Muckross House and Abbey


After the Desmond rebellion in 1586, Queen Elizabeth 1st granted extensive lands around Castleisland, northeast of Killarney, to Sir William Herbert, of St.Julian’s Monmouthshire in Wales. After her fathers death in 1593 his daughter Mary married Lord Edward Herbert of Chirbury. In 1625 King James 1st created him Lord Castleisland and in 1656 the third Lord Castleisland brought his cousin, Thomas Herbert, to Kerry to act as his land agent. Thomas became High Sheriff of Kerry in 1659 and settled at Kilcow, just west of Castleisland. Edward, his son, was the first to lease lands at Muckross from the McCarthys. Herbert’s son also named Edward, is recorded as actually living at Muckross around the 1730s. Agnes his only daughter married Florence McCarthy Mor. Charles McCarthy Mor was their only son, he became an officer in the first regiment of Foot Guards. Charles died in 1770 following a riding accident. He left his estate to the Herbert family. Seven generations of the Herbert family were to live at Muckross over two hundred years forming part of the “Establishment” in Kerry and at the same time amassing considerable wealth.
Much of this wealth was amassed by the mining of copper on the Muckross Peninsula from 1749 to 1754 and again between 1785 and 1818. A mining adventurer named Rudolf Eric Raspe author of “The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchhausen” was employed by the Herberts as a geological advisor. In November 1794 Raspe died of a fever at Muckross and was buried in an unmarked grave at Killegy Graveyard, Muckross.
There were many notable visitors to Muckross during the 18th century viz. the writers Charles Smith 1756, William Ockenden 1760 and Arthur Young in 1776. The owner at that time was Thomas Herbert. Thomas had made great strides in reclaiming land for grazing and experiments in the growing of crops and animal husbandry. Thomas’ son, the first Henry Arthur, served as an M.P. in England. He became an M.P. in Kerry from 1806 to 1813. Henry’s heir Charles John Herbert died at an early age in 1823 leaving a young family of six children. Louisa, his wife, moved her family back to her old home in Bradford, Pererell in Dorchester, England, where she died 5 years later. The eldest son was the 2nd Henry Arthur, and when his father died he was only 8 years old. He was educated at Eton in England, where his younger brother Charles was killed accidentally during cricket practice in 1828. After studying in Trinity College, Cambridge he embarked on a European Tour and in Rome he met Mary Balfour the daughter of James Balfour and Lady Eleanor Maitland, a daughter of the 8th Earl of Lauderdale. Henry and Mary were married in Edinburgh on the 2nd September 1837. Returning to Muckross they lived initially at Torch Cottage, which despite its name, was quite a substantial house. The seven generations that occupied Muckross are believed to have lived in at least four different houses. The original site of the first one is uncertain but it is thought to have been located about half way along the Muckross Peninsula. According to local folklore the Herberts usually planted a walnut tree close to their residence and today an isolated walnut tree stands in the west meadow of the Muckross Peninsula. The 2nd known Herbert residence was sited about 500 metres to the north of the present Muckross House. The foundations and cellars of this 18th century house, which was demolished by Henry in the late 1830s, have recently been uncovered. Torc Cottage was probably a dower house of the estate. This house was demolished in the early 20th century. The stables however survived with part of the foundations of the house visible.
Henry Arthur eventually built the present Muckross House and it was completed in 1843 and Henry became a resident landlord. It was a 65-room mansion. The fine, elegantly furnished rooms portray the lifestyles of the landed gentry, while below stairs are revealed the working conditions of the servants.
The present House was designed by William Burn (1789-1870), a Scottish architect with a reputation for his country house designs. Muckross was built between 1839 and 1843 in the Neo-Tudor style. He designed his houses in which the comfort and privacy of the family were of the utmost importance. The result being separate corridors and staircases for the family, servants and even the children. Generally his plans were only for two story houses with an attic above and a basement below.
Burn had been involved in the building of Whittinghame near Edinburgh, Mary’s fathers’ residence and as a team of craftsmen and skilled labourers were already assembled there, he brought the whole team with him to Muckross. Cottages, built by the builders themselves for their families still survive today as estate cottages.
