EVEN by Kilkenny standards, Rossenarra House, just outside Kilmoganny has a pedigree that is stunning. Magical is the only word to describe the landscape that hits you when you look out from the front of the house at the rich Kilkenny landscape that stretches for miles and miles in front of you like a carpet.
It has associations with four US presidents, was designed by the man who is responsible for the White House but that is not really the story.
Frank Sinatra stayed there and famously told a young woman working there she had beautiful eyes (she does not wish to be identified). Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones mixed there with the country’s super rich and elite . This country’s greatest portrait painter, Sir John Lavery died there. His wife’s picture, painted by him, adorned our currency for years and she most certainly had an affair with Michael Collins and one of Collins’ great friends said she that she was the love of his life. She was an American heiress who preferred London to Kilkenny.
Throw in hydropower and a self sufficient McEnery family that lived there and that bred the greatest Grand National horse of all time. Red Rum and you have a true story that borders on fantasy. Sad to report that the house now looks a little run down and that the entrance is overgrown and that the window sills on the outside need a lot of work. The place needs some tender love and care and hopefully that can happen sooner or rather then later.
There are people around Kilmoganny who can go back 80 years to when the house was owned by the McEnery family now living close by in Kells and how the property (1,700 acres) was carved up the Land Commission after the death of the great John McEnery. And when these pensioners look back at the history of the house, there are only two names that stand out Nigel Griffiths and his Carlow born wife Christine, They still talk about the parties, dinners, suppers and how everyone in the locality was invited to mingle with the likes of judge Peter Smithwick, Captain Blunden from Castle Blunden, Baron Brian de Breffny (Castletown Cox), Lady Amanda Iveagh and others. It was a wonderful time and the McEnerys were delighted when they bought it because they knew they would look after it and Christine had an indoor swimming pool built for her husband. He was very friendly with Richard Condon who lived there in the 1970s and who wrote the Manchurian Candidate which was turned into a film starring Mr Sinatra. A few years earlier he had done the PR for a film starring Sinatra and Sophia Loren in Spain. Griffiths bought it from Condon in a private deal.
Nigel Griffiths visited the White House on a number of occasions as did Sinatra and Condon. And the association doesn’t stop there. A relative of the current president of the US, Barack Obama, one of the Morris-Reades owned the place as well.
Let’s separate fact from fiction. You can indeed see the village of Stradbally, Co Laois from Rossenarra House on a clear night as the landscape unfolds before you, the pattern being made-up by Dunamaggin, Kells, Callan, Bennettsbridge and Kilkenny city. It remains a favourite part of the world for moonlighting couples who sit in their car looking down on the wonderful view. This is a real hidden gem.
Rossenarra House with its five bays and three stories over a huge basement was designed by the architect James Hoban, (from Cuffesgrange) who was also responsible for designing the White House in Washington, D.C. The house was built around 1824-25 in a Palladian style, having been commissioned by Maurice Readewho owned Castle Howell and thousands of acres around it.
We will come back to Castle Howell (aka Castlehale) in a future article and investigate the missing Reade treasure.
It passed through several generations of the Reade family until the 1880s, when it came into the possession of the McEnery family. Sir John Lavery, was related to the McEnerys through marriage and he resided at Rossenarra during the last few years of his life and died there on January 1941. His wife was the love of Michael Collins’ life and it is interesting that during the negotiations to form the Free State, Collins and the Irish delegation stayed at the Livery’s palatial home in London’s South Kensington.
The house now needs a good bit of work and a lick of paint and what a difference to when Thomas Reade lived here and controlled thousands of acres which was almost entirely walled. Today on the Kyle-Kilmoganny road below you can still see the two sets of gates (and one lodge) where the titled people, came in their carriages to be entertained by Reade, the leader of the Walsh clan. A few fields away was Castle Howell, reprinted here and painted by the wonderful Mary Cummins, whose memory of events associated with Rossenarra is crystal clear. Charles Cummins, her husband Roger’s father owned it for a very short while after the Land commission divided it up.
He sold it to a kind Englishman Stephen Edwards. He lived there for a short while and drank in the lovely and homely Dunphy’s pub, down the road. He sold it on to Condon. in the 1970s. Condon wrote the Manchurian Candidate, three years before US president John F Kennedy was killed in Dallas and the book and subsequent film resonated with the US public. He also wrote Prizzi’s Honour also made into a film with Kathleen Turner and Jack Nicholson.
