Kells Archaeological & Historical Society


Oral History



(born 1936)


Fred grew up in Rabbit Hill (Keepers) lodge before Headfort Bridge where his father was head gamekeeper on the estate. Fred worked at various occupations in England and Ireland. He is married to Lou and lives at Balrath Wood off the Balrath Road. 


Interview with Fred Ireland


DC:     This is Danny Cusack, I’m here on Thursday 17th February 2011 at 33 Balrath Wood in Kells and I’m talking to Fred Ireland.  Fred, thanks for agreeing to talk to us today…I believe you grew up on the Headfort Estate but we will come to that…, could you just say a wee bit about your family and your background, where you grew up and perhaps your schooling ?

FI:       My father was the head keeper of the Headfort Estate in Kells. He came to it....I think it was 1934.  They got married and had two sons; I was the eldest…my brother George died when he was 44 so he is gone this good while…his wife died eight years after him both from cancer.  They lived in the keepers lodge as it was called…. the first lodge on the left hand side as you are going out the Headfort road out of Kells.  I had an idyllic lifestyle really…idyllic bringing up, one couldn’t live in a nicer place than Headfort…. we had the woods, we had the fishing, we had the river, everything about it was just beautiful … it was a lovely place to live unlike a lot of the other big estates… the Headforts were terrific landlords, respected by everybody, they were very good to everybody... which is more to be said about the other big landlords in the area.  When I grew up I went to the Carrick school in Kells, I left it when I was 12 and went to the Christian Brothers … I stayed there for one year or term and left because of the … brothers were so sadistic, beating people around the place … I couldn’t stick it any longer I left there and went to the technical school which I really enjoyed it was terrific … left there and went to Dublin to work … but then came back from Dublin after about a year and a half and worked in Doyle’s garage in Kells for about six months … that s where Supervalu is now.  I went to England in the mid 1950’s.  I got married in England…actually my wife… I met my wife in the Headfort estate, her maiden name was Hughes , she had two uncles and an aunt living in Kells, her mother originally came from Kells … she got married and is living in Rathmoylan … she was staying with an aunt of hers Mrs Wilson in bottom of Carrick Street in Kells … she was going out to visit her uncle who was the Stewart of the Headfort estate …she should have gone in the second gate but she went in the first gate and she went up through the woods and got lost , (Mobile Bug strikes again)… I was sitting on the bridge fishing…cause I have done an awful lot of fishing in my time…. and she came along on her bicycle and was lost…. We got talking, talking and talking … the next three weeks we spent together on the Headfort estate in Kells….. I was ten years of age and she was nine …. So we have known each other that length of time that’s 65 years I know her we are married fifty three.  We went back to England… then we got married and came home seven or eight years later…..I was sitting down in a house in England and picked up a union magazine and saw that they were looking for people to work in Ireland in the trade that I was in so I wrote to the secretary of the trade union… so he said to come over as soon as you can cause we are paying English guys subsistence to come over and do your job… so we just packed up and came home.  We lived Augher for about a year … then we bought a cottage in Fordstown for 425 pounds it was at the time… built on to it, made it twice the size… there was no water or electricity in it when we bought it…. We wired it and dug a well and that…. Then we moved to Rockfield road… we bought a site in Rockfield road … we were there for thirty years then we moved in here nine years ago.

DC:     That’s a very good summation of a lifetime and very well put together …. So you were childhood sweethearts…

FI:       Oh very much so…. Still are.

DC:     If everyone could boast that now!

FI:       Actually last year we were on a cruise, the royal Caribbean … the table we were sitting at in the Dining room…there were two other couples both Americans, one was living in Bermuda because it was a tax … he was a tax exile he had so much money and the other guy was also a very rich American living in America… between them that had being married seven times.  ……between the two families and they couldn’t understand how we had been 52 years married…..they just couldn’t understand it.

DC:     This was beyond their conception.  Well buck fair play to you I think that is a record out of all the interviews …the people I have spoken to so far…yeah that’s wonderful.

FI:       Well I’m not telling you anything about Kells; I have just talked about myself.

DC:     That’s a good start; we want to know about you first.  Perhaps you could say a little bit more about growing up it seemed to be an idyllic lifestyle on the Headfort estate…if you say a little more on that.

