The Romance of the Ilchester Oak in Glenstal

by in About Murroe, Local History

As you drive up the front avenue of Glenstsal Abbey today, you will see on the left-hand side, just before you come to the first lake, an old oak tree. It has lost one of its main branches, but nonetheless stands nobly in the middle of the Park. It is part of the primitive oak forest of Ireland, witness to a bygone age.    Incidentally it is also witness to a legend, which provides us with one of the most interesting romances associated with the Parish of Murroe.

In the year 1771, Captain Standish O’Grady, a widow, lived  with his only daughter, Mary, in Capercullen House, which stood in front of the lovely terraced garden in Glenstal. Mary was a very attractive girl, then aged 18. During her coming-out ball in Limerick City, she met a young lieutenant, who was temporarily stationed with his regiment in Limerick. His name was Henry Thomas, Lord Stavordale, son and heir to the Earl of Ilchester. Tradition has it that they fell in love at first sight. For months they continued to meet at parties and dances, while Stavordale lost no opportunity to ride out to Cappercullen to visit Mary. It soon became obvious to Capt. O’Grady that the young lieutenant was not suffering from a mere infatuation, but rather that he was seriously in love and on the point of proposing marriage to Mary. He decided to take action, believing that the Earl of Ilchester would never allow his son and heir to marry the daughter of an unknown Irish squire.  He wrote at once to the Earl, saying that he had learnt that young Stavordale had got into some kind of scrape, and it would be well to have him removed from Limerick. The Earl acted on the advice, and the young lieutenant was sent back to England. His visits to Cappercullen ceased, and poor Mary had to pine her heart out as she walked the woods alone.

In fact, the separation from her lover soon caused Mary to languish, and she became quite ill.  But her father, though he loved his daughter dearly, could find no solution to her predicament. One day, about three months after Stavordale had left Limerick, Capt. O’Grady received a letter from the Earl of Ilchester, saying that a friend of his, Colonel Prendergast, would be passing through Limerick in a few days. The Earl had asked him to call to thank O’Grady personally for the way he had acted in connection with Stavordale.  Colonel Prendergast duly arrived in Cappercullen and was received by Capt. O’Grady, who insisted that he stay in Cappercullen House. After seeing Mary, and noticing how pale and unhappy she looked, the Colonel decided to take up the matter with his host. He even suggested that the girl should be sent to a warmer climate for a rest.

Capt. O’Grady, who knew all the time the cause of his daughter’s depression, decided to take his guest into his confidence and tell him the whole story. He explained that Mary had only begun to fail when she was separated from her lover, and that the young man in question was none other than Lord Stavordale.   He then told how he had acted in writing to the Earl of Ilchester, feeling that the latter would never allow his son to marry her. At that moment, Colonel Prendergast, who was, in fact, no less a person that the earl of Ilchester, turned to Capt. O’Grady and said: “Sir, I am the Earl of Ilchester, and I can think of no one more suitable for my son to marry than Mary.  I have walked and talked with her these past few days, and have already come to love her as my future daughter-in-law”.

And so it turned out that Mary O’Grady married Lord Stavordale. They were married in Abington Church (Murroe), in 1772, and spent the early years of their married life in Holland House, London They had four children, a son and three daughters. It is not known if they ever returned to Cappercullen House, to stroll hand-in-hand through the deer park on the front avenue of what is now Glenstal Abbey, to admire the Oak Tree on whose branch they used to swing.

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