It is one of a little group of marine paradises on an inlet of the great sea-Lough known as the Kenmare River. Parknasilla Resort & Spa is nature at its best combined with the luxuries of a four star hotel in Kerry, it is now a great location for an Ireland hotel break and is a spectacular wedding venue in Kerry.
The Bland family built Parknasilla House in the mid eighteenth century.Eventually they built Derryquin Castle which was on the grounds. It was burnt in 1922 during the Troubles. In the mid nineteenth century Parknasilla house was leased and subsequently purchased by Bishop Charles Graves. The hotel started out in the the Bishop's House in 1895 which still stands in the grounds a few hundred yards from the current hotel, for which a more commanding position was chosen in 1897.
Royals such as Her Serene Highness, Princess Grace of Monaco stayed in the Parknasilla, but the area is not immune to royalty. Gaelic dynasties roamed the area for many years. Before the hotel came into being, Dora Bland, a daughter of Francis Bland of Parknasilla House, became mistress to the Duke of Clarence. She bore him 10 children; he later became King William IV.
It was a grand hotel, but not too preoccupied with being grand to be friendly. Writers including Alfred Perceval Graves, George Bernard Shaw and Cecelia Ahern have come under its benign influence.
George Bernard Shaw described Parknasilla as
"a place of long sea views and intricate walks between ferns and fuchsias, rock and rhododendron, to burnt out castles lost within the woods and along the various fingers of land that point south West into the warm Atlantic this place does not belong to any world that you or I have ever worked or lived in
...........it is a part of our dream world."
According to the great Irish text Lebor Gabala, before the great flood, Cessair, Noah's granddaughter, was refused entry on his Ark. She reasoned that Ireland, having never been inhabited, should be free from the taint of sin and would be waterproof during the flood and duly arrived via the Kenmare River. In any event it was not waterproof.
Tradition has it that the Milesians also arrived in Ireland via the Kenmare River. The most important son was Amairgen, the poet and judge whose wisdom enabled the new settlers to take possession. He was the first of them to set foot in Ireland.
If Cessair or the Milesians were to sail back today they would, in the words of Peter Simmerville-Large in An Irish Childhood find Parknasilla
"overlooking the long stretch of the Kenmare River westward through lines of mountains towards a luminous distance touched by the setting sun"
He maintained in his description of Parknasilla that there was a classical symmetry to the scene.
"Substitute a Roman temple for the gables of the hotel and you have a view by Claude Lorraine, an image of harmony between man and nature, touched with melancholy which may have had something to do with the forecast of rain"
At the time of the Norman Conquest several families including the O'Sullivans, began to migrate from Tipperary to South Munster. They became rulers of Dunkerron. This particular branch was known as the O'Sullivan Mor.
After the failure of the second Desmond Rebellion the Plantation of Munster began. This had little or no effect on the Iveragh Peninsula and, it was not until the Cromwellian rebellion that the Gaelic leaders were defeated. Sir William Petty acquired much of the land at this juncture. However, it would appear that the section of land which Parknasilla was built on was acquired but Captain James Stopford.
It was another James Stopford who gave consent to a deed of release to Nathaniel Bland on June 24, 1731. On December 4, 1732 Rev Dr Nathaniel Bland obtained his grant of the area, the grantors were described as 'Rt Hon. Clotworthy Lord Viscount Massareene, and Philip Doyne, with the consent of James Stopford.'
The link with these three gentlemen is Elizabeth Smyth. Her father, the Rt Rev Edward Smyth, Bishop of Down and Connor married secondly the Hon Mary Skeffington. She was the daughter of Clothworthy Skeffington, 3rd Viscount Massareene. Elizabeth married James Stopford on February 24, 1726.
In 1762 he was created Viscount Stopford and Earl of Courtdown. His sister, also Elizabeth Stopford, was the third wife of Philip Doyne.
Nathaniel Bland's father, the very reverend James Bland came to Ireland in 1692 as chaplain to William III’s new Lord Deputy in Ireland, Henry Sidney.
