Killegar is the family home of the Godleys, who came to Ireland as merchants, probably from Yorkshire, in the 17th century. John Godley (Died 1710) was a Dublin alderman. His great-great-great grandson, John Arthur, was created Lord Kilbracken by the Liberal prime minister, W E Gladstone, in 1909. The present holder of the title, also John, became the third baron and inherited Killegar on his father’s death in 1950.
John Kilbracken (born 1920) is an author and journalsit, and attends the House of Lords regularly as a backbench Labour peer. The best of his dozen books are probably: Van Meegeren, the definitive biography of the notorious art forger, and Bring Back my Stringbag, an account of his reckless years (1940-45) as a Swordfish pilot in the Fleet Air Arm.
In a completely different field, his prize-winning Easy Way books have been successful in their helping readers to identify species of birds, trees and wild flowers. Here is the history of the family estate, as told in another of his books, The Story of Killegar. The lands I own today, on the eastern fringe of the parish of Carrigallen in the townlands of Killegar and Drumergoul, were part of the estate granted by Charles I to Sir James Craig in 1640, which became known as Craigstown. Till then it was O’Rourke country. It embraced 4419 statute acres, reaching from the Cavan border at Killegar to Corrawallen.
The Craigs were a Scottish family and Sir James was among the most powerful of the planters who were responsible for colonizing Ireland in the 17th century. In addition to the Leitrim estate, he received grants of similar size in three Ulster counties, including Cavan. He ruled his empire from a fortified castle on the outskirts of Killeshandra in the townland of Croghan, at the heart of his Cavan estate. It bordered Craigstown, where there was already a castle in the townland of Longfield (then known as Lawchill). The faint traces of both these castles are still discernible. The one in Croghan, called Castlecraig, was among the last strongholds to fall in the Great Rebellion of 1641, after a prolonged siege in the course of which Craig perished. His surviving family and supporters were surprisingly given safe conduct back to Scotland, and could therefore return and claim back their estates after Cromwell finally crushed the rebellion in the 1650’s.
But the Craigs’ days in Ireland were numbered. They quarrelled among themselves, fell into debt, and in 1734 were declared bankrupt. Craigstown was put up for sale to pay their debts, and was purchased by Richard Morgan, a Dublin merchant who had made his money in textiles, for £5626 8s 4d, little more than a pound an acre. I still have the rent-book compiled by Morgan in his own handwriting soon before his death in 1751. It lists the full details of the townlands that comprised “ye Mannour of Craigstown”, giving the acreage, rent paid and tenants’ names for each holding, and a full history of the estate. The top annual rent for arable land was five shillings an acre; ‘shrubby pasture’ was half-a-crown and ‘bog’ was sixpence. The total rent amounted to £335 9s 1d, equivalent to about £15,000 today, giving Morgan a return of six percent on his investment.
The townlands, as spelt by Morgan, comprised Killegar, Drumergoul, Laghine, Aghavore, Taghamore, Tuam, Mullaghmore, Currowalleen, Lawchill, Dromnecross, Dromhabrie, Dromlyvan and Anagh. Richard Morgan’s only daughter, Mary, married into my family, her husband being the Rev Dr William Godley, a landless clergyman who was rector of Mullabrack, Co Armagh. It was unlikely that Craigstown would pass to the Godleys because Richard left it to his elder son, Richard junior, and he assumed that it would stay in Morgan hands. But Richard junior, though twice married, had only one child, Helen, who died in her early teens. Meantime his only brother, William, a pupil and disciple of John Wesley and one of the very first Methodists, had died tragically in Dublin when he was 20. So the Morgan family came to an end on Richard junior’s death in 1784.
It appeared that Craigstown would then pass at once to John Godley II, my great-great-great grandfather, a lawyer who was Mary Morgan’s eldest son and her father’s ‘right heir’. But his will was disputed by his trustees, and no less than 26 years of litigation were to follow before we finally established our claim in 1810. John had died in the meantime and his eldest son, John III, a young Dublin merchant, inherited the property. And he promptly decided to build a house at Killegar and spend the rest of his life here. It was completed in 1813. He was also responsible for building the church, school and school-teacher’s house at Killegar, together with the two gate-lodges and eight other cottages in the demesne. John III lived to the age of 88, dying in 1863, and was buried in his own churchyard at his gates.
By then his eldest son, John Robert, was dead, and John Robert’s son, John Arthur, was still a schoolboy. John III therefore provided that his youngest son, Archibald, would have a 20-year lease of the house and the home farm, paying the rent to his young nephew. It was extended year by year to cover the rest of Uncle Archie’s life, and then passed to his only child, Anna. John Robert’s brother, the Rev James Godley, had been the incumbent of Killegar Church and became rector of Carrigallen. His daughter, Maud, lived her life in the parish, ultimately in the village itself, where she died and was buried. Like Anna she never married. Over this period, the successive Irish Land Acts came into force, which made it progressively easier for tenants to buy the land they farmed. They were strenuously resisted by almost all landlords, and John Arthur. My grandfather, was one of the very few to take precisely the opposite position by encouraging his tenants to buy. He had been private secretary to Gladstone, the premier mainly responsible for the Land Acts, and was now a Gladstonian Liberal.
The estate had been tenanted except for the home farm and some 80 acres of bog in Corrawallen. So, by 1922, these were the only lands remaining in Godley hands. As a result of Archie’s tenancy, my father spent the first half of his life entirely in England, where I was born and went to school. It was in 1927, when I was six, that my father took his family to see for the first time the wild and beautiful property that my grandfather had already made over to him. Over the years ahead, we spent holidays at Killegar more and more frequently. During this time, my venerable Cousin Anna would always be in full command, as a now non-paying tenant. My father was a guest in his own house until 1936, when he came to an agreement with her under which she moved from the Big House to a smaller one on the estate and he took over.When my father died in 1950, I was in Australia on my way to the celebrations in Christchurch, New Zealand, for the centenary of the foundation by John Robert of the province of Canterbury, of which Christchurch is the capital. My father’s fortunes had not flourished and he had been forced by circumstances to put Killegar on the market. His intention had been to transfer to a flat in London and live out his life there. At the time of his death, two identical offers had been made for the house and its 420 acres: just £8000. The figure seems almost incredible today, when that is less than the value of eight acres, or of eighty trees, or of a cottage.
I inherited all his Irish property but not a penny in hard cash. The estate was losing thousands and, having only my earnings as a young journalist, I could see no possibility of keeping it in the family. I gave instructions from Perth that the sale should go ahead. There’s no doubt it would have been sold if someone had come up with a quick ten-grand. The bidders were Arthur Ennis, Ballyconnell, and Charlie Fletcher, Killeshandra, who were both to become good friends of mine.I was making the journey to New Zealand overland as far as possible, and had already covered some 12,000 miles by road between Calais and Calcutta. Now as I traversed the deserts of Australia from Perth to Sydney in my borrowed Morris Oxford, I decided it was worth trying to retain possession, and countermanded my instructions when I reached Sydney, a decision that would utterly change my life. So, when I returned here in April 1951, it was as sole owner of Killegar.