Drishane House, Castletownshend, Co. Cork

contact: Thomas Somerville. t: +353 28 36126, 083-8574589

e: info@drishane.com

w: drishane.com

Listed open dates in 2021: May 1-20, Aug 14-22, Sept 13-23, Oct 1-20, 11am -3pm

Fee: adult €10, OAP /student/child €6, children under €6 free

Edith Somerville, of Somerville and Ross Some Experiences of an Irish RM fame (which has been made into a television series), said “If I am ever allowed to return to earth it will be to Drishane that I shall come,” and I can see why. The estate is situated with a magnificent view over the Atlantic ocean.

Stephen overlooking Castletown Bay from Drishane.

Edith’s ancestor Reverend William Somerville fled persecution in Scotland in the 1690s and moved to Ireland. [1] He was an Episcopalian Minister who feared for his life following the disestablishment of the Church of Scotland in 1690. The Drishane House website tells us that Reverend William rowed his family twenty miles across rough water to Ulster, where they found refuge with family connections. 

The Reverend’s younger son, Thomas, attended Trinity College Dublin and was ordained in the Church of Ireland. He married Anne Neville, of Furnace, County Kildare, a prosperous and well-connected family. Thomas obtained the position of Rector of Castlehaven and the family moved to Cork. He set up house in the old O’Driscoll castle next to the church at Castlehaven Strand. Both are now ruins. His portrait, his stick and his 1685 edition of Bedel’s Irish Bible remain in the possession of his descendants.

Three of Reverend Thomas’s sons moved to America and prospered. The eldest son hoped to follow in his father’s footsteps as a clergyman but lost an eye in university, so instead became a successful shipping merchant. He’d send butter and salted provisions to the West Indies and bring back rum, sugar and timber. [2] He built his house at Drishane, on the edge of the village of Castletownshend, where he had a view of his ships in Castlehaven Bay. Among items he imported from the West Indies was the mahogany which was used to make the doors of the reception rooms in Drishane.

He married Mary Townsend, daughter of Captain Philip Townsend who lived in Derry, County Cork, great-granddaughter of Richard Townsend who was an officer in Cromwell’s army and who built the castle at nearby Castletownshend (it was only in 1860 that the family changed the spelling of their name from Townsend to Townshend [3]).

Castle Townshend. photograph from the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage. [4]
Drishane House.

Drishane house is two storeys, six bays across, with a fanlighted doorway. This tripartite limestone doorcase, with Tuscan demi-columns, now serves as a garden entrance doorway. The newer entrance doorway, built in 1820, is on the more sheltered two bay end of the house, which is prolonged by a lower two storey wing.  The house is covered with purple Benduff weather-slating.

the newer entrance door, with the lower two storey wing. Frank Keohane describes this new entryway: an unusual rock-faced limestone doorcase with a scrolled pediment of vaguely Chinese appearance.” [5]

Stephen and I visited the house during Heritage Week in 2020. The current owner, another Thomas Somerville, welcomed us, and introduced us to his two sons, who gave us the tour of the house and the museum in the outbuilding which used to be Edith Somerville’s painting and writing studio. As there was already someone on a house tour, we visited the museum first.

The grey door leads into the studio. Unfortunately we were not allowed to take photographs inside, but that is all the more reason for you to visit! Inside the door is a sign identifying the room as the studio, painted by Edith.

Edith Oenone Somerville (1858-1949) was given her unusual middle name because she was born in Corfu where her father was serving in the British military. She met her cousin Violet Martin (1862-1915) when they were both in their twenties, when Violet paid a visit to Drishane. They were both great-granddaughters of Lord Chief Justice Charles Kendal Bushe. Edith painted a portrait of Violet in 1886 during this visit, and the painting is now in the National Portrait Gallery in London. She painted the portrait in her studio, which at the time was inside the house – it was only later that she moved to the outbuilding. The chair in the painting is still in the studio. Violet’s first holiday at Drishane was a long one, as it was only after a month that Edith began her portrait. Violet brought the portrait with her back to Dublin when she left Drishane ten months later.

Violet’s family lived in County Galway in a three storey house called Ross House (now called Ross Castle). She was the youngest of eleven daughters. Her family had fallen into debt in the time of the Great Famine, due to the help they had given their tenants, and when her father died when she was just ten years old, her brother inherited the house and decided to let it out.

Ross House, or Castle, photograph care of National Inventory of Architectural Heritage.
photograph from Internet Archive Book Images. From the book Irish Memories by Edith Somerville, 1919. Publisher: New York, Longmans, Green & Co. It is interesting that the picture is signed a “Martin Ross,” rather than “Violet Martin.” A small silver case given as a gift to Edith from Violet is engraved “To Edith, Love Martin.”

She moved with her mother to Dublin and was educated at Alexandra College, where Edith also studied but as she was four years older than Violet, where they never met. Violet would have felt like a poor relation when she visited her cousins in Cork, but she was warmed by the generous welcome. Edith was surrounded by cousins: the Townshends and the Coghills lived nearby, and at first the quiet Violet must have been overwhelmed with the sociability of the house.

