My grandmother, Nina O’Brien Kelly, took ghosts in her stride. Official records state that her family home, Manister House, in Croom, County Limerick, was ‘demolished because of problems with ghosts.’ Kneeling by her bedside to pray as a child, knowing that she was alone in her room, she felt hands upon her shoulders.
Her maiden name was Helena Cantillon and long before Manister House was built her family had another home. The Cantillons, or the de Cantelupes, were Normans who settled in Kerry in the early 13th century. As lords of Ballyheigue, they owned a great swatch of land in the area – and a castle.
‘A castle!’ I used to think as a child. ‘Our family owned a castle…’ Dream on. By the latter part of the 17thcentury the Cantillons had been stripped of their title as punishment for siding with the Jacobite cause and their land ceded to the Crosbies, a Protestant family. Before moving to Croom legend has it that the Cantillons sunk their hoard of gold in Ballyheigue bay so it wouldn’t fall into the Government’s hands.
No castle – but there was always the gold, even if no-one had ever retrieved it. And then, too, there was the on-going saga of the Cantillons themselves, some of whom did rather well in life. In France, James Cantillon led the Irish Brigade to victory at the battle of Malplaquet. His brother Richard became a world famous economist. In the 19th century, his grandson, Colonel Antoine Sylvaine de Cantillon, President of the Council of War in Paris, was created Baron de Ballyheigue by the French Government as atonement for what had been done by the British.
There were religious Cantillons, too – St Thomas de Cantelupe was the last saint to be canonized in England before the Reformation – and Cantillons with intriguing connections: in his will Napoleon the First left 10,000 francs to a Lieutenant Cantillon with the comment: ‘Cantillon has as much right to assassinate Wellington as that oligarch had to send me to perish on the rock of Helena.’
In my third novel, in The Moon is Red in April, I introduced two fictitious Cantillons, Richard and his sister, Catherine, into a story of Ireland and France in the 18th century.
The book was inspired by the true-life experience of the founder of Hennessy Cognac: in my novel young Dick O’Shaughnessy embarks on a hazardous journey to escape the Penal Laws in Ireland and to fight for his country in France. Abandoning his childhood sweetheart, spirited out of Ireland on a tiny corvette, he makes his way to Paris to join the Irish Brigade. Studying at the College des Grassins, later the Sorbonne, he learns how to handle a sword and a musket. Staying with the Cantillons, he gets to know Paris, a lively and elegant city, its boulevards studded with coffee shops, little theatres, the opera-comique, street jugglers, acrobats, Spanish dancers and exotic performing animals.It was all a very long way from the castle in Ballyheigue that had belonged to his Cantillon friends.
Next week: Wonderful women