Durrow Abbey House, Tullamore A better future on the horizon for the monastic site, house and lands?

It would be nice to write that Durrow Abbey house, Tullamore is in course of restoration and that it, the High Cross and Church and the parklands adjoining will soon be properly open to the public. It’s possible but getting more difficult as the house continues to deteriorate. It has been vacant for a considerable time. Councillor Tommy McKeigue drew attention to it recently at Offaly County Council and Paul Moore has reminded us of it in his photographs that are too kind to its present sad condition. But there are hopeful signs. The footpath from Durrow Woods should be completed this year and will allow walkers to come close to the house and the old church at Durrow and High Cross. At least more people will see it and become aware of its potential to midlands/ Ireland East, or is it Lakelands Tourism.

There is growing pressure on the monastic site at Clonmacnoise of which the OPW is painfully aware. It has been suggested that Durrow should be ‘developed’ as a new monastic visitor facility to ease that pressure, much as happened at Newgrange. The management and councillors want it and Offaly tourism needs it. Recent figures indicate how poorly the Midlands performs relative to Dublin and the Atlantic Way.

The house needs attention.

What can be done?

 The state needs to come to a satisfactory settlement with the current tenant but has not been in a hurry. It was the same with the right of way to the old church and graveyard – a saga that went on from its first being raised in 1974 to 2003 when these concerns were finally resolved by purchase. It needs one great push from our TDs and councillors to get the financial support that is needed to develop Durrow as a first class visitor attraction.

What’s special about the house? Has it a history?

The lands of Durrow formerly belonged to the monastery. After the Reformation the monastic lands were immediately regranted to the Prior of the now dissolved monastery, Contan O’Molloy, on a 21 year lease in the 1540s.  According to the Obits of Kilcormac Contan O’Molloy, prior of Durrow, was slain in 1553.  About 1561 the Durrow lands were leased for 21 years at a rent of £10 a year to Nicholas Herbert, a member of an old English family.  Herbert received a full grant of the property in 1574.

Nicholas Herbert was succeeded by Richard and in turn by George, the third baronet.  The latter died without issue in 1712.  His sister Frances Herbert married Major Patrick Fox of Foxhall, County Longford but there were no children of the marriage and as a result Philip Rawson Stepney succeeded to the estates. It was Mrs Fox who rebuilt the abbey church in about 1730.

The Durrow estate eventually passed to Herbert Rawson Stepney who was obliged to sell it to John Toler in 1815. His death is marked on a memorial tablet in the old church.

The Hanging Judge whose ‘scanty knowledge of law, his gross partiality, his callousness and his buffoonery, completely disqualified him from the position’.

John Toler was born at Beechwood, Co. Tipperary in 1745.  and graduated BA in 1761, was called to the Irish Bar in 1770 and was elected MP for Tralee in 1776.  He sat for the borough of Philipstown (Daingean) in 1783.  For his constant support of the government he was well rewarded.  For his support of the Union (1800) he was advanced to be Chief Justice of the Common Pleas and elevated to the peerage as Baron Norbury.  He held his bench appointment for nearly twenty seven years, although his scanty knowledge of law, his gross partiality, his callousness and his buffoonery, completely disqualified him from the position.  His presence on the bench was however, ultimately felt by all parties to be a scandal and an obstacle to the establishment of a better understanding with the Catholics.  In 1825 O’Connell drew up a petition to parliament calling for his removal on the grounds that he had fallen asleep during a trial for murder and was unable to give any account of the evidence when called on for his notes by the lord-lieutenant.  The petition was presented, but no motion was based upon it, as Peel gave an assurance that the matter would be inquired into.  But it was not till the accession of Canning as Prime Minister in 1827, when Norbury was in his eighty-second year that he was induced to resign, or as O’Connell put it ‘bought off the bench by a most shameful traffic’ by his advancement in the peerage as Viscount Glandine and Earl of Norbury, with special remainder to his second son, together with a retiring pension of £3,046 (equivalent to €400,000 today).  He died at Dublin on 27 July 1831, aged 85 (and is recalled in Norbury Woods, Tullamore). Toler married Grace, daughter of Hector Graham in 1778 and by her had two sons and two daughters.  He was succeeded in his estates by his second son Hector as his eldest son was said to be of unsound mind.

