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Ballyvolane, County Cork, Ireland – The Place of the Springing Heifers

Ballyvolane House by David McClelland. The house was named Country House Venue of the Year at the 2022 weddingsonline annual awards. It was also shortlisted for Best Hotel in The Times and Sunday Times Travel Awards 2022, and won Silver for Ireland’s Country House and Guest House Experience at the 2023 Virgin Media Business Gold Medal Awards.

 

Ballyvolane is one of the most admired guest houses in Ireland. Built by a former Chief Justice of Ireland, past occupants of the County Cork mansion include a butler and a maid executed for murder and a nationalist politician who vanished without trace. Owned by the Green family since 1955, its recent guests have included Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall. This history includes  a piece I wrote for National Geographic Traveller.

Sir Richard Pyne (1644-1709), Lord Chief Justice of Ireland

Located close to the village of Castlelyons in north County Cork, Ballyvolane (“the place of the springing heifers“) was the property of Sir Richard Nagle and Edmond Barry in the 17th century. It was then forfeited to Viscount Sidney, presumably became Nagle and Barry had supported the lost cause of James II prior to the Boyne.

In 1702-3, Viscount Sidney sold Ballyvolane for £696 to Sir Richard Pyne. He was the fourth son of Nicholas Pyne of Mogeely, near Castlemartyr, who may have been involved with the witchcraft trial of Florence Newton in Youghal in 1661. The verdict of the trial is unknown. Sir Richard’s mother Jane Tynte was the daughter and co-heiress of Sir Robert Tynte of Ballycrenane and his wife Elizabeth (née Boyle), a cousin of the Earl of Cork. A barrister by profession, Sir Richard was appointed a joint Commissioner of the Great Seal of Ireland after the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, and also served as a judge of oyer and terminer in Ulster. In 1694, he condemned 28 men to be either hanged or branded on the hand. He was Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench for Ireland from 1695 until his death in February 1709.

Sir Richard Pyne also purchased three other County Cork properties from the Commissioners for Sale of Forfeited Estates, namely Blarney Castle (which he bought in 1703, but sold a few months later), Ballinaneala and Ardra. He also bought Great Codham Hall in Essex, England, where his family continued to live deep into the 19th century.

He is thought to have commenced the construction of the original Ballyvolane House but it was not completed until long after is death. This was probably located close to where the yards are located today. Terence Reeve-Smith had proposed that it was approached by a straight avenue from the west that would have run through what is now the walled garden. [1]

The St Leger Murder, 1731

A murder most foul took place at Ballyvolane in 1731 when the butler and a maid shot and stabbed Andrew St Leger, an elderly man, and his wife and made off with a chest full of valuables. The ghost of an inconvenient gardener axed to death during their getaway is reputed to appear before guests to this day. A dive into the archives reveals a little more:

HOME AFFAIRS. Dublin, Jan. 19. We have an Account from Cork, that Timothy Croneen was condemned and executed there the 15th Inft. for the barbarous Murder of Mr. St. Leger and his wife, concerning which in Court he made the following short Declaration, viz. “The Devil was too strong with me, I declare I shot Mr. St. Leger, I was resolved at first to rob my Master, I went into the Room, and afterwards I gave my Mistress five Stabs, the Gardiner consented to go with me and hold the Candle; I took about 20l, and the Watch out of my Master’s Pocket; After the Gardiner and I went to Bed I made the Agreement with him.” The Tryal lasted seven Hours, when his Bolts were knock’d off in the Dock, and he was carried immediately to the Place of Execution, and there hang’d about a Minute, then cut down, his Head cut off, his Bowels taken out and flung in his Face, his Body divided into 4 Parts, and to be put in 4 cross Roads ; and Joan Condon was sentenced to be burnt alive the next Day, but we hear she has got a Reprieve to the 23rd Instant. [2]

Joan Condon did not get off the hook:

‘They write from Cork, that on the 23d of Jan. last, Joan Condon was burnt for being concern’d in the Murder of Lieutenant St. Leger and his Lady, without making any further Discoveries.’ [3]

And, as for the gardener, Michael B. Holly discovered this record of a “John Holly”:

Dublin, Jan 16 (1730?) – We heard from Cork, that John Holly, the gardner, who was accused as being one of the accomplices in the murder of Lieut. Andrew St. Leger and his wife, November the 10th 1730, Died the 8th of Jan last in the city goal of Cork.

Back garden at Ballyvolane House by David McClelland.

