29 August 2020

A morning with the literary
legacy and in the gardens
of Cappoquin House

The west end of Cappoquin House and the courtyard … the house was reoriented in the 1920s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

The first part of this year’s late summer ‘Road Trip,’ which is an emotional compensation for not being in Greece these two weeks, ended up in Cappoquin, which – in my emotions and my imagination – is my childhood home, with many happy memories of what seem to be endless times on my grandmother’s farm.

Little seems to have changed in the streets or façades of Cappoquin, apart from some shops and pubs closing or changing their names. At the east end of the Main Street, facing the former Walsh’s Hotel and the Co-op, the discreet gates of Cappoquin House give no hint of what lies beyond.

The streets and houses of Cappoquin spread out below the winding drive leading up to Cappoquin House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The drive winds through charming parkland that could lead anywhere. But this is the entrance into another world, with stories of the Irish Civil War, of explorers in Ceylon and generals in Afghanistan, of writers and war-time journalists who helped Tito’s partisans, innovative farmers, bankers and Home Rule campaigners. There are links with Rasputin’s killer, with the Wedgwood pottery and with the theories of evolution developed by Erasmus Darwin and his grandson Charles Darwin.

Today, Cappoquin House is the home of Sir Charles Keane and his wife Corinne.

This is an 18th century, classical-style Georgian house that has been the home of the Keane family since 1735.

Sir Charles showed brought me around Cappoquin House, and explained how it stands on the site of an Elizabethan house built by Sir Christopher Hatton. This in turn stood on the site of an earlier, mediaeval castle owned by the FitzGerald family, who lost it during the Desmond rebellions. The memory of that castle remains in the name of Castle Street in Cappoquin.

What lies behind the gates leading into Cappoquin House? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Cappoquin stands at a point on the River Blackwater has been romantically described as the ‘Rhine of Ireland.’ It has run from east Kerry through north Cork to west Waterford, and at Cappoquin it makes its sharp turn south towards its estuary at Youghal.

Captain Hugh Croker held the castle on the site in 1641 on behalf of the Earl of Cork, and successfully resisted an attack by the Confederate Catholics under General Purcell in 1643. However, it surrendered to Lord Castlehaven in 1645, and it was captured by Cromwell in 1649. Nothing remains of the castle, apart from one wall with a narrow doorway leading to a garden when it was surveyed in 1918.

The Keane family is descended from the O’Cahan clan of Ulster, who were feudal tenants of the O’Neills. Most of their lands were forfeited in the first Plantation of Ulster in 1610.

In a Senate debate, Sir John Keane reminded one senator of his Irish identity, asking, ‘Does he realise that in my blood there is a record of knowledge of confiscation and oppression just as great as any member of this House? My ancestors were driven out of the O Cathain country by the British in the Elizabethan days.’

At the end of the 17th century, George O’Cahan changed his name to Keane, conformed to the Church of Ireland and became a lawyer. When he retired, he leased Cappoquin, under three 999-year leases, with extensive farm and mountain land. In effect, he had bought a large part of the estate of the Earl of Cork, who owned Lismore Castle.

The south front and garden terrace of Cappoquin House … the house was rebuilt by Richard Orpen in the 1920s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Cappoquin House was built in 1779 by Sir John Keane (1757-1829). The house is attributed to the notable Waterford architect John Roberts (1712-1796), who also designed the two cathedrals in Waterford.

Cappoquin House, which was also known as Belmont, is a detached, seven-bay two-storey over basement house, surrounded by notable formal gardens and landscaped grounds that are open to the public.

The details of Cappoquin House that are typical of houses designed by Roberts include the deliberate alignment maximising the scenic vistas overlooking rolling grounds and the River Blackwater; the compact rectilinear plan form centred on a classically-detailed breakfront; the silver-grey limestone with good quality workmanship; the diminishing in scale of the windows on each floor, giving a graduated visual impression; and the urn-topped balustraded roofline.

