These ruins are all that remain of Harperstown House and Castle, the ancestral home of the Harpers and, after them, the Hores of Co. Wexford. The history of the place is a long and colourful one, beset with several tragic occurrences which have been recorded both in the written chronicles of the time and in the traditions of the people.
It was to Aghdare that Sir William le Harper came soon after the settlement of Leinster by Strongbow and here built his castle. The ancestor of the Harper family may have been Welsh minstrel to Strongbow. At any rate he was awarded Aghdare for his services and promptly changed the district's name to Harperstown, after the manner of all conquerors. There is some doubt about the exact date of the building of Harperstown Castle. H. F.Hore, in one of his manuscripts , states that Sir William le Harper built the castle in the 12th century, while in another, he says that the castle and hall were built by Sir William le Harper in 1320. I favour the second date, as it was the custom of the Norman settlers to raise earthen mottes with wooden defences rather than stone castles during the first decades of their occupation, and also because most of the first stone tower-houses date from the 13th and 14th centuries. Sir Thomas le Harper is described in records as 'a knight of the distinguished family of le Harper or Harpur of Gloucestershire, in England'.
Hore said that portions of the old castle were apparent in the right wing in the back corner, by the extreme thickness of the walls, the steep staircase, etc.; the bathroom was in the old keep. A short distance from the hall door, Hore states, were the remains of a single gable, apparently very old, said to be part of a chapel of ease of the Hore family, who were Catholics before 1559.
Hore was writing about ten years after the death of Walter Hore Ruthven, the last to reside in the mansion. Following his death Harperstown House was closed up and passed into the hands of the Irish Chancery Court. The manor was allowed to fall into ruin and has never since been occupied. Today even many of the walls to which Hore referred have crumbled and disappeared. The grounds and gardens went into a wilderness. The gable of the chapel of ease is gone. The well, some distance from the house, in which a coachman was accidentally drowned many years ago, has been filled in - but more about that later. The extensive oak woods, for which the district and demesne were noted, were cut down during the war of 1914 -18. It was in these oak woods that the local tenants fed their pigs on acorns - later selling the pigs to pay their rents.
The oak-trees of these woods were famed for their straightness and strength and, during the 17th century, shipbuilders from Bristol came over regularly to cut down trees. The fallen oaks were floated in rafts down "The Pill" to Barrystown. where they were loaded on board ships for Bristol. Many a stout man-of-war and merchantman that helped Britannia rule the waves was built of Harperstown oak.
It is tempting to dwell overlong on these aspects of the history of Harperstown. but the story of the people who dwelt there must also be told.
In 1572 William Hore of Harperstown held his castle and lands of Roche of Drinagh, which seems to point to the fact that the property had, at some intervening date, passed - probably by inter-marriage - into the hands of the Roches. It is also interesting to note that Harperstown House and much of the surrounding lands are at present owned by another Roche.
Then, in 1537, there occurred an event so tragic and dreadful in proportions that it overshadows all else in the history of Harperstown. At that time, Edmund Hore resided at Harperstown with his wife Aileen. daughter of Gerald Kavanagh, whom he had married in 1526, in violation of the 'Statutes of Kilkenny'. As readers will know, the 'Statutes' prohibited, under pain of forfeiture of right of succession, the marriage of 'any Englishman of the Pale' to an Irishwoman. As H. F. Hore succinctly put it: 'This barbarous law, however, was not always strictly obeyed; and unfortunately for Edmund, his respect for the law was not able to plead against the innate feelings of his heart and he married contrary to the statute.....'
At the time of the tragedy Edmund and his wife already had two daughters, Katherine and Margaret, and were expecting another child. Edmund's uncle, David Hore, in the hope that the law would put him in possession of the property of his nephew, pleaded the statute but did not receive the expected redress. In a fit of anger, on 24 February 1537, he murdered Edmund and his wife in cold blood in their own home. The room where the murder took place was in the left wing of the castle.