Violet had begun writing when she was in school and hoped to make a living by journalism. Edith studied art in London, Dusseldorf and Paris, and sold some paintings and drawings in order to finance her own art training and hoped to make a living in graphic art. When they first collaborated, Violet wrote the text which Edith illustrated, but soon they were writing the novels together. They did not want to publish under their own names, so chose “Somerville and Ross,” Violet taking the name of her home.

Image from page 164 of Irish Memories by Edith Somerville – I assume this is a photograph of Edith herself. Photograph care of Internet Archive Book Images.

Violet, a sister and her mother moved back to Ross House in 1888, and Violet set about trying to restore the house and gardens to their former glory. At the end of 1888, Violet and Edith received news that their first book, An Irish Cousin, was to be published. At first they had to correct proofs separately, until Edith visited Violet at Ross House. It is believed by the current owners of Ross Castle that the ladies worked on the book under the Venetian window on the first-floor landing, which now has a table and chair set up with some of their books. One can stay in the house: either whole house rental, or self-catering in cottages which are converted stables, carriage house and servants’ quarters. Drishane House is also available for whole house rental and also has holiday cottages). [6]

I imagine that Edith Somerville, when she illustrated their book, Through Connemara in a Governess Cart (published 1893), had herself and her cousin in mind when she drew this picture. Photograph care of the British Library.

The Museum contains copies of some of Edith’s paintings, as well as letters, drawings and photographs relating to her life. I was excited to see correspondence and music by the composer Ethel Smyth, who was a good friend of Edith and also of Virginia Woolf. Like Ethel and Virginia, Edith was also a feminist. Edith wrote: “It will be acknowledged that sport, Lawn Tennis, Bicycling, and Hunting played quite as large a part as education in the emancipation that has culminated in the Representation of the People Bill. The playing fields of Eton did not as surely win Waterloo as the hunting-fields and tennis grounds of the kingdom won the vote for women.” [quoted in the introduction by Gifford Lewis, 1999, of Somerville and Ross’s The Real Charlotte]. Edith was an enthusiast for hunting and became Master of her local hunt. She also became President of the Munster Women’s Franchise League. [7]

After Violet died, Edith wrote a further fourteen books, all published under their joint names. Edith felt that Violet continued to help to write the books after her death. Edith took to a sort of “automatic writing” to include Violet’s input. Examples of this are in the museum. Edith claimed that stormy weather made it more difficult for her to tune into Violet’s messages. [8]

There was another museum in Drishane before Edith’s studio, a collection of Indian items which Edith and her brother Jack called “Aunt Fanny’s Museum.” There is also another item which I forgot to ask about when visiting. Mark Bence-Jones tells the story of its origins:

Drishane’s most famous possession, the Fairy Shoe, was sent away to the bank for safe keeping and bad luck followed, it was wisely decided to bring the Shoe back and it has remained in the house ever since. The Shoe, which came to the Somervilles from the Coghills, was picked up on an Irish mountain early in the nineteenth century; it is exactly like the shoes worn by adults at that time and shows signs of wear, but it is only about two inches long. [9]

Edith had the French doors installed in 1901.

Thomas the merchant’s son, also named Thomas (born about 1765), inherited Drishane from his father. Unfortunately he “was foolish enough to back a bill,” according to Mark Bence-Jones in Life in an Irish Country House, meaning he must have acted as guarantor for someone who was not able to pay their debt, and subsequently when Thomas died in 1811, the bailiffs came and stripped the house of its contents. [10] Thomas’s wife, Elizabeth Henrietta Becher Townsend, was in bed giving birth to their tenth child. According to the story, the children brought everything they could carry to their mother’s bedroom to hide it, as there was a law forbidding  bailiffs from entering the room of the lady of the house.

When we entered the house with young Hal, Tom Somerville’s son who was giving us the tour, he pointed out that there is no chandelier in the dining room, as it was taken by the bailiff, way back in 1811!

We entered through the garden door with the fanlight directly into what is now the library but was originally the entrance hall. It interlinks the staircase hall with its grand sweeping staircase and lovely striped wallpaper, dining room and drawing room. In the dining room we saw a portrait of Edith’s brother Cameron, along with other portraits. Hal also pointed out to us where Edith had scratched her initials into the glass of the dining room, “EOES.” Swags above the tall curtained windows date to the 1820s.

David Hicks tells us more about Drishane from Edith’s time in his book Irish Country Houses, Portraits and Painters:

Drishane in the 19th century could not be described as homely: it was said to be cold, damp and infested with rats, which is in total contrast to the condition of the house today. When poison was put down to fend off unwanted visitors, they usually died under the floorboards. The resulting decomposition meant sometimes the drawing room could not be used for an extended period, such as in 1878, due to the smell. The drawing room also contained a large white marble fireplace that was brought from Italy by Edith’s great-grandfather. However, over the years it became the final resting place for a number of rodents and was christened the “Mouse-oleum.” This fireplace often had to be taken out for the dead mice to be removed and it became damaged. Edith’s brother Cameron was stationed in China from 1885 to 1889 and when he returned to Drishane he brought back a black marble fireplace complete with carved dragons and Chinese symbols, together with the Somerville crest and motto. This exotic-looking fireplace was installed in the drawing room to replace its damaged predecessor. [11]

Having read Hicks’s description I was excited to see the Chinese fireplace. It is indeed very unusual. 