Rev James Bland, was the son of John Bland of Sedbergh. Not long after arriving in Ireland he married Lucy Brewster. He and Lucy had three children, Lucy, Francis and Nathaniel. Lucy died in 1709, aged 14 and is buried in Killarney.
Francis succeeded his father as vicar of Killarney and there was a representative Bland vicar of Killarney for over a century. Nathaniel Bland was a Judge of the Prerogative Court of Dublin. He was also the Vicar General for the Diocese of Ardfert and Aghadoe.
Three years after he took possession of the land, his neighbour Lord Orrery wrote to the Countess of Sandwich
"They talk to me of my leases in Kerry and I languish after the Champs Elysees de Paris. They show me plans for potato gardens and I am roving in thought midst the groves of Versailles"
Nathaniel Bland had no such trouble, for his estate in the Barony of Dunkerron South was a little bit of paradise, even reminiscent of Lord Orrery's France.
"The Parknasilla Hotel in the 1950's was', according to architect Neil Scott, 'the South of France for anybody with money in Ireland.' Eimear Mulhern maintains that the hotel demesne today 'is nicer than the South of France.' It was her father Charles J. Haughey's favourite hotel in the world and Haughey was a noted connoisseur of the finer things in life.
The Church of Ireland bishop of Ossory, Richard Pococke, visited the area in 1758. He was a traveller, who published accounts of his visits to the Middle East, Scotland and England. He went in search of Dr Blands house, which was a summer residence located between the Sneem River and the Owreagh River. He found the house known as 'The White House' abandoned by its owner, in favour of Parknasilla, a fine Georgian Residence a little further east. The bishop trotted up to the front door but found there was nobody home. Luckily, Judith Chambers was in better luck over 200 years later when she visited Parknasilla for the BBC’s 'Wish you were here.'
Nathaniel Bland's first wife Diana, was the daughter of Nicholas Kerneys or Kemis of County Wexford. They had two sons, John and Rev James. It was to Rev James that Nathaniel left the bulk of his estate and we shall return to him presently. John served in the army at Dettingen, Fontenoy and Clifton Moor. He left the army to tread the boards. He was the author of a novel Frederick the forsaken, but he could easily have written an autobiography and called it "John the Forsaken", but he was disinherited by his father and was cut out of the pedigree for treading the boards. Nathaniel's first wife Diana died and he married secondly Lucy Heaton, a daughter of Francis Heaton of Dundalk in County Louth. They had three sons Francis, Nathaniel and George and three daughters Lucy, Hester and Dorothea.
Nathaniel's son Francis, by his second marriage, was a captain in the army and gave it up to become and actor in Thomas Sheridan's company in Dublin. He fell in love with Grace Phillips, a Welsh actress, and married her in 1758. They had several children. Grace was the daughter of the Rev Phillips of St. Thomas's Haverfordwest. Sometimes Grace used the stage name, "Mrs Francis". Nathaniel had the marriage annulled on the grounds that his son was below the age of twenty-one and had not sought his permission. Nathaniel died in 1760 just before the birth of Francis and Grace's child, a daughter, in 1761. She was christened Dorothea and known as Dorothy, although she referred to herself as Dora and acquired a surfeit of names.
In 1774 Francis decided to leave Grace and his family and marry an heiress. This time he chose the well-to-do Catherine Mahony from Kerry. Dora became an actress and was also known by her stage name, Mrs. Jordan. She was seduced by her actor manager in Dublin. Shortly afterwards she became pregnant and fled to England and fell in love with Richard Ford , a handsome lawyer, who was knighted some years later. She lived with Ford and had three children by him. When he failed to do the decent thing and marry her, she left him. She became mistress to William Henry, Duke of Clarence and third son of George III in 1790. He became William IV upon the death of his brother George IV.
They lived together in Bushy House in Teddington, near Hampton Court from 1797 until 1811, when he took a new mistress. Their children, ten in total and all illegitimate, were known as the FitzClarences. The boys were ennobled, the eldest was made Earl of Munster. The girls married well namely two earls, a viscount, the younger son of a duke and a general in the British army. The Duke pensioned Dora off. She was swindled out of money by a son-in-law. In the end she moved to France and settled in Saint-Cloud where she died on July 3rd 1816. The current leader of the Conservative Party in the UK, David Cameron, is a descendant of Dorothy Bland and William IV. He is fifth cousin twice removed of Queen Elizabeth II, courtesy of Dora.