Muckross House was designed as a far more ornate building with curvilinear gables, a larger servants wing, and more ornamental details on the facades, a stable block, a summerhouse and an orangery. However in order to reduce costs Mary requested Burn to modify the plans.
At the time Burn used many innovative ideas, viz. the use of cast -iron beams to create larger floor spans over the main reception rooms, early plumbing and central heating and the use of a double wall with a ventilated space in between to eliminate damp. Muckross House was completed in 1843.
A mysterious blight (Phytophthora infestans) struck the country in August 1845; this caused the “Great Famine” because it devastated the potatoe crop, which was the staple diet of the Irish people. Henry Arthur helped his tenants through these difficult years to the best of his ability. The Herbert children were sent to England while the Famine raged. Mary Herbert was actively involved in famine relief. When an outbreak of Typhus, a disease closely associated with famine conditions spread to Killarney, Mary became ill with the disease and returned to England. She did not return to Muckross until 1849 with her children accompanying her.
Henry was an ardent supporter of Sir Robert Peel (founder of the English Police) and was elected to Parliament in August 1847. In 1853 he was appointed Lord Lieutenant of County Kerry and in 1854 Colonel of the Kerry Militia. He remained an M.P. for Kerry until his death in 1866.
The Herbert’s enjoyed a very high social profile in Kerry but now it was to be further enhanced, when in 1855 it was confirmed that Queen Victoria of England and her family would visit Killarney in 1861. This was her third visit to Ireland, her first being in 1849 and her second in 1853. She had not visited Kerry before and this time it was included in her itinerary. During their time in Killarney the royal family would stay at Killarney House, seat of the Earl of Kenmare and the owner of the other large Killarney Estate, and also at Muckross House with the Herberts. Preparations for the royal visit were very extensive. Muckross House was completely modified and decorated. New tapestries, silverware, mirrors, linen, musical instruments, china and servants uniforms were purchased. In the Dining Room the curtains, which are still there, were probably woven in Paris. New driveways to the House were built, late summer flowering shrubs and flowers were planted, seats erected at strategic viewing points and new pathways opened up.
In 1861 on Monday 26th August the Queen and her entourage arrived by train in Killarney at 6.30pm. At the station to greet her were Henry Arthur Herbert and Lord Castlerosse of the Kenmare family. Her first night was spent at Killarney House. The next day after a boat trip on the lakes the Queen was escorted by a troop of 1st Royal Dragoons to Muckross. The Queen arrived at Muckross at 6.30 in the evening to be greeted by the Herbert’s and a select gathering of ladies and gentlemen, who were admitted to the grounds by ticket only. In a letter dated Friday 30th August, Eleanor one of the Herbert’s daughters wrote a letter to her Aunt Jane (her fathers sister who had married William Henry Hare Hedges-White, Earl of Bantry) at Bantry House County Cork and described the Queens arrival as follows: “It was a glorious evening and the finest sunset I ever saw… the steps were covered with red cloth and Mama went to the carriage door with Papa to receive the Queen… after standing a few minutes admiring the view from the Library window the Queen expressed a wish to go to her rooms which were Mama’s.” An entire section of Muckross House was allocated to the royal party for their private use during their two-night stay.
The Killarney House visit was a state occasion while her stay at Muckross House was a private one. She took a sight seeing tour to Dinis Island, to the top of Torc Waterfall (along a newly constructed road, still known as “The Queen’s Drive) and Muckross Abbey, as well as a stag hunt on the lakes. At noon on Thursday 29th of August the Queen left Muckross House and once again was escorted by the 1st Royal Dragoons back to Killarney Railway Station. Before departing the Queen thanked her hosts and hostesses declaring that she would cherish the memory for many years to come.
While the visit by the royal family had been very successful the financial situation of the Herbert’s was rather unstable due to the high cost of the visit. Around this time Henry became ill and on the 24th February 1866 was buried in nearby Killegy graveyard. Local folklore said that on his deathbed he requested his son to bury him standing up, as the views from Killegy graveyard over the Lakes had to be more beautiful than Heaven. If one visited his tomb at Killegy it might strengthen this tale, as the vault while not very long or wide is definitely very high.
Henry’s son also called Henry Arthur inherited the estate after his father’s death; he married the Hon. Emily Julia Charlotte Keane from Cappoquin House County Waterford. Mary Herbert took up residence in London with her two daughters. Mary died in 1893 and was buried in Killegy.
