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The Gladstone Tree at Charleville House

William Gladstone was first elected to the British parliament in 1834 and served as Prime Minister on four occasions. During his long political career as a Liberal, he supported various moves to ease the unjust laws against the landless and hungry poor in Ireland. He was largely responsible for having the Tithe laws repealed, in spite of the Tories efforts to thwart him. He must have been greatly saddened during the famine years when grain continued to be exported from Ireland with armed police in attendance to keep the starving people at bay.

William Gladstone (Picture taken from "The History of the Hon William Gladstone." on Wikipedia.)

Viscount Charles Monck of Charleville House near Enniskerry, Co Wicklow, would as a young man have witnessed the effects of the Great Famine which swept the land only a few years before he was elected to the British parliament as a Liberal MP in 1855. The Irish parliament had been abolished since 1801, and Daniel O'Connell worn out from his years of political effort as a MP had died in 1847 when the famine was at its height. Charles Monck was a landlord with a social conscience who worked politically to help his less fortunate countrymen. In parliament he was soon noticed by Mr. Gladstone. They became friends and when occasion arose to try to ease the burden on the oppressed majority in Ireland, Viscount Monck and other like-minded MPs could depend on the support of Mr. Gladstone, but even so there was little sympathy in parliament for the poor of anywhere in those days, and even less for the Irish dispossessed.

Viscount Monck (Picture taken from Elizabeth Batt's book, "The Moncks and Charleville House.")

Viscount Monck had two terms as an MP but his political career turned in another direction in 1861 when he was appointed Governor General of British North America. He very soon was given the responsibility of charting the negotiations which led to the formation of the Canada we know today. The new Governor General made it his priority that the best possible solution be found, to ensure a lasting agreement between the opposing factions, and mission accomplished he returned home to Charleville in 1868 as Lord Monck, having become a Peer two years earlier.

William Gladstone visited Ireland for the first time in 1877 and paid a visit to the home of his friend at Charleville House, where he was invited to mark his visit by the planting of a tree. About 70 years later with World War Two just over, prices for produce were low, wages had risen and rents (reduced considerably) were now payable to the State. The economic tide was turning against heavy upkeep estates, and the Monck family had to sell Charleville House and land. During his time in parliament, when backing the cause of the underdog, Charles Monck must have known that he was hastening the time when the landlord class could not continue to live in such luxury as before. It is easier to fight for a cause when you have nothing to lose, but Lord Charles Monck had plenty to lose. He was indeed a brave and just man.

Charleville House
Charleville House

The new owners of Charleville House were a Welsh/Irish business family and in 1954 Donald Davies and his wife Mary set up a shirt-making factory in the stable yard, where there was unused floor and loft space. The business prospered, and provided excellent local employment. They had local outlets in Enniskerry and Dublin, and in time they opened stores further afield in Paris and New York.

During this time the estate continued to be farmed as before, and the garden and greenhouses produced the best of fruit and vegetables with the surplus going to Dublin market, but times were changing in the clothing industry, with low cost imports making business difficult and in 1977 the Davies family sold Charleville. There have been two owners since then, and to the credit of all three owners since the Monck era, the estate has been little changed and high standards of maintenance have continued to the present day.

During these changes of ownership, memories of the Gladstone tree had grown dim, but Elisabeth Batt mentioned it in her excellent book "The Monks and Charleville House" published in 1979, where she said that the tree was a Pinus Insignis. She was the grand-daughter of the last Lord Monck to live at Charleville, and she knew about the tree from family records. In the acknowledgements she named several people for the help they gave, especially Michael Meaney to whom she gave credit for much of the material in the book. Michael spent many years as farm steward at Charleville. He was scholarly by nature and there was little he did not know about the place and its history. He was in charge when I picked fruit there during the school holidays of 1948-51. We were paid by the amount of punnets that we filled. Raspberries were the biggest crop, with black red and white currents next. Around August time when most of the fruit was picked we would go on to a fixed weekly wage and Michael would set us to help out with the general farm work of haymaking, harvesting, ragweed pulling, and pea picking which was a new farm crop then. Horses were still in widespread use for farm work at this time and nobody guessed that within ten years or so, most farmers would be using tractors.

