A tale of two houses

In the first of a series of four fascinating articles to mark the eagerly anticipated opening of the stunning new ornamental gardens at Killarney House, Killarney writer Aoife O’Carroll traces the history of the striking building and some of the key events that occurred there down through the years

Man of vision: Valentine Browne Castlerosse
Man of vision: Valentine Browne Castlerosse

THE preview opening of the ornamental gardens on April 3 brings us a step closer to the long-awaited reopening of Killarney House. Or does it?

What we now call Killarney House is actually a converted stable block of Kenmare House, built in the style of a French chateau by Valentine Browne, the third Viscount Kenmare in 1726.

Killarney House, on the other hand, was an extravagant mansion built by the fourth Earl of Kenmare on a site apparently chosen by Queen Victoria during her visit in 1861.

An imposing red-brick Elizabethan Revival manor bristling with chimneys, bay windows, and gables of different shapes and heights, the original Killarney House cost an estimated £100,000 to build and its interior was said to resemble that of a luxury ocean liner.

It was still under construction in 1879, when fire broke out in the butler’s pantry, causing £2,000 worth of damage. The third Earl could not keep up his mortgage repayments and the family lived in the Isle of Wight until the 1890s.

The Kenmares returned to Killarney House once agricultural prices started to improve, and they continued the family tradition of entertaining celebrities, including the Prince and Princess of Wales and their son, Albert, in 1885 and the famous painter, Sir John Lavery, in 1913. Not long after Lavery left, fire struck Killarney House again, but this time it did not survive. Staff and locals salvaged as much as they could, but precious antique furniture, tapestries, and sculptures were lost.

It was one fire too many for the Kenmares, who abandoned the ruined Killarney House and remodelled the stables of the 18th-century Kenmare House as their home. Confusingly, this is what we now call Killarney House.

Harry O'Donoghue: third generation of his family to work there
Harry O’Donoghue: third generation of his family to work at Killarney House and Gardens (background)

It was here that young Tim O’Donoghue of New Street went to work in 1914, having earned a job on the estate as a reward for saving the life of Valentine Edward Kenmare (better known as Lord Castlerosse) in the trenches when they served in the Irish Guards during World War I. Thus started a family tradition, with Tim’s son Paddy working as a butler for the Kenmare family, and his son Harry working on the estate under various employers from 1986 until the present day.

Indeed, the Kenmare estate was an important source of employment in Killarney. Horses drew timber for sale to Dublin during World War II, when coal was not available. A six-acre orchard was connected to the main estate via a tunnel under what is now the Muckross Road. Enough fruit and vegetables were grown to sell in shops in on the estate and in the Town Hall.

Killarney Historical Society’s Michael Leane, whose father bought the head gardener’s cottage from Lord Kenmare in 1941, points out that there were up to 40 gardeners employed there at the time. Then there was the threshing of oats and wheat in the Half-Moon field, not to mention the rearing of pigeons for dinner tables in the dovecote, which is one of only a few such buildings in the country.

It was not all work: There was huge excitement in Killarney when the flamboyant Lord Castlerosse returned from England with his new bride in 1943. A huge bonfire blazed at the Golden Gates to greet the arrival of the newly-weds, with porter and music flowing that evening in the estate garage for the locals.

The title Earl of Kenmare became extinct with the death of Gerald 1952, and his niece, Beatrice Grosvenor sold the estate in the 1950s, thus starting a new chapter in the story of Killarney House.