One of William IV's first acts as King was to send for the leading sculptor Francis Chantrey and commission a work. It took the sculptor several years to finish the marble bust. The subject is shown life size with two of her children. It is now in Buckingham Palace.
When Nathaniel died in 1760, his son Rev James Bland, inherited the estate. Derryquin Castle was probably built during his reign. Opinion is divided as to the exact date of the Castle. James is described in the pedigree as "of Derryquin Castle".
His son Francis Christopher Bland, DL, JP, married Lucinda Herbert on 15 March 1798. Francis Christopher was on friendly terms with Daniel O’Connell "The Liberator", from neighbouring Derrynane.
His son James Franklin Bland was born in 1799. Under him the Derryquin estate witnessed its golden years and was self-supported. His sister Frances "Fanny" Diana married Thomas Harnett Fuller of Glasnacree and their son James Franklin Fuller was to become the architect of the new Parknasilla hotel in 1897.
James Franklin Bland was succeeded in turn by his son Francis Christopher. This Francis Christopher joined the Plymouth Brethern. They were also known as Darbyites in Ireland after their founder John Darby. The dowager Lady Powerscourt also came under their influence and the Brethryn were proud of the gentry they attracted. Francis Christopher became so concerned with the salvation of Ireland and England that he neglected his estate and devoted his energy to preaching. Land agitation was rife in Ireland at this juncture and it was unfortunate that Bland decided to absent himself. The Estate inevitably went into rapid decline.
Part of the Derryquin Estate was sold in 1873 with the remainder being offered for public auction in 14 lots in 1891. Derryquin Castle was bought by the Warden family and inherited by Colonel Charles Wallace Warden. He was the polar opposite of the Blands and was despised locally. He evicted tenants and employed "foreigners" from Scotland. He practically boycotted the village shops, preferring to have his provisions sent over from "Fortnum & Mason" in London. But Nemesis was to strike Col. Warden in 1922. The current head of the Bland Family is Sir Christopher Bland, chairman of BT.
While the Blands were anything but bland, despite Nathaniel's best efforts, the Graves, who took a lease on Parknasilla House, were typical of many Irish father/son relationships. Robert graves wrote an autobiography 'Good Bye to All That' in 1929. His father, Alfred Perceval Graves duly replied with an autobiography entitled 'To Return To All That' in 1930. Thankfully Alfred Perceval's father, Bishop Charles Graves was dead at this juncture, what he would have thought of his son and grandson washing their linen - whether clean or dirty - in public is anybody's guess.
Bishop Graves was a noted scholar. He took a lease of Parknasilla House, as a summer home in the early 1860s. In 1891 he bought out the lease on Parknasilla and one hundred and fourteen acres, including the islands. He had a keen interest in archaeology and worked on the interpretation of Ogham stones, two of which were found at Parknasilla.
The most notable of the Bishop's children was Alfred Perceval Graves born in 1846. Alfred entered the Civil Service and joined the Home Office as private secretary to the under-secretary Winterbotham. For several years he was honorary secretary of the Irish Literary Society. He also served twice as president and George Bernard Shaw was a constant visitor to his home, Red Branch House, at Wimbleton. Shaw seems to have followed the Graves around. His most famous son was author and poet, Robert Graves. Alfred Perceval Graves edited many works of Irish interest including "The Irish Fairy book" (1990). His famous ballad "Father O’ Flynn" was published in "Songs of Old Ireland". It was set to music by Sir Charles Villers Stanford. The ballad was based on Father Michael Walsh, the Parish Priest of Sneem, also known as parish of Kilcrohane East, or Ballybog.
"Here's Health to you, Father O'Flynn,
Slainte, and Slainte, and Slainte again;
Powerfulest Preacher, and Tinderest teacher,
And Kindliest creature in ould Donegal."
