Tracing the steps of the Old Countess. A Cycling Adventure

This will be a long, meandering trail which can be followed  by car or on foot but ideally by bicycle. It is about 60 old miles or 96 kilometres – so it will take a few hours – depending on your speed, your interests, your company.  My advice is to plan a full day for it –  take in a bit of lunch along the way, stop for a few photos, enjoy.  Best bet is to start at Youghal, go up river to Cappoquin, come downriver on the Waterford side, stopping At Dromana House to visit the place where the countess was born, return to Youghal via Villierstown ( named after the owners of  Dromana House – the Villiers- Stuart family,  then , when in Youghal, visit St. Mary’s collegiate chapel (try to spot her picture), have a bit of lunch and then head to Inchiquin where she spent her last few years.

At the start, just to whet your appetite I’d better tell you a bit about her –  “her” being Countess Katherine Desmond.  She is not one of the significant figures in Irish History, just a minor character, hardly even a footnote in history but she steadfastly refuses to be forgotten and recently was even mentioned by President Mc Aleese as a role model for Irish women. And yet there are at least seven portraits claiming to be “her”, some very similar, some very different. Raleigh and Bacon wrote about her, Fynes Morison visited Youghal shortly after death, mentions her – saying  people were still talking about her, the Irish parliament discussed her land, Richard Boyle (Earl of Cork) tried to evict the poor woman.

She is so much ignored and people know so little of her that  during the 19th  century that wonderful magazine “Notes and Queries” published a series of questions about her and the replies sparked off a lively debate about whether she really existed at all,  did she grow three sets of teeth, were they really her portraits,  who was her husband, her life, her death, where she lived , if she lived at all, if possibly she was a composite of several people.  These  notes and queries are available on line and are a great read. In particular , two contributors published books about her – Richard Sainthill ‘s book (1861), simply called “The Old Countess of Desmond – an Inquiry” and Arthur Blennerhasset Rowan ( 1860) ”  the Old Countess of Desmond: her Identity; her Portraiture; her Descent”. Both are available , one a recent reprint.  She is also mentioned in several books – “Wild Irish Women” among them. Some of the modern books do not offer anything new, just reprints or quotes from other. I might warn you about books –  be careful. There is a lot of shoddy research around – sometimes quotes are repeated, sometimes people consider as facts what might be, at best, conjecture. Sometimes people believe something to be a fact just because it is in print! Check the references and you will find a lot of doubt. Our Olde Countess is very much a case in point. I have seen her considered to be the wife of the 7th Earl and the 12th Earl of Desmond. I have read that Raleigh confirms her age.  He does not.  For what it is worth – I believe she was the wife of Thomas , the 7th Earl, known as Baldy Tom.

The early part of the debate was around her address – Inchiquin – which led many people to wonder if she came from this part of the country at all or whether she was, in fact, an O’Brien from Inchiquin in Clare. It was eventually conceded that she did live in Inchiquin – an old name for the area between Killeagh and Cork.   You will visit her home there – a fortified round tower castle, now sadly deteriorating rapidly. The visit of Oliver Cromwell did not help as his large guns left a huge hole in the walls. That hole and the ever encroaching sea combine to ensure that, soon, the castle will itself soon fall. Make sure you visit it .   You won’t find signposts to take you – you will have to follow my instructions but fear not!

Some of the other legends about her are wonderful  –  she had an argument with William Shakespeare in Youghal about the way he portrayed King Richard III,  she grew three sets of teeth, she walked from Bristol to London to see the Queen, her portrait was painted by Rembrandt, she was about 140 years old when she died, she died when she fell from a  tree picking cherries, her husband Thomas , Earl of Desmond used to hang unwelcome guests from the battlements of the castle with his bare hands, she danced with King Richard III at her wedding, she had an unusual (by modern standards) use for Irish bog butter .

Like all legends there are grains of truth in there – the story must start somewhere, you must have smoke if there is to be a fire. If you are not interested in the story just skip on to the Route itself – you can always come back.

