Downings House - A House of Legacy
Written by Dr. Andrew Rynne
An old Georgian house called Downings House is situated down a long laneway just off the R403 across from the grounds of Caragh Gaa. Quite a lot of people may not realise that the house that is there now is actually not the original house. As this story is told, you will find out what happened to the original house and why a new one was built. At the time of writing, we are not 100% certain of an exact time when the house was built, but it was certainly there during the time of Robert Brook, founder of the village of Prosperous in 1780 and in all probability was built around then. Before Downing was called “Downings”, on Taylor and Skinner’s map 1777, it’s called Donneinge. Scholars believe this to be a derivation from the Irish name for small forts which is Na Dunaibh. That being so it is reasonable to assume that this fertile area, in the heartlands of Kildare, has long been peopled and been a centre of human activity necessitating some fortification from intruders.
The legacy of Downings House is one of the most interesting stories in Prosperous. Healy’s Bridge over the Grand Canal between Downings Cross and Mylerstown was actually called Bonynge Bridge originally. If you go down to the canal bank and look up at the face of the bridge, you can see the old plaque that says “Bonynge Bridge 1784.” The Bonynges lived in Downings House and Alice Bonynge, by then widowed, lived there at the time of The Battle of Prosperous in 1798. In the State Papers it is recorded, “Jane Davis (Prosperous) and Thomas Williams, late captain of the 120th Regiment of foot swore that on the 24th of May, 1798, several persons armed in diverse ways, came to Downings House looking for Henry Stamer, Magistrate for Kildare (and a landlord in the village). Having eventually found him, dressed in women’s attire as a dairy maid, they took him away and his dead boy was eventually found.”
In fact folk tradition has it that he was piked to death in what is now known as “Stamers Vault”, an underground vaulted room, twenty yards from the front door of the existing house and very likely, the dairy parlour of the original Downings House. It was even claimed that a dairy maid working there at the time identified and pointed out Stamers to the rebels out of fear for her life. His disguise as a milk maid didn’t seem to have worked out very well!
After burning out the barracks at Prosperous and succeeding in defeating the Cork Militia and Welsh Fencibles (Ancient Britons) the rebels of 1798 were in high spirits. A branch of these rebels under the leadership of a Mr. Dunn, a rebel Clane Yeoman, had earlier sought out Stamer in local shopkeeper Thomas Davis’ house in Prosperous where he was known to stay from time to time. It was there that they learned of his hiding with Alice Bonynge in Downings House and it was in pursuit of Stamer that led them to the house which they later burned down having first dispatched with Mr. Stamer. In fact Alice Bonynge was herself lucky to escape on that night and was forced to beat a very hasty retreat. Again folk tradition tell us that, “Looking over her shoulder as she crossed the canal at Landenstown Bridge on her way to Sallins, she saw in the distance Downings House on fire”. The distance from Downings House to Landenstown Bridge is 4km. It was in fact burned to the ground, the charred remains toppling into the basement below, some of which basement, including Stamer’s Vault, exists to this day.
Four years later, in 1802, Alice Bonynge (nee Johnson of Dublin) widow of Robert Bonynge (Killybegs) who died in 1797, remarried to Charles Bury, himself a widower with several children and this couple settled back back into the new Downings House, rebuilt out of compensation monies granted by Grattan’s Parliament. This new Downings House was, for all practical purposes, a fortified dwelling. Iron bars were fixed to all the basement windows. The first floor is kept out of reach by a dry moat. All doors and windows are provided with double draw bars inside sturdy shutters. It was a classic example of “shutting the stable doors when the horse bolted”. And not just that. To crown it all, the house has a secret passage - an underground tunnel about seventy yards long, seven feet high and eight feet across which leads you out to the middle of the woods. If the likes of Mr. Dunn from Clane and his marauding rebels were to come again, this time the occupants of Downings House would be ready for them and there would be a better chance of escape for future Henry Stamers rather than dressing themselves up as dairy maids!
But they never did come again. The 1798 Rebellion, though glorious in Prosperous, was quickly quelled throughout the rest of the country and the next hundred years saw, more or less, peace and quiet for Downings House and it’s occupants. Local stories used to claim that a tunnel from Downings House used to bring you as far as the village of Prosperous, near the Parochial House but we know now that this is definitely not true. In all probability, people were getting their wires crossed with the escape tunnel and another, far slimmer, underground tunnel system that was constructed when Prosperous was established as a cotton manufacturing industrial village.This tunnel system was designed to bring water into the village for the manufacturing of cotton and send water to the different areas and stages where water was required in the manufacturing.
Charles and Alice Bury had no children from their marriage so the lands and houses from the Downings Estate, including Woodville and Somerton in Goatstown and the lands at Blackwood, were passed on to Charles Bury’s descendants by his first marriage and remained in their possession throughout all of the nineteenth century and for the first decade of the twentieth century. He was once married to an Aylmer and they had six children. In the hallway of this house today, imbedded in the intricate plaster work, is an impaled coat of arms representing the Bury family on the left and Johnston family on the right. The Bury section of this coat of arms is incorrect or “garbled “as they say in genealogy circles. This would seem to indicate the Charles Bury had no direct connection with the family seat which was down in Little Island in Cork and that gestures to the contrary were but a pathetic pretence.