The oldest of the children who had hidden things in their mother’s bedroom was another Thomas (1798-1882). Mark Bence-Jones tells a lovely story about him. He was very in love with his wife, Harriet Townsend, who was a cousin who had lived up the road in Castle Townshend. [12] Bence-Jones writes:

after her death [he] would sit up for hours by his bedroom fire thinking of Harriet and grieving for her and looking for consolation in his Bible by the light of a candle in her own special candlestick. He would burn two candles every night which Mrs Kerr, the housekeeper, would leave out for him. Then he started to complain, night after night, that he could not find the second candle. Mrs Kerr told his granddaughter Edith what she believed had happened. “My dear child, the candle was there! For I always put it on the table myself! It was Herself that took it, the way your Grandpapa should go to his bed and not be sitting there all night, breaking his heart.” [13]

This Thomas inherited Drishane and died in 1882, when the estate passed to his son, another Thomas. This Thomas (1824-1898) married Adelaide Eliza Coghill, and was the father of Edith, along with six other children who survived to adulthood.

Mark Bence-Jones tells us another good story, this one taken from Somerville and Ross’s book Wheel Tracks, which was published in London in 1923:

Tom Somerville [Edith’s father] was a magistrate and when the police brought cases to be summarily dealt with by him, he would swear the deponents on the Bradshaw’s Railway Guide as though it were a bible, partly through laziness [it lay on a nearby table] and partly from ‘a certain impishness of character and a love of playing on ignorance.’ [14]

Edith had suitors, but her mother sent them packing. In any case, Edith seems to have cherished her freedom, taking full advantage of her time to paint, hunt, travel and socialise. When her mother died, she took over the management of the household for her father. When her father died, her brother Cameron inherited the estate, but he, like his brothers, served in the military, and he was mostly stationed abroad, so Edith continued to run the household. 

Another brother, Aylmer, and his wife, lived with Edith for a time, and helped to manage the farm which was part of the estate, and her only sister Hildegarde married their cousin Egerton Coghill, 5th Baronet Coghill, and settled nearby at Glen Barrahane house in Castletownshend [this no longer exists]. Egerton was also an artist and when he died Edith and Hildegarde commissioned Harry Clarke to create a stained glass window in their local Church of Ireland, St. Barrahane’s. The window depicts St. Luke, the Patron Saint of Painters. To the left of St. Luke’s shoulder is a depiction of St. Cecelia playing the organ, which is a tribute to Edith, as she played the organ in the church for seventy years. [15]

Among her many cousins was Charlotte Townsend, the wife of George Bernard Shaw, which visited Drishane.

Violet moved to Drishane to live with Edith permanently in 1906. In the 1901 and 1911 censuses Edith signed herself as Head of Household, and in 1911 listed her occupation as “artist, author and dairy farmer” and Violet as “author.” 

Edith struggled to have enough money for the upkeep of the house. She and Violet hoped to earn money from their publications but they sold the work before they became bestsellers. Desmond’s wife describes the shabbiness of the house, and yet traditions were upheld and up until the second world war, everyone “dressed for dinner.” [16] In the summer Edith would locate to a smaller house in the town and let out Drishane to earn some extra money.

Edith’s brother Boyle lived in a house nearby, called Point House. Boyle had been an admiral in the Navy, and if someone was interested in joining the Navy, they’d go to speak to Boyle. Unfortunately, the IRA saw this as recruitment for the British Army. Tom Somerville who now lives in Drishane tells the story in Jane O’Hea O’Keeffe’s book:

Below the village at Point House, overlooking the water, lived my great-great-uncle Boyle Somerville. He was a retired admiral, and local boys who were interested in joining the Royal Navy used to go to him to ask for a chit to say he knew them and that they were fit persons to join the navy. If that was what they wanted to do, he cheerfully signed the chit for them. This was interpreted by the IRA as recruiting, so on the night of 24 March 1936 they came to the front door of Point House. The admiral picked up the oil lamp from the table and went to answer their knock. They enquired, through the glass porch, if he was Mr Somerville. He answered, “I am Admiral Somerville,” whereupon they shot him through the glass, and killed him.” 

Tom continues: “of all the Somervilles, Boyle was the most nationalist. He took a great interest in the Irish language and had always been very pro-Home Rule. He made a study of all the local archaeological sites and is written up by Jack Roberts in his book Exploring West Cork. He was a remarkable man and perhaps the most talented and interesting of all the Somervilles of that generation, besides his sister Edith.” [17] 

Cameron never married and when he died in 1942 the property passed to his nephew Desmond, the son of his brother Aylmer who had predeceased him. Desmond also served in the British Army.