FI:       Back in those days Headfort estate was still one of the big estates…there were a lot of people working on Headfort house you had the butler, the valet, the chauffeur and all the maids working in Headfort House…and when you had to go up to deliver a message or anything you had to go to the tradesman entrance you couldn’t go to the hall door.  As I said before The Headforts were very good landlords, they were nice people.  As I grew up in Headfort fishing was my main entertainment I did a lot of that….my father been a game keeper was a terrific fisherman and a terrific man with a gun.  In those days there were lots and lots of trees, beech trees and oak trees and that in Headfort….you could climb up one beside the house where I lived and go nearly half a mile, up in the air 100 foot up in the air 200 foot up in the air going from tree to tree before you came down again….but then one of the Headforts, Geoffrey his son Terence married an Australian lady … she wanted to have Headfort looking like Australia…where it was flat and you could see for miles and miles…so she started selling off the timber in it….mostly to Mc Gee’s of Ardee and they spent years and years drawing all the lovely big oak and beech trees out of it and in fact all she done was make a mess of the place.  I remember all the timber men working there and the big lorries coming in and the tractors …you would see a lorry going out with a lump of the stump of a beech tree on it which would probably have been 15 or 16 foot long with a diameter of about maybe 7 or 8 eight feet on the back of a truck and the truck would be way up on one side with the weight of it… I don’t know it could have been nine or ten tonne weight …that really is my…..

DC:     She has a lot to answer for that Australian woman...if its any consolation there is another Australian woman Jan Alexandra came to live here I think it was in the late 1980’s.  She set up an organisation called “Crann” which was to re-forrestate Ireland….to plant more trees so she might be compensating for the damage done by….. I’d like to think so anyway as a lover of trees.

FI:       Then after Geoffrey died, I remember him, I remember his funeral… he was the first of the Headforts to be involved in a mixed marriage.  He was there as a Protestant and he married a catholic….there was a Mausoleum in Headfort where the Headforts were buried.. because it was a mixed marriage seemly they couldn’t get buried in it so… there are two Islands on the Headfort estate 22 acres on one and 18 on the other…. You can see the small island the 18 acre island from the road bridge if you look up the river…. They got a small section of that maybe a rood of ground….they were using it for a burial ground…so they got the parish priest out and so he blessed one half of it and they got the Church of Ireland rector out and he blessed the other half of it, so when they died they were each buried in their one half, side by side…. that was Geoffrey.  Terence came after him I remember him well. There funerals were big funerals, they coffins were brought down in gun carriages…..the union jack was over them cause that time we were still part of the British Empire and then the Bugler, because they were both the army I think they had a Bugler standing at the last post….I can still remember the last post, I think I was probably about four years of age when the first Headfort died and then the next Lord Headfort was Michael, he is not dead all that terribly long now he died abroad somewhere.  He was married; his first marriage was to a lady from the Carlton estate, Maynooth….Miss Rocket…his second marriage was to a relative of Marcus wife.

DC:     Imelda Marcus, yeah I knew that..

FI:       That’s right.  Well that’s all I can tell you about the Headforts.

DC:     Was he the last of the dynasty there…I think he was more or less.

FI:       He was the last of the dynasty there his son Christopher, who was a lovely guy…he worked on the farm for a good while…he lived in one of the houses on the farm yard…he got married I think they had four children, I’m not dead sure about that… his wife died not so long ago…..she died of cancer not so long ago…I didn’t know her. They are gone out of Headfort… Headfort is broken up. Greenbelt has the forest in it…the school has about 60 or 80 acres the house and the grounds and the farmer has the rest which he has in tillage and that.

DC:     That’s right and then you have the residences in there to, don’t you.  The Courtyard…

FI:       That’s right, that’s the new thing.

DC:     Growing up on the estate…did you mix…were there other children on the estate…..or other families? Did you have much to do with them…

FI:       Yes we had our own gang that played together and Lord Headfort played with us as well…he was only three years older than what I was ….yes we had…like in those days we all had our bicycles…that was all we needed. No one had any money but sure we had nothing to spend it on anyway.  In the summertime I used to get a job up in Headfort garden…. My brother and myself picking fruit, we got a penny a pound for picking fruit and at the end of the week we could have a few shillings…that was a very handy job except where it came to picking the gooseberries with all the thorns on them…your hands would be torn asunder picking them ……we never liked picking them…strawberries, raspberries and blackcurrants…. There was a big tank up there a big concrete tank that held thousands and thousands of gallons of water and on a real hot day we would swim in it.  Headfort was an ideal place to grow up.

