Old house on The Kerry Way

My friend Simon had graciously offered to come with me on a family history tour of some of the sites of my ancestors’s lives in County Kerry, in Ireland. We had been walking in the mountains of Kerry for a few days and my muscles were aching from the unfamiliar exertion. I was a glad of a day of driving, even if my legs were stiff and sore every time I left the car. 

Leaving Templenoe we drove westward on the southern part of the Ring of Kerry toward the Blackwater Bridge. I was keen to find the old Dromore Castle, because it played a significant role in my family’s story. According to the map, it should have been on the lower, southern side of the road, where the land slopes down to the banks of the Kenmare River estuary. But the forest and undergrowth are thick and there was little to see between the trees but occasional glimpses of water, and the distant mountains of Cork beyond the river. Most of the signs of human habitation seemed to be on the upper side of the road,  where the land slopes upward to the foot of the mountains.

It was in this fertile strip of land between the mountains and the sea that my Needham family ancestors made their home. They lived in the village of Templenoe, which is easy to miss these days as you drive from Kenmare to Sneem. Sneem is a much more defined village, a popular stop on the Ring of Kerry, famous for is multicoloured houses and cascading river. But in the first half of the 1800s Templenoe seems to have been the bigger centre. 

I have read much about the area since I became aware that it was significant in our family story. The climate is temperate in this part of Kerry, never very warm, seldom very cold, and the growth is luxuriant. The Kenmare River is famous for oysters and salmon, which leap up the rivers that flow down from the mountains and into the estuary. The history of the area stretches back into the mists of time, and there are remnants of that history still to be seen. There are ruins of two castles between Kenmare and Templenoe, both of them sacked during Cromwell’s campaigns in Ireland in the 1600s.  And there are even older remains near Sneem, stretching back into antiquity. 

The actual Kenmare River estuary was also famous for smuggling, and perhaps for that reason there was a coastguard station at Lackeen Point near Blackwater. George Needham was a captain in the coastguard. George, who was born in Kerry around 1802, was the son of James Needham, an Englishman who settled in the area in the 1700s. There is a brief mention of George in a book which contains a biographical sketch of his son, Benjamin:

The Needham family is of English descent, and Rev. Mr. Needham’s paternal grandfather, James, was born in England, but settled in Ireland, where he resided until his death. He lived to a good age, having reared a family of five children, three sons and two daughters. One of the sons, Capt. George Needham, the father of Benjamin, was born in County Kerry, Ireland. He served for many years under the British government as an officer in the coastguard service, and for many years held the post of poor-law relieving officer and collector of revenues. His death took place in 1862, at the age of sixty years. He was a prominent, active, and influential member of the Protestant Episcopal church. 

Winfield Scott Garner, Biographical and portrait cyclopedia of Chester County, Pennsylvania, p624

Finding Dromore

Close to Blackwater we pulled off the road into a lay-by where we noticed a gap in the stone wall on the lower side of the road. I saw that some people had parked there and were disappearing into the forest. We pulled up too, and leaving the car we too squeezed through the gap in the stone wall, following them at a distance down a dark leafy path until we came to a bigger road in the forest, which seemed to run parallel to the main road on which we had been driving. 

Path through the woods near Blackwater

The road we found ourselves on was gravel with grass growing down the middle and lush weeds and undergrowth on each side. It dawned on me that this was the old road on which our Needham ancestors had travelled when they went to Sneem. Nowadays it is part of a ten day walking route called the The Kerry Way. We turned toward Templenoe, and followed the road up a gentle rise. I knew that Dromore Castle must lie somewhere in the vicinity, and I was determined to see it. 

The old road from Templenoe to Sneem

The Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, published in 1837, in the entry about the Parish of Templenoe, reads as follows:

The principal seat is Dromore, the residence of the Rev. Denis Mahony, a noble edifice in the Gothic castellated style, lately erected on the shore of the bay, in the scenery of which it forms a striking feature; it commands a splendid and extensive prospect of the bay and of the bold and picturesque group of mountains on its southern shore; the demesne, which extends a considerable distance along the margin of the bay and the eastern bank of the Blackwater, has been much improved and extensively planted by the present proprietor: within it are the ruins of Cappanacoss castle, formerly belonging to a branch of the O’Sullivans…

Samuel Lewis, A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, 1837

The castle was hard to find. We found ourselves passing a high stone wall and I wondered if the old house was behind it. There was a wooden door, overgrown with ivy, but it was locked. 

A door to a hidden garden?

We walked further.  On the river side of the road there seemed to be only trees. Thinking we must be in the right place, but seeing no sign of the house, I left the road in desperation and pushed through the undergrowth, up over a small rise. Suddenly there it was, the old “castle,” in the “Gothic castellated style” that the topographical dictionary had described. It was a moment of great excitement for me. 