Desmond and his wife Moira Burke Roche invited Edith to remain at Drishane. A memoir by Moira [Moira Somerville’s Edith OE Somerville. An Intimate Recollection. Typescript in Edith Oenone Somerville Archive] describes her first visit to Drishane, as Desmond’s fiancée, and her memory of Edith: “presiding over the tea things in the hall, her little dogs on her lap, the light of the oil lamp on her thistledown hair, her china-blue eyes, so like a child’s, fixed on my face. From that moment I loved her.” [18]

Violet had died just two years before this visit, in 1915. She and Edith had gone on a holiday to Kerry. David Hicks describes Violet’s last days:

Violet began to feel unwell and when her condition worsened she was transferred to the Glen Vera Hospital in Cork. Each day Edith sat by her bedside and wrote to her brother, Cameron. In one letter she wrote, “No one but she and I know what we were to each other.” She sketched her friend as she lay in her hospital bed for the final time before Violet died in Dec 1915. Edith wrote only one sentence in her diary that day: “Only goodnight, Beloved, not farewell.” [19]

Edith lived in the house until she was finally unable to climb the stairs. She then moved to a small house nearby in the town, Tally-Ho, to live with her sister. She died three years later, in 1949. When Desmond died in 1976, Drishane passed to his son Christopher (Dan) Somerville. In Jane O’Hea O’Keeffe’s book, Dan explains how he obtained the display cases for the museum:

We managed to get display cases which had become obsolete from the Bodleian Library in Oxford. We bought a trailer in England and loaded the cases on and brought them to Drishane. They are lovely cases, late Victorian or Edwardian. We couldn’t get them in the front door when we arrived, so we had to remove a window to install them. [20]

It is Dan’s son Thomas, and his wife and two sons, who now live in Drishane and who welcomed our visit. The house retains many of the original features and contents and paintings that date from Edith’s time. It also contains memorabilia from overseas and military engagements.

The house is set in eighteen acres of gardens and woodland. 

[1] p. 105. O’Hea O’Keeffe, Jane. Voices from the Great Houses: Cork and Kerry. Mercier Press, Cork, 2013.

[2] p. 121. Hicks, David. Irish Country Houses, Portraits and Painters. The Collins Press, Cork, 2014.

[3] p. 84, O’Hea O’Keeffe.

[4] https://www.buildingsofireland.ie/buildings-search/building/20836017/castle-townsend-castletownsend-castletownshend-co-cork

[5] Keohane, Frank. The Buildings of Ireland: Cork, City and County. Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2020.

[6] https://www.rosscastle.com and www.drishane.com

[7] p. 105. Bence-Jones, Mark. Life in an Irish Country House. Constable, London. 1996. 

[8] from Moira Somerville’s Edith OE Somerville. An Intimate Recollection. Typescript in Edith Oenone Somerville Archive, referred to by Mark Bence-Jones, Life in an Irish Country House. Constable, London. 1996.

[9] p. 107. Bence-Jones, Mark. Life in an Irish Country House. Constable, London. 1996. 

[10] p. 100. Bence-Jones, Mark. Life in an Irish Country House. Constable, London. 1996. 

[11] p. 122-3, Hicks, David. Irish Country Houses, Portraits and Painters. The Collins Press, Cork, 2014.

[12] Yes indeed, another Somerville-Townshend marriage. The genealogy goes as follows:

Rev William Somerville (1641-1694) m. Agnes Agnew 

Drishane passed to his son, Rev Thomas Somerville (1689-1752), who married Anne Neville 

Drishane passed to their son Thomas Somerville (1725-1793), who married Mary Townsend, daughter of Philip Townsend and Elizabeth Hungerford; grand-daughter of Commander Bryan Townsend (1648-1726). 

Drishane passed to their son, Thomas Townsend Somerville (1725-1811). He married Elizabeth Henrietta Becher Townsend (1776-1832), daughter of John Townsend (1737-1810) [granddaughter of  Richard Townsend and Elizabeth Becher, great-granddaughter of Commander Bryan Townsend (1648-1726)] and Mary Morris.

Drishane passed to the son, Col Thomas Somerville (1798-1882). He married Henrietta Augusta Townshend, daughter of Richard Boyle Townsend (1756-1826), who is great-grandson of Commander Bryan Towsend (1648-1726). 

[ie. Richard Boyle Townsend (1756-1826) is son of Richard Townsend (1725-1783) and Elizabeth Fitzgerald, who is son of Richard Townsend (1684-1742) and Elizabeth Becher, who is son of Commander Bryan Townsend (1648-1726).] 

Drishane passed to son Lieut Col. Thomas Somerville (1824-1898), who married Adelaide Eliza Coghill. 

Drishane passed to their son, (Thomas) Cameron Somerville, the brother of Edith. He died, and Drishane passed via his younger brother Captain Aylmer Coghill Somerville to his son Desmond Somerville. 

[13] p. 100-01. Bence-Jones, Mark. Life in an Irish Country House. Constable, London. 1996.

[14] p. 102. Bence-Jones, Mark. Life in an Irish Country House. Constable, London. 1996. Stephen and I are fans of Michael Portillo’s travel shows, where he takes trains and follows his Bradshaw’s guide, so I like this detail!