In 1891 Henry Arthur purchased a private railway and steamer and machinery in an effort to chop down the Birch Trees on his estate and turn them into cotton reels. However this never materialized as the mountains were to steep for the railway and the Lake and river to shallow for the steamer. He also borrowed money to re-open the Copper Mines at Muckross again, but in vain. In 1898 Standard Life Assurance Company foreclosed on the Estate. The seven-generation association of the Herbert’s with Muckross House ended.
In 1899 the Standard Life sold Muckross House to the first and last baron Ardilaun who was in fact Sir Arthur Guinness. Sir Arthur Guinness had married Lady Olivia Hedges-White whose father was Earl of Bantry and mother was Lady Bantry ie. Jane Herbert sister of the second Henry Arthur Herbert. The property was bought as an investment, letting it out on an annual basis as a shooting and fishing lodge; family connections may have influenced its purchase.
A wealthy Californian named Mr. William Bowers Bourn, owner of the Empire Gold Mine and the Spring Valley Water Co. of Northern California leased the property in 1910. Shortly after that he bought the property for £60,000 and gave it to his daughter Maud (1882-1929) as a wedding gift. Maud married a Mr. Arthur Rose Vincent (1876-1956) of Summerhill, Cloonlara, Co. Clare. He had previously served as a judge in the British Colonial Service. When Mr. William Bowers Bourn built his Californian Home “Filoli” (1916-1919) a site was chosen like the area surrounding the Lakes of Killarney. Here the gardens contained Irish Yew trees, which were brought as cuttings from Muckross, also cuttings of Holly and Myrtle, while the walls of the ballroom were decorated with murals depicting scenes around Muckross.
View from this area
The years of Vincent and Bourn ownership are generally regarded as the heyday of Muckross as a privately owned estate. In the years 1911 to 1932 around £110,000 was spent on improvements. Arthur Rose planned much of the landscaping and garden design around Muckross House. Wallace and Company of Colchester, England designed the sunken garden in 1915. A Rock Garden was developed on a natural outcrop of fissured Carboniferous Limestone also a Stream Garden.
While residing at Muckross, Arthur Rose Vincent was actively involved in politics. In 1914 he was appointed Deputy Lieutenant of Co. Kerry and in 1915 High Sheriff of the County. Also he served as a Justice of the Peace. When he was young Arthur injured his hip and this made him unfit for military service during World War 1 (1914-1918). Instead he served as an ambulance driver on the Western Front with the French Army. When the United States joined the war in 1917 he was sent to head the British Information Service in Chicago by the British Foreign Office. This appointment was a PRO exercise to counteract any hostility, which existed in America over the execution of the leaders of the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916. When the Irish war of Independence (1919-1921) broke out he played an important part as “honest broker” between the I.R.A. (Irish Republican Army) and the British Government in the lead up to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. He became a Senator in April 1931 of the Irish Free State and resigned in February 1934.
The Vincent’s had two children Elizabeth Rose (1915-1983) and Arthur William Bourn who was born in 1919, and although they travelled a lot they resided mainly at Muckross until 1932. Maud’s father suffered a severe stroke in 1921 and she travelled regularly to see him. In 1929 while in New York Maud died of pneumonia.
In July 1932 Arthur Rose Vincent wrote to Eamon De Valera President of the Executive Council of State stating, “During the last 22 years, I have greatly improved the estate in every way. It is now in what one might call perfect condition. Looking to the future, Mr. Bourn and I have arrived at the conclusion that it is to be too big an undertaking for any private individual under the changing conditions of the world. The Muckross Estate would make a public park such, as any country might be proud of. Under these circumstances Mr. Bourn and I would much prefer to see the State in possession than any private individual”.
On December 7th 1932 The Bourn Vincent Memorial Park Bill was laid before Dail Eireann (Irish Parliament). All stages were passed within a fortnight and it took effect on 31st December 1932. Under the Act, The Commissioners of Public Works were required “to maintain and manage the Park as a National Park for the purpose of the enjoyment and recreation of the public”. Arthur Rose Vincent retained a keen interest in the further development of the Park. Arthur Rose Vincent died in 1956 and he like Henry Arthur Herbert is buried in Killegy graveyard, close to Muckross.