Did William Shakespeare ever visit Youghal ?  Could he have? Would he have ? There is not a shred of evidence available to suggest that he did , nothing to suggest that he even considered Ireland. Or , or , or is there some shred of a possibility within the legend itself? Shakespeare was friendly with Walter Raleigh, friendly also with Edmund Spencer.  He has a fair amount of Irish connections in his writings and perhaps depicted the first stage Irishman in his plays! One of the connections is the Annyas family –  William and Francis Annyas were Mayors of Youghal – Francis was Mayor in 1569, 1576 and 1581 while William Annyas was Mayor in 1553. Now Francis’ sister  – Sarah -married Rodrigo Lopez  and  many people believe Rodrigo was the person Shakespeare used as the model for the character Shylock ( the Merchant of Venice) – while also, obviously, being aware of Marlowe’s “The Jew of Malta”. The Annyas family were probably hidden Jews, living as Christians but retaining their Jewish religion –  this was the accusation put to Rodrigo Lopez and his final words on the scaffold “I love Jesus Christ as much as I love her Majesty the Queen”  can be understood in various ways! In any case Rodrigo, the Jew, met his wife in Youghal.

By the way, if you want a really harrowing account of the effects of famine and war on people – read Spencer’s “A View of the State of Ireland” which he wrote to describe what the country was like after the Munster Rebellion. Spencer died in 1598 and his widow married a man from Youghal – Tynte – he whose castle can still be visited in the Main Street. The widow who married Tynte is buried in Kilcredan – a church we will visit on the trail.

Raleigh was Mayor of Youghal for two years. Maybe Raleigh invited him over to visit .  And most significantly  – Shakespeare would have a particular  interest in Youghal –  the harbour master in Youghal in the 15th century was a Thomas Shakespeare from Bristol. The family name Shakespeare continued to survive in East Cork into living memory when the last member of the family died in Cobh. So Shakespeare could have a family connection and some friends in East  Cork. Could have – that is as far as I can go. Could have. So he could have visited Raleigh and Spencer ( or visited Spencer’s widow) and the Shakespeare family in Youghal. Could have.

Anyway – back to the Countess ..

The legend mentions a row with an old lady who argued that Richard III was not a hunchback, that he was well formed. The lady said she knew him and that he danced at her wedding. Maybe he did. But if he did …  then the old lady must have been really old because Richard III  had died  well over a hundred years before the alleged conversation!  I don’t know – maybe someone who knew him spoke to her, maybe 1484 is the year she was born –  I just can’t accept this row as easily as some of the legends.  It is possible that her husband knew the King and could have described him to her, and bit by bit his memory merges with hers.  Maybe she argued with the Shakespeare in Youghal about the play and, in the telling, the story becomes a row with Shakespeare. Take your pick.

The story about her teeth is also a bit iffy –  it is theoretically possible to grow three sets of teeth, to regrow parts of the body. Possible but unlikely.  What happens also is that the gums of some old people begin to recede, thereby exposing stumps of old teeth.  Suddenly – new teeth!

Walking to London to meet the Queen is probably the result of confusion – Eleanor, Countess of Desmond moved to London when her husband was arrested and jailed.  She was not wealthy while in London and possibly walked .  Katherine, Countess of Desmond did walk from Inchiquin to Youghal. Countess of Desmond, walking, London. I reckon someone put a few details together and came up with the wrong answer. We will mention the cherry tree episode when we get to her birthplace in  Dromana later.

The house is still there – but when we look carefully we can see the remains of the old Fitzgerald castle on which the house is now built. Strange to say there is an old cherry wood cabinet in the house . rumour has it that when she died, the tree was cut down and the wood used to make a cabinet.  When you visit the house – just ask to see it! Around the Youghal area the cherry trees are wild –  usually the Azane variety which Raleigh presented to the Old  Countess as a present.

So – final question –  was she really 140 years old when she died?  We don’t know when she married Baldy Tom, Earl of  Desmond – but we do know she was the second wife and that in 1605 Baldy Tom gave his first wife a settlement of land near Carraigaline in her maiden name. Strange thing to do – to give the wife land in her maiden name.  Could it signal the end of the marriage and be some form of settlement? That is probably the year of the second marriage also.  If Katherine was born in 1484, as I suspect she was, she would have been about 21 then and therefore about 120 when she died. Old, very old but not beyond belief.

Walter Raleigh believed she was really old, he wrote about her in his History of the World  – but not by name.  His History of the World in which he refers to people of great age, is available as a free download on the Internet – check it for yourself! He does not say when she was born or when she died.