[15] https://roaringwaterjournal.com/tag/church-of-st-barrahane/

[16] p. 108. Bence-Jones, Mark. Life in an Irish Country House. Constable, London. 1996. 

[17] p. 113. O’Hea O’Keeffe.


[18] p. 106. Bence-Jones, Mark. Life in an Irish Country House. Constable, London. 1996.

[19] p. 130. Hicks, David. Irish Country Houses, Portraits and Painters. The Collins Press, Cork, 2014.

[20] p. 109. O’Hea O’Keeffe.

Covid times, and planning ahead

Ideally I would like to continue publishing a blog entry every week but I am still catching up on places I have visited, writing and researching and seeking approval from home-owners, and am unable to keep up the pace!

Doneraile Court, County Cork.
deer in the park at Doneraile.

We visited some big houses that are not on the Section 482 revenue list when we were in County Cork last year during Heritage Week, including Doneraile Court and Fota, both open to the public and well worth a visit. [1] If I run out of places to write about on the section 482 list, I will write about them! But I still have to write about our visit to Cabra Castle, County Cavan, before Christmas last year! [2] We had a wonderful treat of being upgraded to a bedroom suite in the Castle, the Bridal Suite, no less, with our own rooftop jacuzzi.

The Bridal Suite at Cabra Castle, County Cavan.

The 2021 Revenue list of 482 Properties has not yet been published, and I am not sure when we will be able to visit places again, due to Covid transmissibility. I have already mapped out a year’s worth of visits, all around Ireland, and have even booked to stay in some exciting looking houses, but I don’t know what is going to be open – I have been planning around the 2020 list, assuming opening dates, once places do open, will be similar to last year.

In the meantime I can look at photographs and dream, and work on my own home (I painted the bedroom sage green) and garden (my potatoes are chitting) and research upcoming visits. I’m currently reading Turtle Bunbury’s book about the landowning families in County Kildare, and Mark Bence-Jones’s Life in an Irish Country House, and Somerville and Ross’s The Real Charlotte.

We were privileged to be able to stay in Mark Bence-Jones’s house last year for a wonderful week. [3]

Glenville Park, the home of the late Mark Bence-Jones, County Cork.

I will be writing soon about more big houses and in the meantime, I hope you are able to stay safe and healthy and happy in these Covid times.

Fota House, County Cork.

[1] http://doneraileestate.ie


[2] https://www.cabracastle.com

[3] http://www.glenvillepark.com

Kilshannig House, Rathcormac, County Cork

contact: Hugo Merry Tel: 087-2513928

Open dates in 2020 (but check due to Covid restrictions): May 1-3, June 1-30, July 1-31, Aug 1-31, Sept 2, 4, 7, 9, 11, 14, 16, 18, 21, 23, 25, 28, 30, May & Sept 8.30am-2.30pm, June-Aug 10am-4pm

Fee: adult/OAP €10, child €7, student €8

Stephen and I visited Kilshannig House in Rathcormac, County Cork, in August 2020, during Heritage Week. Kilshannig is most notable for its wonderful stucco work.

I rang Mr. Merry in advance, and he was away but told me his housekeeper could show us around. Stephen and I were spending a few days on holidays with our friends Denise and Ivan, and Denise decided to join us to come to see the house. I was excited to show someone what it is like to visit the section 482 houses. In most cases, like this day visiting Kilshannig, we are going to see someone’s private home. It is not like visiting a place normally open to the public, like Fota House or Doneraile Court, two houses which Stephen and I also visited while in Cork, which are now owned and run by Irish Heritage Trust and the OPW (Office of Public Works) respectively. [1] I always feel that I am an inconvenience, requesting a visit someone’s home. I must remind myself that it is visitors like me and you who ensure that the section 482 revenue scheme continues. I envy owners of these beautiful homes, but maintaining a Big House is almost a career choice. In fact owners often express their belief that they are the caretaker of a small part of Ireland’s built heritage. In this case, Mr. Merry runs an equine stud, and it is the success of that which enables him to maintain the upkeep of his home. He has also converted an extension into self-catering accommodation [2].

The house, as you can see from the photograph of the entire sweep, is Palladian [3]. It was built in 1765-66 for Abraham Devonsher, an MP and a Cork banker. The date 1766 is written on a “hopper” and probably commemorates the completion of the house.

Cast-iron rainwater goods having ornate hoppers, dated 1766, with gambolling lion and winged cherub head, square-profile down pipe and moulded joints.” [see 9]

It was designed by Davis Ducart [or Duckart], whose Irish career began in the 1760s and continued until his death in about 1785. The Dictionary of Irish Architects tells us:

According to William Brownlow, writing to the Earl of Abercorn in 1768, he ‘dropped into this Kingdom from the clouds, no one knows how, or what brought him to it.’ [4]

The Irish Historic Houses website tells us that Ducart worked as a canal and mining engineer as well as an architect. With engineering skill, he was committed to good design and craftsmanship. The Dictionary of Irish Architects tells us of criticism of his work, however:

An attack on him in the Freeman’s Journal for 3-4 February 1773 states that he had given up architecture by this time: ‘Our French architect … never could bring any thing to perfection he put his hands to; he made some of his first (and, alas! his last) experiments as an architect, at the cost of the public and many private gentlemen, in the country and city of Cork, the latter of which bears a large monument of his insipid, uncooth taste in the art of designing; he was actually ignorant of the common rules and proportions of architecture; eternally committing mistakes and blunders, and confounding and contradicting his own directions, until he himself saw the folly of such proceedings, and (not without certain admonitions) quitted the profession he had no sort of claim to.’

