³Gone are the old folk, the house stands deserted²

Not to be confused with ³This ŒOle House², a song made famous by the late Rosemary Clooney (aunt of George) in the 1950s and revived by Shakin Stevens in the early Eighties, ³The Old House² by Sir Frederick O¹Connor is a recollection of his childhood at Baltrasna House, near Oldcastle, writes Liam O¹Rourke.

For many years, Baltrasna House was the ancestral home of the O’Reilly family, a branch of the famous O’Reilly of Breffni whose sphere of influence spread as far south as Loughcrew in the 15th century, while the lands to the south of Loughcrew were under the control of the Plunketts.

Baltrasna House and Estate were in the control of the O’Reilly family and latter through marriage the O’Connor’s until the early 20th century. The house is over two hundred years old and built in the longhouse design and replaced an old castle that was a short distance away from the current house.

Shortly after the Battle of the Boyne, John O’Reilly, who had a distinguished military career acquired Baltrasna estate. John was the son of the great Cavan folk heroes, Myles ‘The Slasher’ O’Reilly who died defending the bridge of Finea in 1644.

Myles’ father Edmund O’Reilly from Kilnacrott was the last member of the O’Reilly clan to hold the title of “O’Raghallaigh” before Breffni was shired in 1584 and became County Cavan. Edmund was killed in Cavan town in 1601.

John O’Reilly or John Reilly (he was said to be the first member of the O’Reilly clan to drop the prefix ‘O’) was elected a knight for the county of Cavan in May 1689. He raised a regiment of dragoons for King James II and served in the Jacobite army in the war against King William of Orange, fighting at the siege of Derry and the Battles of Aughrim and the Boyne.

John Reilly was one of three individuals mentioned in the military articles connected with the Treaty of Limerick that was signed on October 3, 1691 and was allowed to keep his lands. By and large the Williamite side stood by the military articles, but it was their failure to comply with the civil articles that led to led to the accusation that the treaty was broken before the ink was dry.

In 1718, Thomas O’Reilly succeeded his father as master of the estate, His son James later became a Protestant in order to retain control of his property. Another son of Thomas’, Alexander (born in 1722) made a name for himself in Spain, fighting with the Irish Brigade having previously fought with the French and Austrian armies.

He graduated to the rank of Field Marshall and later became Governor of Madrid, Captain General of Andalucia and Governor Cadiz. Alexander merited a mention in Byron’s poem “Don Juan”.
“Was is for this that General Count O’Reilly, who took Algiers, declared I used him vilely?”. Byron also wrote “General Count O’Reilly did not take Algiers, Algiers took him”. Alexander O’Reilly was humiliated by his failure to take Algiers in 1775.

Six years earlier he set sail for New Orleans with a strong military force to quell a revolt. His affability allowed him ingratiate himself to the rebels and after inviting them to a reception, he promptly had them arrested. Five were executed and the rest were jailed in Havana.

As Governor of Louisiana, Alexander was regarded as enlightened and liberal and shortly before his death in 1794, paid a 1000 guineas to a genealogist to set out his pedigree. According to one account Alexander also held an unfulfilled ambition to return to Baltrasna with one of his regiments to deal with his brother James for abandoning his Catholic faith.

The O’Reilly’s of Baltrasna also made their mark in Cuba and acquired the title of Counts of Castillo and Marquis of San Felipe y Santiago. One of the major streets in Havana - the Calle Orely – is derived from the surname, O’Reilly. In addition, streets in Madrid, Barcelona and Cadiz bear the family name.

One of Alexander’s descendents, Robert Maitland O’Reilly (1845-1912) was surgeon general in the US Army from 1902 to 1909 and was also personal physician to President Grover Cleveland, who served two separate terms as President of the USA.

The saying “the life of Reilly” is believed to have its origin in the 15th century practice the family had of making their own coinage by ‘clipping’ English coins, something that was later outlawed. On the other hand someone who was financially challenged ‘hadn’t a Reilly to his name”.

In the early 19th century the O’Reilly’s of Baltrasna House fell into financial difficulties and mortgaged the estate to Jews. When the O’Reilly’s failed to keep up with the repayments they were dispossessed.

However, the new owners were despised by their tenants and were terrorized by the Ribbon Men, a secret society that was active in pre-Famine times, that specialized in making life difficult for notorious landlords. The upshot of all this was that Anthony O’Reilly was reinstated at Baltrasna and continued to reside there until his death aged 62 in 1874.

Anthony planted a tree for each of his seven daughters along the main avenue to the house. With the death of his only son, James, the family name at Baltrasna died with him. Anthony’s eldest daughter, Harriet Georgina (born 1841) married Matthew Richard Weld O’Connor in 1865. O’Connor was the son of the Rev. George O’Connor, Vice-Choral of Cloyne and Rector of Castleknock, County Dublin.
Harriet’s husband was an unscrupulous land agent and hated by the tenants at Baltrasna to whom he showed no mercy in his dealings with them. Rents were very high on the estate in an effort to lessen the debts.

Another member of the O’Connor family, Frederick, wrote about his childhood home in the “The Old House”. Sung to the air of the popular Welsh song, “The Ash Grove”, it was part of John McCormack’s repertoire and he even sung it at his farewell concert at the Royal Albert Hall.

The Old House
Lonely I wander, through scenes of my childhood,
They bring back to memory those happy days of yore,
Gone are the old folk, the house stands deserted,
No light in the window, no welcome at the door.
Here’s where the children played games on the heather,
Here’s where they sailed wee boats on the burn,
Where are they now? Some are dead, some have wandered,
No more to their home shall those children return.
Lone stands the house now, and lonely the mooreland,
The children have scattered, the old folk are gone.
Why stand I here, like a ghost and a shadow.
‘Tis time I was moving, ‘tis time I passed on.

Frederick had a successful career in the British Army and was later knighted. The advent of the 20th century brought huge changes in terms of land distribution and ownership in Ireland and Baltrasna was no different.

A family called Murdock bought the land in the early years of the new century and remained there until after the Second World War. A Mrs. Crocker took possession in 1946 and promptly sold off much of the estate. In the 1950s the Land Commission subdivided much of the estate.

Taken from Royal County
December 2004