MISTRESSES galore, home of the first patented aeroplane in Ireland; a world famous satirist loved by small Japanese academics (a hint), a priceless Prussian with royal blood - Swifts Heath, one of the most magnificent houses in the South East has it all. Located just four miles from Kilkenny city and dating from 1640s, this wonderful Palladian, L shaped building with Corinthian pilasters has direct links with the Shah of Iran, the Tsar of Russia and a host of British toffs.
It has been at the centre of the Irish literary world and the Irish legal world for different reasons.
It not only endures but is in a magnificent condition thanks to the life-long obsession of a self-less lady with direct links to the former house of Prussia who has added even more character to what should be one of the most famous houses in Ireland and yet is a hidden gem. Let’s get the mainstream stuff about Swifts Heath out of the way first before revealing for the first time a story that would do justice to any Mills & Boons novel.
The most famous resident of Swift’s Heath was Dean Jonathon Swift (1667 -1745), still regarded as our greatest satirist and the man who gave us Gulliver’s Travels. Japanese university professors still call to the house to see where he spent his formative years. Although there have been many biographies, his life at Swifts Heath is shrouded in mystery and although his mother abandoned him after his father died and he was raised by his uncle Godwin, he had nothing good to say about the man who was in loco parentis of him and ensured he received the best education possible.
The future Dean went to Kilkenny College on horse back every day from Swifts Heath and his bedroom has remained largely untouched from the time he stayed there and entering it you are taken by the views on two sides of the surrounding countryside but it is the presence of a kneeling chair, owned by the deceased Catholic Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, Michael Ryan that catches the eye in the childhood bedroom of the former Church of Ireland Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral.
Sex seems to have been very important at Swifts Heath and its history is littered with mistresses who would now be called partners. We do not intend to embarass anyone so we will kepp the names of the innocent and others to ourselves. With six bedrooms, five bathrooms and the oldest indoor toilet in Ireland, Swift’s Heath is much smaller than its L shape suggests and catches the sun all year around. It is vast when you take the various barns, outhouses and other buildings still much in use, which are in superb condition.
The family motto is: Fustian lento, virtue et sanguine which mean Hasten with caution, by virtue not by blood.
By far the most colourful owner of Swifts Heath was Godwin Meade Pratt Swifte who once owned a palazzo in Venice which is now the Grand Hotel. Born in 1806, he was what would today be called, a bit of a boyo. He was known as Godwin V but called himself, Lord Carlingford, a title he plucked from another branch of the family. And according to an article on the Old Kilkenny Review by his descendant, Geoffrey Marescaux, he took the title to impress his wife-to-be, An Austrian baroness. “He was not faithful, so that husband and wife lived apart - he in Ireland, she in Germany,” Geoffrey tells us.
It gets better. Twelve years after marrying the Baroness, he “formed a bigamous union with the daughter of an army officer.” They had three children and the woman died shortly afterwards and was buried in Co Meath as the fictitious Viscountess Carlingford. The children later sued for their inheritance at Swift’s Heath but because they were illegitimate, did not succeed. The sexy Viscount married an Irish woman from an “old Tipperary family four years after the Baroness died and she gave him an heir. In papers seen by Geoffrey on that claim for inheritance, Lord Carlingford argued that his union to the baroness was illegal in Ireland because she was Catholic even though they entered civil and religious unions on the Continent. He also had a number of regular “callers” to Swifts Heath and maybe this is the reason that many of the Swifts who came after him were so slow to get married.
Anyway Godwin V or Lord Carlingford had a huge interest in aeronautics and deigned and patented the first plane in Ireland. He built the much heralded chariot wheel in the dining room. He realised when it was finished that it would not fit out through the door so he had part of the door knocked and when this didn’t work he had part of the wall demolished to get it out intact.
It was described as “an aerial chariot or apparatus for navigating the airs” according to documents kept by the late Major Briggs Swifte who moved to Coolbawn House, Castlecomer after selling Swift’s Heath. He then had the contraption hoisted on top of Foulksrath Castle, which he owned at that time and had it attached to a catapult like structure. He was to have been the pilot but he got his butler to get into the contraption. As he was helped into the seat of the “plane”, the servant is said to have uttered: “Ours is not to question why.” Of course it nosed-ived and the butler was left with a number of broken bones. It is claimed by Mr Marescaux in the Old Kilkenny Review that he received Danvil House for his troubles.