Dromore Castle through the trees

The place was deserted. The grounds, once so well kept and lovely, with sweeping lawns down to the river, were being encroached on by the hungry forest. The terrace behind the house was overrun with weeds breaking though cracks in the paving. A rusty tractor stood idle in the overgrown driveway, and beyond a broken fence an old bathtub stood on the unkempt lawns, presumably a makeshift trough for animals that were now nowhere to be seen. The imposing front door of the house was firmly shut. 

Glimpses of the Kenmare River and the mountains beyond

What happened at Dromore in 1861?

1861 was a memorable year for the inhabitants of Kerry, because it was the year that Queen Victoria came to visit, on her first ever trip to Ireland. But it was not Victoria’s visit that made that year memorable for my ancestors, but rather a visitation of the Holy Spirit. On a website devoted to the history of the Brethren movement I had read the following:

Dromore Castle (where lived the well-known Christian gentleman, Mr. R. J. Mahony) and Derriquin were neighbouring estates. F. C. Bland and R. J. Mahony had known each other from infancy, and their mutual affection was like the love of brothers. Early in the year 1861 some earnest words spoken by Mr. Mahony at a gathering of parochial school children at Dromore Castle made such a deep impression on some of the adults present that meetings for prayer followed. One and another became deeply anxious about eternal things, and soon an increasing company of the peasantry were rejoicing in new-found blessing. The Ulster revival of 1859, and the Dublin awakening of 1860, had failed to make any sensible impression upon the people of the south. But God was about to work among them in His own way. A friend from a Midland county, hearing of the work, paid a visit to Dromore, bringing with him C. H. Mackintosh, whose ministry by word and pen has helped so very many. A meeting was arranged, and the closing passage to the 2nd chapter of the Epistle to Titus was his subject. Among the number who attended were Mr. and Mrs. Bland, and both of them were brought to Christ by the Word... In those bright days of the early revival there was a striking freshness and power about the testimony. As in apostolic times, the convert not infrequently became a witness and a minister at once, seemingly as the natural outcome of the blessing received. Boon companions and bosom friends in recreations of their boyhood, and in the pleasures and pursuits of their early manhood, Bland and Mahony now became united in preaching Christ to their friends and neighbours. The blessing spread among the gentry, and at the summer assizes at Tralee eight members of the grand jury took part in public meetings for the preaching of the Gospel. And the fruit of that work still lives. Many Christian homes there are in Munster where “the Kerry revival” is reckoned as the epoch of their spiritual blessing.

Pickering, Chief Men Among the Brethren

As I stood there gazing at the grand old gothic mansion I tried to imagine revival meetings taking place in this very building. I thought about the words I had read, early in the year 1861 some earnest words spoken by Mr. Mahony at a gathering of parochial school children at Dromore Castle made such a deep impression on some of the adults present that meetings for prayer followed. The Needham children, who were some of the “parochial school children” in the area, were doubtless at this gathering. Though their mother had recently and tragically died, their father, who was the parish clerk, may well have been among the adults who were present at the gathering.

The fruit of the Revival

The revival certainly bore fruit amongst the Needham family. There were ten children. Four of the boys, namely George, Thomas, Benjamin and William, became pastors and evangelists, but not in Ireland, because within a few years they all left, migrating along with many others to North America. These four boys were respectively 15, 10, 8 and 4 when the revival happened in 1861, each at an impressionable age. 

A biography of one of the four boys, Benjamin, can be found online. The excerpt above is from that biographical article. There is also much to be found online about George, who became a well known evangelist in North America, and even returned to Kerry on at least one occasion to run an evangelistic mission (there is an advertisement for this in the Kerry Evening Post of Feb 2, 1889). Thomas Needham Became known as the “sailor preacher” because of his rather colourful past and dramatic conversion at sea, which he recorded in his book, From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land. He was ten at the time of the revival, but seems at that time to have been more impassioned by ships and the sea than by spiritual matters. His spiritual awakening would come later in the extremity of need marooned among cannibals on the coast of South America. It was surely the memory of childhood experiences of the love and grace of a Heavenly Father that led him to the faith that sustained him for the rest of his life.

The Needham boys had an older sister, Mary, who had married in 1858, and who lived with her husband William Hickson in Killarney at the time of the revival. She had already borne a son, Richard, and in 1861 she had her second child, Susie, who was my great grandmother. Though William and Mary did not live in Templenoe or Sneem, their connections there were strong, and they too appear to have been greatly affected by the revival. They migrated to North America in 1865 together with much of the Needham family, but 12 years later they returned to Ireland and migrated again, but this time to Australia, where other members of the Hickson family had made their home. There they continued their involvement with the Brethren. Their daughter Susie, when she came of age, married an old flame from Killarney, George Byrne, whose parents had been good friends with Susie’s parents before they had left for America. George too was a keen supporter of the Brethren movement back in Kerry, and continued that involvement after he came to Sydney to pursues his other great love, namely Susie. Their six children, including my grandmother, were raised in a pious Brethren home. The effects of the Kerry Revival had spread to the far side of the world.

