When I was a child my mother’s Catholic family owned most of the land on the Clare-Limerick border. But not all of it… When I walked down the long straight avenue that led from the cottage where I lived and went through the wrought iron gates onto the road, facing me was a high stone wall almost entirely encrusted in ivy. On the other side of that wall was an old wooden signboard on which the words ‘Trespassers will be prosecuted’ had been written long ago in black ink, faded but still legible. Nobody else had a signboard like that. Nobody else saw a need for a signboard. But beyond that wall was the Delmeges’ land and they were different from everyone else. The Delmeges were descendants of persecuted Protestants from the Lower German Palatinate who came to Ireland as refugees at the beginning of the 18 th century. Championed by Sir Thomas Southwell of Castle Matrix in Rathkeale, they worked their way up from their humble beginnings.
Assimilated into the Anglo-Irish gentry, they bought huge tracts of land on the outskirts of Limerick along with a mansion called Castle Park. Designed by the fashionable 18 th century Limerick painter and architect, Francis Bindon, Castle Park in its heyday was considered one of the finest manor houses in Ireland – a five-bay house with a central pedimented two-storey-breakfront linked to the remains of an ancient tower which Bindon treated as a pavilion.
Of course, were ghosts in Castle Park house. Caroline Bond, whose father worked as a groom for the Delmeges, remembers the stories she heard as a child: ‘My father – a non-drinker and not a man given to fantasy – was walking home in the dusk through the woods that surrounded the house, carrying a large branch. Without warning, or sign of any other human being, the branch was lifted from his shoulder. He never came home that way again.’ And the host of the maid who dared to love one of the Delmeges’ sons and was shot by his father who didn’t approve, was seen by the tree where she lost her young life.
But others would die by the Delmeges’ hands… During the Land War of the 1880s, hundreds of impoverished tenants were evicted from their homes by John Christopher Delmege, forced to live on the side of the roads or to take desperate refuge in trees before dying of cold or malnutrition. The Irish evictions feature in two of my novels, A Wrong to Sweeten and Ulick’s Daughter. In the first of these books, Rosaleen O’Flynn’s life is changed forever after she watches the bailiffs move into a cabin. She hears the screams of a mother threatened, sees the windows broken open and ‘finally the thin, haggard woman and her seven children pushed out into the rain… Huddling the children to her, the evicted woman stood helplessly as the bailiffs went into the house again… With a few pertinent blows of the hammers what had once been an excuse for furniture was reduced to fragments on the ground.’
Though John Christopher Delmege’s son would be a kind and benevolent man, his father’s actions were neither forgotten nor forgiven by the people of Limerick. In 2001 arsonists, possibly descendants of evicted tenants, set fire to Castle Park House. It still stands in a derelict state.
Next week: The Gentle Ghost of the Grey Lady