There are lots of stories –  let me know if you want to hear more – her strange and erotic use of bog butter, her husband’s slightly illegal use of “suspended sentences” for unwelcome visitors, her relationship with Garret Og – Earl of Desmond, her dealings with Raleigh and the several attempts by Raleigh to sell her land with her in situ at one price and a different price available after her always impending death.

Anyway – let us trace our route to some of the locations associated with her. The route will be about 100 kilometres – so decide on your level of fitness – one day or more. There is no really tough climb but you may want to stop here and there – to visit the house in which she grew up, to visit her castle, to visit  Youghal.  You might even digress slightly and visit the ruins of Affane Church where you find some amazing gravestones – like the one of the RIC sergeant shot dead by the IRA back during the troubles and he is lying peacefully next to the man who shot him!  Sadly you won’t find the grave of Valentine Greatrakes – but his story will be told on another day.

The next section will map out the route.

We start , as always at the Clock Gate and head out ( East) towards Youghal Bridge. Just before the bridge there is a turning left, up the banks of the river.  Take your time going up because there is a lot to see.  One of the first big gates you pass lead into Ballynatray – a private residence whose owners allow you to visit Molana Abbey –  an old Abbey dating back to the early Norman times and before that , it is the abbey where Raymond le Gros is supposed to be buried. He came to Ireland with Strongbow. Turtle Bunbury who has a fine website in his own name, and a few books, gives a detailed account of Ballynatray, the various owners and some of the stories. Well worth a visit to the site.

Ballynatray can be seen from Molana but not from the road on this side of the river. It was used by Stanley Kubrick in the making of the film Barry Lyndon  and still retains its old world estate with rolling landscapes, fisheries, deer and pheasant.

The house has been lovingly restored and now sits gracefully on the river bank with the old salmon weirs just to one side.

Enough of that – back on the bike and onwards we go. Next stop will be Strancally.

Before we get to Knockanore and then Strancally,  we have a small hill to climb. We also can stop for a moment to visit Glendine Church one of the most picturesque sites for a church and a very popular place for weddings.

Next stop is Strancally – strictly speaking it is not on our trail but it brings us back briefly to the river and a glimpse of Strancally Castle which we cannot visit and Strancally Tower which is a little jewel perched on the riverside. Strancally was a Fitzgerald stronghold in its day and saw a fair bit of action.

This is Strancally Tower next door to  Strancally Castle. If you have the “bobs”  this is available to rent – there are a number of apartments  there and a spectacular riverscape from the battlements.

Next door is  the Strancally Castle we mentioned  a few minutes ago – another beautifully restored “Big House” with so many stories going with it .  It was built in the 14th century -probably on the site of a former castle, one of many castles owned by the Fitzgerald family. The Earl of Desmond owned land stretching from Waterford to Dingle. Strancally Castle had a famous “murdering hole” whereby unwary visitors lay down on a bed which was over a trapdoor.  The Earl would pull a lever and the trap would be sprung. End of tourist! Start of trip downriver for another victim!

The Earl also had trouble with members of his own family – in one case – he believed that the Dromana Fitzgeralds  (where our Countess was born) owed him money. They appealed to the Butler family for help and the Battle of Affane took place  just a few miles upriver.  The Earl of Desmond was defeated , injured in the battle and captured. As he was being brought off on a stretcher , one of the Butlers taunted him “Where are you now?’ he asked.

-As I always am – on the backs of my enemies! he replied. Queen Elizabeth ordered that he be brought to London , his wife Eleanor followed him over and begged the Queen to release him. That might have led to the confusion about the  Countess of Desmond ( our Countess) being in London. I doubt she was. Eleanor, Countess of Desmond did walk in London.

One of the stories, about Strancally, – have you the time? – one of the stories involves a very large painting called “The Battle of the Birds”. This can be seen in the Crawford Art Gallery, Cork.

The painting was offered to the Gallery  who accepted it on condition that it was delivered to them. It was brought to Cork by a local farmer,  he rolled it up to make room in the trailor and left it in the Gallery at the caretaker’s area  where  it remained for several years,  rolled up, forgotten and largely unknown, trampled underfoot. Probably unwanted as well. After all it is not a Goya or a Van Gogh.  Just a minor Flemish or Dutch artist. Eventually, in recent years, it was found, unfolded and reframed. It now holds a place of honour in the gallery. It is a very large painting – this is just a tiny section of it.

