Kells Archaeological & Historical Society


Oral History



(born c1955?)


Billy grew up on the Headfort Estate where his father was farm foreman. From the age of 15 he spent 25 years working on the estate himself. Billy now lives at Rosmeen not far from the old estate boundary.


Interview with Billy Thompson.


DC:         Hello, this is Danny Cusack on Thursday 24th February 2011.I’m here at Rosmeen outside Kells, talking to Billy Thompson who was born on the Headfort Estate.Thanks Billy for agreeing to talk to us today.Perhaps we could kick off by starting to say what your earliest memories are of the Headfort Estate and your family and where you grew up.               

BT:         Well I was born on the estate well not actually on the estate, I was a baby there.My dad was the foreman there. He ran the estate, the tillage end of things, cattle and all that kind of stuff.It was a nice place to live like them times.

DC:         The house you grew up in was it outside the estate or was it inside?

BT:         It was inside, in the farmyard.

DC:         What’s your earliest memory of the farmyard? Was it the people, animals or machinery?

BT:         It was a bit of everything there really.There was about six families there.You know.That was in my time.There would have been a lot more in the earlier days.They had a dairy farm in the very early days.That was sort of when I was young, you know.I just don’t remember all that bit.It was before me. There was a lot of people employed at that time.My mum was actually one of the dairy maids.She worked in the dairy end of things making butter, milk and what-not and supplying it.

DC:         That’s when all that sort of stuff churning and all those old practices were on the go.So you would have seen all that.Do you know how your parents came to get employed on the estate?  In the first place

BT:         Well my dad, he worked for Nicholson’s estate then he came to Headfort I think he got … he told me at one time about a shilling more per week by moving.Which would have been I think twenty one shillings at the time by moving.My grandfather on my mother’s side was the kind a footman.He drove them around on a pony and trap.They lived down the road her there used to be a little cottage, the estate ends just at this little wall a mile away.They lived in a row of six little cottages. There was other people there as well.

DC:         Those cottages are long gone

BT:         Ah yeah they are demolished.

DC:         So you really had a family tradition on the estate.When would your father have come would it have been roughly the 1940’s?

BT:         It would have been he was there the guts of 60 years

DC:         It’s a long spell, yeah so it was quite a family tradition. And then growing up, firstly how many of a family were you.

BT          Three

DC:         And where did you all get your schooling or education or how did that work?

BT:         In Kells, my brother worked there for a while but not for very long.For a few years and then he went off to follow other things.

DC:         And yourself how did your life sort of pan out?

BT:         It was good like, I had no problems.When I got married we moved into one of the estate houses.Actually my wife she used to work in the school.So we met there.

DC:         Of course the school is still going.It’s still going strong.So you met through the school and then you moved into one of the estate houses….and then moved out here later on?

BT:         Well recently in the last twelve years.You see the estate was sold twice from Headfort actually.When Lord Headfort owned it, it was sold twice.  So we ended up here then.

DC:         Yeah in Rosmeen.You didn’t move to far. Just going back to more of your childhood and early days.Do you have any memories of what you sort of done in the summertime, or after school or pastimes, hobbies or sports or how you filled in the time?

BT:         Mostly fishing on the estate. That kind of way

DC:         Understandably, I have already interviewed Fred Ireland, I think I have said it on the phone, fishing was his big pastime, and Willie Sheridan as well.You would have been set up with the river Blackwater.Did you mix much with the children of the other families?

BT:         Yeah we did lots of things we would be up to.

DC:         Mischief!Generally did people get on?There wasn’t ructions

BT:         No.  It was happy surroundings in those days. Yeah

DC:         Yeah that’s the impression I got from the other people.It was a happy place to grow up in.When you mentioned the Headforts did you mix much with them or was there quite a gap or gull for Hierarchy?

BT:         A little, but the lasts Lords son Christopher, he was kinda one of the lads really… when he was growing up.

