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The Kilmorna Papers: A family’s long-awaited ‘closure’

Descendants of the Mahonys of Kilmorna House in North Kerry hope presentation of heirlooms to Kerry County Museum will help ‘lay old ghosts to rest’ 100 years after War horrors

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Pierce Mahony’s great-granddaughter Kerry Pocock and her daughter, Iva, present a treasure trove of family heirlooms to Kerry County Museum on Thursday, all taken from Kilmorna House before it was burnt to the ground by the IRA a century ago. Photos by Domnick Walsh

Pierce Mahony’s great-granddaughter Kerry Pocock and her daughter, Iva, present a treasure trove of family heirlooms to Kerry County Museum on Thursday, all taken from Kilmorna House before it was burnt to the ground by the IRA a century ago. Photos by Domnick Walsh

Irish Life and Lore historian Maurice O’Keeffe examining the many items with Kerry and Iva in the museum. Photo by Domnick Walsh

Irish Life and Lore historian Maurice O’Keeffe examining the many items with Kerry and Iva in the museum. Photo by Domnick Walsh

Former Tánaiste and Labour Party leader Dick Spring leafing through the famous Visitors’ Book, which contains the signatures of some of the most famous public figures of the late 19th Century who stayed in Kilmorna, from Charles Stewart Parnell to WB Yeats, Maud Gonne and Percy French.

Former Tánaiste and Labour Party leader Dick Spring leafing through the famous Visitors’ Book, which contains the signatures of some of the most famous public figures of the late 19th Century who stayed in Kilmorna, from Charles Stewart Parnell to WB Yeats, Maud Gonne and Percy French.

: Kerry Historian in Residence Tom Dillon – an expert in the world of Kilmorna – and Kerry Mayor Jimmy Moloney examine the items on their arrival to Kerry County Museum last week. Photo by Domnick Walsh

: Kerry Historian in Residence Tom Dillon – an expert in the world of Kilmorna – and Kerry Mayor Jimmy Moloney examine the items on their arrival to Kerry County Museum last week. Photo by Domnick Walsh

Irish Life and Lore director, historian Maurice O'Keeffe leafing through the guest book. Photo by Domnick Walsh

Irish Life and Lore director, historian Maurice O'Keeffe leafing through the guest book. Photo by Domnick Walsh

Some of the many precious materials from the Kilmorna trove on display at Kerry County Museum - including Pierce Mahony's trademark chieftain's kilt. Photo by Domnick Walsh

Some of the many precious materials from the Kilmorna trove on display at Kerry County Museum - including Pierce Mahony's trademark chieftain's kilt. Photo by Domnick Walsh

The chieftain himself, Pierce Mahony, with his trusty Irish wolfhound.

The chieftain himself, Pierce Mahony, with his trusty Irish wolfhound.

Kilmorna House in its heyday.

Kilmorna House in its heyday.

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Pierce Mahony’s great-granddaughter Kerry Pocock and her daughter, Iva, present a treasure trove of family heirlooms to Kerry County Museum on Thursday, all taken from Kilmorna House before it was burnt to the ground by the IRA a century ago. Photos by Domnick Walsh

kerryman

HALCYON days in a gilded estate on the banks of the River Feale with guests of the calibre of Charles Stewart Parnell, WB Yeats, Maud Gonne and Percy French wandering grounds rich in exotic flora; a cutting-edge farm the envy of these islands surrounding it; and a succession of colourful lairds at the centre of it all – welcome to the world of Kilmorna House in North Kerry.

Described as the ‘Downton Abbey’ of its era – situated roughly halfway between Listowel and Abbeyfeale – it was an idyll that would, like so many others, perish as the War of Independence gave vent to old enmities.

It was there, of course, that the IRA fatally shot Sir Arthur Vicars – ostensibly for giving information to the British forces – and burnt the home to the ground as the War of Independence escalated in North Kerry.

It lies hidden under the heavy foot of history now, few indications of its existence to be seen bar the famous tree planted by Parnell during a stay in the ivy-clad big house.

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But the whole saga was brought home like never before at Kerry County Museum on Thursday as descendants of The O’Mahony of Kerry – self-styled Irish chieftain Pierce Mahony (1850 – 1930) – presented a trove of papers and material from the home to the people of the county.

It was a gesture brought about through their friendship with Maurice and Jane O’Keeffe of Irish Life and Lore and one that resonated on a deep, emotional level a century after the horrific events that sealed the fate of the great abode and its famous resident.

Pierce Mahony’s great-granddaughter Kerry Pocock and her daughter Iva were delighted, they said, to return the items to the county of their provenance.

The collection includes as, perhaps, its highlight the Kilmorna guest book, with its incredible roll call of the great public figures of the era, many of whom remain household names to this day.

Kerry County Historian Thomas Dillon – who has also liaised with the family in depth and who addressed Thursday’s presentation – has even shown how the guest book in Kilmorna finally tied WB Yeats to a famous beauty of the era, Florence Farr, of whom it was figured he had been very close.

Their names appear in the same apparent hand in the gold-embossed, black-leather ledger – suggesting they may have enjoyed quite the visit to North Kerry.

But at the heart of the collection is found significant testament to just how dedicated these particular lairds were to the advancement of religious and civil liberties for the native Irish – gentry far removed from the hated absenteeism of much of their class.

As we increasingly appreciate today, this history was often far from black-and-white, but the Mahony’s great tragedy was to have found themselves effectively forced into such a monochrome narrative, with devastating consequences.

Chief among the documents attesting to the clan’s broad political sympathies is the letter written by Pierce’s grandfather hailing the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act as the defining moment of his life.

He had been the barrister Pierce Mahony (1792-1853), who was a close associate of Daniel O’Connell and had worked hard alongside his fellow Kerry man to secure legal rights for Catholics.

