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The Henn Family of Paradise, County Clare, Ireland

Part 6: “Some Memories of a Paradise Lost” by Francis Robert Henn
Article printed in ‘The Ballynacally and Lissycasey Parish Magazine’, 1994.

The Avenue to Paradise House, 1938
The Avenue to Paradise House, 1938

In the summers before the outbreak of war in 1939 my brother William (who died in 1978), my sister Margaret and I, all then at boarding school in England, used to come to Paradise with our parents for the school summer holidays. My father, ‘the Colonel,’ and my mother (daughter of Thomas Stacpoole-Mahon of Corbally and grand daughter of 14th Baron Inchiquin of Dromoland), lived in Egypt, where he was Commandant of the Alexandria City Police, until 1937, when he returned to England on his appointment as Chief Constable of Gloucestershire. (He died in 1964 and she in 1981). My father, as the eldest son, had inherited Paradise in 1915 on the death of his father, Francis Blackburne Henn, whose widow Helen (daughter of Colonel Francis Gore of Woodlawn, Knock – and our grandmother) continued to live in Paradise House until her death in 1936.

Paradise House, 1936
Paradise House, 1936

My memories of those wonderful pre-war summer holidays at Paradise begin at Rosslare, where after a crossing on the night ferry from Fishguard we boarded the train for Limerick. There we changed to the train which to our growing excitement slowly wended its way through Cratloe, Sixmilebridge, Ardsollus and Quin and Clarecastle to Ennis. We would be met by Martin Daly from Paradise with a horse and cart to take all our luggage (and there always seemed to be mountains of this) and by a Ford motor car which my father customarily hired for the holidays from Mr. Shiels in Ennis. Then came the drive out to Paradise along a very dusty road (in those days it had not been sealed), with excitement reaching a climax as we approached Ballycorick bridge and caught the first sight of the majestic woods (alas, now much depleted) surmounting the Turret Hill above Paradise. Next on past the forge, Dangan Castle (we would look to see if that top piece, which is still there today, had fallen down), through an unchanged Ballynacally, to turn in past the Lodge up the Paradise avenue, through the white iron gates near the house and round to the front to see once again that beautiful panoramic view over the Fergus and islands to the Shannon, which some say gave Paradise its name …..

Family 1936
Sisters Geraldine Henn and Hester Mathews with their children on the steps of Paradise, Summer 1938. (L-R)
Geraldine Matthews; Geraldine Henn (née Mahon); Frank Henn (author); Margaret Henn; Michael Matthews; Hester Matthews (née Mahon).

Waiting on the front steps would be our grandmother, together with Agnes and Mary Reddan, the two wonderfully loyal sisters who looked after her until she died. It was always a very happy home-coming marked by deep affection on all sides. Our grandmother, invariably in long black dress, was a rather remote but kindly figure to us children; from time to time she would take us along to her storeroom, near the great kitchen, which she unlocked with a key from a bunch hanging on a belt around her waist, and then handed out to each of us a few sweets. I remember her, too, when walking outside (always wearing a large hat), having a walking-stick with a small steel hoe on its end with which she dug at any weeds appearing on the gravel at the front of the house or the paths leading down to the garden.

Agnes, whom all the family adored, was maid of all work in the house – always cheerful, however busy, and always treated as a friend. Dressed neatly in black with white apron and cap, she waited at table in the dining-room, to which we would be summoned by the ringing of a large deep-sounding brass gong in the hall (sometimes it was sounded outside if we were down at the boathouse or elsewhere). With a twinkle in her eye, she would urge us at table to another helping. Her sister Mary, a buxom figure, was the cook. She never left anyone in doubt as to who ruled in her big kitchen with its old-fashioned range, and we children went in some awe of her, as I think did most others. But we all loved her too, for like Agnes she was very much one of the family and radiated cheerfulness. Life for both must have been hard – there was no electricity at Paradise then (candles and lamps at night made for extra work), the supply of running water was primitive (cans of hot water and jugs of cold had to be carried up to bedrooms, and the one and only bath to be filled by cans of hot water), heating depended on log and turf fires, and food had to be carried up a long corridor from the kitchen to the dining room. On their days off Agnes and Mary bicycled to Ballynacally and even as far as Ennis, and on Sundays to Mass at Ballycorick.