I do not know enough about architecture to contradict the writer in the Freeman’s Journal but the Irish Historic Houses website claims: “Ducart was arguably the most accomplished architect working in Ireland between the death of Richard Cassels and arrival of James Gandon.” [5] In an article in Country Life, Judith Hill suggests that criticism was motivated by professional jealousy of a foreigner. [6]

Other works associated with Ducart are the Mayoralty or Mansion House, Cork (1765-1773); Lota Lodge in County Cork (1765); Castletown Cox in County Kilkenny (1767); Brockley House, Laois (1768); Custom House of Limerick (1769) which now houses the Hunt Museum; Castlehyde House, County Cork; Drishane Castle, County Cork (which is also a section 482 property, not to be confused with Drishane House – about which I will be writing shortly). [see 4]

The cherrypicker out front mars the photograph, but Anne the housekeeper explained that work was being done in the house. The front door is approached by a flight of limestone steps.

The house consists of a central block of two storeys over basement (with a mezzanine level), with wings either side that are described by Mark Bence-Jones as “L” shaped but to me they look U shaped, almost like a pair of crab claws. [7] Curved walls close in either wing into courtyards. Frank Keohane describes it in The Buildings of Ireland: Cork, City and County:

At Kilshannig, Ducart developed his own interpretation of the ubiquitous Irish Palladian country-house plan, which he also used with modification at Castletown Cox, Co Kilkenny, and The Island, Co Cork (demolished). Eschewing the Pearse-Castle tradition, Duckart’s central block is flanked by inward turned L-shaped (rather than rectangular) wings which project forward to form a cour d’honneur. Curved screen walls connect the inward-facing ends of the wings back to the house and enclose kitchen and stable courts. The principal North front, looking across the park to Devonsher’s parliamentary borough of Rathcormac, comprises a neat central corps de logis flanked by six-bay blind arcades, representing the back ranges of the courts, which terminate in domed pavilions. The plan has been likened to that of Vanbrugh’s Castle Howard, Yorkshire.” [8]

The view from the front, overlooking Rathcormac.

Keohane suggests that Davis Ducart was probably assisted by Thomas Roberts of Waterford. The front of the house is of red brick with limestone quoins, and the centre block is seven bays across with a single-storey three bay Doric frontispiece which the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage tells us is of cut sandstone. [9] The frontispiece has Doric style pilasters, and the door and window openings have fluted scroll keystones with plinths that look like they should hold something, in circular niches. The pilasters support an entablature which the National Inventory describes: “with alternating bucrania and fruit and flowers metopes and triglyphs.” The metopes are the squares with the pictures of “bucrania” (cow or ox skulls, commonly used in Classical architecture, they represent ancient Greek and Roman ceremonies of sacrifice) and fruit and flowers, and the triglyphs are the three little pillars between each square picture (wikipedia describes: “In classical architecture, a metope (μετόπη) is a rectangular architectural element that fills the space between two triglyphs in a Doric frieze, which is a decorative band of alternating triglyphs and metopes above the architrave of a building of the Doric order.“) [10]

Above this stone frontispiece is an empty niche which Bence-Jones tells us contained, in a photograph taken in approximately 1940, a statue or relief of a warrior or god.

There is a mezzanine level, which is unusual in such a house, and we can see that the windows at this level are squeezed between ground and first floor levels. The Irish Historic Houses website tells us that the house has four formal fronts. Unfortunately we did not walk around the house so I did not photograph the other fronts. The basement windows are semicircular, which is apparently characteristic for Ducart.

photograph from the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage [9].
the basement windows, “charmingly glazed with cobweb-like astragals,” as Casey and Rowan describe them. Photograph from National Inventory of Architectural Heritage.

The wings have five arched windows each and Keohane tells us that the wings are actually low two-storey buildings. The copper domes and timber cupolas have been reinstated by the present owners.

On the back facade the arcades have plain Tuscan pilasters supporting a deep entablature with small blind roundels above each arch.

Photograph from National Inventory of Architectural Heritage – you can see that this was taken before the domes were reinstated.

Anne the housekeeper welcomed us and brought us into the impressive Baroque hall.

Front Hall. Excuse the dirty floor, from ongoing repair work.