If you do  go to Cork and visit the Municipal Art Gallery to see the Battle of the Birds painting – you could also chase up another wonderful Youghal story – the story of Our  Lady 0f Graces. It won’t take you long but it is worth it.

Anyway what is all this “Lady  of the Graces” about – you are probably wondering ! Well, on your way in to Youghal, coming from the Cork side and just after the Walter Raleigh Hotel , you notice that the road veers to your left and you are entering a one way traffic system. Where the road diverges, right in the middle , there is a piece of sculpture called “Our Lady of Graces”. It is by Seamas Murphy, and his book about his life “Stone Mad” is a wonderful treat. Anyway that piece of stone replaces a statue which you can see in the Dominican Church, in Pope’s Quay Cork – just across the river from the Cork Opera House – and if you are going to see the Battle of the Birds painting , why not have a little look at the little statue as well. It is tiny, made of ivory and people of Youghal regret very much the fact that is is in Cork and not in Youghal – where it used to be.

There are lots of stories and legends about this little statue. It attracted a major following of people who came to Youghal  to the Dominican Priory in Youghal to venerate it, probably ( by the look of it) to touch it also and to pray to Our Lady of Graces.

In 1586 the Domincan Church and Priory became the property of Sir Walter Raleigh who ordered the destruction of the church and priory. The little statue was removed for safe keeping and found its way to Cork where it is still the subject of regular devotion.

The origins of the statue are shrouded in the mists of time – there are those who say a log was washed up on the beach, some monks brought it to the Priory where it was found to contain the little statue. Maybe! there are those who say  that Archbishop O’ Carroll from Cashel asked that the statue be buried with him and that the coffin was subsequently dug up and the statue found. Maybe! Anyway thousands flocked to   Youghal to venerate the statue. The inscription on the box of the statue dates back to the 15th century.

Have a look while you are in Cork. There is sometimes a little leaflet near the statue, explaining the story.If it is not there – ask for it!

Anyway onwards we go towards Cappoquin where we might stop for a coffee, a drink – whatever takes your fancy!  Then fortified  we head back down the river towards Villierstown, Clashmore and Youghal – but we stop off at Dromana House where the Olde  Countess was born.  the family who now own the house are the Villiers Stuarts – who are directly connected to the Fitzgeralds by marriage so the house is connected to the family for literally hundreds of years. So we leave Cappoquin and head south – a few hundred yards out of Cappoquin  you have the choice of going straight on the Dromana Drive or heading on the main road to  Clashmore.

Take the Dromana Drive to  Villierstown. A few small rolling hills and we are on our way.

First  we must pass Dromana Bridge –  one of the most unusual bridges in Ireland –  a bit reminiscent of the Taj Mahal in India .  As you pass through the bridge you can read the story of yourself – a wonderful honeymoon in India, a sketch of the Taj Mahal sent back to Dromana and the locals building a model of the drawing out of papier mache for the newly weds so that they would have a wonderful souvenir of the honeymoon. They, in turn, were so pleased that they had the bridge constructed as it now stands. so we go through the bridge and onto Dromana House.

The house itself has changed an awful lot from those early Fitzgerald days when it was a castle with a commanding view of the river upwards and downwards. Much of the castle is gone but a large house was built on it.  Some of this house has been destroyed but much of it remains and it is open to visitors.  The grounds too are being restored to their original splendour and the story of the family can be enjoyed by visitors.

Students of Irish history will also enjoy the stories of the visits of Daniel O’Connell to Dromana in the early 1800s and the involvement of the family in the Catholic Emancipation struggle. The story of the Villiers Stuart Estate and the village itself is also worth hearing but, to day we are looking for a Countess, a very old countess, so old we can spell the word as “olde”! She is but a small part of the history of this house, some people will want to learn about the many other aspects of the estate, the various characters who lived there, the life style of the people who lived there, the story of the house itself and its place in Irish history past and future.

And , of course, people will want to see  the spectacular views from the house up and down the river , across the river and up to the mountains beyond.

Look at the graffiti on the walls – 1864, 1890 and various other dates and names.

Tour the House  – it is worth it!

But, today, we are not too interested in that – we want to find the  Olde Countess – and here , in Dromana, we can see three  very different portraits of her. They are three very different portraits . This is not the place to dispute the portraits –  our first task is to spot them in the house! And then we will look for another in Youghal.