By today’s standards life at Paradise then was Spartan indeed – no telephone, no radio (nor of course, TV), letters and newspapers irregular (sometimes these were picked up in Ennis), but for us children it all made life in that lovely place a true Paradise. Although occasionally we were taken to visit other families elsewhere in Clare or they came to tea at Paradise (if fine, on the terrace at the front of the house, where peacocks roamed and occasionally shrieked), I myself never was happier than when enjoying the company of those who lived and worked at Paradise.

Pre-eminent among these were the brothers Martin and Paddy Daly. Paddy tended with great devotion the large walled garden (which has long since reverted to nature), and each day he would bring up to the kitchen fruit, vegetables and flowers for the house. How alone he managed all the hard physical work involved without the modern tools and equipment available today I shall never know. But I remember him so well, advising us where to find the ripest raspberries or gooseberries or grapes (in the vine-house), when we went to his cherished garden. When visitors came to tea at Paradise, they would be invited to stroll down to admire the garden, in those days still a lovely sight. I can still see Paddy at the end of the day trudging back beside the stream through the Shrubbery wood and across a field that we knew as ‘the short cut’ to his cottage just outside Ballynacally where he lived alone – a loveable, loyal and hardworking man.

Martin, who was married but whose wife sadly died at an early age, took general charge of the farm and estate, replacing a man named Hayes who (I think) was not from Clare and was not very popular. Martin was helped by John McAuley, and work for them too was physically hard – such as cutting up trees with a two-handed cross-saw and, helped by Paddy, mowing the lawns by Paradise House with scythes – no mowing machines then! They would come to the house early each morning, where in the smoking room (which served as a study and gun room, the weapons being stored in a wall cabinet) my father would discuss with them the work for the day. (Another small room in the house held all the fishing gear – rods for salmon, trout and sea fishing hanging alongside landing nets and other equipment on hooks along the walls, fishing reels of all sizes on shelves or in drawers and a cabinet full of fly-tying gear, such as hooks, feathers, silk threads and so on.)

When Mr. Hayes ceased to be employed, Martin and his family, which included two children – Paddy and Kathleen, moved into the farmhouse on Paradise Hill. The young Paddy (who was about my own age - in due course he had a distinguished career in the Gardaí) carried out various errands around the place; a regular task was to carry up from a spring-fed well in the woods near the boathouse enamel pails, balanced on a wooden shoulder-yoke, of delicious cool water for drinking. (Where is that well today? A few years ago I failed to find it in the dense overgrown woods). Another task that he or others carried out was to bring fresh milk, cream, butter and eggs down from the farmyard to the house; sometimes we watched in the dairy as the cows were milked and the butter and cream made by hand – their taste a distinct memory.

Occasionally the young Paddy and I would go rabbit-shooting together, both around Paradise itself and out to the islands, especially Shore Island, which teemed with them. I think that he was not always entirely confident in a boat (memory suggests that he was not then able to swim), but this never prevented him from keeping me company on such adventures. The boat, named ‘Teal’, had been built at Athlone to the same design as one named ‘Widgeon’, in which as a boy my father before the outbreak of war in 1914 had sailed around the islands and even as far up the Fergus as Latoon bridge. Both were open boats of some 18 feet in length, with iron centre-boards that could be raised in shallow waters; tidal conditions often made this necessary. Neither boat had a motor and, if the wind did not serve, we had to row, so we quickly came to understand the tides and how best to use these to advantage.

I inherited my father’s love of sailing, and spent much of my time sailing ‘Teal’ around Deer, Coney, Shore and other islands, up Ballynacally and Ballycorick Creeks on high tides, down to Kildysart quay (for the annual regatta), and even across to Foynes Island. On one expedition to Foynes, when my sister Margaret was with me, we found the flying-boat ‘Caledonia’ being prepared for one of the trans-Atlantic flights then being tested. We were invited on board and explored all over the aircraft, taking a number of photographs, copies of which I recently gave to the Flying-Boat Museum at Foynes.

