The woman at the door of Tyrone House

Week III

On the afternoon of March 18 1912, Violet Martin and her friend Tilly Redington, arrived at the door of Tyrone House, the home of the less than ordinary St George family. The three storey house, in the luxurious Palladian style, and said to be sumptuously decorated inside, is dramatically located by the estuary of the Kilcolgan river, about 2 miles distant from Kilcolgan village.

Violet was related to the Martins of Ballynahinch. Her father boasted that like his cousin Humanity Dick he had not lost one of his tenants during the Great Famine. The cost of such generosity was bankruptcy which both families bore as bravely as they could. On this March afternoon Violet was an established author. She and her cousin Edith Somerville of Castletownshend, West Cork, had effectively cooperated in a series of books on the landlord class. They had just published what would be their most successful novel: ‘Some Reminiscences of an Irish RM’.*

Violet had a sharp eye for family eccentricities, and the St Georges would not disappoint. She was both amused and aghast at what she saw. She wrote to her cousin Edith that the house ‘is on a long promontory by the sea and there rioted three or four generations of St Georges - living with country women, occasionally marrying them, all illegitimate four times over. Not so long ago eight of these awful half-peasant families roosted together in that lovely house and fought, and barricaded, and drank, till the police had to intervene … About 150 years ago a very grand Lady Harriet St Lawrence married a St George and lived there, and was so corroded with pride that she would not allow her daughters to associate with the Galway people. She lived to see them marry two men in the yard….’

Not all Violet’s observations were accurate, but she was close. She was a writer of fiction and had a good nose for a story. On this occasion, as they drove away after their visit, they noticed ‘an old Miss St George, daughter of the last owner, who was at the door in a donkey trap. ‘She lives near in a bit of a castle, and since her people died she will not go into Tyrone House…She was a strange mixture of distinction and commonness, like her breeding, and it was very sad to see her at the door of that great house… If we dare to write up that subject !’

Honoria Kane

The story of that unfortunate woman was interesting. The last owner of Tyrone House was Christopher French St George, who had died some 25 years before Violet’s visit, was a very charming man, with a passion for hunting, racing and politics. But he had shocked his aristocratic peers by not marrying ‘a suitable girl of his class’ but lived openly with Honoria Kane, a Catholic, and the daughter of a humble painter. They had 12 children together. After a Protestant wedding in 1852, two further daughters were born. George’s aristocratic connections and high profile in the racing, hunting and political world, kept him popular with his friends and associates, but his domestic arrangements were a mess. Honoria was never accepted by society.

Surprisingly this mésalliance with Miss Kane was not unheard of. Lord Dunsandle, whose family the Dalys further owned large estates at Lismore and Kilconnel, became attached to a tenant’s daughter, Mary Broderick, a Catholic. He set up a separate residence for her at Attymon, six miles from Dunsandle. They had at least 18 children before being legally married in 1864. They had three further children including a son who died young.**

Oyster beds

Christopher French St George’s parents, Arthur and Lady Harriet St Lawrence (so unfairly referred to in Violet’s letter ), were the epitome of decorum and good manners which were expected from people of their social class. Tyrone House, designed by John Roberts, who also designed Moore Hall in Co Mayo, and Waterford Cathedral, was built to the highest standards in 1779. It was regarded as one of the finest houses in Ireland with magnificent architraving, ceilings and coving. The house was surrounded by a great yard, flourishing gardens, a turf-yard and a quay along the river. Within its 12 feet high walled garden were peach, apple and cherry trees, and heated greenhouses which produced exotic fruits, and perfect black Hamburg grapes. It enjoyed panoramic views of Galway Bay, while having full access to the most famous oyster beds in the country.

Sought a peerage

Both Arthur and Lady Harriet came from the original Norman settlers in Ireland round about the 12th century. Arthur’s family was originally one the Galway tribal Ffrenches, but through marriage alliances absorbed the name St George into their family tree. They were substantial land owners with 24,000 acres scattered around the county and as far west as Lettermore and Garomna.

Harriet had inherited her title, and her husband Arthur understandably, given his wealth and position, and that of the woman he had married, was anxious to secure a peerage so they might have equality in their names. Mr Arthur St George, sounded a bit flat compared to Lady Harriet, but after a long petition to the House of Lords the matter was gently ignored.