DC:         I have got that impression all right.Someone else said certainly in the early days you didn’t go up to the main house without an invitation

BT:         That would have been the last lord’s father; he would have been stricter in ways.The Lord that I know, Michael Taylor like, he was kind of easy going.

DC:         I suppose he was on the same level of the people

BT:         More of less, more or less

DC:         Did you have much to do with him personally yourself?Like any encounters with him

BT:         No No. My dad would have done.He paid the wages through the office on a Friday and that he had all the receipt books and what not.I actually had some of them but unfortunately they are gone.

DC:         Ah that’s a pity.

BT:         Wages from back fifty years or more

DC:         It’s a pity they are gone, because they are a great historic.

BT:         I didn’t actually bring them up here, we had them where we were in Headfort… they were dumped.

DC:         That’s a pity.In the national library in Dublin I’ve seen, some of them there.The result Headfort papers going back hundreds of years and some one is working on indexing them and cataloguing them at the moment.When that’s done they are a great resource.

BT:         Yeah it will show all the wages and the different men.What they done and what their job was and that.

DC:         Which is very interesting in terms of social history?What labourers’ did and how lives were.There was actually a lot of people living on the estate in your time wasn’t there? There would have been different families scattered around.

BT:         Yeah.There would have been school teachers as well.Some other houses outline houses like; there would have been old school teacher sand gardeners and that living in those. The yard itself was kinda just a maybe a block of twelve or so houses.Then there was a few here and there through the estate.

DC:         Scattered.I’m talking to a Mary Brady next week. She was a Geraghty I think, she grew up on the estate. She lives out the Oldcastle road.

BT:         Mary Goren? Yeah we grew up together. 

DC:         Then there is a Mary Lynch she is now Mary Moran.She is married to a relation of mine out in Gravelstown.She grew up in the herd’s house at the north gate. .In that direction.

BT:         That would have been the herd’s house.The stock man.

DC:         Its still there you can see it through the gate.

BT:         Actually the last man that was working at the stock was Benny Hand.He is actually in Trim at the moment unfortunately.He is suffering from Parkinson’s I think. But his wife lives there, I’m sure she would have stories to tell you too, Rosie Hand.You could give her a call.

DC:         Is she still in the house?

BT:         Yeah she is.

DC:         Ah right, I didn’t know that.That’s interesting.Rosie Hand, I might follow that.

BT:         He took over from it would have been Neddy Lynch.Neddy was the man before him.

DC:         Yeah that was probably Mary’s father actually.

BT:         Yeah it would be 

DC:         Cause they moved out and bought the house in Gravelstown.They wanted a bit of space.

BT:         Benny would have been there up until like it would have been sold.  He would have been there forty years, I’d say working there.Near enough

DC:         That’s the other thing that strikes me with people; People there were long termers.You know if you were there you were there for forty- fifty or sixty years.

BT:         More or less yeah.It was just the way things were then.

DC:         So you would have got to meet some of those other families obviously around the estate.

BT:         Ah yeah we all knew each other.

DC:         And yous had your own little community around the farmyard.

BT:         More or less yeah

DC:         I know there is houses. There is houses and flats built there now.

BT:         Yeah it’s all re-done.

DC:         Yeah re-done I have been in there.

BT:         That’s how he moved to here like.

DC:         Right l see.Myles Dungan who is on RTE radio he is living in there.I don’t know if you know Myles Dungan he lives in one of the flats.I’m trying to think what other question I could ask.suppose a question I ask everybody is…Were their any outstanding characters, like people who would stand out.Outstanding characters. .. Memorable people.

BT:         Well we used to have an estate party at Christmas for all the workers.There were two guys, who are dead since.Peter Friary and Michael Lawless, they used to a kind of a singsong and that kind of stuff.They had their own way of …you just had to see it…they had their own way of doing it.

DC:         Willie Sheridan actually mentioned both of those characters. They obviously made a big impression.

BT:         They were kind of I wouldn’t say comedians but in that line like, they were Jokie kind of fellows.They worked in the forestry end of things. Planting trees and cutting trees. Felling trees and that kind of stuff.

