochere to the front. Other features include cut sandstone turrets, crenellations, double and triple lancet windows, Tudor-style arched openings and doorways.

Drishane demesne is relatively intact, with many of the related demesne structures, such as the gate lodges, reflecting the style of the main house. The farmyard complex, dating from 1828, includes courtyards and a walled garden.

A gate lodge added to the estate in 1870s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The picturesque main gate lodge and piers were built ca1870 in the castle style that became popular in the mid-19th century, with frivolous crenellations and a crenellated turret. A second detached gate lodge, built at the same time, has an octagonal-shaped three-stage tower with crenellations, pointed arch window openings and door.

The convent was built as a separate building for the Sisters of the Infant Jesus, and in 1931, they built a separate nine-bay, two-storey chapel and hall, and the new Chapel was solemnly blessed in 1934.

Although I did not get into the chapel on Sunday afternoon, this seems to be is a fine example of early 20th century ecclesiastical architecture. The chapel block was designed by the Cork-born architect Dominick O’Carroll. It is an unusual example of a two-storey chapel building with a hall below, a form that is not usually associated with Roman Catholic churches.

A marble plaque in the chapel was donated by the Crowley family to the convent when it opened in the 1930s, and two or three members of the Crowley family were members of the community. One was Sister Anne, a second was Sister Cornelius, who died in 2001 and who probably took her name after my grandmother’s brother, Cornelius Crowley, who lived at Coole House, near Drishane, and Finnstown House, near Lucan, Co Dublin. One of these nuns was known in the family as ‘Mary Nun.’ But without access to convent chapel, I could find out nothing more about the Crowley nuns.

Meanwhile, was there any truth behind the story I had been told about Thomas Murphy attempting to buy Drishane Castle on behalf of his wife in 1912?

Thomas Murphy, son of Michael Murphy, merchant, of Millstreet, married Maria Crowley, daughter of the late Denis Crowley, in Millstreet on 3 March 1915. The witnesses at their wedding were Jeremiah O’Shea and Hannah Crowley.

So, they were married six years after Drishane Castle had been acquired by the Sisters of the Infant Jesus, and 14 years after Drishane Castle was first put up for sale. The story now seems to me to be apocryphal.

I needed to find out more about the last Wallis of Drishane Castle, more about the houses where the Murphy and Crowley families lived in Millstreet, and I needed to find the mill that gave Millstreet its name. We headed back into Millstreet to meet my cousin.

● Drishane Castle is open to the public in summer (May to September) from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. During the rest of the year, visits may be arranged by appointment.

The Murphy family grave in Drishane Cemetery (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)


mikeC said...

hi patrick,

i have done a good bit of research on the last Wallis in Drishane, and put it on the millstreet website here:


if you have any questions, just ask


Patrick Comerford said...

Thank you Mike, we seem to have been using the same and similar sources for my second posting today. Patrick