Murder of Lord Norbury at Durrow

Hector Toler, the second Lord Norbury, was a man of quiet disposition, very little interested in politics and seemingly content to manage and develop his estates.  According to a return of 1839 supplied by George Garvey, Lord Norbury’s agent, Norbury was possessed of 26,720 acres in six counties with 654 tenants.  His largest estate was in Tipperary where he had 16,464 acres and his King’s County estate came next at 3,598 acres.  The latter estate had 156 tenants.  The murder of Hector Toler has to this day remained a mystery but it is thought that it had its origins in a dispute between the landlord and one or more of his tenants.

Norbury Eulogy by Lord Oxmantown of Birr

From the statement by Lord Oxmantown of Birr (later the third Earl of Rosse) on the one side and the parish priest of Tullamore, Fr. O’Rafferty, on the other we can take it that relations between landlord and tenant were generally good.  Lord Oxmantown stated that:

When the late lamented nobleman became a permanent resident at Durrow Abbey, the tenantry on the estate were in the most wretched condition.  It had been purchased by his father from a gentleman who had been in great difficulties and the tenantry, as usual exhibited the shocking evidences of the poverty of their former landlord. Lord Norbury, by a large expenditure, and repeated acts of profuse generosity raised their condition to a state of comfortable independence.  He was in the act of building a splendid residence, to be permanent residence of his family, and consequently the centre of a great expenditure, he employed a large proportion of the surrounding peasantry, conferring upon them all the advantages which accrue from the residence of an extensive landed proprietor.  Go where you may, you can hear but one opinion of him – all classes unite in conferring upon him this just tribute of praise – that a better landlord, a more charitable man, and a more excellent country gentleman could not have existed.

1996 and 2011. Our whiskey making traditions were learned from the monks

Fire and house saved by Fr O’Rafferty, PP of Tullamore (1815?-1857)

Lewis in his Topographical Dictionary  of 1837 mentions that a new mansion house was being built at Durrow Abbey house in similar in style to Pain’s Castle Bernard (Kinnitty Castle) in the mid-1830s.  No architectural plans are known to have survived.  The present Durrow Abbey was built close to the site of the earlier house because in 1843 it was reported that:

The old house formerly the residence of Colonel Stepney was nearly all consumed to the vaults, nothing remains but the walls, Revd. Mr. O’Rafferty got a sod wall built between the old building and the new that was erected by the late Earl of Norbury and saved the latter from being consumed.

Durrow Abbey shared the same fate as many as 12 other country houses in Offaly in the early 1920s when it was destroyed by a band of armed men in May 1923 – as the Civil War was fizzling out.  It was rebuilt about 1926.

The Toler family continued to reside at Durrow until the late 1940s.  The house and contents were sold in 1950.  Noel Terence Graham-Toler, the sixth earl of Norbury, succeeded on the death of his father in 1955 and lived in England.  Durrow Abbey, during the 1950s and up to the mid-1960s was the home of Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Slazenger (later of Powerscourt).  It was subsequently purchased by Mr and Mrs. M. M. Williams, of the local Tullamore distilling family.  They in turn sold it to Mr and Mrs. Patrick O’Brien of Navan, Co. Meath who planned to build a hotel, golf course and generally have a small sporting estate.  Nothing came of this and in 2003 the Office of Public Works purchased the house and about 70 acres inclusive of the old Abbey church, High Cross and graveyard.

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Visitors to Durrow during Heritage Week 2017

What can be done with the house?

The house was in constant occupation until 14 years ago and was rebuilt to a high standard in 1926. The Slazenger family kept it in excellent repair as is clear from the outbuildings. Uses come under Community or Private. Any such would have to get substantial support from the OPW for the restoration and work in with a plan for the monastic site and the OPW lands. More lands might be acquired in time for nature trails, forest walks and organic farming.

The example is there in the work done on the church and High Cross. The cross needed to brought indoors just as Clonmacnoise needs to be less busy today. High Cross on right courtesy of friend Paul Moore who has done so much to highlight the house.

The potential is there. These pictures of the interior  in the early 1990s

Community

  • The arts and crafts part of a County Arts Centre with restoration over time of the outbuildings.
  • A centre for community activities, for writers, with outbuildings let to community groups for their purposes
  • Incorporating visitor facilities to support the visitors to the monastic site
  • Shop and tourism facilities including badly needed parking
  • Part of the outbuilding could be restored for long term apartments
  • Museum, archives, history centre

Private

  • Headquarters for a public organisation such as NPA or Offaly Show
  • Writers Center and Arts Center
  • Small select hotel

The immediate need is to save the house from destruction

  • OPW to resolve issues with the current tenant.
  • County Council to work with Failte Ireland on making Durrow a first class attraction on a par with Clonmacnoise drawing on the input and experience of existing tourism providers in the midlands
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There is work to be done on the outhouses
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