In the archaic language of the time, the following finding of a jury
illustrates the sad effects produced by the clashing of the old Brehon
and English laws:
'They (the jury) present that in the 18th year of our Sovereign Lord, David Hore feloniously entered and broke ye house of Edmund Hore of Harperstowne and there feloniously did kill and slay ye said Edmund and his wife, she being great with child.'
It should be explained that under Brehon law, which the English settlers sought to supplant, a nephew or infant son might be excluded from succeeding to property but female heirs were absolutely excluded. The jury, being settlers of the Pale, naturally found, according to English law, in favour of the legal claims of the two daughters, Katherine and Margaret, as "heirs general." Notwithstanding this, however, David Hore obtained possession of Harperstown and transmitted it to his son. From then the property was handed on in direct male line until the last owner died in 1878.
The Hores, with the exception of one William Hore, adopted the Reformed religion during the first half of the 16th century and 'continued in the enjoyment of their rights and religion until the Cromwellian Confiscation.' There is in the present Protestant Church of Taghmon a tombstone with the inscription: 'Rev. Patrick Hore, P.P., Taghmon, who died in 1616'. (See panel headed 'Taghmon Grave').
Following Cromwell's sack of Wexford town, in October, 1649, the old landed gentry and their families throughout Forth and Bargy were dispossessed in favour of the Roundhead planters. William Hore of Harperstown, with his cousin, Philip Hore from Polehore, the Furlongs and others made a last rally at Lambstown on 5 October 1650, in a vain attempt to recover their properties. This was the last battle fought in Co. Wexford between the Confederates and the Cromwellians. At a spot still known as 'Bloody Gap', Ireton routed the Confederates and so great was the carnage that the ditches are said to have run red with blood for two days afterwards. Hore was fatally wounded in the battle and died in his castle in Taghmon, according to some reports. In order to be allowed to remain in undisturbed possession of that portion of the estate not already confiscated, Hore's wife and servants averred that he had taken no part in the fight and that had died a natural death in his own bed, as a good Protestant.
There seems to be some confusion in the various records about this alleged occurrence and tradition may have mixed up the event with a later similar happening at the time of the Williamite Wars. Herbert Hore writes that 'the Catholics relate that Hore of Harperstown preserved his estate when Cromwell entered the county by feigning sickness, and shutting himself up in his castle of Taghmon to avoid opposing the Usurper when the Battle of Lambstown was fought'.
Extracts from the book of Survey and Distribution of the Forfeited Estates (in other words, Cromwell's plantation lists) show that William Hore of Harperstown and his heir, Walter Hore, were among those who took part in the Great Rebellion of 1641 and William Hore is included among the forfeiting proprietors afterwards. The strange aspect of the lists, however, is that while they show a 'William Hoare, Irish papist' as forfeiting several hundred acres in Taghmon parish and in Ardenaghmore, the same entries show a 'William Hoare, Protestant' being granted the exact same holdings. Herbert Hore explains this peculiarity by saying that 'there appears to be two William Hoares, contemporaries, one a Protestant and the other a Roman Catholic'.
My suggestion is that the entries relate to the same person, William Hore of Harperstown, who by some means managed to get a regrant of his own lands. The double entries in the Book of Survey and Distribution were merely a stratagem to cover up this unusual occurrence. Hore may well have been able to convince the authorities of his new-found loyalties and thus held on to his ancestral estate-but this reprieve may have been only temporary.
Cromwell himself is said to have stayed for several days at Harperstown House during his 'sightseeing tour' of the county. He is said to have expressed himself very loathe to depart from the place 'on account of the goodness of the water'. This water came from the well, already mentioned, which was situated about 150 yards from the hall door of the house. It was a well of the purest water, built of squared brick, in the shadow of part of the ancient wall of the chapel of ease. Sometime in the early years of the last century, an old silver tankard bearing the Hore arms, crest and motto, was found in this well, where (H. F. Hore states), 'it had been flung during the rebellion (1798) when the mansion of Horetown was ransacked of every article it contained'.
