Sunday 20 October 2019

The house with a notorious history is on the market

The home of one of Easter 1916's most controversial figures is now on the market for €2M, writes Mark Keenan.

Dripsey Castle on the banks of the river is sale for €2m
Dripsey Castle on the banks of the river is sale for €2m
The castle sits on the banks of the river.
The Georgian residence dates from 1740 and is a classic example of 18th century architecture
Captain John Bowen Colthurst

WAS he bad or was he mad? The jury is still out among historians on the mental state of the dashing but murderous Captain John Bowen-Colthurst of Dripsey Castle in Cork, whose bizarre rampage in Dublin during Easter week in 1916 will surely come under the spotlight once again as the centenary of the historic event looms.

On the 26th of April, the second day of the Rising, the distinguished six foot three military man with the handlebar moustache left Portobello Barracks in Rathmines with a contingent of the Royal Irish Rifles in search of "fenians".

He had with him the well known pacifist and women's suffrage campaigner Francis Sheehy Skeffington as a human shield – the latter had been arrested the previous day as he attempted to organise a civic group to discourage looters.

As soon as they left the barracks, the soldiers encountered two schoolboys coming from church and the older boy, a 17-year-old named JJ Coade, had his jaw broken with a rifle butt after Bowen-Colthurst ordered a soldier to "bash him" and then he himself drew his pistol and shot the boy dead where he lay.

Dripsey Castle on the banks of the river is sale for €2m
Dripsey Castle on the banks of the river is sale for €2m

In the quixotic scene which followed, he then led the contingent in a bizarre assault with hand grenades on a tobacco shop at Kelly's corner which happened to be owned by the unionist Alderman Kelly.

Here Bowen-Colthurst took four customers prisoner – two barmen from the nearby pub and two pro-British magazine editors, Thomas Dickson and Patrick MacIntyre, the latter of whom worked for Searchlight.

The two editors were brought back to Portobello Barracks and the next day, for no apparent reason, Bowen-Colthurst ordered them to be lined up and shot alongside Sheehy Skeffington.

While it was fast becoming clear that Bowen-Colthurst had gone 'postal', his soldiers continued to follow his orders – a matter which also provoked controversy for years afterwards.

That afternoon he took his contingent up as far as Camden Street where he had a city councillor shot fatally in the lung and afterwards forced a teenager to his knees and shot him in the back of the head. His soldiers did not go near the fighting which began further up at Aungier Street.

As it got dark it was reported that Bowen-Colthurst had ordered soldiers to shoot at any family house windows showing a light or movement.

The castle sits on the banks of the river.
The castle sits on the banks of the river.

He was later found in the mess with his head in his hands staring into space. A fellow captain said to the medical officer in the barracks: "For God's sake, keep an eye on Colthurst, I think he's off his head!"

Bowen-Colthurst's younger brother Robert had already died in the War the previous year and he himself had led an unauthorised attack on a German position at the front which had sparked an unexpected counter attack causing many casualties, including himself, to be badly injured.

He was accused of breaking down during the fighting and was sent to Ireland because of the incident.

Many assert today that he was exhibiting classic signs of "shell shock" although others point to his prior boasting of being involved in incidents of brutality against prisoners and civilians in the Boer War and in a Tibet campaign prior as evidence that he had a sadistic streak all along.

Captain John Bowen Colthurst
Captain John Bowen Colthurst

After being reported by a fellow officer, Major Sir Francis Fletcher Vane, who was later run out of the military and blackballed by society because of his actions, Bowen-Colthurst was interned in Broadmoor after pleading insanity.

On his release he was forced to move to Canada because the IRA were on his tail and once there he moved home three more times to avoid them until his death in 1966 – 50 years after the infamous incident.

A senior IRA man told a journalist in Dublin in the 1970s that they were consistently on his tail and would certainly have killed him had they tracked him down.

The unstable captain was the product of two Anglo Irish landed families. His father, Robert Bowen of Oak Grove married Georgina Greer, who had inherited the Colthurst family home at Dripsey Castle. On marrying her, Bowen added the Colthurst name to his by deed poll, along with the faded family's coat of arms and of course, the deeds to Dripsey Castle itself.

As the 19th century ended, he had two sons to succeed a much enlarged family holding and it must have seemed certain to Robert that his family's social position and financial future in the area had been well secured.

The Georgian residence dates from 1740 and is a classic example of 18th century architecture
The Georgian residence dates from 1740 and is a classic example of 18th century architecture

But within two decades circumstance would see that dream in tatters.

Throughout his childhood John Bowen-Colthurst and his younger brother Robert would have immersed themselves in Dripsey Castle and its grounds. The 1740-built Georgian style three storey over basement residence would have been one of the grandest country houses of its day when first constructed.

They would have played "soldiers" around the 15th century ruined castle on the grounds which gives the house its name. This had been a stronghold of the McCarthys who had been based at Blarney Castle, also later owned by the Colthursts.

John and Robert would have fished on the scenic banks of the Dripsey River which run through the grounds and which has more lately been harnessed by recent owners to generate electricity for the house itself.

Doubtless they also witnessed the grand social events held in the great ballroom which was added by their father in an adjoining wing. Recently it has been converted into a more modern home with three bedrooms, a bathroom and a kitchen, and is ready to move into.

But even as children, however, John and Robert would have been aware of local hostility in the area which was a hotbed of activity during the War of Independence. There are reports that there was an attempt to burn the house and its entrance comes with a tower fortified gate lodge.

Following the death of younger son Robert in 1915 and the subsequent departure to Canada of John with the old IRA on his tail, the Colthursts sold their estate after independence in 1922 and the house was soon acquired by the owners of the Dripsey Woollen Mills who are selling it today.

The estate has 110 acres and the house is situated right at its centre.

It features a central pedimented three bay breakfront with a square headed door opening.

In the main hall a heavy mahogany staircase sweeps up to the first floor where there are three huge windows looking down over the valley below, a view John and Robert would have regarded as children, expecting to inherit all they saw around them.

This floor, and the one above, have nine large bedrooms and two bathrooms.

At garden level a large hall leads to the drawing room and the dining room with the original kitchen and a study to the rear.

The house is full of heavy oak doors, ornate cornice work and the sort of decorative chimney pieces you'd expect of a house this age.

There's a large courtyard on the grounds with cut stone cobbles and the castle is a four storey tower house which ceased to be occupied in the early 1900s.

However, despite the newer wing being in general good condition according to the selling agents Ganly Walters (01-6623255), Dripsey itself has seen better days and the house requires a substantial sum spent on restoration and repair – likely to cost more than €500,000.

Meantime prepare for a timely barrage of books and documentaries on Dripsey's last notorious Colthurst, on Francis Sheehy Skeffington and the plot to sabotage the career of the humanitarian whistleblower Sir Francis Vane.

Indo Property

Editors Choice

Also in Life