Centuries of history and stories are part and parcel of Tarbert House

Norma Prendiville


Norma Prendiville

Limerick-born Ursula Leslie outside Tarbert House in North Kerry, the home of the Leslies since 1690. Picture: Michael Cowhey
SHE was a striking young woman: tall and slim and with bone-structure to rival Katherine Hepburn. And, to add a little more magic stardust to the mix, she met her husband-to-be on a flight to London.

SHE was a striking young woman: tall and slim and with bone-structure to rival Katherine Hepburn. And, to add a little more magic stardust to the mix, she met her husband-to-be on a flight to London.

At that time, Ursula O’Doherty, from O’Connell Avenue, had science and law degrees to her name and her career as a barrister specialising in patents and copyright was progressing nicely in London. But a chance allocation of airplane seats changed two lives and opened the way for her marriage to John Leslie of Tarbert House.

“I am very grateful to Aer Lingus,” she says cheerfully from the comfort of one of her Cairo-acquired drawing room chairs.

But the young Limerick woman could have had little idea, back in 1965, that her new home in Tarbert House came with such intriguing romance. Nor could she have known then that the Leslie family legacy would include stories of encounters and visits by some of the world’s best-known literary figures, by bishops and soldiers, and by politicians who changed not just Irish history but world-history.

However, Ursula was, in time, to become the gatherer and custodian of those stories. “My husband had no interest whatever. He liked the farm, draining the land and so on,” Ursula explained in a very direct, matter-of-fact way.

Nor was John Leslie, who died in 2000, terribly interested in Tarbert House, which he inherited from an uncle and to which he and his wife and young daughters, returned in 1974. It was left to Ursula to try and bring back to life the neglected Queen Anne house which dated from 1690.

But any old house, particularly a heritage house such as Tarbert House is, she reveals with a wry smile, omnivorous. A vulture. It swallows up all before it: money, time, energy. And it is never-ending.

For all that, it is obvious that Ursula is quietly proud of what she has done. And, after many decades, she has clearly made good acquaintance with the house’s many illustrious past visitors.

One early and famous visitor to the house was Dean Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), best known for his Gulliver’s Travels and his sardonic and hard-hitting views on Irish society.

Little is known about what actually happened during the visit, or indeed, why it took place, Ursula confesses. But his comment, afterwards, left its mark: “The Leslies have lots of books upon their shelves. All written by Leslies about themselves.”

Another visitor was John Paul Jones, who who sought shelter for his ship at Tarbert when chased by the British Navy. In order to confuse his pursuers, Ursula explains, he sent men ashore to place lanterns in the form of sails and under cover of this ruse, made his way to Valentia and ultimately to the US where he founded the US Navy.

Yet another illustrious visitor was US president, Benjamin Franklin, who, sometime after 1776 set off around Ireland to meet with the rich and powerful in a bid to re-establish trade links between this country and the fledgeling and newly independent American republic.

He travelled by ship, Ursula explains, and put in to Tarbert House to meet up with Sir Edward Leslie, then an MP in Westminster.

Signficantly, some years later, Daniel O’Connell, the Liberator, became a friend of the family and visited the house. And still today, among the house records is a framed historical parchment dating from 1813, petitioning the British House of Commons for Catholic Emancipation.

Lord Kitchener, the man whose bearded visage became the face of enlistment during World War 1, accompanied by the famous phrase, Your country needs you, knew Tarbert and Tarbert House very well. The man who was later to become commander of the Allied forces lived on the Leslie estate at Ballygoghlan where his father had a farm..

The story goes, Ursula recalls, that as a boy he came to collect seaweed on the shore to help ease his mother’s arthritis but was sent scarpering by an estate tenant. But in a handwritten note which can be read by visitors to Tarbert House, he talks of warm remembrances of Ballygoghlan.

Another war hero, Winston Churchill, used to come on holiday to Tarbert House, Ursula continues. Churchill’s aunt Leonie Jerome married a Leslie cousin, John Leslie of Castle Leslie in Glaslough, Co Monaghan which is now a luxury hotel and home to Jack Leslie, the 93-year-old “raver”.

The young Winston and his brother visited both Castle Leslie and Tarbert each summer.

“When he came here I suspect it was good because Mrs Leslie had eight or nine brothers and sisters and they all had children,” Ursula explains.

But nothing remains of his visits now. Sadly too, there is no record of author Charlotte Bronte’s visit to Tarbert House. The author of Jane Eyre stayed there as part of her honeymoon journey. She married her father’s curate Arthur Bell Nicholls in April 1854.

“She went to West Clare first and then came here and spent a night or two here. They then went on to Tralee and Killarney. In Killarney, she missed her step getting into a boat,” Ursula says, recounting the story. It turned out Charlotte was pregnant at the time but soon after had a miscarriage and died as a result.

But it is not too difficult, Ursula believes, to conjure up the scenes at Tarbert House as they might have been during the Bronte visit: the formality of dinner, the after-dinner withdrawing of the ladies.

After all, she points out, the house remains largely the same as when it was first built. A second stairs was added at one stage and she herself installed a small kitchen on the ground floor. But the floor plan is the same. The view is almost exactly the same. And the stark plainness of the house in its parkland remains the same.

And last weekend, as part of the Tarbert Gathering, Daniel O’Connell and Charlotte Bronte walked the woods of Tarbert House again as part of a dramatic re-enactment.

For four months of the summer each year, Ursula guides visitors through the many-layered history of the family – and of the house.

“They used to have cock-fights in the hall you know,” she throws out. And the iron racks which held muskets and rifles still furnish its walls.

Almost every object, piece of furniture or painting carries a story. A chair, a sewing box, a photograph all spark recollections from Ursula. Even the curtains.

These curtains date from the 1860s, Ursula says, pointing to the windows of what is now the drawing room. And their design inspired a new fabric, fittingly named Tarbert Rose, which was created in the US. It was a fabric which Nancy Reagan used in her home in California, Ursula reveals.

And so the stories spill out from Ursula, a mix of the domestic and the world-stage, of the personal and the historic, running seamlessly together. But you know she relishes it all.

She has made these stories her own now and crucially, she has done her bit to retain and preserve a significant piece of Irish heritage. She is also determined to leave the house in as good shape as possible for the next generation of Leslies.

But don’t take my word for it. You can go and hear all these stories yourself if you are one of the many hundreds who visit the house each summer. It’s mostly groups, ICA groups, historical societies, members of the Irish Georgian Society who comes, she says. But all it takes is a phone-call to 068-36198 to book your place. And do so before August 31. Otherwise you will have to wait until next year.