Drishane House, Castletownshend, Co. Cork

Open dates in 2023: May 1-31, Aug 12-20, Oct 2-21, 11am-3pm

Fee: adult €12, OAP €10, student/child €8

e: info@drishane.com


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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.

At Drishane House.
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.

At Drishane House.
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 (1860-1942), 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.

Memorial in St. Barrahane’s Church, Castletownshend, to Lt. Colonel Thomas Henry Somerville (1824-1898), who married Adelaide Eliza Coghill. Below that plaque is a memorial to his son Aylmer Coghill Somerville and Aylmer’s second wife, Emmeline Sophia Sykes.
Window in St. Barrahane’s Church dedicated to Lt. Colonel Thomas Henry Somerville (1824-1898), by Harry Clarke.
Window in St. Barrahane’s Church dedicated to the wife of Lt. Colonel Thomas Henry Somerville (1824-1898), Adelaide Eliza Coghill, by Harry Clarke.
This Harry Clarke window in St. Barrahane’s Church of Ireland depicts French Saints Louis (who was Louis IX, King of Spain) and Martin and was commissioned in memory of Colonel Kendall Josiah Coghill in 1921. He was a brother of Adelaide Eliza Coghill.
Another Harry Clarke window in St. Barrahane’s Church of Ireland in Castletownshend.

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]

At Drishane House.

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.” 

At Drishane House.
At Drishane House.

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.

Plaque in St. Barrahane’s Church, Castletownshend.
The organ on which Edith Somerville played for seventy years, in St. Barrahane’s Church, Castletownshend.

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. 

At Drishane House.
At Drishane House.
At Drishane House.
At Drishane House.

[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.