Like his grandfather, Pierce the younger also become a champion of the Irish people as a close associate of Parnell in the Irish Parliamentary Party’s struggle for Home Rule.

Also included in the presentation is the kilt he sported in his later years, as well as myriad photos of the family and their holdings, including the Grangecon estate in Wicklow.

“They are certainly much, much better here than sitting in a drawer in Dublin,” Pierce Mahony’s great-great-granddaughter Iva Pocock said, addressing the small, socially-distanced gathering in the foyer of the museum on Thurdsay.

Iva spoke of the extraordinary life of this forebear who had ‘loomed large’ in her own imagination since earliest childhood; first referencing his humanitarian work in Bulgaria.

He travelled there initially in 1903, establishing an orphanage for refugee children fleeing Turkish massacres; and is held in such affection in the country to this day that civic spaces are named after him – as are the descendants of some of those orphans he helped, who took his surname! A keen horticulturist, much of the foliage to take root in the grounds of Kilmorna was seeded from specimens returned from Bulgaria.

But the politics of the early 20th Century was to darken that rarefied world indelibly as the IRA arrived to the home on April 12, 1921, where volunteers shot dead Sir Arthur Vicars on the grounds outside – before torching the edifice.

Vicars was Pierce Mahony’s half-brother.

It was a brutal end to a life that become mired in the ignominy of the Irish Crown Jewels scandal. Though he fervently protested his innocence, Vicars had become wholly tarred with the theft of the jewels of which he was ‘Keeper’.

He retreated to Kilmorna, where the IRA would ultimately kill him for an even greater accusation – that he was a ‘spy’ or informer for the British.

No doubt the killing was also informed by bitterness among a people to have had their collective nose rubbed for far too long in the incredible affluence of such estates – even as they struggled to eat during the Famine.

Many protested Vicars’ innocence on the later accusation, including his valet, who went on to become a captain in the Irish Army.

Sadly, the family’s great contribution to the cause of Irish freedoms was not enough to stay the hand of the IRA at this incendiary time.

“There’s something particularly poignant about the fact that we’re bringing the visitors’ book back to Kerry this year, 100 years after the house was tragically burnt,” Iva Pocock said on Thursday.

“Arthur Vicars was shot and just re-reading Tom’s [Dillon] article yesterday and looking back at the book, you get a real sense of the bitterness that Vicars had for being framed for stealing the Crown Jewels after decades of being seen as a walking encyclopaedia of Irish genealogy and heraldry.

“He spent many years along with my great-great-grandfather trying to clear his name and to then end up being shot. There’s a real sadness to that, and I can imagine to Pierce to have lost his brother in such a way after he had dedicated his life to Ireland’s freedom and his grandfather as well.”

Thursday’s presentation brought a sense of healing for the family, Iva suggested:

“But look, this is something that is echoed in many families, I know that, so...we hope that by bringing the visitors’ book back here, it’s the closing of a circle and [a] laying to rest.”

Iva’s mother Kerry, meanwhile, was hoping for a literal laying to rest as she related a spine-tingling tale from her childhood:

“My brother saw him as a ghost when he was a little boy, when he was too young to have made it up.

“He saw this tall figure walking down the corridor...this tall figure just walked slowly down to the end of this corridor...they ran to my mother and said they had seen this man.”

Not to scare them, Kerry’s mother told them it was a painter working in the house. When they were old enough, she informed them the man described was exactly as Pierce had appeared in life.

“Over the years he has been seen since, we don’t know why...he was a restless soul but hopefully now he will be at peace,” Kerry said as she and Iva presented the priceless heirlooms to the county of their origin.

“No one ever knew Yeats had visited Kerry until the visitors’ book brought it to light”

HISTORIAN Maurice O’Keeffe, through whose friendship with the Pocock family Thursday’s presentation came about, hailed the Kilmorna collection as ‘something very special’.

“This is a great day for Kerry because, since 1899, all these papers have left the County, but today they’re coming back and that’s something very special. The collection is hugely significant and important...[it] tells the story of the Mahony family [who] stand over the entire century.”

Maurice particularly welcomed the arrival of the famous visitors’ book: “Because in it you have the signatures of William Butler Yeats, who was never thought to have come to Kerry. But here the proof is that he stayed in the county. We have Charles Stewart Parnell, it’s just marvellous to have that,” he said in the course of an illuminating overview of the trove.

Kerry Historian in Residence Thomas Dillon, an expert in the world of the estate, suggested the visitor’s book was a very useful cipher to the entire national history of the era: “The visitors’ book tells the story of how Kilmorna was a centre for Irish nationalism in the later years of the 19th Century.

“Pierce Mahony, a Protestant nationalist and MP in the House of Commons, welcomed the most famous names in Irish politics and culture to Kilmorna. No one ever knew Yeats had visited the county until the visitors’ book brought it to light.

“It also shed light on his illustrious love life. Maud Gonne, who he proposed to three times, signed the book when she stayed, and also the West End actress Florence Farr, who was romantically linked to Yeats, also appeared alongside him on the occasion of their stay in the O’Mahony family home in 1899.

“For North Kerry, which has a proud literary tradition, this is hugely significant because it links Yeats to that literary heritage.”

It was also, of course, signed by a colossus of national politics: “It tells the story of Pierce’s friendship with Parnell. The book reveals he used Kilmorna as a base for Home Rule meetings in the region, and he left his signature twice within its pages. One of his very last public meetings only a few weeks before he died was in Listowel on September 13, 1891.

“He signed the book on that occasion, and it was a famous occasion because one of the largest crowds ever gathered in North Kerry heard him speaking in the Listowel town Square that day.”


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