Some years ago a female engineer with Boeing visited Swifts Heath and saw the plans for the chariot and said that with a few tweaks it would have flown. So he wasn’t that mad after all.
Lord Carlingford also brought running water into Swifts Heath at a time when no home had running water and introduced the longest lasting loo in Ireland to Swift’s Heath.
He diverted a stream and the water was redirected towards the house and each morning, two men would pump hundreds of gallons of water on to the flat roof. The current owner Brigette Lennona and her ex-husband Michael, had to have them removed for safety reasons.
Lord Carlingford made Swift’s Heath, in some ways, self-sufficient with huge vegetable gardens, an orchard, tillage fields, cattle and dairy cows as well as horses.
Major Earnest Godwin Meade Briggs Swifter is another fascinating person who lived and owned Swift’s Heath. He ended up an honorary general in there Persian army and just to copperfasten that fact, when Persian prince, Ishmael visited Ireland in 1920s he stayed at Swift’s Heath.
He was a also a friend of the last Tsar of Russia and visited him shortly before the 1917 revolution. A photograph survives of a secret meeting between the Tsar and Shah of Iran and is reprinted here. Major Briggs Swifte is the tall man with his back to the camera.
There was a certain chivalrry dispalyed by the Swifte men and this was highlighted by Major Briggs Swifte while serving with the British Army in World War I. He was moving across wasteland in the aftermath of a battle when he cane across a German officer, who had been fatally wounded. The Major had fluent German and the dying man asked him to remove his personal papers from his pocket and give them to his family. The Major being a man of honour, went to Germany after the war where he found the officers’ two daughters. One of them, Fraulein Ella Von Kleinshmidt returned with him to Ireland and became his mistress at Swift’s Heath while the other daughter became the first female head-of-police in the German city of Bonn. Ella, who came to Swifts Heath, captivated all who met her. After Major Sqwift died we are told she married an elderly farmer living close by. They didn’t have any children. The couple ended there days living in Talbotsinch.
Of course we cannot forget the pigs. The Major kept pet pigs and each morning, he was pushed out on his wheelchair to greet them and give them their breakfast by hand. They would then be allowed to roam around the estate and at the end of the day, the Major would sound a hunting horn and they would return for their dinner before being locked up for the night. According to local people, they were better fed than the servants and dined on such delicacies as peanuts, yes peanuts.
The last Swifte to reside at Swift’s Heath was George Swifte Ewbank Briggs. He took posession in 1957, having served in world War II and having spent 12 years in India. In 1971, he sold the place to Brigette Lennon and her then husband michael.
Foulkstrath Castle was part of Swift’s Heath until the 1940s when it was sold to An Oige, as a youth hostel and this was in part thanks to the intervention to one of the country’s finest writers, Hubert Butler from Bennettsbridge. It changed hands for £200. It is now closed and is beginning to deteriorate. I wonder if Kilkenny County Council have been in touch with the owners of the castle where the first owners of Swifts Heath the Purcells lived up to the 1640s when we are told they had 554 acres.
Thanks goes to Margery Brady for her help and kindness in preparing this article and to Geoffrey Marescaux for giving such a wistful history of his family, the Swifts in the Old Kilkenny Review of 1974. And thanks to the local man who knew all about the secrets of Swift’s heath . I’ll leave a drink for him in the Fireside Inn, Castlecomer Road, Kilkenny.
Finally, Brigitte Lennon (nee Dorpmund) from outside Hanover, has been a fabulous owner of Swift’s Heath and her hospitality is legendary. A history of Swift’s Heath needs to be written and no one has as much information as Brigette - A remarkable woman and her intellect is so keen. We are indebted to her for keeping the memory of the Swifts alive and for the upkeep of the old house. Remarkably, she is the first non-Swift to live in the house for over 300 years.
It never ceases to amaze me how the Kilkenny Archaeological Society is engrained in most things antiquarian in Kilkenny. For example the antlers of a great Irish deer (carves Gigantean Blumenbach) which are hanging over the main fireplace in Rothe House, Parliament Street, Kilkenny once hung at Swift’s Heath and were found in a bog close to Swifts Heath around 1913.
And the last word. We will not divulge the name of the maid who was on overnight duty, looking after Major Swift. Over 65 years ago, she went to a dance in Conahy, and had ducked out one of the downstairs windows in a lovely white dress. When she came back, the window had been bolted by the butler and she made her way back in though the coal shoot with the expected results.