Hard to imagine that ’twas five years since my last visit to this corner of North Cork — November, 2014 to be precise.
I remember that day well, belying the time of the year as the estate was bathed in sunshine and looked resplendent. There were walkers everywhere enjoying the fantastic looped paths, ponds, streams and water features like weirs and cascades.
Official figures from the Office of Public Works tell us that well over 400,000 visitors came here last year, making it one of the biggest attractions in the country. It doesn’t surprise me one iota.
For those who have neither interest in nor love of Irish history, Doneraile Park is a sylvan paradise. Forget the estate story, the St. Leger family, the Big House — for those who yearn for outdoor activity and fresh air, it’s heavenly. With more than 400 acres of parkland with herds of deer and a multitude of other flora and fauna, this is an oasis of tranquillity in the heart of Munster.
Earlier this year, the ground floor of Doneraile Court was opened to the public after decades of false dawns. I couldn’t make it on that auspicious day and as summer came and went and now autumn’s on it’s last legs, I turned the car towards Doneraile recently.
On the way, I thought of the Big Houses that were burnt down between the start of the Irish War of Independence and the end of the Civil War, roughly the four years from 1919 to 1923. It’s estimated that around 270 of these properties were torched in that 48 month period.
I am aware of houses like Castle Cooke in Kilworth, Mitchelstown Castle, and Convamore in Ballyhooley in this area of North Cork that befell the same fate. In fairness, I can easily understand why these ‘Big Houses’ were seen as part of the old ‘British Empire’, part of the ‘Anglo-Irish’ ascendancy legacy, and as such were seen as legitimate targets. I cannot condemn those who gave the orders for such burnings, nor those who ‘did the job’, but yet I can only guess at what was lost.
I know a man who had and still has a very simple solution to solve the age-old problem of Irish independence. It’s his belief — firmly held — that those whose surnames beginning with O or Mac should be left stay here — and everyone else ‘go back to where ye came from’! Sounds a bit drastic, doesn’t it?
We had a debate on the matter one time and says I: “If you had your way, there’d be a very small population left in this country,” to which he retorted: “At least they’d all be Irish!”
There were very few O’s or Mac’s, I’d say, in the mansions that were destroyed, but who can tell the difference now between the descendants of ancient Gaelic chieftains and the offspring of Danish, Norman and ‘Planter’ stock? Truly we’re a mish-mash of many nationalities, tribes and races — isn’t it wonderful?
The St Legers who reigned supreme in Doneraile were of English descent — purchasing huge swathes of North Cork land from the impoverished Synan family, whose lineage goes deep in the soil around here. Relations between the St Legers and their neighbours and tenants and workers were reasonably cordial in the 1920s and there was never any real danger of the house being demolished or burned.
As I approached the outskirts of Doneraile, the road skirted the estate’s stone walls. There’s a phrases about giving a dog a bad name or ‘tarring everyone with the same brush’ and it sprang to mind as I pondered some of the stories and histories of the St Legers here.
Did the men in the family enforce the ‘jus primae noctis’ with the newlywed brides of their tenants? In French the ‘law’ — if it could be termed as such — was called the ‘droit du seigneur’. The ‘right to the first night’ or the ‘right of the lord’ referred to an alleged ancient ‘right’ which the landlord, king, baron or overlord of an area or estate had whereby he could spend the first night with the bride of any of his subjects.
Did it happen in Doneraile or anywhere else for that matter? It seems the ‘jury is still out’ on the matter.
There are plenty references to the practise down the centuries, not just in this country and in Europe but in many other parts of the world.
Of course, if newly married women were subjected to such treatment they’d hardly be boasting about it. Imagine the dilemma that could present itself if the Lord insisted on getting his so-called ‘rights’ — a tenant farmer might be told ‘send your new wife up to the big house tonight or ye’ll both be out on the side of the road tomorrow’. Back then they had the power.
Certainly, certain males of the Doneraile lineage were at least slightly promiscuous by all accounts. One way or another, the St Leger male line died out, at least the legitimate side anyway. So, 50 years ago Mary St Leger, widow of Hugh, the Seventh Viscount, sold the property, lock, stock and barrel to the State.
For decades, Doneraile Court had teetered on the verge of dereliction but the work of the Irish Georgian Society ensured the mansion didn’t go the same route as its ‘neighbour’ in Farrahy, Bowenscourt — complete demolition.
The house was preserved, one could say mothballed, for close on half a century. Down the years funds were promised and re-promised for restoration work but many of these pronouncements came to nought.
Then, last year, the OPW, who have done astonishing work with the Park, began the restoration of the ground floor of the house.
The day I went to Doneraile, a guided tour of the court was under way so I had to wait until the next ‘starting time’. Well, I was blessed because when the 2.30 tour began yours truly was the only tourist waiting at the front door! My guide — forgive me but I didn’t get her name — was only superb. I’ve been on house tours where one’s guide is like a tape recorder, just giving out a pre-prepared ‘speech’ whereas my Doneraile one was informative, friendly and had the most wonderful stories and anecdotes about the various rooms.
Yes, of course one is struck by the magnificence of the place and you could easily recall the social divide between the family that lived here from the 1700s onwards and their tenants and workers who dwelt probably in thatched, mud-walled cabins on the periphery of the then 10,000 acre estate.
Having said all that, I marvelled at the workmanship and craftwork of the building. Those stonemasons, carpenters, nailers, roofers and glaziers were truly masters of their trades — some of the fabric of Doneraile Court is still faultless — after centuries. Paintings on loan from the Crawford Gallery and furniture from the State Collection now adorn the rooms in the style and fashion of the time.
I stood in the wood-panelled room where more than 300 years ago a meeting of the Masonic Lodge was being held and from the nearby library Elizabeth St Leger overheard the proceedings, causing her to be inducted as the first female Free Mason.
I knew a fair bit about the Synans and the St Legers, and Lord Castletown and Canon Sheehan, but after my tour I was agog with information and tales — tall and small — that abound here.
My guide told me that Doneraile Court will be closed from December for a few months and during that time the second floor of the house will be restored and refurbished in readiness for 2020.
Doneraile Court could so easily have gone the way of so many other houses once dotted all over the country. It didn’t and now, five decades after the St Leger’ chapter’ of its story closed, an exciting new dawn has come upon it.
I said five years ago the house and grounds, once ‘out of bounds’, can reap a rich harvest into the future for Doneraile and its people.
Truly the story of Doneraile, its people and its history are set to become a jewel in the crown of Ireland’s tourism.