For a time Tyrone House must have accurately resembled the scene described by Violet Martin in a letter to her friend Edith Somerville where ‘half-peasant families roosted together in that lovely house and fought, and barricaded, and drank, till the police had to intervene’.
Arthur St George, a ‘moral and domestic country gentleman’, was supporting his father Christopher who on the death of his 28-year-old wife Anne Bingham, with whom he had three children, took up with a ‘cher amie’ Miss Rebecca Clyne, and had a further five children. They were not married and were not accepted by society.
Arthur, whose wife Lady Harriet predeceased him, had 11 children which he was also supporting. When Arthur’s eldest son and heir, also called Christopher St George, arrived home from Trinity college with his inamorata Honoria Kane (with whom he would have 14 children over the course of their lives together ), there was a serious space problem. Something had to be done.
Old Christopher proposed that he would relinquish all claims on the St George estate if his son Arthur paid him an annuity of £3,000. This was agreed. His father took his new family and lived near by at Kilcolgan Castle for a further 24 years.
Following Arthur’s death in 1844 his eldest son Christopher became the landlord of the 22,000 acre St George estate, and with great relish and energy, threw himself into the life of the privileged landlord class with its passion for racing, hunting and politics.*
The St Georges, however, like so many landed families especially in the west of Ireland, were living beyond their means and falling ever deeper into debt. Appearances, however, always mattered. Throughout his life Christopher kept an extensive staff at Tyrone House, including 18 house servants and a further 32 for outdoor duties in areas such as stables and gardens. A postboy was employed to carry letters in bags bearing the St George crest to and from the local post office.
For much of his life he was ardent horseman, not least on the hunting field. From the age of 19 years, while still an undergraduate at Trinity, he kept his own pack of hounds on the family estate. Known as the County Galway Hunt, it famously changed its name to The Blazers owing to a fire being started after a raucous dinner one night that led to the gutting of Dooley’s Hotel, in Birr, Co Offaly. Subscriptions were collected but most of the expense, amounting the £1,500 per annum, was borne by the St George estate.**
While still a young man Christopher was often accompanied by a bodyguard of four or five young men, some carrying weapons. It was believed that the armed men were a deterrent to any unfortunate bailiff who endeavoured to serve a warrant on Christopher.
One Summer’s evening a young soldier, Jenkins, or John Heather, of the Royal Engineers, was mapping part of the estate for an Ordnance Survey. He was spotted by some of these men, beaten and thrown over a high wall. Heather subsequently died and Christopher and three of his guards were arrested.
This became a major scandal. The four men were charged with murder. However, a London newspaper reported that it was Arthur St George who was arrested and not Christopher. In the confusion that followed, and furious letters from Arthur to the great and the good in Dublin and London, Christopher and the men were freed on bail. Thereafter the charges were dropped, or lost. The accused body guards went to America.
Christopher’s great passion was horse racing at which he was a successful trainer and breeder. In August 1869 Christopher, Lord Clanmorris and others, grabbed the opportunity when an outbreak of fever caused the popular races at Tuam to be cancelled that year. They were relocated to Ballybrit a few miles from Galway, where it remains to this day. Ballybrit quickly became a favourite social meeting, where the County Galway Plate (a silver salver worth £40, given by he High Sheriff and gentry of Galway ), was the most sought after prize. The Galway Races, much as they are today, were commented upon at the time as ‘there never was in this Kingdom, so much company at a horse race, and yet every place was easy without a crowd. The entertainments in town were agreeably conducted, and with the greatest harmony and satisfaction imaginable’.
St George maintained a racing stud at the Curragh, and his horses were famed throughout Ireland and England. His colours were a sea-green and white cap, and his three most famous horses were Chanticleer, Knight of St George, and Solon. By 1865 Christopher was listed among Ireland’s top race-horse owners. His popularity was such he was persuaded to run for parliament, which he did and delivered a rousing canvass speech where he urged England to provide greater relief and support for the victims of the Great Famine, he appealed for better education facilities for all, and objected to absentee landlords, and promised to secure a railway line to Galway.
It would be hard to ignore such a generous and hopeful manifesto. In 1847 he was duly elected to represent County Galway together with Sir Thomas Burke.