The north front and courtyard of Cappoquin House … became the front of the house when it was rebuilt in the 1920s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The house was destroyed by fire on 19 February 1923 during the Irish Civil War. But Cappoquin House was rebuilt by Sir John Keane, one of the first Senators in the Irish Free State, in 1923-1930.

The Dublin architect Richard Francis Caulfield Orpen (1863-1938) rebuilt Cappoquin House. He replaced the original slated roof with a flat roof replaced, moved the main entrance door to the courtyard and used salvaged chimneypieces, including a chimneypiece reclaimed from 52 Saint Stephen’s Green in Dublin.

The decorative plasterwork was produced by G Jackson and Sons of London. The outbuildings and the walled garden enhance the group of buildings and the setting of the estate.

The lantern above the staircase well in Cappoquin House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The first baronet, Sir John Keane (1757-1829) had been MP for Bangor (1791-1797) and Youghal, Co Cork (1797-1800) in the Irish House of Commons before the Act of Union. He was given the title of baronet in 1801, and was MP for Youghal, Co Cork (1801-1806, 1808-1818).

The second baronet, Lieut-Col Sir Richard Keane (1780-1855), was educated at Rathmines and Trinity College Cambridge. In 1831, he gave the Cistercian monks 500 acres of mountain land for a nominal rent, leading to the foundation of Mount Melleray Abbey. He was Whig MP for Co Waterford (1832-1835).

The third baronet, Sir John Henry Keane (1816-1881), was educated at Rugby and Trinity College Cambridge. As a student at Trinity College Cambridge in the 1830s, he captained the Trinity Boat, and he also rowed at No 6 in the Cambridge ‘cutter’ in the University Boat Race of 1836. Oxford were favourites, but Cambridge led off the start and came away to win by four lengths.

In 1837, John Henry rowed at No 4 for Cambridge in their first ever contest against the Leander Club. The course was Westminster to Putney, Cambridge took the lead at Vauxhall Bridge, were well up by Battersea Bridge, and won comfortably by seven seconds.

He first displayed his literary talent with An Address to the Young Men of Ireland, published in London in 1835 when he was only 19. Many of his themes were later popularised by the Young Ireland movement, and he made a powerful appeal on behalf of the Irish language, which he calls the language of poetry, love and piety.

In 1836, he published Ladye Alice The Flower of Ossorye, a collection of poems inspired by Irish legends and the history and tales of the O Cahan family. He left Cambridge in 1841 with a law degree. He succeeded to the family title in 1855 and in the early 1860s laid the foundations of the Cappoquin Rowing Club. He was the High Sheriff of Co Waterford in 1856 and the first President of the Cappoquin Rowing Club.

The fourth baronet, Sir Richard Francis Keane (1845-1892), a civil engineer, was also the High Sheriff of Co Waterford in 1881, and was known for his conciliatory attitude to the Land League.

He married Adelaide Vance, whose family home on Rutland Square, Dublin, is now the Irish Writers’ Museum on Parnell Square.

In the Library in Cappoquin House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Before the formation of the Irish Free State, the fifth baronet, Sir John Keane (1873-1956), worked with Sir Horace Plunkett to organise the Irish Co-operative Movement, served on Waterford County Council, and was a member of the All-for-Ireland League that supported Home Rule.

To provide employment in Cappoquin, he set up a foundry and his younger brother Henry Keane of Tivoli House set up the Cappoquin bacon industry in 1907.

He was a Senator (1922-1934, 1938-1948), a Governor of the Bank of Ireland, a member of the General Synod of the Church of Ireland, a member of the Representative Church Body, and a weekly columnist for The Times.

He was regarded as a benevolent landlord, which may explain why Cappoquin House survived the initial IRA campaign of ‘big house’ burnings in 1921 only to be burned during the Civil War by anti-treaty republicans. In the intervening time, he used the opportunity to save many of the family’s collections in the house, moving much of it to Bristol.

As a senator he was outspoken in his condemnation of Irish censorship laws, and his speeches in the Senate became the victims of censorship themselves.