It was in this well, also, that an unfortunate coachman was drowned. It was filled in by the present owner's late father, some years ago.
A Catholic clergyman, Rev Patrick Hore, who is buried in the Protestant Church is, indeed, one of the Harperstown family - before they changed their religion. His remains lie in a vault or grave which is in a secluded position, under a covering, within the church. On one occasion, about 150 years ago, there was an attempt to move the remains of the priest to a position outside the church, but some local prominent Catholics in Taghmon objected and the priest's remains still lies within the church walls.
Richards petitioned for permission to go to Wexford where his family resided 'more especially as he had been bound to leave the house and land to the ancient proprietor (William Hore) on next May Day, under penalty of £500'. So the Hores were restored to their ancient holding.
Writing in 1684, Robert Leigh of Rosegarland mentions the 'handsome large castle' of Harperstown.
During the years that followed the Williamite plantations the Hores intermarried and mingled with the new aristocracy, so that by 1798 we find William Hore, the then proprietor, imbued with some of the rampant Orangeism of the day. A few days before the outbreak of the 1798 Rising, while returning from Wexford one day in the company of Christian Wilson of Scar, Hore, in a drunken fit of 'loyalty' entered the forge of a blacksmith at Waddingtown, charged him with 'making pikes for the rebels' and burned down the smith's house. Even though Hore had the forge rebuilt the following morning as soon as he realised what he had done, the vengeance of the insurgents was swift and sure. Hore was executed on Wexford Bridge together with other Orangemen, after the capture of the town by the pikemen and Harperstown House was ransacked by the insurgents.
His son, Walter, married in 1806 Ellen, the sister of the Earl of Ruthven in Scotland, who inherited the Ruthven estates on the death of her brother in 1860. Thus the name Ruthven was added to Hore. Some descendants of this union still reside in England and Scotland. Walter Hore-Ruthven died in ApriI 1878. at the age of 95, and was the last to reside in Harperstown House. The property then passed into Chancery. Following the setting up of the Irish Land Commission, which assumed charge of such bankrupt estates as Harperstown, part of the demesne and the old ruined manor were purchased by the late Mr. Peter Kelly of Ballyconnick, and this part of the property underwent a further change in ownership some years later when it was bought by Laurence Roche of Little Johnstown. That part of the demesne on which the ruins of Harperstown House stand is owned by the writer's family.
As mentioned earlier, Walter Hore Ruthven was the last of his line to reside at Harperstown. By 1861 the mansion was being advertised for letting, fully furnished. Obviously Walter had moved out by then, to the more secure estate of the Ruthvens at Barncluith, near Hamilton, in Scotland. Although the mansion was advertised for six consecutive weeks there were no takers.
A visitor to Harperstown in 1889 described the mansion as 'a pile of ruins on an eminence.....the building almost roofless..... chimneys fallen......untenanted for many years.....out-offices in decay, some roofless....the garden overrun with weeds. A good deal of the timber on the demesne appears to have been felled. The lower windows are boarded up. The residue of furniture which the last members of the Hore family, who resided here about 14 years ago, had left in Harperstown in the hope of returning some time, was sold about a year ago..... The late Walter Hore was married to a Scottish lady, sister of Lord Ruthven. On the death of Lord Ruthven, Mrs. Hore succeeded him in the title and became Baroness Ruthven......Some ladies of the family, daughters of Walter Hore, still reside in Scotland. The Harperstown property is in the courts and is managed by a receiver, who sets the grazing yearly.'
The deterioration of the house continued apace. Another newspaper report, of 14 September 1889, mentioned that 'some of the windows on the diningroom of the house were wantonly removed and the house left open to strol1ers and others inclined to do mischief'. The report added a touching piece of information: 'Some parties, finding the place open, danced there and were summoned to Taghmon Petty Sessions'. Dancing on the graves of the landlords!
