The Dunne family has inhabited parts of County Laois since time immemorial. They descended from Cathair Mór, second century Monarch of Éire and Brittas House, near Clonaslee, became their family seat (after their main residence in Tinnahinch was blown to bits in 1653). Family land holdings hovered around 10,000 acres throughout what was then known as the Queen’s County.
A true Catholic brood, they were forced by the British Crown now and then to convert to Protestantism or have their lands confiscated, which happened now and then. Finally, Squire Francis Dunne converted for good. Some villagers claimed that above all the Squire did not want to lose his family’s heirloom rapier which would have been denied to a Catholic needing a weapon. The parish priest condemned the heretic Squire from the altar predicting “There goes the Dunnes, they’re done, damned and double-damned and in short, the crows will build in the ruins, the grass and weeds will grow at their door.”
Perhaps the family’s most glorious days were in the early half of the 1800s when the eminent General Edward Dunne was Lord of the Manor. He married the Earl of Banrty’s sister and built a Protestant Church right in the center of his Georgian town of Clonaslee. His Anglican recusant mother, Margaret Plunkett Dunne, funded the rebuilding of the Catholic chapel St. Manman’s down the street and was pleased that her church was finished before his.
Maude and Kathleen were the last Dunnes of Brittas. They were away in England during the start of World War II and wanted safe haven back in Ireland. However, it is said, the caretaker had been pilfering Dunne possessions for years and to hid his crime set fire to the place on June 25, 1942. The tower entrance was the only remnant of the Gothic pile to survive after years of scavengers dismantling the fabled house for building materials. Grass and weeds now grow at the door.
However, the Dunnes can take solace in a legend that claims in 1869, before Francis Plunkett Dunne, MP laid down the corner stone of his new mansion he hid a shiny sovereign underneath so the family would never be without money.
Kevin Lee Akers has published an historical novel about the family aptly titled “The Dunnes of Brittas.” You can find out more about the book at www.dunnesofbrittas.com.
Excerpt from the novel The Dunnes of Brittas by Kevin Lee Akers
A tiresome habit of noble Irish families like the Dunnes was to feign Englishness when it suited their purpose. As a rule, they cared little for family crests, heraldry and the like, preferring substance over symbols. However, it was a fact that throughout the Kingdom, a Coat of Arms with the right components opened doors that seemed locked shut. The Dunnes of Brittas possessed a cobalt blue crest comprised of a golden eagle with outstretched wings above a mighty oak tree. Although it bore no traces of English heritage it retained a certain eminence amongst the Ascendancy and was a familiar feature around Brittas. A finely sculpted version in stone sat above the tower entrance to the manor. Years ago, the Savile Row tailor who created all the General’s uniforms had minted silver buttons stamped with the Dunne crest. Every male servant of Brittas had them sewn onto his livery and stray buttons seemed to lie at the bottom of every drawer of the house. Bridget had one in her pocket as a memento when she left for school. The newest display of their Coat of Arms was waiting in the coach house.
John Dunne, one of Mr. Dunne’s brothers, was master coachbuilder at the nearby Tullamore Carriage Company. The General had taken delivery of an opulent five-glass Landau just in time for his seven-day journey to Bantry Bay. It was arguably the finest vehicle ever built by local craftsmen and a moving example of the quality Irish goods General Dunne was proud to promote. A sturdy coach with a boxy yet regal silhouette, it had a retractable roof feature at the back allowing in occasional spotty sunshine. Luxurious Cobalt blue velvet stretched over the interior walls and tufted seats. Nestled right above the front window was a small gold clock that John Dunne had imported from Switzerland at the owner’s request. Shiny brass oil lanterns were affixed to the midnight blue exterior, harmonizing perfectly with the stunning Dunne Family Coat of Arms painstakingly painted on the doors.
For more on Laois and the Dunne family see the following – mostly available from Offaly History Centre and at http://www.offalyhistory.com