Once off the duel-motorway at Athlone, the traffic on our main roads is often so heavy that if I have time, I will take a country road home. Loughrea’s welcome new by-pass makes a visit to that old busy town now worthwhile, and easy. Its difficult to pass St Brendan’s Cathedral, and its magnificent Celtic stained glass windows and sculpture, without a visit. And then, take the Gort road to Galway. On a glorious summer afternoon, the hedgerows are bursting with white blackberry blossom, wild irises, fuchsia, honeysuckle and foxglove. I was looking for Woodville House and its newly opened walled garden, but ruined cut-stone walls, and high gates reminded me that here, in this corner of Galway, poor tenant farmers stood up to the powerful Marquis of Clanricarde to own the land they worked on. The so-called Land War was fought nowhere more fierce, nor attracted more world wide publicity than on the Clanricarde estates in Portumna, Woodford, Eyrecourt and surrounding areas.
Not all landlords were bad, but Clanricarde was the archetypical landlord scoundrel. He was described as having a miserly personality, eccentric and reclusive, with a fundamental inability to compromise or adapt to changing circumstances in Irish society at the time. He lived in London. It was said that he only once visited his Portumna castle, and that was for his father’s funeral in 1874. Even for the time his estates were vast. They stretched from Lough Derg to Galway. He was ruthless in dealing with any tenant who couldn’t pay his rent. There is a famous letter he wrote on January 29 1881 in reply to the argument by his land agent John Blake* that some tenants were simply too poor to pay. Clanricarde refused to allow any leniency. He pointed out, that: ‘Unless husbandmen can afford to plant something better than stones (or bad potatoes which are as useless as stones ) they are not fit to be tenant farmers.’
His agents promoted the assisted emigration of small tenants. Between 1841 and 1871 the population of the Clanricarde estates in Galway fell from nearly 22,000 to under 10,000.
Not too far away
One of Clanricarde’s main agents was Robert D’Arcy, who lived at Woodville, Kilchreest, and was a substantial landowner in his own right farming more than 1,600 acres. Apparently he fell out with his boss, and I’m not sure what happened to him, but at the beginning of the last century Woodville was owned by Harry Persse, Lady Augusta Gregory’s brother. He sold the house, and its much reduced lands, in 1916 to Maria and Pat Donohue whose son Michéal, his wife Margarita, and children raise a herd of suckler cattle on the farm today. Recently, they opened the restored walled garden to the public. It is a joy to wander around.
Sometimes history is not too far away. Michéal’s aunt, the late Maureen Donohue who became the much loved Mercy Sister Austin in the Loughrea convent (who passed away only recently ), remembered visiting the walled garden when her parents bought the property from Harry Persse an amazing 93 years ago. She was three years old at the time. Harry picked her a perfectly ripe peach.
Only a handful of the original fruit trees survive in the garden today, which dates back to the 1750s. It has been, however, completely replanted with great herbaceous borders, rose walks, new pear, apple, plum, cherry and damson grown in the old Victorian espaliered style against the warm brick wall. These make striking fan, semi circular, and candelabra shapes, while a large fountain makes a peaceful sound in the centre.
The Donohue family were helped by Maureen Doddy of Galway Co Council, a Leader grant, and the advice from consultant Daphne Shackleton. But Margarita proved to be no slouch when it came to research. The garden was little more than a neglected field, surrounded by a broken wall, when Michéal and Margarita tackled the restoration. They wanted to find out where the paths were, but several archaeological digs revealed nothing. Margarita tracked down the original 1836 ordnance survey of the area, and in the notes made by the engineers drawing up the maps found the garden, with its paths clearly marked. Measurements were made in ‘chain links’ (one link equalled 200mm ). The original paths were quickly uncovered.
Another feature is the attractive dovecote with 145 nesting holes. Fan-tailed doves now enjoy its period reconstruction. It is a highlight in the garden.
There is also a small garden shop, with old newspapers and family photographs telling something of the history of Woodville, the Land War, and its past inhabitants. There is also the opportunity to buy Woodville Heritage Seeds including larkspur, foxglove, cornflower, herbs, and the illusive love-in-a-mist.
How to get there: The shortest way is through Ardrahan; but if you are not sure take the Gort road from Loughrea, the first turn right after Kilchreest, after 1.2km take the first left. Woodville is the second entrance on the right. There are small signs to guide you. Margarita’s number is 091-840986. There is a modest entrance fee.
* The Marquis of Clanricarde was probably wise to live in London. John Blake was murdered near Loughrea in June 1882. Writing to The Times, Clanricarde blamed this ‘ghastly act’ on his resistance to a combination of the tenants, “who had been encouraged by the new Arrears Bill to pay no rent on land that was let to them too cheaply anyway”.