Unless you actually ask about them you might not see them – she is, after all, a minor character in the story of the house.

The first of these ,  you have already seen. This is a second one, very similar :

One is a print of the much disputed portrait – this portrait is also  in Muckross House in Killarney and can be seen on a visit there,   with a caption which casts a little doubt on the timing , the third portrait is owned by Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Devonshire has a copy. This has really nothing to do with our Countess but people thought it had.

The second portrait is an original family portrait of her.

The  painting you see here is a copy of the painting in Knoles and this copy was painted by local hisorian, raconteur and artist Kieran Heffernan, who has also written a fine book  on the history of Strancally Castle and has a wonderful DVD of his lecture on the Houses of the River Blackwater.

Take the guided tour of the house. On the tour you will see a very different portrait of the Countess , see below here. It is of a much older, wizened woman .  And there is a third – the one taken from the print in Muckross House .

Ask about the cherry tree, ask about the cherry wood cabinet , the family records. Do they really believe the story of her age?

The portrait ( the small one below)  is  an original painting owned by the family . I can see her living in Inchiquin Castle easily enough – not too lavish in clothing, she has seen a lot of life!

The next portrait is the most bizarre – for many years it ,also, was the subject of much controversial discussion – the portrait – owned by Queen Elizabeth II, and a copy of which is owned by the Duke of Devonshire  was painted by Rembrandt and up to , recent times this portrait was considered to be a portrait of our Countess! But the debate became heated when someone pointed out that she had died before Rembrandt was even born! No problem said her valiant defenders – the portraits we have of Shakespeare were also painted after his death and no one has any difficulty recognising him!

Eventually it was discovered to be a portrait of Rembrandt’s mother although still prints based on it are used with the name of Countess Desmond on them. She caused a lot of controversy did our Countess with her portraiture! I like the family original one in Dromana best. you have a choice of three versions or images of the Countess with at least one of them not being here at all!

Having viewed the house it is time to get back on our bikes and carry on to Youghal – via Villierstown, Clashmore and Youghal bridge and as we enter Youghal we will head towards the College  Gardens .

This is the Rembrandt portrait, now accepted by most people to be his own mother. God bless her! But she does look like she could be 140 years old!

As we head into  Youghal, we will park the bikes somewhere safe – it is time for lunch, time for a walk and time to visit a wonderful old church .

This church is the St. Mary’s Collegiate Chapel , so called because of the college associated with it. The College Gardens, incidentally, are a haven of peace and tranquility in this bustling little seaside town, with direct access to the Town Walls, the Sally Ports and are very well maintained.

Inside St. Mary’s Chapel we are going to look for another portrait of the Olde Countess, and if we are lucky, a picture of her house in Inchiquin as well.

This is the portrait we are looking for . As you can see all the portraits are similar but different.  Take your pick! The College next door was built by her husband Baldy Tom, the 7th Earl of Desmond. She herself had another house in  Youghal which would pass to Walter Raleigh on her death, along with Inchiquin Castle.

Raleigh made several attempts to sell her property “with the old lady in situ” at one price and another price after her always impending death!

Have a bit of lunch somewhere – Youghal  has lots of choices. Call in to the Tourist Office near the Clock Gate ( the Tourist Office is on the waterfront) – which has a nice audiovisual presentation of the town – and then back on the bikes for a short afternoon run.

This time head out on the main road for about two kilometres and take the first turn left – as if going to Ballymacoda. There on that road take the first turn right and continue on this road past Gortroe Cross. You pass the church and the school ( both on your right).

You might notice a sign ” Cul de Sac” – on your left. Easy to miss but that is the sign you are looking for . It is not on the satnav service. Go along this road and you will soon see Inchiquin Castle. It would have been more imposing in its day. Cromwell blowing holes in it did not help! It was a huge administrative centre , had lots of buildings around it.  To day it does not even rate a road sign! This is where our Countess lived out her life as a widow.

It is one of the few surviving round Tower Houses in Ireland. It deserves to be preserved. With coastal erosion and the ravages of time it is deteriorating rapidly. Pity!


2 thoughts on “Tracing the steps of the Old Countess. A Cycling Adventure

  1. Pingback: A Frisky Old Girl « Tudor Blog

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