Of Charles’s six children who came into Downings when he married Alice Bonynge it was Eleanor, his third oldest daughter who inherited. Charles senior died in 1820 and Eleanor marries Dr David Wright. They have 3 children together, Charles, Fredric and Francis. In 1850 their eldest son Charles Wright inherits Downings House and assumes the name Charles A Bury. In 1856 he married Margaret Aylmer from Courtown Kilcock and they had 3 children - Charles, John and Ambrose. It may be noted here that the Burys and Aylmers intermarried right down through all generations as people did in those days in order to hold onto their lands. In many respects the Bury’s were petty landlords to the Aylmer’s of Donadea Castle whose lands extended to some 15,396 acres. (Land Ownership in Ireland 1876)
The marriage between Charles, the second last Bury of Downings and Margaret seems not to have gone all that well. In or around 1879 Charles partnered with his then head housekeeper Eleanor Weld. Eleanor was at the time married to Joseph Weld who was many years her senior and with whom she had no children. Charles A. Bury and Mrs Eleanor Weld, between 1880 and 1900 had nine children together. Three of these children, David, Beatrice and Ellie were born in Downings House. Charles built a second house on his estate which he called Somerton and which still stands today. The couple moved into this new house in 1895 where their last three children were born. All the children born to Charles and Eleanor were given the surname Weld.
All the children of Charles and Eleanor were well looked after in Charles’s last will and testament as was she herself. There was inserted into his will a strict stipulation that they marry Protestants only. Any marrying Roman Catholics were instantly disinherited. Or if they had already inherited and subsequently married a Catholic they were required to relinquish their inheritance. Charles was very insistent on this point.
During the first 20 years of the 20th century Downings was occupied by the last Bury - Charles, son of Charles M. Bury and Margaret Aylmer, who, as we know, were to separate. This last Bury seemed to spend a great deal of his time in London. There is a lot of his written correspondence to his steward Byrne, directing him to do this and that. In 1922, during the Irish Civil War, Downings House was occupied by anti-Treaty Republicans (IRA). They ran all the cattle and sheep off the land and stole clothes and jewellery. Bury sought compensation from the Free State.
In 1926 the Irish Land Commission divided the estate into several portions settling Downings House and a hundred acres on Captain Owen O’Keefe in recognition of his part played in the Civil War on behalf of the Free State. O’Keefe never in fact lived in the house but sublet it to the Whaley’s who were in occupation prior to Stephen Rynne purchasing the building in 1928.
Stephen Rynne, fresh from an agricultural education in Reading University lived in the big house alone except for one housekeeper. He married established author Alice Curtayne in 1935 having lived alone for almost seven years. On his engagement to Alice on St. Valentine’s Day 1934 he planted a blue cedar to mark the occasion. Today this tree still stands proud and tall swaying in the breeze, a monument to love and romance. He was into what you would call mixed farming. He employed a good many men, sometimes as many as seven men. It was Alice who encouraged him to become a writer and proofread all his work.
Though in truth, he had a natural, witty and innate talent unique to himself. “Green Fields” was a great success as these things go and was to launch him on a career of writing and broadcasting which he enjoyed all his life. The farming played second fiddle.
There is an ancient Bronze Age burial mound on the land just 50 metres outside the front of the house. Little is known about this except that it was, in all probability, the resting place of a famous local Chieftain from the time, about 4000 years ago. This goes to show that even in Bronze Age times, Downing’s seemed to be a land of great importance. This earthen mound is some 20 feet high and covers an area of about half an acre of land.
Downings House is also the place where Christy Moore recorded his album called “Prosperous”. It was recorded in a room underneath the house. During the recording sessions, musicians such as Andy Irvine (mandolin, mouth organ), Liam Óg O'Flynn (uilleann pipes, tin whistle) and Dónal Lunny (guitar, bouzouki). These four musicians later gave themselves the name Planxty, making this album something of the first Planxty album in all but name. Other musicians included Kevin Conneff (later of The Chieftains) on bodhrán, Clive Collins on fiddle, and Dave Bland on concertina. The album takes its name from the house and town of Prosperous, County Kildare, where it was recorded by producer Bill Leader in the summer of 1971. Planxty, one the country’s greatest folk groups, were officially formed in January of 1972.
Without doubt, Downings House’s place and legacy in Prosperous for several different reasons should never be forgotten. It’s stories and past make great conversation it’s something to be massively proud of from a local point of view, and also nationwide At the time of writing, Downings House is currently up for sale. Hopefully whoever purchases this important and fine premises, can keep the legacy living on well into the future.
Written by Dr Andrew Rynne