A LIFE LESS ORDINARY: In the third of a new Sunday series chronicling the stories of remarkable people who lived remarkable lives, KillarneyToday.com reflects on the life and times of the late John McShain – the man who built America – who left Ross Castle, Innisfallen Island and the magnificent Killarney House and Gardens to the people of the town to be enjoyed forever.
JUST a casual pebble toss from the normally frenetic pace of life on the streets of the country’s premier tourist town, nestled behind rich groves of mature beech, lime, chestnut and cherry trees, a truly historic property has been enjoying a whole new lease of life over the past four years. And it’s all thanks to the astonishing generosity and goodwill of one man.
The magnificent Killarney House and Gardens, the former home of the Earls of Kenmare and now a stunning visitor attraction and interpretative centre, has become the sparkling urban jewel in Killarney’s already glittering tourism crown – the place visitors want to see and locals want to be.
The early 18th century classical French-style chateau, previously the stable block of a residence built by Valentine Browne in the mid-1720s, was reopened at a cost of €7 million in 2016, following years of dereliction, and it is now the beating heart of Killarney tourism life.
Its magnificent setting, breathtaking colour and the wonderful calmness and sense of place it offers, literally on the other side of a high stone wall from the normally bustling town centre, has led to it being described as Killarney’s Versailles.
The house and gardens, dating back to 1726, was previously home to John McShain and his wife Mary who enjoyed simple, fuss-free lives and savoured regular visits from their US based only daughter Sr Pauline (Polly). During their lifetime, in a remarkable act of generosity, the family had made arrangements to gift the priceless town centre property to Killarney and its people.
Sr Pauline later divulged that her parents, when they opted to return from the US to reside in Killarney when his health started to decline in the 1970s, fell in love with the locals who had been so kind and welcoming to them and, by way of thanks, they decided that, on their passing, their home and lands would be provided for the public to enjoy.
John McShain, who died in September 1989 at the age of 93, was a charismatic building contractor who became known as the man who built America.
A bachelor’s degree graduate from the La Salle University in Philadelphia, during his incredible lifetime the wealthy construction baron, racehorse owner and philanthropist was the main contractor in the $4.25 million reconstruction of the White House during the Truman years from 1949-1952.
He was also responsible for the construction of the Pentagon, the Jefferson Memorial, the Roosevelt Library at Hyde Park, the JFK Centre for Performing Arts, Washington National Airport and many other notable US landmarks. And that was before he broke a sweat.
The records of the McShain enterprises in the United States became an important part of the collection of the Hagley Museum and Library which is an archive for commerce, industry and technology, in Wilmington, DE.
A lifelong Republican, he also owned some of the world’s most valuable thoroughbred racehorses and enjoyed a string of top-notch successes in blue riband events like the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, the Ascot Gold Cup, the Irish Derby and the St Leger.
Born in Philadelphia in 1898, John was the youngest son of Slaughtmanus, Co Derry-born Catholic immigrants, John and Catherine McShain. John Snr went to seek his fortune in America in 1885 where he joined the firm of his uncle, William J McShain, before branching out on his own three years later, working mainly on projects sponsored by the Catholic Church.
Following the death of his father, 21-year-old John Jnr, seemingly destined for a career in the legal profession or, as he was a devout Catholic, possibly a life in the priesthood, somewhat reluctantly took hold of the reins of the company, John McShain Inc.
By his side was his wife, Mary Horstmann, a native of Philadelphia who he married in 1927, who was a member of a large Philadelphia Catholic family of wool merchants and her pioneering community and charity work later saw her become a Lady of the Grand Cross of the Holy Sepulchre and a Dame of Malta.
In 1976 she was the recipient of the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Cross, the highest honour the Vatican can bestow on a laywoman and the following year she was presented with honorary doctorates from three universities.
A close, personal friend of former President of Ireland, Seán T O’Kelly, and a regular visitor to Killarney, in the late 1950s, John McShain acquired Killarney House and its sprawling 25,000 estate and he spent the twilight of his life there until his death.
In 1973, the McShains gifted the priceless Innisfallen Island, Ross Castle and 8,000 acres of parkland, mountains and lake to the State and an agreement was reached that, when Mr and Mrs McShain passed on, Killarney House and Gardens would be given to the Irish Government for a very nominal sum.
When his wife, Mary, died in 1998, their daughter Pauline, a US based nun, carried out her father’s wishes and handed the keys and the deeds of the property to the people.
Sr Pauline, a Philadelphia based member of the Society of the Child Jesus order, passed away in March 2019.
John and Mary McShain are buried side by side in his native Philadelphia but their incredible legacy will always live on in their adopted home of Killarney.
He was posthumously inducted into the Irish American Hall of Fame at a reception in County Wexford in 2019. The honour was bestowed by the John F Kennedy Trust, along with Irish America Magazine at the Dunbrody Experience in New Ross and guest of honour at the reception was Betsy Bracken whose mother was John McShain’s sister.
Mr McShain joined many other notable historical figures in the honours list, including JFK, Henry Ford, Maureen O’Hara, Michael Flatley, playwright Eugene O’Neill and former Coca-Cola chief Donald Keough.
There have been several calls for a monument to the late John McShain to be erected in Killarney and, more recently, a proposal was brought before the local authority suggesting that the road running immediately outside a section of Killarney House and Gardens – along Mission Road – be dedicated to the great man. Both proposals are being considered.
At the official opening of Killarney House and Gardens as a public attraction in 2016, Sr Pauline McShain’s words were read to those than had gathered: “My father came to Killarney to relax and find solace among the mountains and lakes. The people of Killarney opened their doors to my parents.
“This house and the town of Killarney hold a special place in our hearts and it is with joy that now it is open for all to appreciate the history of the town of Killarney, this estate, and the picturesque beauty of this park.”
It was some gift.
At John McShain’s Requiem Mass in St Mary’s Cathedral on Monday, September 11 1989, then Bishop of Kerry, Dr Diarmaid Ó Suilleabháin, remarked: “He was a hardworking man whose energy and dedication brought him rich, material rewards but he retained a true perspective on life because he was a very religious man.
The bishop added: “He was a generous benefactor of all good causes, social, cultural and religious”.
Bishop Ó Suilleabháin also informed the congregation that the striking tabernacle at the rear of the altar in St Mary’s Cathedral was donated by John McShain.
Such was the man.
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