But of course whereas his race winnings and the success of his Curragh stud contributed to Christopher St George’s extravagant life style, it was also paid for by the the labours of his tenants. It appears he was a careless landlord. In 1848 a tenant took St George to court on a charge of false imprisonment and illegally taking his crops. The tenant was awarded £800.
It appears that he was quick to evict tenants slow to pay their dues. It was reported to parliament, which must have been very embarrassing for St George, that ‘no less than 11 boats, loaded with destitute persons’ had come into Galway from Connemara, mainly from the St George estates.
A public inquiry later established that notices of eviction had not been served, and were conducted ‘under circumstances of great cruelty:’
‘The time chosen was nightfall New Year’s Eve..the occupiers were forced out of their houses with their helpless children, and left exposed to the cold on a bleak western shore on a stormy winter’s night, that the parents implored that they might be left until morning; and that their prayers for mercy were in vain, and that many of them had since died.’***
Announcing the death of Christopher St George, the Galway Vindicator, November 14 1887, recalled that he was a devoted sportsman, and ‘was well known to a wide circle of friends in the highest rank in the United Kingdom’.
‘He was an active politician and represented this county in Parliament from 1847 - 1852, and was indefatigable and attentive in the discharge of his parliamentary duties’.
Whether it was with a sense of irony or not, the Vindicator commented that ‘As a landlord and country gentleman Mr St George was universally esteemed. He made a general reduction in the rents of his estates in the famine years, or immediately after, and has not since made any alteration…..’
After his death, St George’s family, gradually depleting in numbers, carried on living in Tyrone House for some time. Honoria, described as ‘Mrs St George’ in her obituary, lived on at the old house until she was 98 years old. When the IRA came to burn it down in August 1920, there were only two elderly housekeepers in residence, and they were led to safety.
Sadly Violet Martin, who had written to Edith Somerville in March 1911 saying that there was a great book in the story of the St Georges ‘if we dare to write it’, never did get to write that book. She died three years later at the age of 53 years. Edith, however, was intrigued by as much of the story that Violet had told her. In 1925 she published ‘The Big House of Inver’, believed to be very loosely based on Tyrone House. She introduces the novel: ‘This is the history of one of those minor dynasties that, in Ireland have risen and ruled, and rioted, and have at last crashed in ruins. They had their great days, and peace and plenty, and built fine houses that now stand empty. Their very names are sunk in squalor, misspelt, mispronounced, surviving only illegitimately’.
NOTES: * Patrick Melvin in his magisterial study of Galway landed families, cites that large families were not uncommon among the landed class. In Galway there were 14 families of five children, 27 families of six children, 19 families of seven children, 11 families of nine children. The Persses of Moyode and of Roxborough had families of up to 16 children, and Lord Dunsandle had at lest as many. In the case of the Brownes of Claran, near Headford, a very old and impoverished family, there is a reference to 13th daughter marrying a Lynch who was a 16th son. Large families meant that houses were overcrowded and were sometimes extended and rebuilt. JM Callwell, who was a Martin of Ross, wrote that it was a matter of course that when the eldest son married he would bring his wife to the family home and raise his children there. Unmarried daughters remained in the family house, even when it passed to a brother or to a younger generation. Widowed aunts and cousins looked to the old ancestral home for shelter. Five unmarried aunts lived with the Dillons of Clonbrock.
** Continuity of tradition was marked by the appointment of Lady Cusack Smith as Joint Master in 1939. Her ancestor John Dennis had been appointed first Master in 1839.
***The inquiry was conducted by Major McKie, reporting to the commissioners in Dublin, which concluded that the ejectments were illegal’.
Sources this week include ‘Tyrone House and the St George Family’ by Robert O’ Byrne, on sale Charlie Byrnes €25., and ‘Estates and Landed Society in Galway’ by Patrick Melvin, published by Edmund Burke, 2012.
Sources for this series include Tyrone House and the St George Family, by Robert O’ Byrne, published 2017, on sale at Charlie Byrnes €25, and Estates and Landed Society in Galway, by Patrick Melvin, published by Éamonn de Búrca, 2012.
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