Keohane writes that the plasterwork in Kilshannig is by two different people with distinctive styles. He writes: “The accomplished decoration to the Saloon and Library ceilings is the work of the Swiss-Italian Filippo Lafranchini, here combining emphatic late Baroque modelling with the refinement of small-scale ornament of a Rococo character. The remaining decoration, which is vigorously naturalistic and in places ungainly, is by an unknown, and presumably Irish, hand.” For more on the Lafranchini brothers, see the Irish Aesthete’s entry about them. [11]

The stuccadore of the wonderful Rococo plasterwork in the hall is therefore unknown. Our guide, Anne, pointed out that the birds, that reminded me of birds at Colganstown by Robert West of Dublin, stick out too far and that the heads have a tendency to be knocked off. The ceiling is deeply coved, and features acanthus leaves, flower and fruit-filled baskets and garlands with draped ribbons.

The floor of the front hall is of Portland stone with black insets. The walls have Corinthian columns and the corners of the ceiling decoration are curved.

The hall has a beautiful Portland stone fireplace with a mask flanked by garlands, and two male Grecian bearded Herms (“a tapering pedestal supporting a bust, or merging into a sculpted figure, used ornamentally, particularly at the sides of chimneypieces. Roughly similar to a term.’) [3]. Herm refers to Hermes, the Greek god.

Here we see one of the birds who has had its head broken off.

The entrance hall leads to a three bay saloon, with dining room on one side and library on the other. To one side of the front hall is a corridor leading to the wonderfully curving staircase. The stone floor and stuccowork continue into the corridor, which has panelled walls.

The circular cantilevered Portland stone staircase rises two full rotations to the first floor. The domed ceiling has more stuccowork. There’s also a lovely circular pattern with geometrical black and grey shapes on the floor below the stairs.

You can see the mezzanine level in this photograph, and the Portland stone cantilevered stairs.

The doll house is an architectural model of Kilshannig! It even has electricity! It was made for the young girl of the house, Sophie.

Amusingly, the Kilshannig doll house is more advanced than the actual house, as the attic has been converted! The actual attic of Kilshanning House has not been converted. As the owner charmingly told me: “The two [bedrooms] in the dolls’ house are poetic license to give the owner of the dolls’ house the opportunity to decorate and fit it out bedrooms.”

Denise, duly masked for Covid, in the hallway at the bottom of the staircase.

We entered the library first. The current owner’s father, Commander Merry, and his wife, bought the house. With his DIY skills, the Commander installed the library shelves, acquired from a Big House built in the same period as Kilshannig. The room has another spectacular ceiling, which is deeply coved. The centre features a rondel with Diana and Apollo, and the corners have oval plaques depicting the Seasons. The cove features female portrait busts, eagles, standing putti and garlands. Christine Casey has noted the likeness of the cove to that formerly in the Gallery at Northumberland House in London, which was decorated by Pietro N. Lafranchini, perhaps in collaboration with his brother Filippo.

The rondel in the centre of the library ceiling featuring Diana and Apollo.
The female heads in rondels in the library are believed to portray members of the Devonsher family [10].

The doors have been stripped back to their original timber.

The next room is the Saloon, or Salon. It has a particularly splendid ceiling, also by Filippo Lafranchini, “combining emphatic late Baroque modelling with the refinement of small-scale ornament of a Rococo character” (Keohane):

“Joseph McDonnell has established that the figurative work is derived from an engraving of 1717 of a now lost ceiling painting by Antoine Coypel, the Assembly of the Gods, at the Palais-Royale in Paris. The centre depicts Bacchus and Araidne, with Pan and a sleeping Silenus, reclining on almost imperceptible clouds. The lavishly intricate border consists of six cartouches framing plaques depicting the Four Elements – Water (a dolphin), Air (an eagle), Earth (a lion), and Fire (a Phoenix) as well as Justice and Liberty. These are linked by a sinuous frame populated by charming putti with dangling legs. The corners feature trophies dedicated to Architecture, Painting, Music and Sculpture.” [12]

“The centre depicts Bacchus and Araidne, with Pan and a sleeping Silenus, reclining on almost imperceptible clouds.”
Justice, blindfolded. The Art of painting is represented in the right corner. Other corners represent architecture, music and sculpture.
Here we see architecture represented in the corner trophy.
The lion on in the left rondel, symbolising Earth, and the eagle on the right, symbolising Air. The other of the four Elements are represented, by a dolphin for Water and a Phoenix for Fire. I love the way the legs and feet of the putti and especially Ariadne stick out from the ceiling.

The final room we were shown was the dining room. Keohane writes that the stuccowork is by a different hand than the Lafranchini brothers. “The deep cove has four large oval cartouches of naturalistic foliage with masks depicting Bacchus, Ceres, Flora and Diana, the last framed by trophies of the chase and a rather insipid fox.” [13]

I believe the figure at the bottom, next to the rather sadly draped hanging game, is the “insipid” fox.
The head of Bacchus, encircled by grapes.

