While we were still at the convent, Uncle Willie St. George called to take us to Tyrone House to attend my grandfather’s funeral, but my father strongly objected because that was where mother was staying. Although we did not attend the obsequies, we were, after a prolonged battle in chancery, allowed to join her there later on. Naturally, we regretted leaving that part of the country because we would miss the company of so many lovely friends whose homes were in the Gort neighbourhood.
Sorrow over my grandfather’s death was felt throughout the county. Relations came from all parts of England, Scotland, France and Ireland. Going to a funeral at best is not a pleasant diversion, but when the unexplainable happens, we are liable to get the creeps up and down our spines. Whenever there was a death in the family, the swans from Kilcolgan River would be seen standing near our family vault on the estate, which was some distance from the river, as if waiting for the mourners. But this was not all. The carrion crows would perch on the windowsills of the home, and no one could frighten them away. The funeral cortege was over three miles long and, when the hearse had arrived at the vault, some of the people were only just leaving my grandfather’s residence.
My grandfather spent his income freely and no one in trouble or distress was ever turned away from his house empty-handed. My great grandfather had owned considerable property in the north in County Tyrone and having sold it, he bought an estate in County Galway where he built his home and called it Tyrone House after the old place where he had spent his boyhood. It was the largest residence in that part of the west and his racing stud was known all over Ireland, England and France. He kept large stables on his estate and at the Curragh in County Kildare, where he had a lodge for the accommodation of his family and numerous friends. I only wish I could furnish a list of his racers and their pedigrees but they are to be found in the racing journals of the “Good Old Days.”
Having unconsciously digressed from my story, I will return to where I left off. As I said before, the drive from Gort to Tyrone is about 17 miles and now we have reached the avenue leading up to the house. When we passed the gate lodge, a wonderful view opened up: a large lawn of several hundred acres through which the avenue swept for a mile and a half, was dotted with beautiful clumps of trees. On the farther side was a wide expanse of sea and mountains. Each side of the road was banked with large trees and shrubs interspersed with wild roses and other flowers all the way from the lodge to the white gate. Through this gate we entered the lawn surrounding the house, and we had now arrived at our future home, Tyrone House.
We all went into the great hall and then through to the dining room, with my little sister being carried in by one of the footmen in attendance at the front door. It was lunch time, and it seemed to me that crowds of people were there. I thought my grandmother, in her beautiful widow’s weeds, was the most charming of them all. Wearing a pretty lace cap, she simply won our hearts at first sight.
My mother and aunts all seemed so delightful, and butlers and maids were hurrying around everywhere. We were taken to our nursery and, after some refreshments, we were supposed to rest. But everything had such a thrill and was so exciting, we could not sleep a wink, so one of the maids was allowed to take us for a stroll. She showed us the beautiful old belfry at the top of the road leading down to the flower and fruit gardens. This was the beginning of my life there, most of which seems like a wonderful dream.
The dark grove, as it was called, on the left side of the garden was so shaded by trees of all sorts, and the shrubs were growing in such profusion that one almost thought he was in some sort of fairyland. I never heard so many birds singing at one time, the air being filled with their warbling songs. Thrushes, blackbirds, larks, robins, tomtits, bluetits, golden crested wrens and sally-pickers, all seemed busy with their own affairs and the cuckoo, too, could be heard in the distance, raising his mournful voice in solitude while appropriating the nest of some other bird. Then there was a cornfield outside the old ivy-covered wall, where coveys of partridges and beautiful golden pheasants and gloomy corncrakes held sway.
After enjoying the walk in the garden, we returned to the house and I remember the first thing to attract our attention was the life-size marble statue of my great-grandfather, Baron St. George. It was carved in Rome and sent to Ireland in sections. My grandmother was often amused and shocked to find that we children sometimes arrayed it in kid gloves and silk hat, while the back of the pedestal was more often than not a hiding place for little presents and things we wanted to keep out of sight. The ceilings, too, were a source of admiration, especially the ones in the hall, drawing room and dining room, which had been painted by famous Italian artists. The design on the hall ceiling depicted the four seasons of the year and the walls were decorated with beautiful Roman scenes. The study was panelled with carved oak, the background being royal blue on which were painted the heads of notable writers and other celebrated men of the past. The dining room, billiard room and drawing room were also exquisitely decorated.
