Two funerals at Menlo Castle cemetery

I have mentioned recently Sir William Wilde’s energetic guide to Lough Corrib - Its shores and Islands (published 1867 ), and his excitement as he and his family steamed across Ireland from Dublin, to begin their long summer holiday at their holiday home, Moytura Lodge, Cong, at the very north of the lake. From steam train to the Eglinton steamer, which left Galway every day to service the villages on the lakeshore, including Cong, the Wildes steamed passed the ancient home of the Blakes at Menlough (Menlo )* located just before the river enters the great lake.

Built in 1569, this original tower house saw many additions during its three and a half centuries, until a fire, and tragic loss of life, destroyed it in 1910. It has remained an ivy-clad ruin ever since; yet its distorted beauty holds our gaze as we pass it today.

The one continuous association with the Blake family now, is sadly, its cemetery. Last week another member of that ancient family, Bruce St John Blake, a well-known and respected Galway solicitor, was laid to rest there. Bruce followed his father, Harry St John Blake, to be elected in 1976 president of the Law Society of Ireland, its youngest holder of the prestigious office. Bruce was an avid rugby supporter, long associated with Galwegians RFC, of which his father was a founding member in 1922.**

Judicious declaration

The Blakes are one of the 14 Tribes of Galway, and were a prominent Catholic family since they settled here in the 12th century. Romantic legend claims the family is descended from Sir Aplake, one of the gallant knights of King Arthur’s round table; but a more likely theory is that the family was founded by Sir Walter Caddel, a warrior of Norman-Welsh extraction, who came to Ireland on board the same ship as Strongbow, during the first Anglo-Norman invasion in 1169.

Over the centuries, the Blakes were regularly mayors and aldermen of Galway, having made and lost fortunes in trade and politics; and, when history required, by a judicious declaration for the Protestant faith, they managed to hold on to most of their lands.

A Protestant burial

A family of such longevity had to have a few eccentric members. When Sir William Wilde was researching his book he was a frequent visitor to Menlough Castle, and became friends with Sir Thomas Blake. It appears that the switching of religion in historic times to protect family lands, led to some confusion as to which religion exactly, did various branches of the family belong to. This confusion came to a crisis when Sir Thomas died on January 2 1875.

Sir Thomas had always believed he was a Catholic, and regularly attended Mass. However, his son, Sir Valentine, had him buried a Protestant, later insisting his father had a ‘softening of the brain’, that impaired his judgment. The award-winning travel-writer and historian, Turtle Bunbury, tells us that the Menlo tenants were infuriated by this, and a riot broke out at the funeral.The cortège was stopped, and the tenants demanded that Sir Thomas be given a Catholic burial. The parish priest, watching the ugly scene, clearly thought it better to let poor Sir Thomas have a Protestant way to heaven, and he called the angry tenants off. The incident ended in court and four of the tenants were sentenced to one month in gaol. Others fled to Australia.

The tenants vowed revenge and feelings ran so high that when Sir Valentine himself died in 1912, 37 years later, ‘a large police presence ensured the event passed peacefully’. When the headstone was erected over the grave some time afterwards, it was erected over his feet! Some local families felt that a ‘footstone’ rather than a ‘headstone’ told its own story.***

The ‘Sunday Man’ and more Blake stories next week.

NOTES: *Menlo Park, California, headquarters of Facebook, was founded by two Irish immigrants Denis J Oliver, and his brother-in-law DC McGlynn, in August 1854. Menlo village, Co Galway, behind the castle, was their former home.

**In the days when everyone travelled to Dublin by train, and tried to get the 6pm train back to Galway, Bruce was a familiar figure holding court, surrounded by friends, usually talking rugby. A law graduate from NUIG 1962, Bruce spent a long life at law, and was a member of the Refugee Appeals Tribunal, and also on the board if the ISPCC.

He is survived by his children Jessica, Alanna, Grainne, Brídín, Colm, Mary and Dermot, his brother Henry and sister Easter, and grandchildren. His eldest daughter Madeleine, and his lovely wife Grace predeceased him.

***Bunbury credits this story from Seanchas Thomas Laighleis, by Tomas Laighleis, whose father Patrick Lawless was one of the men sent to prison.

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