Sunday 24 September 2017

Tales of a House: An 18th Century Georgian mansion

Eithne Tynan looks at a run-down empty property in Clare and discovers the people behind it from construction to abandonment

Cahercon House
Cahercon House
The ballroom inside Cahercon House

Eithne Tynan

THE popular expression, "if these walls could talk" reflects the stories that many old homes can tell about the people who lived under their roofs and have been associated with them.

To illustrate just how many people's stories a house can tell, we've decided to select one of the oldest homes currently for sale on the Irish market and to delve into its history.

Cahercon House is a 60-bedroom, Georgian mansion on 220 acres overlooking the Shannon Estuary in Killadysert, Co Clare.

There can't be many buyers who are in the market for both a riverside stately home and – wait for it – an explosives factory. But if it so happens that that's just what you've been looking for, your search is at an end.

Cahercon is on the market in a receivership sale for €1.25m and the site, as the agents reveal, comes with "valuable planning permission" for a €10m explosives factory.

Though now sadly neglected, Cahercon House has stood through some of the most important epochs in Irish history – from the asperities of the landlord era, through the heyday of the Catholic Church, and forward into the hubris of the boom.

It's been an Ascendancy family seat, a seminary for missionaries, a boarding school and, most recently, a pet project for the head of a quarrying conglomerate.

Cahercon was built around 1790, at a time when 95pc of Irish land was owned by only a few thousand families.

1790: The Great Scotts And Social Scandal

The Scott family who build Cahercon seem to have been reasonably popular landlords all the same, in that a browse through the archives turns up no bitter stories about them.

The Scotts even celebrated an inter-faith marriage, when John Bindon Scott's daughter Mary married Maurice O'Connell, son of Daniel O'Connell, at a Catholic ceremony in September 1832. The marriage was not happy, though, as Maurice was said to have been a chronic philanderer and this would have generated a degree of society scandal.

1800: The 'New Money' Gambling Mogul

Later Cahercon became the home of the White family, who were sniffily regarded as 'New Money'. Luke White had been obscurely and unpretentiously earning a living in trade – as a publisher and bookseller – before rapidly making a fortune in the late 18th Century by operating a lottery and supplying the government with loans.

The wife of the Irish viceroy, Lady Hardwicke, described him in 1803 as a former "servant and an auctioneer of books (some say he first cried newspapers about the streets)".

But Luke's rise from newspaper hawker to respectability was swift and shows how aristocracy is created. His son Henry became the first Baron Annaly, and his grandson Colonel Charles William White took up residence at Cahercon in the mid-1870s, and become Lord Lieutenant of Clare.

1890s: Hector The Hated VANDELEUR

Charles White sold Cahercon to the Vandeleurs, troubled west Clare landlords of Dutch descent and the community was not happy about it. In the years after the Famine, Clare had the highest number of evictions, in proportion to its population, of any county in Ireland. Almost 10pc of the population were thrown out of their homes in the space of five years.

The Vandeleurs alone evicted around 1,000 families in the late 1840s, with the famine at its height, and Hector Vandeleur was that most loathed of feudal overlords, the absentee landlord. When the Vandeleurs' own seat at Kilrush was destroyed by fire in 1897, they bought Cahercon and lived there for the next two decades.

1920s – 1950s: Stoned by Communism

In 1920, the Maynooth Mission to China, later called the Missionary Society of St Columban and better known as "the Columbans", bought the estate for £14,000. They began a mission in Nancheng in 1928 and had a rough time of it out there.

In 1929, Fr Timothy Leonard, a member of the order based at Cahercon, was seized by communist guerrillas while saying Mass. He was beaten and taken away for trial, and afterwards hacked to death. The following year, the head of the mission, Fr Cornelius Tierney, was also arrested by communists and died in captivity.

Tierney was succeeded by Patrick Cleary, himself a native of Cahercon, who would go on to become bishop of Nancheng in 1939.

In 1952, Cleary and five other priests were marched through the streets of Nancheng to a public trial before a crowd of onlookers who spat and threw mud and stones at them. 'Irish bishop stoned', said the headlines. The bishop, who was 66 years old at the time, spent the following 10 months under house arrest before being banished from China.

Cleary, who died in 1970, wrote a memoir of Cahercon House, musing on what the Columbans might make of the place. "In the queerest way of divine providence," he wrote, "the ballroom, without the slightest structural alteration, seemed designed for conversion into a charming chapel."

1950s to 2002: School Days and Nuns

In the Columbans' hands, Cahercon became St Senan's College, a philosophical institute and seminary. A few years later, it would become a convent for the Sisters of Saint Columban, who ran a high school there until 1948.

The Columbans sold the place, in October 1962, to the Salesian sisters who turned it into a boarding school for girls. In 1970, the school turned co-ed with the admission of five boys. It was eventually amalgamated into a new community college in Killadysert, closing in 2002.

The 2000s: Boom! An Explosive Controversy

And yet it was only at this point in Cahercon's colourful history that its real troubles began. For about three years, Clareman Paddy Whelan had been planning – in the face of furious local opposition – to build an explosives factory nearby, to service Whelan Group's extensive quarrying businesses.

Whelan first applied to Clare County Council for permission in 1999, and got it in December 2000. Among the strongest objectors to the plan were the Salesian nuns themselves. They wrote to the council expressing their environmental and safety concerns, and they also joined a High Court case in 2001 seeking to force the then minister for justice John O'Donoghue to reveal information about the plans for the site.

But at a public hearing in Ennis in September-October 2002, a spokesman for Shannon Explosives informed the assembly that the nuns' objections had been silenced: a Whelan Group company had bought Cahercon house from them for something over €1m.

Nevertheless, the grant of permission was overturned by An Bord Pleanala in 2003. Whelan reapplied in 2006, and again secured permission from the council, with various conditions attached.

A group of local objectors and An Taisce appealed to An Bord Pleanala, along with Whelan Group itself, which wanted to protest the conditions. By then, Whelan Group claimed to have already spent almost €5m on licensing and planning.

An Bord Pleanala issued its decision in September 2009, upholding the grant of permission. After a 10-year battle, it now seemed as if an explosives factory on the Shannon Estuary, an EU Special Area of Conservation, might actually go ahead.

2010: The Bad Bank

But just before Christmas the following year, five Whelan Group companies, including Shannon Explosives Ltd, were liquidated in the High Court. Nama had taken on the €50m in debt the Whelan companies owed to Anglo Irish Bank, and that was the end of that.

Commerce, not conservation, had decided the matter. Now, Cahercon House is on the market again on the instructions of receivers Grant Thornton. The five-bay, three-storey main house has 1,928 sq ft of accommodation and six reception rooms, including a ballroom, a billiard room, and a conservatory.

There are various other buildings on the grounds too. Among them is an ugly school building and sports hall erected by the nuns; an 80-bedroom accommodation block with a dining hall and recreation hall; a newish bungalow in acute disrepair; a derelict two-storey house and an original three-bedroom limestone gate lodge. Agricultural buildings include a coach house, hay barn, milking parlour and labourer's cottage.

Costelloe Estate Agents say there has already been one "stupid offer" on the place. But locals will be watching the sale of this property closely to see if the decade-long dispute about the explosives factory – which was finally decided in their favour by nothing more than pure economics – is likely to blow up again.

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