DC:         I used to see Peter Friary walking around Kells in his last days.He was very stooped by that stage. And he had a, I used to call him the Mexican, he had a big hat.

BT:         He would stand out a bit alright.Ah a nice man.

DC:         So those two, anyone else in particular?

BT:         Eh not really…no.Everyone else was just working.

DC:         Any particular sort of funny instances or even tragic incidents… or things that stand out that happened.

BT:         No not really when I was there, but there was … one man, was killed there George Knox I think. I’m not sure something like that was his name.It would have been before my time kind of thing.I would have been very young.That time we used to bring in hay loose like on a horse and cart, it caught some kind of tripod thing over it.It fell on him.He was killed there.That was the only person I think.

DC:         I haven’t heard of that incident.

BT:         It’s back a while now. 

DC:         It would have been reported in the Meath Chronicle. I can check that up. The law of averages in a big estate like that your going to have something happen over the years.That’s the reality. The people who lived on the estate who worked on the estate were they sort of Catholics and Protestants.., .was it kind of mixed or not.

BT:         More of less yeah

DC:         And people got on well.There wasn’t any religious sectarian?

BT:         No, no not in those days.

DC:         I suppose those days were long past by the time you came on the scene.And of course at one time the Headforts owned all the town of Kells.

BT:         More of less yeah.

DC:         They had the land for the chapel.

BT:         There was fifteen hundred acres on the estate itself when they were there.That included the old golf course and on the Navan road where the power station, where the graveyard is…that was all their land as well.As you say more or less half the town

DC:         Well they got it when the Taylor’s came in the 1660’s after the Cromwellian business.They owned 14,000 acres in Cavan, up around Virginia, Muncherconnaght, the Park Hotel.

BT:         The Park Hotel was there little kind of a shooting kind of a lodge when they were out.They owned quite a bit…well, were given quite a bit.

DC:         Given quite a bit, should be say back in the 1600;s and kept it for a long time.That era has passed Hasn’t it?They moved on.Do you ever go back there at all?

BT:         Off and on.Not that often really. It’s more or less gone, well you can go in …but it’s sort of more private now than it was.

DC:         I’ve heard that Sam Holt has tried to run one or two people off the premises.

BT:         He is actually retired but he kinda is still there.Doing security man.

DC:         He is still at the job.I have been up at the main school a couple of times over the years when they have had open days.During the Kells festival or talks during the Kells festival.You can get in that way and wander around.

BT:         There was another man worked there, he would have worked with Willie Sheridan. He was John Grimes. He lives out at the Boolies on the Mullingar road.He worked there in the school for twenty five or seven years.He would be able to tell you a bit too.

DC:         Worked in the school as a?

BT:         Sort of a maintenance man.He would have started off with Willie Sheridan in the garden, like serving his time like and that kind of thing.He would have been up and down to the school doing odd jobs.

DC:         Well thanks for that because Willie didn’t mention him. 

BT:         Willie would be forgetting a little bit now. 

DC:         He is not bad for his age, he is out there in the nursing home as you know... he had to struggle a bit…he didn’t do too bad... and Fred Ireland was just fit to talk.There is a lot in his head.We have done quite well.I haven’t too many other things to ask unless you can think of anything else you want to add that you might have forgot.

BT:         There is bits and pieces that are not really relevant.You know just work and that. Just cattle and sheep and that kind of stuff.

DC:         So over all it was a good place to grow up, a happy place to grow up in.

BT:         Ah it wasn’t too bad.No complaints.Wages was small because the house was part of your wages kind of thing you know.I started there I think I was about maybe fifteen or so… like you get maybe three pounds, ten shillings per week…That kind a thing.

DC:         That’s a pretty low wage.But you got your accommodation.

BT:         But then you build up a bit like, well not like a lot like.But in the last few years we will say your were on maybe, oh maybe a hundred and ten,maybe a hundred and fifteen pounds… thirty years later.