The Pyne Family

Sir Richard’s only son Henry Pyne, MP for Dungarvan, was killed in a duel at break of dawn on Saturday 28 February 1713. The 24-year-old father of three was shot dead by Theophilus Biddulph, the son of a prominent Whig politician from Kent, at Chelsea Fields, London. Henry’s mother had awoken at Codham Hall, Essex, that same morning, having experienced a vivid dream in which her son had appeared covered in blood. She had expressed her alarm to her husband (a new husband) who told her to relax, it was just a bad dream. When she went downstairs, she saw the same blood-soaked apparition. Her husband suggested the two of them should take some fresh air but just as they were leaving the building, a liveried servant galloped up with the news that Henry was dead. Biddulph and the seconds were tried at the Old Bailey – Biddulph was convicted of manslaughter but the seconds were acquitted.

With both Sir Richard and Henry dead, Ballyvolane, and several other estates, passed to Sir Richard’s nephew Robert Wakeham, the son of his sister Jane, who duly added the surname Pyne to his own.

The present house is believed to be late 18th or early 19th century; it appears on an 1830s map. This probably took place during the ‘reign’ of Arthur Pyne  (1747-1839) who also laid out the present Regency-style parkland gardens and pleasure grounds.

He was succeeded by his amorous eldest son Jasper Richard Masters Pyne, who married three wealthy women; the stables are thought to have been built on his watch. [4] In 1840, he was married in Paddington to Emily Maxfield, daughter of the late John Maxfield, Esq. formerly of Compton-terrace, Islington.[5] On 6 May 1845, he was married secondly at Cork Cathedral to Helena Parker, daughter of Thomas Parker, Edq, of Carrigrohan, County Cork. [6] In 1856, he wed to Louisa J. Garde, eldest daughter of the late J. Browne, Esq, of Coolcower House, County Cork.[7]

When Jasper died in 1860-1, he left no male heirs so neither his wife nor daughters could inherit the property; the estate had been left by his father Arthur entailed for a life and could only be inherited by male issue. A big court case ensued in May 1861, by which the property passed to Jasper’s younger brother, the Rev. William Masters Pyne, Rector of  St Mary’s Church, Oxted in Surrey for 41 years between 1828 and 1869.

In March 1864 the Rev Pyne put Ballyvolane on the market through the Encumbered Estates Courts. It remained on the market until bought by another member of the Pyne family in January 1869. It was at this point that the building was remodelled; the top storey was removed to recreate a two-storey house with an extensive west end wing. Under the roof in the attic, the blue and white wallpaper can still be seen in patches on the wall of one of the third storey rooms. The architect was Richard Rolt Brash (1817-1876), of 21 South Mall, Cork City, whose father and brother were well known builders in the city. An active antiquarian and friend of John Windele, R.B. Brash was especially interested in round towers.

In 1885, the Rev Pyne’s fourth son (Jasper) Douglas Pyne (1847-1888) was elected MP for West Waterford as a candidate for Parnell’s nationalist Irish Parliamentary Party. During the Land Wars of the 1880s, Lisfinny tower house near Tallow was in his possession.  A brother to the squire of Ballyvolane House, Douglas Pyne threw himself into the cause of radical Irish politics and the rights of the Irish tenant farmers. Following the infamous Scrahan evictions of October 1887, he delivered a speech so inflammatory that he was charged with incitement. Ignoring a summons to attend court, he withdrew in early November to Lisfinny Castle where, with supplies to last six months, he withstood a determined siege by the police. In fact it ended after ‘only’ two months, with Pyne’s dramatic escape from the castle, followed by with his total and permanent disappearance in 1888‘. Jasper reputedly drowned while crossing from Holyhead to Ireland on the Shamrock on 13 November 1888. However, in July 1890, his wife was denied administration of his will until ‘positive evidence’ of his death was found. [8]

 

The Green Age

 

Maintaining a big Georgian Irish country house is a famously time-consuming business. Every day presents a new hazard – dry rot in the rafters, jackdaws in the chimney, slates sliding off a roof, the sudden emergence of a major fault-line in a bedroom wall. An owner will find a large portion of his or her life sporadically dedicated to righting these wrongs. Jeremy and Merrie Green were well aware of such pitfalls when they moved into the house which Jeremy’s father, Cyril Hall Green, a retired rubber planter from Malaya, had purchased in 1955. (See also Blake and Benson family history).