Sometimes Michael would need us to do some weeding in the garden, or to work in the adjoining pleasure grounds which had many acres of trees and shrubs and was intersected by pebbled walks. Most of the work here was to keep the walks in order by scuffling (hoeing) the weeds and raking the pebble. There was the Broad Walk, which was as wide as an avenue, and the Yew Walk with its archway of ancient yews, and the Beech Walk which was like a tunnel through closely planted trunks, roofed over with horizontal branches, (which invited acrobatics) but from across the garden it looked like an ordinary tall beech hedge. There were many other walks and paths, and there were trees unlike any we knew. My workmates were Seán Devlin, Rory O'Brien and Ollie and Peter Donnelly and it was like an adventure playground to us.

Michael would often work with us here, and we needed watching but we took our trees seriously. When one of us would ask about a particular tree, Michael would name it and say what part of the world it came from, and then with a smile he would add the Latin name. As in Oliver Goldsmiths poem, we wondered how "one small head could carry all he knew." He and I exchanged Christmas cards for the next 30 odd years. When he retired, he vacated the stewards house in the garden and spent his retirement years with his friends Eddie and Lily Doyle at nearby Ballyorney, where in 1981 he signed my copy of Elisabeth Batt's book. He died in 1985 and is buried in the old graveyard at Kilmacanogue, and his grave is marked by the Meaney headstone, at the N/E corner of the church ruins.

Stable Yard
John Stephens, John Dwyer, Norman Colin pictured in stable yard

Anthony Doyle who was Eddies father had been the chauffeur at Charleville and had spoken of Gladstone's tree, but Eddie like the rest of us, thought we had plenty of time to have a look at it one day, and now in 2013, there is only John Stephens remaining of those who would have the passed down history as well as long experience of working on the estate. On contacting John, he confirmed that he knew about the tree. So on Wed 22nd August 2013 during Charleville House Open Day, John along with myself and Norman Colin (Kilmacanogue History Society) paid a visit. John had been working there until recently, and he received a great welcome from the staff, who were surprised at our quest, as none of them were aware of the Gladstone tree. John guided Norman and myself from the stable yard, along the yew walk to what John called the "teahouse" end, where we turned right onto a smaller walk and after a few yards, there it was, the Monterey Pine (Pinus Insignis), living privately and almost forgotten.

Norman Colin and Gladstone tree
Norman Colin at the Gladstone Tree

The tree is now 135 years old, with a trunk of about six feet in diameter, with coarse bark and branched almost to the ground. It is not the tallest or the most handsome tree in the grounds but it is definitely the most interesting. Johns father (Jack Stephens) who was the ploughman at Charleville, had told John that in his younger days some the older men called it Billy's tree, and some of them could well have seen it planted, or even dug the hole for it. (The common people of Britain also had a soft spot for Mr. Gladstone and he was known as "The Peoples William"). The position of the tree is 100 paces out from the terrace steps that face the pleasure grounds and it is in plain view from the drawing and morning room windows. It had been given pride of place.

Terrace & Steps Charleville House
Terrace and steps outside drawing room

The Gladstone Tree -- from the terrace

The present owners of Charleville House, Ken and Brenda Rohan were away on holiday, but I am sure that if they were not aware of it before, they will be very pleased to know the history relating to that tree, and can look across and imagine the scene at that planting ceremony in the year 1877. Best wishes to the owners and staff, who keep the place true to its time, and many thanks to John Stephens, whose memories of everyday life at Charleville go back a long way.

Seán Brady.
Kilmacanogue History Society October 2013

Guide notes from the book; "The Moncks & Charleville House" by Elisabeth Batt.
References to William Gladstone on the following pages; 40-41, 49-51, 61, 65, 74 105, 110, 114, 159, 224-226, 235-237, 260, 283-9, 295.
Page 119 gives description of the new Dargle drive 1850, starting opposite Charleville main gate and proceeding down the Dargle Valley to exit at the gate lodge close to the present N11. It is said that there are pictures or maps in existence that show the position of an earlier front avenue from the house to the road.
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