The 'Donegal' was put in purely for rhyme as 'Sneem' didn't quite fit into the rhyming scheme. Father Walsh got on very well with the Graves and the Blands and socialised with them. James Franklin Fuller describes how he often spent a strenuous day coursing with Father Walsh. He says he was 'in every every sense the grand old man, beloved by his flock, and standing high in the estimation of all Protestant gentry of the Parish.'
While Alfred Perceval was busying himself writing "Trottin' to the fair" which described a romantic excursion to the fair on a single pony with Mol Maloney; Percy French was writing "Are ye right there Michael?" which describes how long it took a West Clare Railway train to get from 'Ennis as far as Kilkee'. This song caused huge embarrassment to the railway company and led to a famous libel case being brought against French by the West Clare Railway Company. It would appear that the trains in Clare were not like their American counterparts. According to the famous American song "The Chattanooga Choo Choo", a train could leave Pennsylvania station 'bout a quarter to four' and by the time one had 'read a magazine' the train was 'in Baltimore'. Percy French arrived late for the libel hearing. The judge questioned his punctuality, and French replied, 'But, your honour, I travelled by the West Clare Railway'. The Court erupted and the case was thrown out.
The Bianconi system of cars and the railways were a great stimulant for internal tourism in Ireland. In December 1834 the first Irish railway was opened for traffic on the Dublin and Kingstown Railway. I was extended to Dalkey in 1844. Its contractor, William Dargan, was known as the 'Father of Irish Railway'. At the beginning of the 1940s there were just over 31 miles of railway in Ireland. By the close of the decade there were 700 miles of railway. Private enterprise, subject to parliamentary control, gave Irelands its railways. There was great rivalry between the different companies.
In the south of Ireland, the most important railway was the Great Southern and Western Dublin-Cork link opened in 1849. Railway companies built seaside terminus hotels and promoted excursions. Cooks ran the first package tour from America to Killarney and Glengarriff in 1895. This is what the hotels were originally designed for. They were resort hotels to be supplied with customers by the new railway lines. Killarney to Dublin opened in 1853. The railway hotel in Killarney opened in 1854. In 1861, Queen Victoria visited Killarney, arriving by train from Dublin. She was en route to Muckross. In 1893 Kenmare became the terminus of a branch line.
The Derryquin Estate was sold in 1891 in various lots. The part of the property which had been leased by Bishop Graves was sold in one lot. The Bishop bought it and sold it a couple of years later to the Southern Hotel Company. On 1st May 1895, the Southern Hotel, Parknasilla opened, with furnishings from Messrs Millar & Beattie of Dublin. The name 'Parknasilla', which meant 'Field of the willows,' began to appear on maps. It was also referred to as 'The Bishop's House Hotel, Parknasilla.'
Parknasilla was described by Rev. C. S. Ward after its opening as:
"Neither town nor village, but one of a little group of marine
paradises on an inlet of the great Sea Lough, known as Kenmare
River. To describe the beauty of the spot is beyond us."
In April, 1896, D. Edgar Flinn read a paper before the Section of State Medicine of the Royal Academy of Medicine in Ireland. It gave proof, if it were needed, that the recently opened Parknasilla was good for you.
Parknasilla, in the winter and early spring months, would appear to be indicated as a most desirable place of residence. A contemporary guest, Bertie Ahern, knows that Parknasilla is 'good for you'. He really appreciates the beauty of the natural landscape when he escapes to Parknasilla for his yearly sojourn at the end of every summer. 'I’ve walked the walks. I’ve done the hill walks in the surrounding area of the hotel', he says 'I just think that all the way from Parknasilla down to the Kenmare River; or all the way up from Sneem and out to Rossdohan beach; or out to Tahilla, are places of natural beauty.'
Within a year of the hotel opening demand had exceeded supply. The directors came up with plans to replace the Bishop’s House with a larger purpose built hotel on the grounds. The eminent architect James Franklin Fuller was set the task. He designed such notable buildings as Ashford Castle in County Mayo and Farmleigh in Dublin. He also carried out some work on his mother’s family home, Derryquin Castle. At the time of the building of the new hotel, all hotels owned by the Southern Hotels Company were taken over by Great Southern & Western Railway. The Southern Hotel, Parknasilla gradually became known as the Great Southern Hotel, Parknasilla.