One perfectly sensible way of ensuring one’s home is kept in a state of good repair is to make the state of one’s house central to one’s business. It was with this sort of philosophy in mind that the Greens decided to take the plunge in 1980 and open Ballyvolane as a guesthouse. Soon after the doors opened, visitors began flooding in to set up short-term residence and enjoy the Green’s celebrated hospitality in between touring the locality and salmon fishing on the nearby Blackwater. However, the Greens were insistent that the house remain primarily a family home. And so, while international guests wandered around the house armed with fishing rods, large drinks and hire car keys, the Greens three young sons would gallop between their legs on hobby horses, hurley sticks and long-suffering Springer Spaniels. The combination of family home and exclusive accommodation worked well. In 2003, Ballyvolane was selected by The Sunday Times as one of the Britain’s top twenty great escapes.

The added charm of Ballyvolane is its owners. Jeremy Green acquires the fiery glint of an ancient shannachie when the subject of ghosts comes up. He has an arsenal of ghost stories; some charming and very funny, others spine-shiveringly spooky.

Since January 2004, the property has been managed by Jeremy and Merrie’s eldest son Justin Green and his wife Jenny. This enigmatic couple enjoyed a fascinating career before their return to Ireland, working for some of the most prestigious hotels in Hong Kong, Dubai and Bali, as well as Somerset’s highly acclaimed Babington House, which Justin ran on behalf of London’s Soho Club. Comfortably ensconced in the family home, they raised two sons and a daughter who grew up gallivanting around the legs of the Blüthner grand piano in the pillared hall, where their father and his brothers used to play a generation earlier. Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall are among the visitors in recent years.

Today, the odd ghost aside, Ballyvolane and its surrounding demesne offer a sanctuary of immense peace and beauty, as well as being the HQ of Bertha’s Revenge Milk Gin, winner of two gold medals at the San Francisco Spirits Awards in 2022. The spacious, bright bedrooms are perfectly appointed to bring a sense of tremendous ease to guests. Outside, the chorus of songbirds and the rustle of leaves. Donkeys and horses graze in the meadows. Kestrels and fantail doves swirl in the air. The occasional nimble-footed red squirrel leaps from tree to tree. And walking amid all this nature and serenity, one can quite understand why the Green family have every intention of keeping this a family home for many generations to come.

 

*****

Merrie Green, a wonder woman of hospitality.

Mary Leland wrote the following appreciation for the Irish Times shortly after Merrie’s death in 2006:

‘Merrie Green’s stories of herself were always told with laughter. Yet they were true. And nothing was more true than the story she told me one lovely day last August when, having complimented her on her newly short hairstyle and her newly slender figure I went off to walk my dog in her woods. When I came back she was waiting by my car. She felt she had deceived me. She couldn’t let me think, she said, that all was well. In fact she was ill; the prognosis was not good although she was going to accept treatment for the sake of the quality of the life left to her.
I wondered if the doctors knew that Merrie was a specialist in the quality of life. Even then, explaining that she was to be gathered to the holocaust, she could smile without a trace of self-pity. Her native honesty made her unable to dissemble, but she spoke with the gallantry not of despair but of acceptance and gave me, as she must have given so many others, the gift of acceptance too. And after that everything fell into place.
Merrie and her loving and beloved husband Jeremy had always had their plans. That’s one reason why their home at Ballyvolane House became a template of excellence for the Hidden Ireland organisation of which they were founder members. These most rooted and realistic of people created an atmosphere of magical serenity, but behind the tranquillity, comfort and the genial temperament of age and tradition lay the steady and imaginative working out of plans. The long-term future was already in hand – and for the four generations of Greens now living at Ballyvolane House – when it turned out to be short-term after all.
Born in 1946, Merrie Benson came to Ireland (after what she once described as a “very proper” education at Cheltenham Ladies College) and lived at Ballyduff on the Blackwater; here, tutored by her great-uncle Percy Benson, she had learned to love the rivers of these townlands and had learned too the skills of the ghillie. These rivers became her element. At heart, despite her inspired housekeeping, she was always a ghillie, and Ballyvolane drew guests from all over the world who understood her real artistry.
Other influences were notably that other mother Wendy, a miniaturist of great delicacy and taste, while her fortitude and self-discipline were owed largely to her father lan and the training of a young life in the hunting field. She married Jeremy Green of Ballyvolane in 1965; with him, and their three adored sons, she entered fully into the life of a farmer’s wife until, with times she transformed herself into, that unique combination of ghillie-cum-chatelaine which may well have been her true definition.
Time would have told. At her funeral in Fermoy the rhododendrons from Ballyvolane’s garden frothed among the bluebells and clematis which spoke of her essential devotion to the soul of the countryside. With the hymns we thought of the dogs, the donkeys, and of Archie, the biggest Cat in Munster. We remembered the fun, the affection, the honesty of Merrie Green and mourned her helplessly beyond words. As her son Sebastian read that clarion call to defiant old age, the threat to wear purple and a red hat that doesn’t go, we remembered that although she never did grow old, in a way Merrie Green always wore purple.
M.L.’

