by ehistoryadmin on April 17, 2015

Back to Ballyfair: “a trifle lopsided, quaint and comfortable”

Liam Kenny

The long demolished Ballyfair house, three miles south of the Curragh and close to Suncroft, had a long association with bloodstock and military interests in the Curragh environs. It was a house of many stories not least in its eccentric design. In the memoirs of General Cunninghame-Montgomery who resided there from 1908 to 1912 the house had “originally been a quite unpretentious building , but somebody had added three very ornate rooms to it, decorated after the Italian style with the most beautiful six-panelled mahogany doors and marble mantelpieces.”  He reminisced that the house was “a trifle lopsided, quaint and comfortable and the stables, yards, barns and old walled garden were delightfully picturesque.” 

However, despite such architectural qualities Ballyfair had its share of unconventional structural elements. As Cunninghame observed rather laconically:  “In spite of all this magnificence the study was propped up by a fir tree in the approved Irish manner.” The haphazard nature of the building was explained by a story which told that a social-climbing owner had expanded the house hastily so as to get it into a proper style for accommodating a royal personage coming to stay for the races on the Curragh plain. The cost of keeping up appearances for the distinguished visitor had overstretched the then owner’s means. According to the local story – on a Monday the house had accommodated the Price Regent, and on the Tuesday the baliffs.  There is truth in the fact that the house hosted distinguished racing visitors in its early years – a usage reflected in its original name of “Normanby House” – the title by which it is labelled on the 1837 Ordnance map. The Normanby name refers to Constantine Phipps, Viscount of Normanby, who was Lord Lieutenant in Ireland from 1835-39. Normanby followed the society fashion of the time when a visit for a number of days to the racing on the open plain of the Curragh was a summertime fixture. The house appears to have been named “Normanby House” in honour of its very important visitor and retained the name until Cunninghame changed the name to Ballyfair House when he arrived in 1908.

Soon after his arrival Cunninghame heard a story that the house was supposed to be haunted by a “brown boy.” The jarvey men who brought visitors from the Curragh all knew about the ghost. They used to say: “It’s a bad place for us poor jarveymen with the devil and all.”   Cunninghame was dismissive and reported: “We never saw anything.” The house was later purchased by the British government as a residence for the senior officer in the camp. However, its status was not maintained in independent Ireland and Cunninghame visiting his old residence in the 1930s wrote that it was a sad sight by then and appeared to have seen fighting in “the Troubles”. The roof had fallen in, the doors and mantels had been taken away, and there was a machine-gun emplacement still in the dining room.

Back in its halcyon days when Cunninghame was in residence between 1908-12 he was part of the social circle in the Curragh environs where senior military officers and the trainers and breeders were the celebrities of the day. Their social preoccupation was anything which had to do with horse sport: racing on flat and over jumps, an endless schedule of hunt meetings, and a plethora of racing fixtures. Cunninghame writes that his equestrian neighbours included Eustace Loder a breeder whose “star was in the ascendant” while at Eyrefield Lodge “Pretty Polly” was to be seen and “Spearmint” was a promising foal. Sir Harry Green still had “Gallinule” and Mr. “Cub” Kennedy was starting his great success with “Roi Herode”. The horse was everywhere and as Cunninghame remarked “Breeding a bit of stuff to pay the rent was the occupation of the neighbourhood”. A liking for and knowledge of bloodstock was a great social asset. The local meetings made a happy pilgrimage for racing men throughout the year. The Curragh, Leopardstown, Baldoyle, Punchestown, and lots of point-to-points filled the calendar for the racing men who could not get enough of equestrian action. If there is a common trend through the memoirs of British army officers who served on the Curragh before 1914 it is the way in which their lives were bound up with the Kildare Hunt. As Cunninghame stated: “No record of service in Ireland would be complete without something to be said about hunting.” He went on to write that there was a good choice of hunt packs within reach, but the Kildare Hunt “came first.”  And in terms of public service “perqs” few would match the practice of the War Office by renting out a hunting horse at a rate of ten pounds per year to suitable officer applicants. Cunninghame revelled in the hunting culture and recounted some of the outstanding hunt days he had with the Kildares. One famous run after a fox took the Kildares from Mr. Dominic Moore O’Ferrall’s place at Kildangan to the Gibbet Rath at the west end of the Curragh camp. On another occasion a hunt after a deer lasted over two hours and only ended when the deer crossed the Liffey near Clondalkin. The hounds were so exhausted that each had to be carried home to the railway station for return to the kennels at Naas.

Cunninghame highlighted the hunting potential of the big fields of north Kildare which was flat with open wide ditches to be taken at speed. And there was refreshment at hand to fortify the body before heading out on a winter day’s hunt. Cunninghame paints an amusing picture of how hunting culture permeated even the austere surrounds of “the Catholic Training College of Maynooth.”  He recalled: “More than once we had a hunt breakfast at the Catholic Training College of Maynooth, and it was comforting to see a young priest after a corking meal, washed down with a fine liquor , scudding across the country, the tails of his long black coat flying out behind him.”

The passion for hunting extended well beyond society circles in Kildare. A guest of Cunninghame’s at Ballyfair was Count Heinrich Larisch, a peer of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and described as “a man of great consequence in his own country.” The count had come to Kildare to buy Irish mares with the object of riding them to hounds on the Continent for a few seasons and then taking them into his stud farms.

However, it was not all hunting and racing. The monotony of the Curragh camp was galvanised into action when an international crisis known as the Agadir event in July 1911 sent alarm bells ringing in the capitals of Europe. The Germans contested French access to Morocco. The British, always sensitive about developments in the Mediterranean, went on the alert to support the French. For the first time in decades war between the great European powers threatened the hitherto peaceful status of the continent. As a senior staff officer Cunninghame had to return to his post at the camp. There with some colleague officers he rigged up a bed and “with a telephone close to my head and a pile of notice papers ready for instant despatch.” However, the alert was stood down and Cunninghame was able to leave his emergency accommodation and return to his tree-lined refuge of Ballyfair.  Leinster Leader 24 June 2014, Looking Back Series no: 388.

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