DC:     Sounds like it.

FI:       I was very very lucky to have the opportunity to do so.

DC:     Absolutely, sounds idyllic alright.

FI:       Another of my memories of Headfort……..its much later its in the mid 1950’s… coming home from England with all my possessions in a brown leather…in a brown cardboard case up on my shoulder walking out the road from Kells looking out and seeing the……you couldn’t see our house cause it was in the middle of the woods, but you could see the blue smoke….that bright blue smoke of a timber fire and it going straight up in the air…..after coming from London and nothing but smog… it was lovely to see it.  It’s a memory that will always stay with me.

DC:     Great home coming image isn’t it.  You said your house was in the middle of the woods, I thought you were at the lodge at the gate as you came in.  Did you move?

FI:       Sorry it was the lodge at the gate, but there was woods all around it there were woods on both sides of the road…there were woods north south east and west of it…you had the road which sort of went through the woods…..the main road...those trees are cut out of it now you see and everything looks so much different now.

DC:     That wouldn’t have occurred to me now...but now that you have explained it.

FI:       The house we lived in was the house before you came to the bridge on the road.  I think the last keeper that was there lived in the house after the bridge……but ours was the Gate lodge before the bridge…ours was the first one…Ormiston owns it now.

DC:     Oh I see so if you’re coming from Kells it’s actually before the bridge.

FI:       It’s before the bridge yes... for the wall is on the left hand side where Headfort starts…..opposite Tony O Connors house….its opposite Tony O Connors house.

DC:     Is the house still there?

FI:       Its still there.

DC:     I must look out for it.

FI:       Its still there…….there is the two gates one opposite each other as you go out the Headfort road, just after where the wall starts…it was in on the left there.  But those big trees are all gone out of it now. I can remember actually two plantations of green spruce trees planted there and cut out of it commercially.

DC:     Growing up on the Headfort estate were you much aware of… sort of social hierarchy between families or between the families and the Headforts or was it all fairly galleterian …I’m trying to get a sense of ….

FI:       Are you referring to the Headforts themselves…

DC:     Yeah the Headforts,

FI:       Oh yeah they were the big people….they were the big people and people didn’t go up there unless they were invited…by invitation only…I have known of people who have went up there and short-shift.  Then there was the golf links there….I remember back when I was quite young, seven or eight years of age playing golf there….the clubhouse that time was just a green galvanised house….it was a nine course.  Well that’s another thing too there wasn’t many people playing those days…..the number three course went down beside the road…and people would be out on a Sunday…….most people would be out on a Sunday playing golf...if they slice the ball it would cross the road into the Bal Reilly field…. The was the field that down the other side of the road from the golf links…when I came home from school on a Monday I would get the dogs of my father…two or three or maybe four Labrador dogs and go down that field with the dogs and just set them out…..they would pick up the golf balls and bring them back to me….I would have a bucket…fill the bucket with golf balls and sell them then for six pence each in the clubhouse

DC:     A handy little number.

FI:       The golfers were happy and I was happy.

DC:     So everyone gained.

FI:       Everyone gained.

DC:     Living out there by the bridge…..was your life fairly self-contained …I suppose what I am           asking is did you interact much with the town itself did you socialise much in the town…

FI:       Yes, I had my friends I went to school with I would go into the town to play with them and they would come out to Headfort and play with me.  I did a lot with boats ….I love boats…there were I think about three good row boats out there in Headfort…they had a pud a log pud…it was beautiful a work of art the way it was made with lovely mahogany….. the Headforts would go out …I can remember the Headfort family and their friends being out on it on a Sunday…..all very low seats in it and cushions on it …they would have a man standing up at the back with  a long pole, he would push them around the river and in those days the black water……. the Headforts ….the way the river flows at the moment  now it didn’t always flow that way….the Headforts had it changed, they had two islands made…those two Islands they actually had made there.  You could go out and the boat would row all around the islands …. You can’t do that anymore its all filled in, it’s a pity.  In those days you could I’m sure it could all be opened up again quite easily…there are other little small islands there as well….we spent a lot of time on the water swimming and fishing and boating, that was really the biggest part of our pass-time certainty in the summer time. The winter time it was reading and listening to the radio. 