People who live around Rossenarra found the Condons warm and friendly. And when one of the neighbours had a fire in the house they came up to help, brought sandwiches and drink. They left, it is said, out of frustration with the telephone system. He would be researching something in Australia and there were no phone lines available because of the time zone difference when he needed them. The current owner is Denis O’Sullivan who bought it 12 years ago from the Griffiths and it has not been lived in, on a permanent basis, since then although there have been a number of caretakers.
In 1853 Louisa, daughter of William Morris-Reade of Rossenarra and his wife Louisa Maitland married Harvey Mervyn third son of Harvey and Rose de Montmorency of the adjoining estate of Castlemorres. Rose (nee Kearney) was the daughter of John Kearney formerly Provost of Trinity and Bishop of Ossory 1806-13. who was connected to the Kearney family of Moneygall from whom President Obama’s mother is descended.
Harvey Mervyn and his wife first lived at Kilcoran House near Callan, now the home of the Woodcock family. They later moved to Tennypark close to Kilkenny on the Callan road. On the death of her husband in 1899 Louisa moved to live with her two daughters in Delgany until her death in 1918. They had four children. The eldest son died young and his two sisters were unmarried so that it is the descendants of Mervyn, born 1863, who continue to live in Kilkenny. After serving in the Boer War he retired to live at Inch House, now Purcell’s Inch Industrial Estate, with his wife and daughter, Norah. In 1934 the family connection between the two estates was renewed when Norah married her cousin John de Montmorency of Castlemorres. Three generations descending from this marriage continue to live in County Kilkenny.
We are indebted to the late Alice McEnery-Gwynn for her account of her life at Rossenarra from the Old Kilkenny review of 1983. She explained how the family had everything they ever needed including their own water turbine which supplied them with free electricity .Glad to say that her son, Martin McEnery who ran the place for a short while after his father’s death is still alive in Kells.
To give a sense of the pompous nature of Rossenarra when it was first built we include the obituary of the owner of Rossenarra Mr William Morris Reade from Kilkenny Journal of March 31, 1847 which explained he was no ordinary mortal: “It is with much more than ordinary feelings of sorrow and regret that we have this day to announce a great public calamity which has fallen on this County by the unexpected death of a gentleman whose sterling worth and high standing, was second to that of no landed proprietor in Ireland. We have to record the demise of WILLIAM MORRIS READE Esq on Wednesday last of fever, at his seat, Rossenarra, a gentleman whose usefulness and virtue it needs no comment of ours to make known to this community, in whose individual breasts his excellent qualities and worth will be responded to and acknowledged, and his loss unfeignedly deplored. As a country gentleman he was a perfect and finished model, uniting the sister virtues of courtesy and hospitality; extending around his demesne an unostentatious but richly beneficent charity, the termination of which by his premature death will be bitterly and poignantly felt. As a magistrate, he was active and energetic in the discharge of his duties, and unceasing in his efforts to prevent crime in its first budding, or detect and punish it in a developed state – at the same time, on all occasions, tempering justice with mercy. As a landlord, he was resident, in the best sense of the word, attending unremittingly to the comforts of his tenants, whose condition he so far ameliorated that their present state presents a marked oasis in the desert of Irish misery, apathy and neglect.In politics Mr Reade was an unflinching and uncompromising Conservative, sticking to the good cause through weal and woe, and despising the time-serving policy of some of those who unjustly boast of the name; but his private worth and sterling honesty of purpose was acknowledged by all sections of politics and all denominations of religion.In recording the death of such a man as this, it is our wish to avoid the common and hackneyed expression of grief, which the departure of ordinary mortals calls forth. Mr Reade was truly one man in a thousand, and never was a time-honoured quotation more aptly applied than to record of him the honest truth.“ We ne’er shall look upon his like again.” The demise of this exemplary gentleman is the more melancholy and to be ‘lamented’, as it is feared and believed he contracted the fever which was its cause, in his efforts to detect the murderers of the late Mr Prim; it being at least a fact that he entered and closely searched one suspect house where a family was lying ill of that now most prevalent and fatal disease.
Thanks goes to Jane de Montmorency Wright for her patience and her input on Mr Reade’s obituary and the Obama connection. Thanks also to Mary and Roger Cummins for their information and the duck eggs.
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