Catholics and Protestants in Kerry

Kerry, like much of Ireland, is very Catholic. But as can be seen by the story above, my Irish ancestors were largely Protestants. As I have read more about the history of Ireland and of Kerry I have begun to understand the uneasy co-existence of these traditionally warring factions. Protestantism in Kerry, the so called Church of Ireland, was really just the Church of England under another name. As such it was often seen by the native Irish as the religion of the oppressors, the English conquerors of Ireland. The landed aristocracy of Ireland was largely English, the so called Anglo-Irish Gentry, who were sometimes referred to as the Protestant Ascendency. The Bland family of the nearby Derryquin Estate, mentioned in the article above were one of these originally English families, though they had lived in Kerry for many generations.

The Mahony family, on the other hand, were Irish through and through, able to trace their ancestry back to Dermod O’Mahony Mór, Lord of Ivagha in the 1300s. So how is it that they were Protestant? Tony O’Callaghan, in his excellent book, The Kerry Coast (2016), explains that “the O’Mahoneys… became Protestants to retain their holding.”

The English, as part of their strategy to subdue the Irish, had made it illegal for Catholics to own land, or to have any political power. The Mahonys had therefore converted many generations earlier, like many others of the Irish nobility, to maintain their position in society. John Mahony built the house in 1838 on the site of an ancient fortress, and his son and successor, Denis Mahony, was in fact a Church of Ireland clergyman, though a very unpopular landlord. His son, Richard Mahony, who departed from his father’s draconian efforts to convert the local Catholic population and poured his efforts into improving their lot rather than bludgeoning them into Protestantism, owned the castle when the revival broke out. He was a much more highly regarded man than his father.

Tony O’Callaghan writes about the Mahony family in his book. He comments on the difference between Denis Mahony and his son Richard, who was so profoundly affected by the revival. 

The Rev Denis O’Mahoney was a major proselytiser and became quite unpopular among the natives. He locked the gates of the Catholic Church and when it came to a family funeral no horses could be found to draw their carriage. The family also bred a prized herd of Kerry cattle. Richard John O’Mahoney (1828-1892), son of Denis, was educated at Oxford and was an advocate of the Plymouth Brethren, a brotherhood of Bible societies striving to unite the different strands of religion. He treated his tenants humanely and initiated local post-famine relief works including houses for his workers, road improvements, bridges – some still standing – and land reclamation… Land agitation grew during the 1880s and the rule of the landlord classes declined.

Tony O’Callaghan, The Kerry Coast, 2016

Remains of those days

Dromore Castle still stands, as we discovered, on the wooded banks of the Kenmare River. Sadly Derryquin Castle, which was the home of Richard Mahony’s friend, FC Bland, was burned down during the troubles of the Irish Civil War, perhaps because the Blands did not have the same centuries old Irish heritage as the Mahonys. Derryquin Castle is now just a ruin on the golf course of the luxurious Parknasilla Hotel. Dromore Castle, on the other hand still stands. According to O’Callaghan’s book (published 2016), the house was recently refurbished, and indeed the buff paintwork looks relatively new. But any plans that may have been made for the old house seem not to have not been realised, since when we saw the house and its grounds, the place was deserted and again falling into disrepair. 

Despite that it is still an imposing edifice and I could not help hoping that life and activity could somehow be restored. The setting is just as spectacular today as it was a hundred and fifty years ago when my ancestors lived in those parts, with its wonderful vista of the imposing Caha Mountains across the bay. 

I have no idea if there are any adherents to the Brethren movement still present in Kerry, or if they all left, as did my ancestors. There are still a few Protestants, presumably mostly traditional Church of Ireland, though there are likely a scattering of Methodists and Presbyterians too. The task of uniting the “different strands of religion” is not an easy one and has defeated many well meaning believers, including the Plymouth Brethren. The Brethren movement was strong for at least a hundred years, but has waned around the world in recent generations, for various reasons. Even my great grandmother, Susie Hickson, said in later life that it had become too narrow and legalistic and had caused sadness and sorrow for her children rather than the joy that should come from faith. She expressed regret that they had not left the Brethren church when her children were young.

But the intentions and the passion of the likes of RJ Mahony and FJ Bland was genuine, and clearly greatly influenced my Needham and Hickson ancestors. The Plymouth Brethren exerted a profoundly positive, if short lived, influence on the people of Kerry and around the world. This is part of my own spiritual DNA.

Road to Sneem

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