Turtle Bunbury

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Vanishing Ireland

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(Photo: James Fennell)

SEAMUS McGRATH (1921-2014)
KILLERIG, COUNTY CARLOW
FARMER & ACTOR

One of the more bizarre cases to come before the House of Lords in Britain in recent years was that of a Californian builder called Paul FitzGerald who believes he is the rightful Duke of Leinster. Paul maintains that he is a grandson of Lord Desmond FitzGerald, younger brother of the 6th Duke. Lord Desmond, a popular young man, was killed when a grenade accidentally detonated inside his tent on the Western Front in 1916. As such, when the 6th Duke died, mad and childless, in 1922, the Duchy – and its considerable wealth and lands – passed to his youngest brother Lord Edward. (As chance would have it, this wayward young 7th Duke had already sold his unexpected inheritance to pay off his gambling debts).

Paul FitzGerald maintains that his grandfather was not killed in the First World War but actually faked his death so that he could go undercover and lend his support to the cause of Irish Republicans. After the war, Lord Desmond apparently made his way to Canada and then settled in California where he died in 1967. If it all sounds unlikely, Paul FitzGerald apparently spent over £1.3 million advancing his claim before the Lord Chancellor threw it out in 2009.

Seamus McGrath has been reading all about the case in Michael Estorick’s book ‘Heirs and Graces’. He has an interest in the FitzGerald saga because his mothers’ family, the Nowlans, were tenants of the Duke of Leinster. They originally farmed land at Crophill, two miles east of Castledermot, but in 1784, the 2nd Duke transferred 56-year-old Christopher Nowlan three miles south-east to another farm at Knockpatrick, near Graney Cross.[i]

In 1801, the same Duke gave Christopher’s son William Nowlan a farm at Corballis. William was Seamus McGrath’s great-grandfather and it is thought that he fought for the rebels at the second battle of Hacketstown in 1798. Seamus remembers going to an auction where his mother tried, in vain, to purchase a pike used during that same bloody battle.

Perhaps inevitably, Seamus has a soft spot for 1798. While holding a well-thumbed biography of Michael Dwyer, the hero of Derrynamuck, he recounts the sad tale of a father and two sons caught making pikes in their forge at Graney Cross. ‘They were taken to the top of a building and dumped out through the gable end windows with a rope around their necks,’ he says with gravitas. When I ask whether the rebels would have fared any better if they had used bows and arrows instead of pikes, his eyes contract as another historical ‘what if’ attaches to his growing collection.

In the late 19th century, William Nowlan’s grandchildren made a mass exodus to the USA. Of nine children, only one remained in Ireland. That one was Peter Nowlan, the youngest child, who duly inherited both the farms at Knockpatrick and Corballis.

‘My grandfather was a bit of a character,’ says Seamus, who knew Peter in his youth. ‘He was a genius in his own right and he made a colossal amount of money in the late 1920s. He could foresee the Depression and sold every animal he had, except the milking cow. A year and a half later, after the crash, he bought them all back for a fraction of the cost.’

Seamus recalls seeing documents relating to family shares in the British Post Office and the Great Southern & Western Railway, although he wryly notes that, perhaps on account of the latter, his grandfather’s wealth waned a little in later years. ‘He had a short leg, a form of deformity, and if that hadn’t happened, I think he’d have made a lot more money.’

In 1889, Peter Nowlan married Miss Margaret Whelan of Tinoran and had a daughter Mary. In 1920, she married Jim McGrath of Garyhunden, Tinryland, County Carlow. Mary was a cousin of Dr. Robert Farnan, a well-known ‘ladies doctor’ and Senator in the Oireachtas who is considered by most to have been Eamon de Valera’s best friend. Dr. Farnan lived at Bolton Abbey in Moone, County Kildare, and upon his death in 1965, he left the abbey and 300 acre farm to the Archdiocese of Dublin. The abbey is now run by the Cistercians and Seamus still attends Mass there ‘nearly every Sunday’.

When Seamus, the eldest of Jim and Mary’s seven children, was born on 2nd April 1921, the War of Independence was raging across Ireland.[ii] A week before his birth, the British Army issued an order urging ‘every person within the townland of Carlow to remain within doors between the hours of nine o'clock, p.m. and five o'clock, a.m., unless provided with a permit in writing.’ His father Jim avoided the Troubles as best he could, hiding his single-barrel shotgun in the ruins of a Knights Templar monastery which still stands on the farm today.

One of Seamus’s clearest memories from his childhood was a spring night in 1933 when the nearby mansion of Duckett’s Grove burned down.[iii] It wasn’t an unexpected event. ‘A neighbour gave himself a lot of hardship putting it out but the following weekend it went up again so he let it on,’ he explains, his eyebrows wavering.

He reserves greater condemnation for the ‘scandalous behaviour’ of the Land Commission when they demolished another nearby mansion, Russellstown Park, considered one of the most elegant buildings in Ireland. ‘It was a beautiful house, decorated to the last’, recalls Seamus who sold many a box of apples to Russellstown’s last owner, Colonel Steuart Phillpotts. The Land Commission attempted to sell the house to the Patrician Brothers but, when that plan fell through, they knocked the house down. ‘They were vandals, that was all,’ says Seamus. ‘The house was in perfect condition.’ Meanwhile, Colonel Phillpotts, an Anglo-Irish gentleman famed for giving away fully laden hampers from Harrods of London to those with whom he stayed, had moved to London and become a taxi driver.[iv]

Seamus’s school at Grange was only half a mile from home down the Tullow road. He later attended secondary school in Tullow where he became an enthusiastic athlete, specialising in the 120-yard hurdles. His father had been an all Ireland champion long jumper, and Seamus himself racked up some impressive medals, coming third in the 1953 All-Ireland and second in the Leinster championships twice.[v]

Seamus left school aged eighteen and ‘tricked about in insurance’ for a while. He also indulged in his dramatic ambitions, working closely with the Tullow Macra na Feirme Drama Society for nearly fifteen years. In 1959, he starred as ‘the son of the poor auld man’ in a version of T. C. Murray’s one-act rural drama ‘Spring’ which won an All-Ireland medal in Athlone.[vi] Critics hailed the play as ‘very impressive’ and ‘deeply moving’ while Seamus was applauded for his ‘very sincere performance.’