DC:         So were you working there from fifteen up until you left

BT:         Yeah

DC:         Oh you were.What was your kind of line of work?

BT:         Mostly on the farm machines.Ploughing, tilling, and sowing…all that kind of stuff.You kind of multi tasked.You could be doing anything and everything sort of.

DC:         So I guess you were working there for thirty or forty years

BT:         Well twenty five anyway.In that time I’ve worked for Headfort himself and then they sold the estate to Bill Kruger and worked for him as well.Then the last sale before the development, I’ve worked for Peter McDowall for five years.It’s kind of all working in Headfort but three different bosses.

DC:         Three different bosses….I understand now. You would have seen some big changes down through the years.Even just in terms of the number of people working I suppose just dropping away.

BT:         Oh yeah like there was fifty something or sixty men in the very early days, well men and women there would be all in the dairy and that.

DC:         And all that dropped away during your time.

BT:         Yeah

DC:         Through technical changes, methodisation and all that kind of thing.

BT:         At that time like when the dairy was going, they supplied Kells centre with Milk and butter, cheeses and stuff like that.But then as times changed they went more into cattle farming and tillage farming and that kind of stuff.The garden actually supplied as well.It was self-sufficient for vegetables for the whole estate.They sold off any surplus.

DC:         And then there was this thing called the American garden wasn’t there.

BT:         Yeah it’s very over-grown now. 

DC:         Well that’s interesting cause your time there captured a snapshot of the estate of Headfort.It’s useful for people to know about.

BT:         All Lord Headforts ancestors would have been buried there as well.On the Mausoleum on the Island itself. There is three or four there.

DC:         That’s right I think it was Fred Ireland that explained all that to me, about the three or four bodies in the Mausoleum.He used to have to go in once a week to look after it.

BT:         It’s still intact like. It’s all still intact.

DC:         I have never been to the Mausoleum.I know some people in the historical society who have an interest in going in to it.Is it actually Ormiston who owns it?

BT:         Yeah Norman Ormiston.He would own the land I’ am not sure what way the building was left, whether the cannier thing. The burial site on the Island, There were rumours that the last Lord, Michael Taylor was supposed to come back but he died.He has died since, but he hasn’t come back.He was in the Philippians or somewhere.

DC:         Yeah because he was connected to Imelda Marcus.

BT          He must have got buried over there.

DC:         Can you easily identify where the graves are on the island?

BT:         Oh yeah, the are marked, they are marked with one big headstone with all the names on them. The lady Rose, I don’t remember that as such.She was buried there, that was kind of a big funeral thing.She was brought down on a gold carriage and horses, from the main house down to the grave. I was only a child, very small but I remember my parents talk about it.She was all done up …like she was alive, face painted, clothes everything.

DC:         They made a big show of it.

BT:         Yeah.

DC:         I suppose it was the last gasp of the dying era, because all of that quickly went.Didn’t it.

BT:         The last owner’s ashes ware buried there as well.Bill Kruger.He is buried there as well.

DC:         I didn’t know about that.And then as we say it was sub divided.You had the forestry, the school and the houses now.Well unless you can think of anything else, I think we have done well and thank you

BT:         My brother can tell you bits too because he had been there a while too like.He grew up with the children that I wouldn’t have grown up with.You know he was in a different year.

DC:         Older than you is he?

BT:         yeah he is.

DC:         What’s his name?

BT:         John, he lives up there at Liscarton in Navan.

DC:         Oh yes.

BT:         He would be more in Fred Ireland’s age group

DC:         Would he

BT:         Yeah they grew up together.They were kind of men when I was coming along as a child

DC:         Yeah you were nearly a different generation.

BT:         Yeah.He started off there so he would have known a few bits and pieces I’m sure.

DC:         Well every bit helps and thanks for that.It strikes me that you could almost write a book on the Headfort Estate alone with all this information

BT:         Well you could if you had someone who could write like.

DC:         Well there is enough information there, between all the people like yourself and then these papers in Dublin.


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