But there were always many other things to do at Paradise. My father, a keen and expert fly-fisherman (he was also a big-game fisherman and once caught on rod and line a 707lb tunney fish in the North Sea), spent most of his days trying his luck on various lakes, such as Gortglass and Efferman, or, depending on conditions, on the river at Clondegad or elsewhere, while (less ambitiously) we fished with worms the pools on the Paradise Shrubbery stream or the Ballynacally river (sometimes setting night lines, which seemed only to catch eels). Other activities included waiting for pigeon to come in at dusk to two woods above Shore Island that we knew as the Round Wood and Uncle Willie’s Wood (I once saw my father kill two with a brilliant right and left from his 12-bore gun), helping to stack oat sheaves or to save the hay in the meadow near the farmyard (always a popular business – not least riding back to the barn on top of the hay-cart), blackberrying (for delicious pies made by Mary), and lending a hand during the bringing down from the bog (near Lissycasey, I think) of the large quantities of turf needed to warm the house during the winter. This turf, together with logs from the Paradise woods, was stored in the large turf-house in the Outer Yard (which following the sale of Paradise in 1960 was converted, not very successfully, by the new owners into an indoor swimming pool!). The coach-house and wall-built stables also in the Outer Yard were empty except for the old family coach and a side-car that was still used; we would explore these and the harness-room, the groom’s room and the lofts above – all also by then empty and somewhat forlorn, for the decline of Paradise had already begun.

There was so much to keep us happy at Paradise that we never hankered to leave the lovely place. Nevertheless, each summer we would all climb into the Ford with picnic baskets, shrimping nets and bathing gear for a day at Spanish Point. There we would swim in the surf (having lived in Egypt we were all strong swimmers), play on the all but deserted strand, and – if the tides were right – look for crabs and lobsters in the rocks and for shrimps in the pools. Some years the family rented The Retreat, then a thatched cottage close to the sea, for a week or so, when other activities were possible, such as visits to ‘the Puffing Hole,’ the Cliffs of Moher, Miltown and Quilty and fishing for pollock from the rocks.

Back in Paradise there were other delights – walking through the beautiful woods and along the corcass banks watching the multitude of wild birdlife – widgeon, curlew and redshank especially – and listening to their lovely cries as they busily fed on the mud-banks uncovered by the falling tide. There was a donkey to ride (we also hitched it up to an old invalid’s bath-chair and careered around the paths on it) and a pony too; these necessitated occasional visits to the Ballycorick forge, where we watched in admiration the work of Mr. Sullivan, the blacksmith, whose family served the Henns of Paradise for many years. Then came the apple harvest, when the trees in the huge orchard just below Paradise House were laden down with apples of many varieties. We helped pick these and bring them back by cart to the House, where they were stored in a building in the Inner Flag Yard.

These memories of happy bygone days must not omit mention of others who contributed so much to them. Miss Hannon, who lived in a cottage on Paradise Hill, was a friend of the family, especially its female members for whom she made dresses. John McAuley was an able assistant to Martin Daly and enthusiastically entered into many of our activities, including rabbit-shooting expeditions to Shore Island. He in due course married Agnes Reddan, and they lived in a cottage on Paradise Hill, passed on to their daughter Peggie, who with her husband Robbie Molloy and their two boys, still retain it. Agnes’s sister Mary became Mrs. Doohan and lived with her husband at Decomade, Lissycasey. Sadly Agnes and Mary and both husbands are all now dead, and with them has passed the last close link of life at Paradise as lived by the Henn family. Nonetheless, some connections with those days still remain, such as Martin Daly’s daughter, Kathleen, married to Patrick Cleary and living and farming on Paradise Hill.

The only part of Paradise still in the ownership of the Henn family is the private graveyard, consecrated in 1887. In it lie several members of the family and scattered there are the ashes of my father and mother, to whose memories plaques have been placed in the wall. It is situated in a most beautiful, calm and peaceful spot looking out over the estuaries of the Fergus and Shannon. Through the kindness of John McAuley (until his death) and now Simon Loughnane, who is another of those living in Paradise Hill, it is kept tidy, and there has been no shortage of kind people from Ballynacally volunteering help if needed. We of the Henn family of today are deeply grateful for this and long may it continue, for Henns – Anglo-Irish though they may be – lived at Paradise for over 300 years and took the people and the place to their hearts. Never ‘absentee landlords’ – and despite the privileges of life in ‘the big house’ – they always identified with and felt great affection for those who served them so faithfully and amongst whom they lived and looked upon as friends.

I have always been grateful for a boyhood spent in such an idyllic place – truly Paradise – among such lovely people. The loss of the place to us Henns who knew it of old is immeasurably sad. With the passing of that old Paradise and all those who made it what it was, perhaps the good people of Ballynacally and surrounding areas have lost something of value too.

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