They were popular landlords. After the Great Famine there was a move to supplement the potato crop with more ‘green’ vegetables. The family embraced the lectures of Thomas Skilling planting oatmeal, beans, peas and other vegetables, instead of the ubiquitous potato. Skilling grew several acres of vegetables and fruit at the Blake’s Ardfry estate which people came to see. At an outbreak of cholera at Kilcolgan Arthur employed nurses from Galway to mind the sick.

The couple had 11 children, three sons and eight daughters. When his eldest son and heir Christopher was born, the kindly Arthur and Lady Harriet gave a dinner to their tenantry on the lawn of Tyrone, ‘of which upwards of 800 persons partook, and all seemed highly pleased with their good cheer’. ‘ The tables were loaded with plenty of beef and mutton roast and boiled, and as much porter and ale as they could consume after dinner’.

Lady Harriet died in 1830, and was buried in the Gothic mausoleum attached to the near-by medieval church of St Sourney, at Drumacoo. A most loving tribute, carved on a marble monument, extolled her many virtues: ‘Her unbounded love of God, her high sense of honour, her scrupulous integrity and extensive benevolence secured the attachment of her friends and the love of her own family. Signed: ‘a disconsolate husband’.

Rebecca Clyne

While Arthur French St George may have enjoyed an ‘ample fortune’ when compared to the impoverished circumstances of his tenants, the estate income was subject to various pressures from time to time. An undoubted drain on funds was his father’s extraordinary new lease of life after the death of his wife Anne Bingham, who had given her husband Christopher St George (same name as his grandson ), two children, had died at the young age of 28 years. At some date thereafter, the widower Christopher French St George began living with another woman called Rebecca Clyne, and it is unclear if they were ever married. Old Christopher was totally besotted by his Rebecca. A visiting clergyman and his wife, the Reverend Daniel Beaufort and his wife Louisa, were inveterate travellers and kept a note book on all they saw. As they viewed Tyrone House, Louisa commented that Christopher French St George ‘keeps a cher amie and to please her is turned Roman Catholic.’

She relates a story ‘which one can scarcely credit, on the first day he went to chapel, it happened that the Host was then elevating, at which everyone kneels. He supposed this obsequience performed in honour of him, and bowed all round. When the service was over he came forward and made a fine harangue returning the congregation thanks for their civility to him!’

Lamenting what all this behaviour must have meant his son Arthur, Louisa concluded, ‘who is a moral, domestic country gentleman, to have his father living so near him, not two miles from his gate, so despicable a life’.

Old Christopher and Rebecca had five children together, and when sharing Tyrone House with the rest of his family became too much for everyone (Violet Martin observed they ‘rioted’ ), he drew up a deed of settlement renouncing his life interest in the French and St George estates in return for an annuity of £3,000.

Arthur agreed. His father took his inamorata and his new children down the road to Kilcolgan Castle, which he made as comfortable as he could, and lived happily for a further 24 years.

The woman at the door of Tyrone House who Violet Martin saw in the donkey trap, was probably one of Arthur’s daughters.

Next Week: The life and times of Christopher St George and the end of Tyrone House.

NOTES: * The novels were made into an enjoyable TV comedy series in 1983, starring Peter Bowles, Anna Manahan, Brian Murray, and Virginia Cole.

** Dunsandle’s sons by Mary Broderick were well educated, unlike those of Christopher St George. The boys were brought up as Protestants, went mostly to Eton and entered military service. The daughters were educated as Catholics. Dunsandle, however, put a clause into a deed which barred a Catholic from inheriting the estate. When his eldest son William Daly became Catholic on his marriage to the daughter of Sir Thomas Burke of Marble Hall, he became automatically disinherited.

St George’s estate was inherited by the two daughters born after the Protestant wedding ceremony. The girls all married well, but the boys were badly educated and the eldest married another ‘country woman’.

Sources include Tyrone House and the St George Family, by Robert O’Byrne, published 2017, and Estates and Landed Society in Galway, by Patrick Melvin, published by Éamonn de Búrca 2012.

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