But, even then, Harperstown still exerted an attraction for members of the Hore family. In August 1895, Lord Ruthven, grandson of Walter, arrived at Wexford with his wife and friends on his yacht and travelled out to Harperstown to see the old place. The house, at this time, was 'neglected' and 'dismantled'. The property was still in the Ruthven family and rents were being collected by the Ruthven agent. According to a report in 'The People' ,Wexford, of 18 November 1905, trustees appointed to administer the estate had been instructed to sell Harperstown to the tenants but the prices offered were deemed insufficient. About that time, also, a London paper reported that Lord Ruthven intended to sell his property at Barncluith, near Hamilton in Lanarkshire, and to take up residence on his Wexford estate (Harperstown). At the time ,however, the house at Harperstown had been in ruins for about 16 years and the estate was being denuded of its fine woods.
'The People ',of 13 October 1917, referred to further tree felling there: 'For some weeks past, the fine old demesne of Harperstown is being dismantled of its timber'.
The trees were sold for £500 and were taken on lorries to Wexford for export. A short time later the mansion itself was sold, even though in ruins. The fine granite porch was bought for £5 by Loftus of Balmagir and still adorns Ballymagir House. Thirty granite window- sills were sold for £15, while marble mantle-pieces, brass fire-grates and pitch-pine doors were sold for small sums.
In 'The People' newspaper in June 1865, a letter was published
under the headline 'GOOD AND BAD LANDLORDS' as follows:
'Dear Sir, - I was much pleased to see in your last issue, an account of
the greeting given by his tenantry to the Hon. Hore Ruthven, on his
return to Harperstown, his seat in the county, and also an account of
the kind manner in which he so hospitably entertained them. Such
mutual esteem and kindly feeling between landlord and tenant is of
rare occurrence; it is an oasis in the desert of persecution..........Many
an honest man is rack-rented to death, in this county, and when he can
pay no more, he must then emigrate or go to the Workhouse........
Where is the justice and fair play of that mode of proceeding? I
believe the Hon. Mr. Hore Ruthven is an excellent landlord, but there
is a hero of a landlord not one hundred miles from Bannow, who is not
inclined to let his tenants rest on beds of roses..........Your
correspondent forgot to give you a copy of some stanzas delivered
impromptu by a native bard, at the banquet given by the Hon. Mr.
Hore to his tenants. I beg leave to supply the deficiency and hope you
will "prent em".'
The nineteenth of June sixty-five, I may truly say,
When Mr. Hore came back to Harperstown 'twas a joyful day;
The people were delighted at his safe return,
For many in his absence, had reason to mourn.
We welcomed him with bonfires to manifest our joy,
And all the troubles of the past, endeavoured to destroy;
The blazing of our fires on his mansion-house did show,
While numerous crowds of people to see him they did go.
He always loved his neighbours and his tenants did let live,(!)
He wished to have them happy, and good means to them did give,
He delights to see them flourish, a rare thing to be found,
He is a model to the landlords of the county all around.
Now we have him safe again upon his native shore,
Long may he live amongst us, beloved as before;
To walk the greens of Harperstown, to enjoy its wholesome air,
To recreate amongst its groves and beauteous valleys fair.'
Such is the history of Harperstown from the 12th century to the present. Looking at those grey, grim walls on the hill, who can fail to feel the past creeping in around him?
Here walked Norman settler and Irish clansmen, soldiers, farmers, nobles and peasants; battles were waged around those walls and blood was shed for those broad acres. Cromwell stayed here and the shadows of kings darkened its portals. Even murder was done within those walls.
Is it any wonder then that the grey stones seem sunk in solemn brooding on the dim and distant past?
Much of this article originally appeared in 'The People', 19 December 1953, under the title 'House of Death'.