The River Shannon at Castleconnell, Coolbawn & Shanacloon

by Paddy Tuohy

It would be impossible to write about Castleconnell or its houses without mentioning the River Shannon.

70,000 years ago Ireland was covered in an ice sheet three miles in thickness.  It was the third last great ice age and as it began to melt, the land underneath the ice sheet was relieved of its weight and began to rise up and the subsequent thaw water pushed south wards with ice floes three miles thick. It pushed its way through Athlone, Bannagher and Portumna, blocked at Scariff with a dam of ice and stones and the Aughty Mountains it turned south gouging and etching its way its way through Killaloe, O Briens Bridge and Castleconnell to create the falls of Doonass leaving deposits of sand and shale among the large boulders. Finally pushing its majestic way to enter the Atlantic between Loop Head and Kerry Head. It was the birth of the Shannon which drained one fifth of the whole country.

When the last great ice age melted 10,000 years ago, a nomadic people came, following the food, they lived in the region which is now Hermitage where their Mesolithic burial chambers have being located. It was an ideal spawning ground for the big wild Atlantic salmon. Ever since it has attracted people from all over the world to come and fish for those silver creatures. The river has been the pulse of Castleconnell ever since, During the latter part of the nineteenth century and during the first half of the twentieth century the river attracted large number of wealthy visitors from abroad to fish its waters. A spin off of attendant industries developed here —- a rod making factory making the famous Enright greenheart rod. A small boat building factory owned by the O Connor family. Boatmen and gillies and fishermen all made substantial livelihoods from its fertile waters  

New hotels—  The Commercial Hotel, The Railway Hotel, the Shannon Hotel and the Temperance Hotel  opened in Castleconnell  to cater for the large influx of visiting anglers. Huge numbers of big fish of thirty pounds or more were recorded. The river had about seventy pools with different names where the big fish rested and lurked, many of those pools are totally gone now and only a few remain. They all had names some names were apt and explanatory, other names were in Gaelic and others had very obscure names. The terminology associated with fishing was peculiar the term such as I was “In” a fish at the Bush hole or at the Old Weir was quite common. The salmon spawned in the spawning beds of the Shannon and its tributaries during the Winter months, then returned to the Atlantic where it matured and as big powerful silver creatures returned to the place where it had been spawned.

The eel was the next fish in importance to enhance the economy of Castleconnell. Its life cycle  which was enigmatic and mysterious was in direct contrast to that of the salmon, It was spawned in the Saragossa sea—a huge sea enclosed by the Gulf stream in the Gulf of Mexico that sea is static with massive growth of vegetation, when the spawn is born it cannot be seen  with the naked eye. Huge numbers fall victim to sharks and whales. In five years they develop to the size of an earth worm known as elvers and push themselves with great vigour across the Atlantic to the Shannon and then to the big lakes on the Shannon to the place from whence their parents left six years before. I have seen them many, many times in the 1940s and 50s as black bands stretching half way across the river in their millions powering their way upstream. Whatever great force directed their journeys? They were commercially harvested at Castleconnell with weirs like scaffold poles across the river and shipped to Billingsgate. Ever before they were commercially harvested in the region, the people of the riverside had an ingenious system of catching  using a wicker basket about eight feet long shaped wide at the opening and tapering until it became like the heel and toe of a stocking which was then baited, when the eels entered they were unable to return. Those eels were sold locally and to the fish shops of Limerick.  A stream which divided our land in Gouig from Murphy’s and each Winter Paddy and Mickey Murphy and my father shovelled and cleaned that stream. They were strong men and shovelled many eels on to the bank I brought them home to my mother who fried them in a pan , they were an oily fish and could be fried without dripping or suit and the oil extracted from them was supposed to cure deafness and ailments of the ear. The eel skin was supposed to be a cure for varicose veins.

There was a certain taboo about eating eels because of their similarity to the serpent in the Garden of Eden who tempted Adam to sin. The eel also ate the carrion of the fresh water, drowned dogs, drowned ponies and drowned cattle they were the sterilisers of the river and its lakes.

The harnessing of the great Shannon started three years after the Civil War, it was a mammoth task for our fledging government. It was the biggest engineering undertaking in the whole world at that time.

