14 Aug 2022

Danesfort Turret, the Wemys’ and the Metal Man

IT is only when you are on top of the unstable, two storey turret at Danesfort that you realise it’s close connection to Freestone Hill, Clara. Over the millennia it has been used by different races and tribes. Although the turret has dominated the landscape for the last four generations, it was pre-dated by as a ring fort dating back thousands of years before the coming of Christianity, when a community lived here with commanding views on all sides.

IT is only when you are on top of the unstable, two storey turret at Danesfort that you realise it’s close connection to Freestone Hill, Clara. Over the millennia it has been used by different races and tribes. Although the turret has dominated the landscape for the last four generations, it was pre-dated by as a ring fort dating back thousands of years before the coming of Christianity, when a community lived here with commanding views on all sides.

However, once you hear the story of what happened here in the 1870s (circa), of an upper class Kilkenny family, who were given the royal concession of holding fairs in Bennettsbridge twice a year, it’s hard to get it out of your head.

The Wemys family used the (in)famous landmark on the old Kilkenny-Waterford road as a hunting folly or party house. In the summer evenings, the Wemys women and other female guests would walk the short istance from Danesfort House to the octogonal shaped structure that overlooks the new Dublin-Waterford motorway and was on the right as you drove to Waterford on the old main road.

The ladies remained downstairs in the octagonal building. The Wemys men and their mates would “retire” upstairs for brandy and cigars. After a good few shots, they would take down the rifles hanging on the walls and open the windows while their servants would herd the deer on the estate past the hunting den and they would shoot at them. The men would put the castrated and domesticated animals between them and their lords and while no one was killed, a few unfortunate local people did receive minor wounds from shotgun pellets.

That is not an overly sympathetic view of the family and the sanitised version of this event and ones like it appear in written form, without the mention of drink or the near fatal consequences of what went on there and how they treated their staff, which we think is reminiscent of a middle Eastern dictator.

In all of this, there is one constant, the name of Frank McEvoy. It is now, only after his death that we are beginning to appreciate the huge legacy he has left us. Publisher, writer, historian, researcher and bookseller, his painstaking investigations into the turret and former Danesfort House are in a class all of their own. His interviews with the late Joseph Ireland, Ballyda (1909-1996), the father of current Fine Gael councillor for the area, Billy Ireland, and the late Mrs Ann Doyle are fascinating.

And of course, there is his detective work on tracing the sculpture at Danesfort House and the Wemys involvement in the theft of this priceless bronze piece and how it came to be at the turret. It was brought by the famous Grattan-Bellew family of Mount Loftus, Goresbridge from Mr Walsh and sold on to a family in Howth and since 1981 nothing is known of it. The world’s leading authority on 17th and 18th century art, considered the statue, known locally as The Metal Man” the work of a Dutch artist as the finest bronze statue in England or Ireland. Rare prise indeed.

And there is supposed to be a curse on the statue which was also known around Danesfort as The Scotchman. A man was killed during near Danesfort Cross during the pursuit of the robbers and when the statue was removed from the field where it stood in 1939, belonging to the late Michael Walsh, the three men who removed it for the Grattan-Bellews all died in traffic accidents within one year. Thutenkamen eat your heart out. It’s amazing that this hill has never been named. M<aybe it shpuild be called Wemys Hill as there is no other link to the family in the area

When I first delved into the turret, the Wemys clan and Danesfort House, thanks to the promptings of archaeologist Coilin O’Drisceoil the words of this poem I learned in primary school came back to me.

“Cad a dhéanfaimid feasta gan adhmad?

Tá deireadh na gcoillte ar lár;

níl trácht ar Chill Cháis ná ar a teaghlach

is ní bainfear a cling go bráth.

All that is left of Danesfort House is the front portico which was bought by the late Terence Hutchinson in the 1890s and is now attached to the front of Kellsboro House, Kells. A cattle dealer from Kerry, Con O’Sullivan bought Danesfort House when the Wemys cash ran dry and he sold the stones from the house to the county council for two shillings a box. In fact, he stayed with the Irelands while he was buying the house. There is only one painting of the house and that is reprinted here, The house is important because without it, the turret would never have been built.

In a fascinating aside, Joseph Ireland told Frank McEvoy that even as far back as the turn of the 20th century, there was a swimming pool at Danesfort House while Mrs Ann Doyle (nee Hayes) who was born in 1890, recalled sliding down the banisters of the deserted house and said that the waxed floors had stood out for her.

Danesfort House and the turret are hidden gems.

Even from the bottom of the turret there are fine 360 degree views of the local landscape and just to sit on the wall of the turret and take in the surroundings is wonderful.

And the placing of the turret there was no accident. We learn from archaeologist, Coilin O’Drisceoil that it was once a ring fort dating back to pre-Christian times and later inhabited by the early Anglo-Norman invaders around the 13th century when the defence system was upgraded and it is safe to assume this circular oval platform was protected by a bank and then a ditch and where-in there would have been military and residential buildings. From here you could see your enemies coming from a long way off making it easier to defend. And so when the whimsical Wemys’ decided to build a hunting den, it was the logical location.

Just to back up our story we include a photo of one of the three middle bronze age (3000BC) urns discovered during gravel extraction works close to the turret in 1838.

And we are also indebted to the National Roads Authority and their archaeological investigations close to the turret prior to building the motorway close by. One of the Wemys family had a cottage built on the side of an old road. The Wemys built their palatial home near the road for trade purposes and the cottage was actually a bakery where travellers would buy food and drink, like a MacDonald’s driver-thru.

The Metal Man-Scotchman

The sculpture of the Catholic King of England, James II, which stood for decades in Walsh’s field close to the turret was originally located in a Dublin park. One night in the mid-1800s, well heeled pranksters (inebriated we think) with nothing else to do made a wager with each other that one of them could remove it without being noticed and have it shipped from Waterford to England. That young man was a Wemys. He and some accomplices put the statue on a cart and brought it to Kilkenny on their way to Waterford. Hearing a “posse” behind them they quickened their pace. A Blake man in the cart stood up and fired a shot back at the pursuers and caused one of the horses to sway and thereby killing the man on the horse who was thrown and to this day, it is said that part of the road, which was not then the main Waterford-Kilkenny road, near Danesfort Cross was haunted. The robbers took refuge in the avenue leading to Wemys family home, Danesfort House before dumping the statue in brambles near what is now Walsh’s field.

Some say that the son of the Wemys involved in the Hell Fire club in Dublin, erected the statue near the turret faced the statue towards Scotland from where the Wemys family was thought to have descended from before coming to Kilkenny and where the last Wemys ran ofafter going broke.

We learn from Frank McEvoy that in the 1920s, some likely lads from Danesfort sawed off one of the arms and attempted to sell it in Kilkenny city to the late Johnny Flood who recognised it. The lads ran from his shop taking the arm with them and throwing it in a pond in Danesfort,. It is said that when the pond was drained it was found and used by a local farmer to tie down cocks of hay and that it was eventually lost. We know that in 1957, the statue missing the right arm was sold to John Hunt, Bailey, Howth, Dublin. On his death in 1981, his widow, Mrs Gertrude Hunt disposed of it. And there the trail of the Metal Man, The Scotchman goes cold.

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