The oil paintings were both interesting and valuable. They were life-size portraits of members of the family, executed by French and English masters. The one of my great-grandfather, in the wig and gown he used to wear in the House of Lords, particularly filled us with awe. Other beautiful paintings hanging in the drawing room included the Earl of Howth, Lord Louth and other celebrities. One picture here was very highly prized: it represented Bare Bones, my grandfather’s favourite racer painted by a French artist who had been visiting here. He was so pleased with his stay and entertainment that he presented this painting to my grandfather on leaving. It was considered by art critics of the time to be a most remarkable canvas. There was quite a romance attached to this picture, too, my grandmother told us.
It seems that when she was a young woman staying in their lodge within a few miles of the curragh, a large training camp for race horses in County Kildare, she very nearly lost grandfather. He kept a large stud of racers there and each year when the races were held he always liked to have his wife near him to enjoy the meetings with him. One evening she returned home alone, leaving her husband dining at his club. At about midnight she heard a horse galloping around the stable yard. It was a beautifully crisp frosty night, and she heard his favourite mount neighing and the little terrier barking for its dear life. The noise woke up one of the grooms, who dressed and went outside only to find that his master was not there. The horse kept on turning around as if to tell him something was wrong and the little dog would whine and run excitedly back and forth.
The groom got another mount and went down the road for about a mile with his master’s mount racing ahead of him. There Whiskey, the terrier, stopped and went over to a figure that lay on the side of the road. To the surprise of the groom, there was his master lying unconscious. He first thought he was dead but, after a little while, my grandfather came to himself and said that his horse had shied at something she saw and he was thrown off striking his head against the kerbstone. Of course, he would have frozen to death, had he remained there all night, so certainly this little dog and his friend, Bare Bones, the horse, saved their master’s life.
Grandfather, being one of the foremost racing men of his time kept a large staff of people employed on his estate looking after the stables, avenues and gardens as well as the lawns which had the appearance of velvet. No traffic was allowed on the front avenue, which was beautifully gravelled and bordered with choice shrubs. It was reserved for the people of the house. To cut down a tree within the demesne was considered a sacrilege, and if one were blown down during a storm, it would be promptly spliced up again if there were any chance of its being saved.
Quite an accident happened to one of the wood-rangers who was trimming off a branch from a tree where a V-shaped opening was being made to enable the people of the house to have a view of the sea from the second-story windows. He fell from one limb to another and was killed before help could be obtained. There was no more trimming of trees allowed after that.
The deer park was on the left after you passed the lodge gate. Some of the deer were so young and tame that they would eat out of your hands and lick your fingers. How we did enjoy feeding them! Further on was the old church yard with its quaint ivy-covered pillars on each side of the gate. Members of our family and quite a few friends were buried here. But as grandfather did not like funeral processions coming partly up the avenue, he donated a church on the opposite side of the road, just outside our entrance.
It was here that Jenkins Heather was murdered. He was a young soldier in the Royal Engineers whom my grandfather had brought from the north of Ireland to survey some of his property. The tenants, however, thinking he was a spy, beat him to death and flung his body across a wall where he was found by the postman on his rounds the next morning.
The perpetrators of this foul deed were never apprehended. It was thought that they managed to escape to America. The people who worked for us always looked on that spot as haunted and could not summon up courage to pass the place after dark. Of course, my grandfather felt very badly about it and wished to compensate his mother, but she would not hear of it, saying “she would not accept any money that came from where her son was so brutally murdered.” She did, however, consent to having his body buried in the church yard nearby. Poor Heather! He was the only son of a Widow. Had they only asked to see his papers or inquired as to who he was, this tragic affair would never have happened.
Webmaster’s Note: Tyrone House, Kilcolgan, overlooking Galway Bay. The house was built in 1779 by Christopher French St. George to a design by architect John Roberts, of Co. Waterford. By the early 20th century, the extended St. George family lived elsewhere, some in Dublin and others in the U.S. The house was destroyed by fire in the early 1920s and never subsquently inhabited.
In 1824, Arthur French St. George was named the resident proprietor, his son Christopher St. George (1810-1877) had a keen interest in both economic and sporting affairs of the local area, in 1839 he helped set up the Galway Blazers hunt. His passion for horse-riding also led him to later help establish the Galway races and later the Killarney Races. Christopher also had an interest in the local marine farming which led him to found the world famous Kilcolgan oyster beds along the Galway coast.
The 19th century took a toll on the powerful St. George family as it did to many of Ireland’s great country homes and following the death of Honoria Kane St. George, the widow of Christopher St. George, the family left the property in 1905.
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Written by Elizabeth La Hiff Lambert
Published here 17 Aug 2022 and originally published 1979
Page 0079 of Athenry History
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