Then fill your glasses dear lads and lassies ,

All creeds and classes of the Irish name

And toast the Statesmen

Those wise and great men

Who boldly tackled the Shannon Scheme

Over two thirds of the water was diverted from Castleconnell to turn the turbines at Ard Na Crusha.  The high water days and the Castleconnell big salmon were finished and the great river dwindled, the once clean channel  now growing trees, sallies and shrubs is  unable to take the great volume of water that poured through it for thousands of years.

The waters where he plied his craft are gone as he is gone,

Shrunken, dispirited and maimed The Great Shannon stumbles on,

But through the gates of memory the great, great waters roll

And master Earnest in a fish down by the dancing hole.

In the mid- 18th century and in the aftermath of the Siege of Limerick, the signing of the treaty and the flight of the Wild Geese, Castleconnell enjoyed a great building boom with the erection of many fine Georgian houses in the locality—- most of them built on or close to the great Shannon. They were all splendid and beautiful dwellings and in close proximity to each other while still retaining their own distinctive features and spacious private grounds. The houses fringing the river had the added advantage of the river scenery coupled with salmon fishing rights on some of the richest salmon waters in the world. There were about twenty such houses on both banks of the Shannon from Annacotty to the World’s End all owned by the Protestant Ascendancy privileged class. They further enhanced the rugged grandeur of the place by the planting of broad leaved trees such as oak, elm, and beech. Many of those trees are still in existence to this day

Who planted all those lovely trees that we admire each day,

The mighty oaks and towering beeches that in the west wind sway

A man of vision who loved his land, of that there is no doubt.

He must have known so long ago that generations would enjoy,

The fruits of all his care and work when he had to bid it all good bye.

What little thought we give to him, we take for granted all we see,

If only we would pause and think we would see him too when we admired a tree”

Lines from a poem by Paddy Shyne “SWEET WOODLANDS

Two such houses which fringed the river were Coolbawn House and Lower Coolbawn House which we now know as Shanacloon meaning old meadow.

Coolbawn was built in the early 1800s and was occupied by a family of Dutch origin called Vannsittart and  in the mid 1800s, Captain Spencer Vansittart lived in it and when he died there in 1902 his son Spencer Charles took occupancy and resided there until he died in 1928.The census returns of 1901 show while the father was alive there were twenty one rooms in the house whereas the census of 1911 when the son was in charge there were thirty rooms in the house and thirteen out offices or farm buildings attached to the enclosure. The son married Matilda  Issabella Massey daughter of the 6th Baron Massey of Duntrileague. Those strong families always stuck together [ birds of a feather] 

The local papers of the time gave plenty of coverage to the Vannsittarts and the parties and fetes which were held at Coolbawn. Captain Spencer was a great sporting personality and was very much involved with the Castleconnell Regatta in the second half of the 19th century. At Coolbawn they entertained on a lavish scale and in the year 1868 George Peabody an American philanthropist was a guest there when he was approached by Father Pat Hennessey and he obtained the church railings and gates which are still to the good to this day. At another occasion the guests included at a party 350 children from the Mountshannon and Castleconnell schools. A report of the function tells us “the elite of the neighbourhood were also invited and entered thoroughly into the spirit of the evening” When Captain Spencer  died in 1902 the account of his funeral filled about five columns of the local paper. He was taken from his home to Castleconnell railway station for conveyance to Kent where internment took place. The names of all the people who attended the removal from his home were published starting with the rich and mighty all by name Lord Bishop, Justice of the Peace doctors and colonels and the last sentence of the report says there was also a very large attendance of labourers from the district. The quotes are not very informative but they give a flavour of the cleavage that was perceived to exist between the ascendancy and the rank and file.

A Hodgins family was in occupation during the 1940s, it was run as a hotel by Mrs. Hodgins and her daughter Adza. She also gave Christmas parties to local school children and I was fortunate as a small lad to attend those parties where we were shown films for the first time in my life.

The next owner in the 1950s was an American called Jacklin who continued to run it as a hotel. The government purchased it in 1958 and decided to open an Irish college but while it was been decorated it was accidentally burned to the ground. Then the Bird family of Birds Amusements purchased it and had big sheds built where the house once stood to store their equipment during the Winter months.