DC:     You were held up inside! Hibernating as they say.  Your father was head game keeper would you say just a few words about his role on the estate ……did he have much problems with poachers for example….did he have much to do…

FI:       My father didn’t have much problems with poachers.  He caught every poacher once and had a chat with him…that was it…he never once brought a poacher to court which is a lot to say for the 45years he was there…all the other game keepers have the steps of the courthouse worn out with bringing people to court….but he never brought anyone to court…he was able to persuade them not to come back in again…that was that.  He was also in charge of the forestry….there is a very interesting thing I wouldn’t say very many people know it….maybe even the people who own Headfort estate at moment don’t know it……as you go out the Headfort road and go across the bridge there is a gate on the left into Headfort that belong to the main gate go on past that and there is another gate with a door actually…….  where the farm machinery …tractors and horses and that used to go in to the farmyard…go on a little after that before you come to Wrights….there is a wood on the left hand side known as the Dempsey wood…now Headforts being very crafty rented the Dempsey wood…it wasn’t a wood then it was just a field….rented that field from the Dempsey’s……I think they are the same Dempsey’s that are involved in the Catherine McAuley centre.

DC:     Yes that started the school

FI:       They rented it from them for one crop and put a crop of beech and oak trees in it ….which you are talking three hundred years… where as the Dempsey’s probably thought it was for one year. but anyway I can remember Lord Headfort selling the last beech trees in it I think there was six of them…..he told my father he had sold them….my father said to him “If you sell them that part of the estate is gone because it reverts back to the Dempsey family… he had to buy the trees back of whoever he sold them to and give them a nice bit of money for their trouble as well….so the last I heard those trees were still there. That area was probably sold by the Headfort estate but the Headforts never owned it.  I don’t know how they would work that out legally…that’s an interesting one for you.

DC:     It could be. We might keep it under our hat it could raise all kind of conundrums legal conundrums…

FI:       It could do…..well they probably would have squatter’s rights anyway

DC:     There is still woods there all right despite what your woman did

FI:       Oh yes there are…the American garden, Headfort garden was a fabulous garden…..I don’t know how many acres were in it…..I suppose it was four acres in the garden…..a big wall…a high wall all around it, massive glasshouses, beautiful glasshouses…they had their own central heating system for it.. it must have cost a fortune....and then around the inside of the walls they had pear trees and apple trees growing up against the wall held onto the wall with wires…they had every type of fruit you could think of…….they had ewe trees down each side of the centre walk…they were hundreds of years old…… it’s a pity you didn’t see them.  I haven’t being up there in a while they could be cut out of it I don’t know….but I know where the gardener’s house was, sorry the Botti they called him ….it was next door to the gardeners house …that was knocked down and you could get into the garden the whole thing was let go to wreck and ruin….just let go to wreck and ruin.  They had huge big avenues in Headfort, they had a scuffle, that was pulled behind two horses...all those avenues were scuffed every week and each side of the avenues back maybe four foot from each side of the avenue they had grass and that was cut every week…so there was something like 22 or 23 men working just on the maintenance of the estate …which one couldn’t afford to do nowadays.

DC:     Not at all …..That’s remarkable.

FI:       Then in the farmyard in Headfort…beautiful old farmyard…. You went in through the arch and the far arch out the far side there was a big clock over it and a bell on it…the bell would ring at eight o clock in the morning for the men to start work and would ring again at one o clock to finish work….they could go down to a little canteen they had in the farmyard and have their meal there…it would ring again at two o clock and they would go back to work and ring again at six O clock and they would finish.

DC:     They would mostly be day labourers and that … how many people roughly do you think were living on the estate at the time….when you were growing up…  Any idea…

FI:       At that time …it was called the cottages they were up past rides on the left hand side….they are all knocked down now…..I think their were seven cottages there… there would have been seven families there….also if you went out the Navan road Lislan field is on the right hand side where the roundabout is at the moment…there were two, two storey houses on the right hand side they belonged to employees of the Headfort estate…..the other houses were scattered through the estate....there were possibly 9 or 10 houses in the farmyard……they were occupied…the other houses scattered throughout the estate like the Keepers house, the house at the front lodge, the herds house at the north lodge…there were two houses out past the garden…..there were a few houses scattered around the estate alright…and then the number of people that lived in houses…I couldn’t honestly say ……but there were quite a lot of people

DC:     It’s a revelation to me I wouldn’t have thought it was that many….that totals up to maybe two dozen.

