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Monivea, County Galway, Ireland

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Monivea is a village in County Galway, a dozen miles east of Galway City itself, in the Republic of Ireland. It is small, with a population of fewer than 200 souls, and noteworthy principally for its elegant ruined church and its broad main street, laid out more like an English village green, with the Post Office on one side and the Garda (police) station on the other. At the eastern end of the village is an old stone wall with a broad gateway, through which lead the roads to the local rugby club's pitch, and behind that Monivea Forest. It is really the gateway into local history.

The road is uneven, the surface having been allowed to deteriorate by successive councils, but by proceeding with caution it's not too uncomfortable. After about half a mile, it divides. A right turn leads away from the surrounding farmland and into the woods with their cool, green, insect-filled air. A few hundred yards further on, the dendroid1 curtain parts to reveal a scene which could have been dreamt by a child fed on tales of King Arthur's knights.

Nestling in a clearing in the trees is what at first appears to be a tiny castle, perhaps 25 feet on a side and thirty high. Its rough stone blocks bring to mind a Norman church, while the castellations round the top and tiny turret hint at a more martial inspiration. The religious nature of the building becomes clear when you walk round to the back and see a large stained-glass window. Returning to the front and the stately oak doors, it is possible to take a peek through the iron-clad keyhole and into the room beyond, gaining beautiful and tantalising glimpses of the coloured light that streams into the marbled interior. This might seem to be a chapel, but in fact its function is more sombre; it is the mausoleum of the Ffrench family, who used to own this whole estate.

The Ffrenches

The story of the Ffrenches in Ireland began in the 12th Century, when their ancestor came in the company of the Anglo-Norman nobleman Strongbow. Strongbow married the daughter of the King of Leinster, and eventually became king himself. He rewarded his loyal men with lands of their own, the Ffrenches settling in County Wicklow. It was not until the 16th Century that the family moved west and bought the lands of the O'Kelly family, building onto the fortifications of the O'Kelly castle and establishing Monivea House. The village grew out of the dwellings of the estate's farm workers and domestic servants, and of the merchant posts established to serve their needs.

Successive generations of the Ffrenches worked hard to reclaim useful land from an estate which was mainly bogland spreading lime and burying sheep's carcasses to encourage the growth of plants, especially trees, which would dry out and stabilise the soil. Oliver Cromwell came and confiscated their lands, but once he was gone, they bought them back again and continued the reclamation process. They were well-respected folk around the county, enough so for Robert Ffrench to have represented Galway in the United Kingdom parliament between 1768 and 1776.

By the late 19th Century the land was rich and productive, and another Robert Ffrench was employing the trappings of their wealth to extend his family's high social connections, travelling round Europe and coming home with a Russian bride of noble blood. It was also this Robert who built the mausoleum as a lasting legacy of his family's wealth. His tomb is in pride of place in the centre of the chapel, marked with a marble statue of the very highest quality, carved by a leading Italian sculptor of the day, while the stained glass windows were crafted by the same firm as those in Armagh cathedral. There were to be no half-measures.

Robert had only one child, a daughter, Catherine. Catherine was a determined woman who never settled into the Victorian ideal of husband, home and hearth. Instead, she took on the task of restoring her family's Russian lands as her forefathers had restored those in Ireland. For many years she lived in Russia, organising the workers on her land, and gradually the estate returned to profit. But just as she was finishing her task there and beginning to reap the rewards, she almost lost her life in the Russian revolution. The lands were all seized, and in the end she was lucky to escape with her life.

Although so much had been lost, Catherine still had the Irish lands to fall back on. During her years away after her father's death, the estate had been managed by her cousin Rosamund, and with Catherine's return it was hard for Rosamund to revert to playing second fiddle. The two women fell out, so badly that Catherine never settled there, eventually returning overseas and seeing out her days in China. After her death, her body was returned and buried in the crypt underneath the chapel, directly below her father's tomb - but now there was not enough money in the family coffers to embellish it with sculpture, nor anyone to organise such a memorial; for within weeks Rosamund also died. It seeming wrong to bury her alongside the cousin with whom she had so implacably feuded, Rosamund was laid to rest in a plot next to, but outside, the mausoleum's walls.

Neither woman having produced an heir, there was no obvious successor to the Ffrench family estates. What is more, the newly-established independent Irish government had decreed that when a landowner died, 90% of their lands should be given to the local people, to break the old English feudal systems. This meant that the size of the Monivea demesne would be reduced from 10,000 acres to just 1000 - not nearly enough to sustain the baronial lifestyle and castle. So it was that the land was left to the fledgling Irish nation, and the mausoleum in the care of the Catholic Church, as it remains today.

The Forest

From the mausoleum, it is possible to walk into the woods in a couple of different directions, as the mood takes you. The tall canopy of trees casts piebald shadows on ferns and brambles, mirroring the patches of dark ivy clinging to the pale trunks. The floor is carpeted with moss and that most Irish of plants, the shamrock. Blackbirds, robins, sparrows and wood pigeon hunt out food for the youngsters growing ever stronger in their nests, and from time to time a lightning motion in the corner of your eye reveals the scrabbling of a squirrel. Weekends aside, you are almost certain to be alone to enjoy the tranquillity, unless you bring your dog to roam and sniff and explore the musty corners under a fallen tree.

Except the forest is now under threat. The trees have reached full size and are ready for the harvest. The bulldozers have moved in and, at the time of writing, the clearance has started - about a third of the wood is gone. The fate of the cleared portion is the subject of heated local debate - replanting will leave the area temporarily diminished, but hold out the hope for a return to a natural state; while a development of houses will boost the local economy and relieve the housing crisis of neighbouring Galway City, but at untold expense to the environment.

What will definitely remain is the mausoleum, now exposed to the full glare of sunlight - or as much sunlight as the Irish summer can muster - for the first time in decades. It needs work, the roof is cracked and some water damage is already becoming visible in the arched ceiling. Estimates put the cost of renovation in the region of £50,000; beyond the means of a church with plenty of its own buildings to maintain. Hopefully, a local fighting fund will allow the village council to do at least enough to stop things getting any worse, but a philanthropic intervention is the only real hope for a full restoration.

Note of thanks; the Researcher is indebted for much of the above historical information to Duncan Uniacke, scion of the Ffrench clan, who gave so generously of his valuable family holiday time to talk and conduct a guided tour of the mausoluem.

1Dendroid means 'tree-shaped'.

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