Coolbawn had its brush with troubled times, it was used on two separate occasions to billet soldiers. In 1922 through the duration of the Civil War until it finished in 1923.  In the Summer of 1922 when the anti treaty soldiers held sway in Limerick , Michael Collins visited Coolbawn and gave a pep talk to the troops who marched into Limerick under the command of Brigadier Timothy Murphy,  a Castleconnell man and the anti treaty troops were routed from Limerick and they retreated to Kilmallock. During the Emergency of the 2nd World War all the great houses in the region were used to billet members of the 12th battalion Coolbawn was used as the headquarters of the 12th battalion of the Irish army.

I should mention a sad incident which took place at Coolbawn during the Civil War, a man from Murroe was drinking all the afternoon and then decided to have a meal , but he had no money to pay for it, the owner called the army who were billeted at Coolbawn. There were no police at the time because the R.I.C. had been disbanded and the Garda Siochána were not yet in place. The man was arrested and taken to Coolbawn and held, during the night he escaped and was running down the avenue when he was shot dead by a sentry. There was no enquiry into his death at the time because of the war, it was mentioned that his ghost was seen around the big house until it was burned. The man’s name was Victor Meaney

To write about Shanacloon House [meaning old meadow] I could not find any reference whatsoever to the name in the Census returns of 1901 and 1911. It was called Lower Coolbawn and it contained 19 rooms and two out offices so it would have been smaller than Coolbawn.

The most noted resident of Shanacloon was William Edward Corbett, Limerick city Engineer, he designed and superintended the construction of Castleconnell church .The church which dominates the centre of the village, is gothic in design, its flawless stonework, its beautiful executed gothic arches and spires and the sheerness of the high pitch slated roof is an enduring monument to the skill and taste of William Corbett. His collection of the rarest foreign and Irish birds and falcons was said to be the largest in Ireland. He left his mark in the design and supervision of many buildings and churches in Limerick city and county and of Birdhill church he died in 1904 and is interred at Mount Saint cemetery, portrait of him hangs in the council chamber of Limerick Corporation.

Other residents were Standish DeCoursey O Grady followed by a family called Perry.

It was taken over by the army’s 12th battalion during the Emergency and it was used as the headquarters of the intelligence wing of the army. It was the time when communications had to be by coded letters entrusted to riders on noisy motor cycles. My aunt Lena had a shop directly across the road from the entrance and I as a very small lad have memories of those bikes going to and fro to that house. The army departed and a Mrs Bourke purchased it and resided there for many years. It is now owned by the MacCurtain family. Of the twenty odd houses which adorned both banks of the Shannon from Annacotty to the World’s End, many are totally gone some are in ruins while others are still occupied but for a different purpose, than for what they were originally built, but Shannacloon is still used for the same purpose for which it was constructed all those years ago.

The Cromellian land settlements established the Protestant Ascendancy ruling class in Ireland for the next 250 years. They were famous for beautiful demesnes, magnificent houses and extravagant lifestyles. The decline of the Ascendancy commenced around the beginning of the 20th century. There are many reasons,  The Land Acts, the deaths of many of the younger male generation during the 1st World War and the ever increasing demand for home rule.  Since our Independence in 1921 there has been a tendency to portray the impact of the Protestant Ascendancy on Irish history in a negative light. However it is true that the Protestant Ascendancy gave us people such as Isaac Butte, Henry Grattan, Thomas Davis, Robert Emmet, Theobald Wolfe Tone, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, Charles Stuart Parnell, Roger Casement, Countess Markiewitch, Robert Barton and others who played significant roles in promoting the cause of Irish Independence even in some cases at the cost of their own lives. They gave us giants of literature and culture such as Johnathan Swift, Edmond Bourke, Oliver Goldsmith, Oscar Wilde, Percy French, Yeats, Shaw, John Millington Synge, and Lady Gregory. The first President and founder of the Gaelic League Douglas Hyde and the fourth President Erskine Childers also came from the Protestant Ascendancy families. They were an important part in the fabric of Castleconnell and its hinterland during the 19th and the first half of the 20th century.

And the river’s song as it rolls along

While the evening Shadows creep

Is shattered by a mighty splash

As the salmon springs from the swirling deep.

With the faintest breeze, the rustling leaves,

And the Shannon‘s old- old song

Gives a feeling rare that you passed this way

In another age—- in a time now gone.

Paddy Shyne