Situated just off the N69 lies an historic woodland estate now known as Curraghchase Forest Park.
Curraghchase is an emerald gem, nestled between the historic town of Askeaton and the medieval village of Adare, both themselves laden with landmarks and centuries of historical significance.
Today the 300 hectares of natural beauty are an abundance of wildlife in a tranquil woodland setting, with landscaped vistas and a glistening lake. At the heart of it all lies the abandoned husk of a majestic mansion house, echoing the past glories of a distinguished lineage and a cornucopia of cultural delight. It is no surprise therefore, that the Curraghchase ghosts of the past are more than just a figure of speech.
Cromwell and The Plantations
The lands were originally known as ‘The Curragh’, the same as the famous Kildare racecourse. The name means marsh or bog land and belonged to the Fitzgerald clan, which was subsequently seized from John Fitzgerald. Following confiscation by Oliver Cromwell, they were handed to Vere Hunt, an esteemed officer of Cromwell’s army, as a part of the Lord Protector’s Plantations.
The Plantations related to the attempted colonisation of Ireland by Cromwell, through confiscation of property and lands and re-allocation to officers of his army. Labourers and house staff were also brought in as settlers on these estates to establish a colony designed to reduce Irish influence in rural locations.
The Vere Hunt Dynasty
Vere Hunt came from a prestigious lineage dating back to the tenant-in-chief of England for William the Conqueror in the late 11th century, who was named in the Doomsday Book. His name was Aubrey de Vere the first and the name is one that would once again become renowned in the Vere Hunt family in the years to come.
Vere Hunt’s great grandson was named after the Cromwellian officer; however, he had his sights set on higher political status and social standing than his great grandfather.
In December of 1784, the de Vere Barnonecy was created for the Vere- Hunt descendants. This title enabled Vere Hunt to become High Sheriff of Limerick and in later years join the Irish House of Commons as the representative for Askeaton. It was a successive title that lasted through to the death of the 4th Baronet in the early 20th century.
Sadly, for this Vere his aspirations outweighed his capabilities. In seeking to realise his dream to reprint notable Irish literary and historic works as well as a provincial newspaper, he failed to manage the businesses and property in his charge and spent much of his later years in debt and even served a spell in Debtor’s Gaol.
A Change of Name and Circumstance
Vere’s son Aubrey seemed to have more of his Doomsday ancestor’s blood running through his veins. He received a solid Harrow education alongside Sir Robert Peel, founder of the Metropolitan Police and the romantic poet Lord Byron.
He married young and he and his wife Mary had eight children. During the mid-nineteenth century, Aubrey took the step of formalising the reversion of his family name to de Vere by Royal Licence. He continued to build his reputation as a respected landowner, employer and property manager, as well as dabbling in politics. However, his passion lay firmly in creating his own literary works and in the renovation and recreation of Curragh and Curragh House, which he renamed Curragh Chase.
The Poet Aubrey de Vere
While most of Aubrey Hunt’s children followed military or political careers, one chose to follow a more cultural path in life.
Aubrey Thomas Hunt de Vere was born in January of 1814 and It was quickly realised that a penchant for literature and culture was clearly in the de Vere-Hunt genes. Aubrey read at Trinity College, Dublin and studied the works of philosopher Immanuel Kant among others.
Aubrey counted esteemed scholars, poets and dramatists among his friends and Byron and Wordsworth as his muses – these influences along with his devotion to Catholicism were mirrored in his writings.
While his works were critically well received, his intense passion for theology and looking deep into the roots of his Catholic faith, meant they were more reflective and introspective as opposed to structured and definitive in connotation and construct, which met with divided opinion among his peers.
The Limerick poet was a stoic and serious character, his intellect and demeanour perhaps holding him back from a life of social normality, as Aubrey remained a bachelor until his death in 1902.
Alfred Lord Tennyson and other De Vere Literary References.
In the mid nineteenth century, Poet Laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson stayed for several weeks in Curragh Chase and was very close to the de Vere family. In homage to his Irish friends, Tennyson wrote the famous poem ‘Lady Clara Vere de Vere’, a poem about a noble woman and an aristocratic family.
The most well-known line from the poem is “Kind hearts are more than coronets, and simple faith than Norman blood.’ From this Lewis Carroll based one of his own works, J.M Barrie, creator of Peter Pan used the title in a line for one of his plays and Sir Alec Guinness’s blue-blooded film ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’ was named in Time magazine’s 100 films of all time.
It is during his stay at Curragh Chase that Tennyson encountered the Lady of Lake…
The Demise of Curragh House
The structure itself was an exquisite representation of romantic, majestic architecture and the cultural décor and artefacts within were of equal thought and magnificence.
A John Flaxman Romanesque frieze adorned the wall, watched by a caste of Michelangelo’s Moses. As visitors crossed the detailed parquet floors, they would pass the best of European and Asian craftsmanship in furnishings, sculptures and artwork.
It was said that even the relic of a cross from the execution of Charles I was retained within the walls of the County Limerick manor house, only to be destroyed by flame, as sadly, all this would come to an end on Christmas Eve of 1941. A fire engulfed Curragh Chase and the family home teeming with history, culture and knowledge was reduced to a blackened, hollowed out corpse.
The Ghosts of Curraghchase
Visitors to Curraghchase have reported supernatural occurrences over decades and centuries. One particular artist staying with the de Vere family sketched the image of a young ethereal girl as she negotiated the staircase, no foot falling on solid ground.
Warnings have been made not to venture into Curragh Chase after midnight as demonic coaches with headless drivers are seen dashing through the grounds.
Ghostly musical sounds of harps and other instruments playing carry through the night, and guests of the de Vere family would often comment on seeing mysterious lights as they ascended the stairs.
During Lord Tennyson’s stay in Curraghchase, he insisted he had seen the spectre of a lady with a sheathed sword rise from the lake, arm outstretched and pointing to the house.
On the night before Christmas in 1941, a tree was said to have leaned towards the stately home, a solitary limb outstretched, in an exact replica of Tennyson’s Lady of the Lake sighting. The fire in 1941 was said to be started by the tree limb reaching through the window and knocking over a candelabra.
While the Lady of the Lake has been reported climbing from the murky, misty waters many a night, every Christmas Eve she rises aglow, a burning effigy transfixed on the skeleton of Curraghchase.
Today the ruins of Curragh House stand as stoic as its former owner, protected by the sombre Yew trees within its shadow. An ancient monolith, ringforts and cairn are all within the estate – reminders that long before Oliver Cromwell and the de Vere-Hunt family there was a Fitzgerald Clan, Curragh Castle and druid lands belonging to the Irish.
Perhaps the Lady of the Lake was returning a stolen domain back to the people of Limerick, a Celtic Avenger protecting lands that transcend confiscation and construction. Perhaps she remains to this day as a guardian, watching and waiting, ready to step forth with flaming sword and limb to hold on to Curraghchase as Munster’s own.