FI:       Of I would say that if not more…….sure there were twenty something men just doing the maintenance on the estate and working in the garden. As I said the garden had its central heating there….it was run by coal and sticks and that there was a man that went up to it every few hours and stoke it up seven days a week in the winter time.

DC:     So your connections severed when you went off to England

FI:       Yes it did…..I also had a job there every Saturday evening one of my jobs was…we had  the key of the Mausoleum in our house….it was my job to go up and open the door of the Mausoleum and brush it out, sweep it out and make sure it was kept clean…because birds were able to get in up at the top….hawks used to nest up there crows and that ….they floor would be dirty... so it was my job to sweep that out

DC:     Difficult job…

FI:       Never got paid for it! No it wasn’t difficult ….there was a brush up there and you just sweep it out the door and also beside the Mausoleum there was a swimming pool it was all an island in the centre of the river ….a bridge came into it from either side…it was a green galvanised structure lined on the inside with timber with seats around it the whole way, carpet on the floor of the seats and there were two diving boards there ….low spring boards about three foot over the water and a high dive board which was six or seven foot over the water…….we spent ages up there as well.  In those days Headfort did a lot for the scouting movement…there were hundreds of scouts that came to Headfort every year from all over Ireland and the north of Ireland and from England and from the continent and from the time that they would come to stay there my father was in charge of looking after them as well……he gave me the job of looking after them so I would go and camp out with them and I would spend a couple of months there in the summer  just camping out with the scouts…..and I would have a great time I had a lot of friends…..

DC:     You got to meet people from all over the country…

FI:       Yes all over the country and all over England…In fact when I went to London the first person I went to…meet over there was an old friend from the scouts who came from Greenock in Scotland he was working in London and I’m still corresponding with him….I met up with him.  The lawn where the scouts camped it wouldn’t be unusual to see 7 or 8 groups camping there at the one time…there is a huge big sandpit and all around the sandpit there was beech and oak trees and at night time they would have a campfire down in the middle of that sandpit and everyone would be sitting around it …like a natural theatre and singing songs and that ……the big bonfire cooking sausages on sticks…it was fabulous.

DC:     It sounds great…so far from having an insular upbringing, there you had …should we say open upbringing…you met so many and a variety of people….

FI:       And in fact the first time I came in contact with an electric fence was coming home one night on my bicycle…. I was coming along by Lady Adele’s pond as it was called….coming home there…I ran into something I didn’t know what it was…..I went head over heels off the bike…it was quite dark….I went back to pick up the bike and every time I went to pick up the bicycle I would get a shock….I didn’t know what it was so I left it and went home.  I went up the next morning with my father and saw what it was.  That was my first contact with an electric shock.

FI:       My father had an assistant keeper working with him….a very great man according to himself…he had been everywhere and done everything but hadn’t been anywhere really….he was saying how great he was but my father said to him would you go up and knock on the door of the Mausoleum at 12 O Clock at night …he said yes of course I would knock on the door of the Mausoleum at 12 O clock at night ….my father said well I’ll give you a pound if you do…a pound was a lot of money in those days….so he said yes I’ll do it and my father said just to prove it … is my penknife if that is stuck in the door of the Mausoleum when I go up there at eight O clock in the morning I’ll give you your pound……this individual I wont mention his name he came in … father went up and hid in the rhododendron bushes beside the Mausoleum at around half eleven and be sure at 12 O clock this individual came up … he had the knife open and he holding it in his hand…god help anyone who came near him he would have stabbed them…..he went up to the Mausoleum looking around him very cautiously turned around with his back to the door of the Mausoleum and got the knife and stuck it in the door of the Mausoleum and went to run and wasn’t he held there, wasn’t he after sticking the knife into the tail of his coat….my father said he let out this greatest scream I ever heard, peeled off the coat and ran…..and the coat was still stuck there the next morning….but he got his pound.

DC:     He got his pound…that’s a great one…they were game for playing tricks on people in those days.

FI:       Headfort also had a cricket club in those days…I can remember playing cricket up there. I still have some very good friends going back from that time…. Brendan Heary from Kilmainham…Brendan and his wife Iona in fact we were at their 50th wedding anniversary up in the golf club last Sunday night……I still have some great friends going back, but a lot of them have died.

End of Interview. 

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