The Park originally covered 4,000 hectares. In recent years the Bourn Vincent Memorial Park has been extended to 10,000 hectares by the acquisition of the lands of the Kenmare Estate to form what is now Ireland’s premier National Park. The Park includes the world famous Lakes of Killarney and the surrounding mountains and woodlands. After its acquisition by the State, Muckross House was to remain closed for 30 years. It opened to the public in June 1964 as a Folk Museum and it now serves as the main Visitor Centre for Killarney National Park. The House is now administered jointly by the Trustees of Muckross House (Killarney) Ltd. And Duchas the Heritage Service of the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands.

Muckross house today

 Today skilled workers use traditional methods to produce high quality items of weaving, bookbinding and pottery. In the grounds of Muckross is an exciting representation of the lifestyle and farming traditions of a rural community of the 1930s. Three separate working farms, complete with animals, poultry and traditional farm machinery, vividly recreate the past. These Traditional Farms take the visitor down memory lane to a time before the advent of electricity spelt the decline of traditional farming methods. This is not a museum, but a real life community of artisans carrying out their daily tasks all year round, just as their forefathers did. They provide a fascinating contrast to the lifestyle of the gentry, which you have just seen at Muckross House. The entrance to the farms is from the car park and is also sign-posted from the House. The Traditional Farms are open at weekends from mid- March and daily from May until the end of September. Part of the adjoining buildings to Muckross houses a modern restaurant and gift shop.

 Muckross Abbey

This is the Franciscan Friary of Irrilagh, know as Muckross Abbey. According to the “Annals of the Four Masters” McCarthy Mor founded the monastery of Oirbealach at Carraig-an-Chuil at the eastern side of Lough Leane in 1340 for the Franciscan Friars. However extant documents imply that it was built a century later. A Papal Brief issued from St. Marks, Rome in 1468 tells how a Prince of Desmond named Donaldus Machar had been given permission by the Holy See to build an Abbey on the shores of Loch Lein. The Friars Minor under Richard Chilvart inhabited it.
Donal McCarthy Mor the founder and many of his descendants were interred in the McCarthy Mor Tomb within the choir of the monastery. It functioned freely for over a century from 1440 to 1542.
In 1587 Queen Elizabeth granted Donal McCarthy Mor, Earl of Glencar a forty-year lease of the Abbeys of Innisfallen and Irrilagh. In 1589 English soldiers sacked the Abbey, however the sacristan Father Denis Hurley hid all the sacred objects on one of the nearby islands. He refused to tell where he hid them and was slain. [In more recent times the bell of Muckross Abbey was found in Lough Leane, and a crozier from Innisfallen covered in ornamental silver was found in the River Laune. This beautiful object is now on public display in the National Museum in Dublin.]
In the late 1500s, it is likely that the Abbey became an English garrison.
During the reign of James 1st the monks returned. Father John Mollouney was guardian from 1638-1690. When Ludlow’s army laid siege to Ross Castle in 1652 some of the friars were slain and the monastery burnt. In 1653 the Bishop of Kerry Richard O’Connell was buried there. A list of the guardians from the Restoration to 1873 was made. In Penal Times the monks left the Friary and lived in hiding between Torc and Mangerton mountains. Around 1776 enforcement of the Penal Laws abated and a small community lived there. The last friar connected with the Abbey was Father James Fitzgerald from Dingle. He resided in Killarney and founded an academy for the education of boys. He died in 1881. The Convent of Friars Minor founded on Martyrs Hill in 1870 replaced Muckross and is still in use today.

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