The new Parknasilla Hotel faced the Kenmare River and offered its guests unparalleled views. Facilities included Turkish and hot and cold seawater baths, reading and games rooms and bathrooms on every floor. On the Admiralty chart, the hotel was christened 'Hotel Conspicuous'. The new hotel was adjacent to the original Parknasilla House also known as Bishop's House and the Derryquin Castle. It was designed as an asymmetrical building, in the simplified Scottish Baronial style. It was built with romantic high pitched roofs, gables and tower, all faced in local stone. The principal reception rooms and bedrooms overlooked the magical sea view.
Derryquin Castle was burnt down during the Troubles. According to T.J. Barrington, the arsonists came to burn down the neighbouring Parknasilla Hotel, 'but were defected to Derryquin (Castle) by the eloquence of one of the hotel staff who explained how much local employment would be lost with the hotel.' Derryquin demesne and the ruins of the castle eventually became part of the hotel's golf course. The burned out ruin was eventually knocked down by the hotel authorities because it was considered a safety hazard.
George Bernard Shaw stayed in room Three of the hotel in 1909. He was regarded as somewhat aloof by the locals. The Trinity historian William Lecky also visited at this time. In 1925, Great Southern & Western Railway amalgamated with all those railway companies which were operating entirely within the Irish Free State at that time to form Great Southern Railways.
One of the great patriarchs of modern Irish Art, Patrick Scott, remembers going to Parknasilla with his parents in 1930. 'I remember as a child being very impressed by the grandeur of it', he says, 'and the locations is fantastic of course. But it did seem to be the kind of hotel that people got very fond of and kept going there.'
Patrick Scott, started his career in the architectural practice of the renowned architect, Michael Scott. Both men had a long association with the hotel. By 1935 the new Somerville-Large house on the Island of Illaunslea, which is one of a number of islands off Parknasilla, was completed by Michael Scott. The interior was to resemble a ship.
His firm also designed the new Rossdohan House on Rossdohan Island across from the Parknasilla, during World War II. His young assistant, Patrick Scott remembers working on it. It was designed in the Dutch Colonial style but burnt down in 1955. Rossdohan then passed to Patrick Scott's first cousins, the renowned horticulturalists Ralph and Philip Walker.
Niall Scott remembers spending his childhood holidays in Rossdohan with his father, Michael. Scott senior was a born "bon viveur" and visited Parknasilla daily when in the locality. Although he was born in Drogheda, Michael Scott was a local, a neighbours child. His father had been a school teacher and held various teaching posts around the country.
In 1932 Dr Collis Somerville-Large was given a lease of the island of Illaunslea. The lease granted by the directors of Parknasilla Hotel was for a hundred and fifty years. His son Peter spent many summers on the island with his brother Philip where the 'satisfied whiskered face' of the seals reminded Peter's father of his bank manager. In the 1932 edition of the "Blue Guide for Ireland" the daily room charge in the Parknasilla was from 7s per person. Breakfast and lunch cost 3/6d., and dinner 5/6d.
Lady Swinfen remembered the hotel in the late 1930s. She was the then wife of Colonel Andrew Knowles of Reenafura which was the next house. 'We used to go over in the evenings. After dinner there would be dancing and later, we would meet people from Dublin.' In the meantime, expansion of the hotel continued. A new wing was added shortly after the turn of the Century and a third story was built in the 1940s.
In 1943 the future Mr Justice Dermot Kinlen paid a visit to Parknasilla. He's a lover of Parknasilla and has a property nearby. When he was a student, his first impression of Parknasilla was the marvellous food, but he thought the 'hotel was full of stuff shirts.'
In 1945, Great Southern Railways became part of a general transport organisation called Coras Iompair Eireann which was nationalised five years later. John Mulhern recalls accompanying his parents in the 40s and 50s. 'Everybody who was anybody stayed there', he says, 'It was a great place for wealthy clerics; bishops, monsignors and very rich parish priests from the diocese of Meath who got bombs of money from their parishioners.' He sums up these golden years of Parknasilla: 'It was on a different plain to the other hotels ... in fact it was on a plateau, never on a plain.'