*****

 

Justin Green and his 1982 Land Rover at Ballyvolane February 2022.

 

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, 2013

 

‘Oh, there have been many lively nights around this table down through the centuries’, says Justin Green, fondly patting the mahogany as dinner is served. Our fellow guests are a family of five American Chinese on a whirlwind tour of Europe in celebration of an important birthday for Kitchi, their family matriarch.

The long rays of the Irish evening sun dapple the family portraits and red shamrock patterned walls around us. [i] Through broad windows, Frisian cattle graze upon green pastures. The Irish for ‘Ballyvolane’ translates as ‘place of the springing heifer’ and, even as we gaze, a young cow performs a dutiful skip.

The wisteria-clad house was built in 1728 for Sir Richard Pyne, a Lord Chief Justice of Ireland. Various descendants substantially altered the house in the early 19th century, giving it a distinctly Italian ambience.

Ballyvolane is a flagship of Hidden Ireland, a group of family-owned Irish castles, manors and mansions that have opened their doors to paying guests. One of the quirky pleasures of Hidden Ireland hospitality is that all guests dine together and you never quite know who they will be.

Kitchi’s family transpire to be great fun. It’s the last night of their Grand Tour and the banter is ceaseless. We contrast the lives of the Chinese and Irish emigrants who built North America’s railroads. We compare Oliver Cromwell’s beastly conquest of Ireland with China’s Cultural Revolution.

Justin gamely fields questions and spins fresh ones back. Alongside his wife Jenny, he’s racked up nearly twenty years of looking after guests at hotels and resorts in Hong Kong, Dubai and Bali. Before he returned to take on the family pile in 2005, he ran Babington House, the supremely chilled Soho House country club in Somerset, England. This evening, while Justin hosts the table, Jenny is backstage in the kitchen, cooking up the dinner.

Twelve-year-old Toby Green, the eldest of their three children, has already built up an impressive international network from younger Ballyvolane guests. ‘He has penpals all over the world’, marvels Justin.

As the fun draws to a close, everyone inhales as Kitchi prepares to give her verdict on the European trip.

‘For me, the highlight of everything has been … feeding the piglets this morning’.

The piglets are five saddlebacks that snuffle in a stable adjoining the main house. Alongside their mother and some Muscovy ducks, they are the principal beneficiaries of any excess scraps from the Ballyvolane kitchen.

Food is one of the key reasons why Ballyvolane is in the uppermost ranks of Ireland’s places to stay. Everything is homegrown or locally sourced, right down to the succulent halibut we dined upon, hooked by a fisherman on the Beara peninsula a day earlier.

All fruit and vegetable comes from a three-acre garden, bordered by 14-foot high sandstone walls. Row upon row of asparagus, sea kale, spring onion, rainbow chard, beetroot, potato.

And rhubarb. Such as the rhubarb which Justin so deftly converted into a rhubarb martini when I went for a stroll before dinner. A glorious arch of laburnum leads out to terraced gardens and a croquet lawn, with a dovecote at its’ centre.

Running alongside the walled garden is a woodland of beech, oak and horse chestnut. The ground beneath is an rotating carpet – snowdrops in February, rolling through daffodils, bluebells, rhododendrons, azaleas and camellias over the ensuing months.

When she sets off the following day, Kitchi tells me she feels as though she has ‘just stayed with friends’.  Justin isn’t surprised. ‘The advantage of having only a handful of bedrooms is that you can give guests your complete attention.’

With that, he sits in front of a Blüthner baby grand and starts playing an old Percy French music hall tune. Silhouetted between ionic pillars and classic statuary in a hall of burnt orange, he’s still playing when the next guests arrive.

(www.ballyvolanehouse.ie)

A shorter version of the above article was published in National Geographic Traveller in 2013. 

Jeremy Green and his son Justin, February 2022.

 

FOOTNOTES

 

[1] With thanks to Terence Reeve-Smith,

[2] Newcastle Courant – Saturday 13 February 1731

[3] Newcastle Courant – Saturday 20 February 1731.

[4] It was formerly thought that the three-storey house was further modified in 1847. However, in May 2018, Terence Reeve-Smith revealed that the tenders for this rebuilding actually date to 1872.

[5] Northampton Mercury – Saturday 28 November 1840.

[6] Cork Examiner – Wednesday 7 May 1845.

[7] Freeman’s Journal – Wednesday 26 November 1856

[8] Leigh Chronicle and Weekly District Advertiser – Friday 18 July 1890