He married Lady Eleanor Lucy Hicks-Beach, in Saint Margaret’s Church, Westminster, in 1907 – the wedding was postponed for two days because of the sudden death of the groom’s mother, Adelaide. Lady Eleanor (‘Nellie’) was a daughter of Michael Hicks-Beach (1837-1916), 1st Earl St Aldwyn, twice Chief Secretary for Ireland (1874-1878, 1886-1887), twice Chancellor of the Exchequer (1885-1886, 1895-1902) and President of the Board of Trade (1888-1892). Portraits of the newly-married couple hang above their stairwell in the house.

His epitaph in Saint Anne’s Church in Cappoquin proclaims, ‘With no thought for himself, he served his country through war and peace.’

A tapestry bought from Prince Yusupov links Cappoquin with the assassination of Rasputin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The sixth baronet, Sir Richard Michael Keane (1909-2010), was educated at Sherborne and Christ Church Oxford, and joined the Times in London as a journalist. He was diplomatic correspondent with Reuters and with the Sunday Times, fought at El Alamein, captured one of Rommel’s senior generals in north Africa, and organised allied assistance to the partisans in Yugoslavia during World War II.

Sir Richard Keane returned to Cappoquin after the war in 1946, and he and his wife Olivia (Hawkshaw) opened Cappoquin House to the public.

Among the items he collected for Cappoquin House was a tapestry he bought from Prince Felix Felixovich Yusupov (1887-1967), the Russian aristocrat who took part in the assassination of Rasputin and who married a niece of Tsar Nicholas II.

His father-in-law, Colonel Oliver Hawkshaw, was a grandson of Francis Wedgwood (1800-1888), a grandson of the first Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795), of the Wedgwood pottery and friend of Erasmus Darwin. Francis Wedgwood’s sister Emma Wedgwood (1808-1896) married her cousin Charles Darwin (1809-1882).

As we exchanged stories in the library about Erasmus Darwin and Erasmus Darwin’s house in Lichfield, Sir Charles showed me a book on Linnaeus and botany by Thomas Martyn once owned by Erasmus Darwin and with his signature and a piece of Wedgwood pottery turned by his mother.

Erasmus Darwin’s signature on a book in the library (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The present baronet, Sir (John) Charles Keane, who showed me around Cappoquin House, was educated at Eton and Oxford, and succeeded his father as the seventh baronet in 2010.

Sir Charles showed me a portrait and many of mementoes of General John Keane, who eventually become Baron Keane of Ghuznee and Cappoquin because of his role in the capture of Ghuznee during the First Anglo-Afghan War in 1839.

General Keane fought in the Peninsular War and later commanded an expeditionary force that entered Afghanistan from India to forestall an expected, imminent Russian invasion. The surprise capture of the Ghuznee Fort to the east of the Bolan Pass in a daring night attack resulted in the loss of only 17 British lives and led to the surrender of the Afghan army.

Kabul was occupied without further fighting and Keane retired as Lord Keane of Ghuznee and Cappoquin with a pension of £2,000 a year for his and two successive lives.

The writer Molly Keane married into this family. She was born Mary Nesta Skrine, and married Robert Lumley Keane (1910-1946), son of Colonel Richard Henry Keane (1881-1925), a younger son of the fourth baronet.

Mementoes of Lord Keane and his exploits in Afghanistan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The landscaped gardens at Cappoquin House were the vision of Lady Olivia Keane, who designed the grounds after years of neglect that followed World War I. The fine trees include Japanese cedars, maples and a southern beech, and a venerable oak. Higher on the slopes are terraces with rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias and magnolias.

Everywhere, there are fine views across the surrounding countryside. From the lawns, the town of Cappoquin spread below us. the distant gable of Dromana House can be seen on a crag above the river. To the right is a tower at Lismore Castle. A little to the left, the trees obscure the roofs of Tourin.

Cappoquin House is open from 15 August to 30 September from 9 am to 1 pm.

Sir Charles Keane tells the stories of Cappoquin House in the courtyard

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