Thursday, 4 February 2021

A Wexford family history
features on RTÉ and makes
a ‘Nationwide’ publisher

Helen Skrine’s book on the Boxwell family and the publisher Michael Freeman featured on RTÉ’s ‘Nationwide’ this week

Patrick Comerford

When I was living in High Street, Wexford, Michael Freeman regularly called round, and I remember late night discussions about John Robinson’s Honest to God and Teilhard de Chardin’s theology.

At the time, he was involved in Macra na Feirme and I was working as a journalist with the Wexford People group of newspapers. He too became a journalist, and now he is a leading Wexford publisher, based in Rosslare, Co Wexford.

It was a delight to see Michael taking part in the RTÉ news magazine, Nationwide, earlier this week (1 February 2021), when it featured The Boxwells of Butlerstown Castle, the 200-page memoir about the Boxwell by Helen Skrine, a descendant of the Boxwell family. This is one of two books that arrived in the post unexpectedly a few weeks ago from Michael Freeman.

Michael is the publisher this book, edited by Helen’s daughter, Anna Skrine Brunton, and the programme was filmed in Butlerstown House, near Tacumshane, Co Wexford.

Helen Skrine (94) was secretary and later president of the Wexford Historical Society for some years in the 1980s. She wrote this book over a 30-year period, and in descriptive, colourful, and entertaining prose she tells of her experiences, and the history of her family in the 1798 Rising, the War of Independence, and the bleak 1950s.

The Boxwells are one among the families that for hundreds of years have owned castles in Co Wexford and have influenced social, political, economic and cultural change across the world.

The Bowxwells have lived for centuries at Butlerstown House and Butlerstown Castle, just a mile or two away from two other castles linked with the Boxwell family, Bargy Castle and Lingstown Castle. This is a fascinating memoir of the Boxwell family, which came England in the 1600s and settled in Co Wexford. She tells the story that is sometimes tragic and often-times funny.

She charts the contribution of members of the Boxwell family to government, medicine, sport, community and even rebellion, through war and peace to the present day.

Butlerstown Castle, like Ballybur Castle in Co Kilkenny, had its origins as a tower house, ‘a modest affair aimed not at warmongering or at display of power and wealth, but merely at survival, for defence in a hostile and embittered environment.’

The so-called ‘English’ baronies of Forth and Bargy in Co Wexford became more thickly populated with castles than any other part of Ireland. They included Bargy Castle built by the Rossiters, Lingstown Castle built by the Lamberts, Ballycogley Castle, built by the Waddings, and Butlerstown Castle, near Tomhaggard, built for the Butlers of Mountgarret, and with views north to Forth Mountain, west to the Comeragh Mountains in Co Waterford, and south to the Saltee Islands.

Helen traces the Boxwell family back to John Boxall or Boxwell of New College, Oxford, a favourite of Queen Mary, and John Boxwell (1614-1677) of Wootton Bassett, and a third John Boxwell who moved from Wootton Bassett to Co Wexford in the late 17th century.

For many people in Co Wexford, the Boxwell family is best-known for the close family relationship that links John Boxwell, John’s brother-in-law John Colclough and John’s cousin, Beauchamp Bagenal Harvey, the three key figures in the 1798 Rising in Wexford.

But she also tells the stories of colourful family members, including Susan Boxwell the artist; John Boxwell, Governor of Dhaka, now the capital of Bangladesh; William Boxwell, President of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland; and Colonel Ambrose Boxwell of the Indian army.

There are honeymoons in Rome and Athens, tennis in Assam, Bengal and Chittagong, hunting with the Killinick Harriers, polo in Malaysia and a connection with Chris de Burgh. There are stories that take the reader to South Africa and Brazil, and of coffee in White’s Hotel, the Opera Festival in Wexford, and starting an arts centre in the Old Town Hall in Cornmarket.

There are intriguing connections with the Elgee family from Wexford and Oscar Wilde; with Whitley Stokes and William Stokes, pioneers in medicine; with Percy French; and through her mother with the St Leger family of Doneraile. And there is the story a ‘visit’ to Bargy Castle by the IRA during a Christmas party at the height of the Irish Civil War.

In addition, 16 family trees help guide the reader labyrinthine details of the different branches Boxwell family tree, with the many intermarriages within the Boxwell family, the details of kinship with other kindred families, including the Harveys, the MacMurroughs Kavanaghs and the St Legers, and extensions of the family to Abbeyleix, Liverpool and Brazil.

The cover photographs are by Jim Campbell and Ger Lawlor, while many of the photographs inside this generously illustrated book are by Ger Lawlor, Helen’s son-in-law Simon de Courcy Wheeler and Pat O’Connor.

The programme this week featured Michael Freeman and Helen Skrine’s friend Maeve Davison of Bargy Castle, mother of the singer-songwriter Chris de Burgh.

Michael Freeman is from Glynn, Co Wexford. He lived in Dublin for many years, working as a freelance journalist, a press officer for Macra na Feirme and in PR and publishing. He returned to Wexford with his wife Brigid in 2005 and now lives in Rosslare.

A suggestion by the Wexford historian and author Nicky Furlong led him to set up Three Sisters Press, and the first book he published was volume five of Nicky’s Wexford in the Rare Auld Times. Other books from Three Sisters Press include Sailor, Airman, Spy, Memoir of a Cold War Veteran by Ted Hayes (2018).

Perhaps, after this week’s programme on RTÉ, he can be regarded as truly ‘Nationwide’ publisher.

Helen Skrine’s book on the Boxwell family was a recent welcome gift in the post (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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