It was in the dining room under Bacchus that we stopped to consider how odd it was that a Quaker, as Abraham Devonsher was, had such an elaborate ceilings created in his home. Indeed, he was expelled from the Quaker community before he had the house built, in 1756, for “conformity to the world.” This was because he entered politics that year and became an MP for Rathcormac. [14] My husband Stephen, a Quaker, tells me that in order to serve as an MP, Devonsher would have had to swear an oath, and Quakers do not believe in swearing oaths – they believe that their word suffices (George Fox said: “My yea is my yea and my nay is my nay.”). The borough was very small – in 1783 it had only seven electors. Devonsher won his seat by appealing directly to the electors, unseating the Barrys who had traditionally held the seat. He entertained grandly in order to woo the electors. He also served as High Sheriff for County Cork in 1762. The Devonsher family had settled in Cork as merchants in the mid seventeenth century. [15] The article in Country Life tells us that toward the end of his life the sociable Abraham Devonsher “lives a recluse life with a Harlot.” He led a rather rakish life, apparently, and he died childless in 1783 – or at least left no legitimate heirs – and left the estate to a grand-nephew, John Newenham, of Maryborough, County Cork (now a hotel) who then assumed the name Devonsher.

John had a son, John (1763-1801), who inherited the house and passed it to his son, Abraham Newenham Devonsher. He ran into financial difficulties, and at some date before 1837, sold the estate to Edward Roche (1771-1855). [16] Edward Roche used it as a winter residence, and lived the rest of the year in his other estate, Trabolgan, as did his son, Edmond Burke Roche, who was raised to the peerage as 1st Baron Fermoy in 1856. He was also an MP and served as Lord Lieutenant for County Cork 1856-1874. According to the Landed estates database, at the time of the Griffith Valuation, James Kelly occupied Kilshanning. The Griffith valuation was carried out between 1848 and 1864 to determine liability to pay the Poor rate (for the support of the poor and destitute within each Poor Law Union). The 1st Baron Fermoy’s sister, Frances Maria, married James Michael Kelly, another MP (for Limerick), of Cahircon, County Clare, and James Kelly was their son. According to the Landed Estates Database, in 1943 the Irish Tourist Association Survey mentioned that it was the home of the McVeigh family. Mark Bence-Jones adds that other owners were the Myles family, and Mr and Mrs Paul Rose. The property had a succession of owners until it was purchased in 1960 by Commander Douglas Merry and his wife.

When they purchased it, the cupolas had disappeared and one wing was ruinous and the rest in poor condition. Commander Merry set about restoring the house. His son Hugo has continued the work, partly with help from the Irish Georgian Society [17]. This work included repairing a sagging saloon ceiling, and restoring the pavilions and cupolas, recladding them in copper. The entire main house, arcades and both courtyards have been completely restored and re-roofed. One wing is used for self-catering and events, and the other contains stables. There are fourteen bedrooms in the wing, and six in the main house, Anne told us.

We did not explore the outside, and did not get to see inside the pavilions or wings. That will have to wait for another visit!

[1] https://fotahouse.com/


[2] http://thecourtyardkilshannig.com/

[3] Palladian architecture is a style derived from the designs of the Venetian architect Andrea Palladio (1508-1580). Palladio’s work was strongly based on the symmetry, perspective, and values of the formal classical temple architecture of the ancient Greeks and Romans. https://irishhistorichouses.com/2020/04/18/architectural-definitions/

[4] https://www.dia.ie/architects/view/1660#tab_biography

[5] https://www.ihh.ie/index.cfm/houses/house/name/Kilshannig

[6] Hill, Judith. “Pot-Walloping Palladianism.” Country Life, June 15, 2016.

[7] Bence-Jones, Mark. A Guide to Irish Country Houses. (originally published as Burke’s Guide to Country Houses volume 1 Ireland by Burke’s Peerage Ltd. 1978); Revised edition 1988 Constable and Company Ltd, London.

[8] p. 465. Keohane, Frank. The Buildings of Ireland: Cork, City and County. Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2020.

[9] https://www.buildingsofireland.ie/buildings-search/building/20904408/kilshannig-house-kilshannig-upper-co-cork

[10] https://irishhistorichouses.com/2020/04/18/architectural-definitions/

[11] https://theirishaesthete.com/2015/05/18/exuberance/

[12] p. 466. Keohane, Frank. The Buildings of Ireland: Cork, City and County. Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2020.

[13] Ibid.

[14] http://lordbelmontinnorthernireland.blogspot.com/search/label/County%20Cork%20Landowners?updated-max=2018-07-21T07:33:00%2B01:00&max-results=20&start=8&by-date=false

[15] Keohane writes that Abraham Devonsher’s parents are Thomas Devonsher and Sarah Webber. The website The Peerage says his mother was Sarah Morris. https://www.thepeerage.com/p30600.htm#i305998

See also the article in Country Life from June 15 2016, by Judith Hill, that is linked to the Kilshannig courtyard website. Hill says Abraham Devonsher’s father was named Jonas, and that his family began to acquire the land at Kilshannig from the 1670s.

Keohane says that John Newenham was Abraham’s nephew, the Peerage website has John as the great nephew: Abraham’s brother Jonas had a daughter Sarah who married Richard Newenham, and it was their son, John Newenham, who inherited Kilshannig.

The home of the Newenhams, Maryborough, is now a hotel:


[16] http://landedestates.nuigalway.ie/LandedEstates/jsp/estate-show.jsp?id=2764

[17] https://www.igs.ie/conservation/project/kilshannig