When Jim McGrath passed away in 1961, Seamus and his brother took on the running of the 122-acre farm at Killerig. The following year he met Ita Nolan, a nurse fifteen years his junior, whom he dated for the next six years. In 1968, the 47-year-old farmer married Ita and they settled on Mill Street in Tullow. Seamus’s mother was still living at Killerig and, as he tactfully puts it, ‘two women don’t always live well in the one kitchen.’ Seamus threw his all into the Tullow community, becoming one of the key organizers of the annual Tullow Agricultural Show.

Seamus’s mother died shortly before Christmas 1971. Seamus also inherited the old Nowlan farm at Knockpatrick from her bachelor brother, Christy Nowlan, who had passed away three months earlier. Over the next thirty years, Seamus drove the six miles from Killerig to Knockpatrick every day, sometimes two or three times, to check all was in order with the farm. It stood near an old graveyard and an ancient ringfort where Saint Patrick is said to have rested during his travels.

Like St. Patrick, Seamus has always been a great traveller. Early in his farming career, he realised that the best value livestock were not necessarily to be sourced at local fairs. As such, he frequently drove 240 km north to the market in Enniskillen for his cattle. And when he decided to farm pure-bred Suffolk sheep, he took his truck across the Irish Sea and purchased his flock from Scottish farmers in Balmoral and Kelso.

Seamus and Ita had three sons and a daughter. Since Ita passed away in 2003, Seamus lives with a trusty Labrador who knows exactly when and who to bark at. The house where he was born and raised is now used as a cattle shed. It stands just opposite the old monastery and it is clear that Seamus feels a strong connection with this location. He runs his hands along walls cemented with ox-blood and points out the narrow slits through which defenders let loose their deadly arrows a thousand years ago. Elsewhere there are the two wells down which long-gone monks lowered buckets for fresh water. It is not so long since one of Seamus’s brothers sighted a ghost, clad in a hooded cassock, heading up the Friarstown Road. ‘One of the old stock’, smiles Seamus.

With thanks to Fiona McGrath, Ronan McGrath and Ed Brennan.

Seamus McGrath was born on 2nd April 1921 and passed away on 7th February 2014.

FOOTNOTES

[i] The Nowlan family originally came from Crophill near Castledermot where Garrett Nowlan, father of Christopher Nowlan (1728 -1813), died in 1763. According to Seamus McGrath’s daughter Fiona, ‘the Duke of Leinster moved Christopher to the farm at Knockpatrick from a farm in Crophill, Castledermot, in 1784. Christopher was Seamus’s great-great-great-grandfather. Then in 1801 the Duke of Leinster gave Christopher’s son William (1764-1854) a farm at Corballis, Castledermot. Peter Nowlan (Seamus’s grandfather) (baptized 1854 died 1930) inherited both farms Knockpatrick and Corballis. Peter was the youngest of 9 children. All his older siblings emigrated to USA.’

[ii] Seamus’s youngest brother is Dr. PJ McGrath, a former priest, author and a professor at Maynooth who is now lecturing at University College, Cork. Having studied at Knockbeg, Maynooth and Louvain, he became famous when, to quote Seamus, ‘he broke up the clergy.’ I am not quite sure how he did this but there was a court settlement and Dr McGrath left the church.

One of Seamus’s sisters was keen on the piano but otherwise perhaps not musical family.

[iii] ‘I saw Ducketts Grove the night it was being burned’, said Seamus. Kathryn Thomas’s great-grandfather had bought it from the Land Commission and put a caretaker in it. Seamus believes the Ducketts weren’t considered good landlords. It had been a training camp for Republicans in the Troubles; one of them worked for Seamus after the war. ‘At one time it was owned by an old spinster, Charlie Balding’s cousin Bert. She was a great shot with a double barrel gun; she’d bring down anything.’ It’s a magnificent ruin. Seamus also recalls the pub at the entrance, now bordered up, once called ‘The Towers’. The old avenue is now a road. I believe the Ducketts opened up their gardens back in Victorian times. They weren’t there very long – 3 generations?

[iv] Steueart Philpotts had a beautiful daughter. My father and his friends always go a little quiet when her name comes up, their eyes gazing into the middle distance. Russellstown used to host many of the hunt balls.

[v] ‘We had no training or facilities’. My father James Magrath was an all Ireland champion long jumper. His medal has disappeared. He worked in Dublin a lot of the time’. Seamus often trained with pole-vaulter Dinny Hyland (qv) in St. Dympna’s, as well as John Joe Lambert the distance runner.

[vi] T.C. Murray was a native of Macroom whose plays achieved international acclaim in the opening decades of the last century as they portrayed the lives of ordinary country folk.

 

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Click here to see a full list of persons interviewed for the Vanishing Ireland project.