In the second 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
AN ITN Roving Report from 1959 opens with grainy footage of Ladies View and the caption “Killarney, USA?” In clipped tones, reporter Tom St John Barry asks “Is the Star-Spangled Banner now the national anthem of Killarney?”
The reason for the question lies in Killarney House, which had been bought in 1956 by Florida realtor J Stuart Robertson. Rumours abounded that Robertson wanted to turn the house and the portion of the Kenmare estate he had bought into a playground for rich Americans, and he admits in the video that he had planned to create a club where “Americans of prominence” could visit in summer, but that his purchase was “based upon a sincere love of Ireland.”
This attachment did not stop Robertson from selling the property to a US syndicate in 1958. A member of that syndicate was John McShain, the son of a Derry emigrant, who developed a hugely successful construction business and became known as the man who built Washington after his firm built the Jefferson Memorial, extended the Pentagon and refurbished the White House.
A mutual interest in horseracing inspired McShain’s friendship with former Irish president Sean T O’Ceallaigh, who is said to have advised the building magnate to buy Killarney House to prevent it from being turned into a theme park.
McShain eventually bought out the other members of the syndicate, reassuring the people of Killarney in January 1961 that he would always honour this commitment of doing the best for Killarney.
That commitment involved using craftsmen and labourers who had worked on the Kenmare Estate to refurbish the 18th-century house, renovating the chapel, redesigning the second floor to create a series of suites and installing central heating.
John and Mary McShain also hired extra gardeners to work on the exquisite lawns, formal gardens, greenhouses, and cutting gardens. Killarney House caretaker Harry O’Donoghue, who worked for the McShains, recalls that sisters Fiona and Myra O’Connor of New Street placed fresh flowers daily in the guest bedrooms of Killarney House, while chef Jimmy Sugrue and gardener William Keogh picked vegetables for the kitchen all-year round.
The McShains had frequent visitors from the United States and one of Harry’s duties was to attend to the guests’ needs. They played golf with John McShain, took trips by pony and trap around Killarney and explored Ireland by chauffeur-driven car.
Harry also served as caretaker when Killarney House was vacant in winter but the McShains took up permanent residence in 1987, after John McShain became too frail to travel. From then until his death in 1989, and the death of his wife, Mary, in 1998, a permanent team of nurses and nurses’ aides was employed to take care of the elderly couple.
Some Killarney people may have looked forward to “dollars flying everywhere” with the arrival of the Americans to Killarney House, but the US connection ended with the death of Mrs McShain, and ownership of Killarney House and the surrounding estate reverted to the Irish state in 1998.
The Office of Public Works acquired most of the house’s contents, including significant pieces of furniture and art dating back to the Earls of Kenmare. Now the property of the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, which has responsibility for Killarney National Park, some of these will be on display when the house opens to the public.