The former Head Hall Porter, Tom Doyle, started in Parknasilla in 1951. He remembers that Parknasilla was "the" hotel in Ireland and almost eighty percent of the guests were English. Throughout the 50s and 60s, the highlight of his day was to stand behind the porters desk in the evening and watch the couples coming down the stairs for dinner in evening wear. 'If you saw somebody coming down that time in his Sunday suit you'd say 'Christ, where did he come from?', Doyle recalls 'it was always full evening wear.'
The current head of the Bland Family, Sir Christopher Bland remembers visiting the hotel in 1956. The trip was his school leaving present. 'It was a major luxury', he says, 'staying in a grand hotel.' The hotel was, 'full of regulars, half of them English and very family orientated.'
The Hall Porter and former head barman Sonny Looney stated in 1959. This was the same year the Kenmare branch railway closed – so ended Parknasilla's association with railways. In 1961 Prince Rainer and Princess Grace of Monaco and their children stayed in the hotel. 'They didn't drink in the bar' recalls Looney, who was still only a raw recruit at the time, 'but I did get to meet her and I did get to serve her. I served her drinks in their room.' The royal guests used to frequent the hotel's restaurant for dinner in the evening. The hotel was awash with security. There had been a threat of kidnapping elsewhere in Europe. The Restaurant Manager Jackie Moriarty started in 1969. He remembers most of the guests being English, but that changed when the Troubles in the North began.
In later years Parknasilla has witnessed the caprices and vagaries of other visitors.
Like the visit of Charles De Gaulle in 1969. He was housed under heavy security next door in Reenafura. It was felt he could be protected better there and it was more secluded. But he was 'serviced' by the hotel. The press descended on Parknasilla. Security was extremely tight.
Tom Doyle, the Parknasilla porter had been given strict instructions by government officials. He was in charge of delivering papers and mail to the President. His first delivery conjures up images of "The day of the Jackal". He parked his car in the yard of Reenafurra. 'As I walked up to the door, I passed by an open window', recalls Doyle, 'and I gave a side eye in. There was DeGaulle and his wife having their dinner. I could have got him in the top of the head.' Paris surely held its breath.
Like the American guest staying in Parknasilla who booked a wedding and later appeared on Father Michael Murphy’s doorstep in Sneem village and announced,
'I wanna get married Father, on Sunday'.
'Oh we don’t have Weddings on Sunday. I couldn’t possibly'.
'Now look Father, I must get married on the Sunday and I'll be bringing lots of tourists over here and we want to stay in Parknasilla Castle. If you don't oblige me I'll have to go elsewhere.'
So Father Murphy decided that the economic argument always wins out in the end and made an exception.
'Well very good, we'll have the mass at three o’clock on Sunday.'
Dermot Kinlen, recalls how the groom 'arrived on this stallion to the gates of the Catholic Church, jumped off the horse, threw the reins back from the neck and yelled 'Farewell Freedom' in an American accent and went into the Church.'
Like June 1985, when President Herzog arrived in Sneem to unveil a piece of sculpture before a reception in Parknasilla. He was accompanied by the then Tanaiste and Parknasilla regular, Dick Spring. There was a suggestion that a reward had been offered for the execution of President Herzong. 'We had machine guns on the top of the Protestant Church and in the parish priests house', explains Kinlen, 'because I didn’t want Sneem to get the same reputation as Sarajavo.'
In the 1990 the Government accepted an offer from Aer Rianta to acquire the six hotels of the Great Sothern Hotel Group in return for a cash payment of £10 million to the Exchequer and a commitment to invest in further development of the Group. In 2006 the hotels were sold by the Dublin Airport Authority.
****The Author of this text JJ Gibbons is a graduate of the NUI and his areas of interest include history and Irish Art and Architecture. He contributes too Irelands Antiques and Period Properties and Irish Interiors.****
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