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Towerhill – A Ruined Mayo Mansion

Built by Isidore Blake at the end of the 18th Century, Towerhill was a very fine “Big House” in Mayo. Standing 6 bays wide and 3 bays deep over basement, the house was reputedly built on the site of an old burial ground and church dedicated to St. Patrick near Carnacon. The 340 acres of the demesne proper were described by a visitor in 1838 as “splendid ornamental ground”. One year earlier, Lewis refers to “the beautiful seat of Major Blake, situated in a noble demesne. The house stands on an eminence commanding fine views of the surrounding country and the adjacent mountains of Partree [sic]”.

Towerhill Carnacon Mayo

Towerhill House in its Heyday (Courtesy AWM)

Catholic landlords, the Blakes were descendants of one of the Twelve Tribes of Galway and are credited with having reintroduced the newly organised Gaelic Football to County Mayo, by sponsoring a 2-hour match on their land in 1885. The local team, Carnacon, wore the red and green that were to become the colours of the county team.

The green and red colours were presumably selected in response to Young Irelander Thomas Davis’ poem “The Green Above The Red”.

“Full often when our fathers saw the Red above the Green,

They rose in rude but fierce array, with sabre, pike and scian,

And over many a noble town, and many a field of dead,

They proudly set the Irish Green above the English Red.”

But change was afoot. At the time of the foundation of the Irish National Land League in nearby Castlebar in 1879, the Blakes owned 11,900 acres (4,800 hectares) in Mayo and Galway. By the early 20th Century, however, almost all of this land had passed into the hands of former tenant farmers.

Towerhill House, Mayo

Towerhill’s ivy-covered façade

Writing in the 1930s, well-known Mayo local historian and journalist JF Quinn visited Towerhill, noting that “practically the whole country hereabouts was up to recently in with the landlords’ demesnes or grazing ranches, the sections occupied by tenants being congested and the land not of the primest. Now, all outside the demesnes proper has been broken up and picturesque homesteads abound, the land being extremely well cultivated.”

Of Towerhill itself, where he was visiting retired captain Valentine J Blake (b.1866), Quinn continues “The demesne is of considerable size and well timbered. Gigantic trees, hundreds of years old, abound with immense stretches of charming woodlands devoted to sheep, cattle, meadows and cultivation. The entrance and up-to-date farmyard indicate farming on a big scale and it is evidently a place that requires considerable labour and outlay. The mansion is a huge solid structure of local limestone, of some architectural beauty. It contains many fine apartments, antique furniture and portraits in oils of various members of the family adorn the walls.”

Valentine Blake, unmarried, died in 1947, aged 81, at which point the demesne itself and house were sold to local landowners. The roof was removed and Towerhill emptied of its valuables.

Towerhill window

Window showing remains of framing

Towerhill House today

Today, the ivy-covered roofless shell of Towerhill lies hidden in forestry, long forgotten and rarely visited. It doesn’t share the same place in the Mayo public’s consciousness as the neighbouring Moore Hall estate. If you are interested in Connacht’s “big house” heritage, you can search sites and families on NUIG’s wonderful Landed Estates website.

Posted in Blog | Tagged , , , , , , | 24 Comments

24 Responses to Towerhill – A Ruined Mayo Mansion

  • Alexandra Williams said on May 23, 2014 at 15:38:

    Thank you! As an Australian descendant of the Towerhill Blake Family, I appreciate the photos and history.

    My cousin Helen Blake has done a lot of research into the Galway and Towerhill connections. I recall that she had some information about a fire c.1930s (which would explain the removal of Towerhill’s roof and conversion to ruins). She also said that part of the estate was subsequently used by the government for forestry development – as illustrated by your photographs.

    – Alexandra Cornwell
    Brunswick Heads NSW Australia

    • Barry Murphy said on May 29, 2014 at 10:36:

      Thank you Alexandra. It is a fascinating site to visit. Regards, Barry

  • Stephen Fitzpatrick said on July 5, 2014 at 01:33:

    I liked reading this, as I grew up at the top of the road down into the house. My family, the O’Malleys, have been farming some of the land for over 60 years. I remember playing around the ruins of the big house as a child, as my mother did before me. I love reading about its history

  • Ros Houlihan said on March 5, 2015 at 16:17:

    Lovely to read this account of Tower Hill. I have a letter dated January 1865 requesting my grandfather, Jimmy Dunne, to go to the Blakes in Tower Hill to ride out and train horses for them. He spent a number of years at Tower Hill and then went to Marlborough Heath, outside Portlaoise, with the family before going on to train horses as an independent trainer on the Curragh.

    • Barry Murphy said on March 16, 2015 at 10:36:

      Thank you for your lovely information, Ros.
      Could I possibly request a copy of your letter? Wouldn’t that be an interesting addition to this post. Let me know.
      Regards, Barry.

  • John Collins said on August 20, 2015 at 17:52:

    I did an MA in 2011/2012. In the subject matter that I researched, I came across details of a battle to select a candidate for the Irish Home Rule Party to replace an MP, John Dennehy, who was forced to resign. The preferred choice of the locals at the Convention in Castlebar was Edmund Blake of Towerhill. However John Dillon, the then Party Leader, had other ideas. He wanted a London Doctor and friend of his, Robert Ambrose, a native of Newcastle West, Co. Limerick, selected. He achieved his aim after aborting the first Convention in Castlebar and re-fixing it for Westport the following Sunday, where he swung the Convention to his way of thinking, by what appeared to be a whole lot of skulldruggery.

    • Barry Murphy said on August 25, 2015 at 12:05:

      Thanks for that interesting snippet, John.

    • Maura said on November 29, 2016 at 23:46:

      Hi John,

      Can you provide the year in which the event you describe (to select a candidate for the Irish Home Rule Party to replace an MP, John Dennehy, who was forced to resign) took place?

      Thank you!

      • Barry Murphy said on November 30, 2016 at 11:03:

        Hi Maura,
        The event described by John in his comment, above, took place during 1893. John Deasy MP (not Dennehy) was forced to resign his West Mayo seat in the UK Houses of Parliament after a scandal. Of course, Ireland was still part of the UK at that time. Robert Ambrose took the by-election uncontested on 8 August 1893 and won several following general elections, remaining as the MP for West Mayo until 1910. Both Deasy and Ambrose were members of the anti-Parnell Irish National Federation party.

  • emma hughes said on November 1, 2015 at 14:17:

    It’s so lovely to read about our local history. I live beside this house and as a family that owns some of this property, we have memories as children walking up to this house and admiring our history. Sadly, today this house is just a sad sight. The beautiful stone work stolen and it’s just stripped of its beauty. To think houses like these are just closed off to the public to admire and left as a forgotten story is a disgrace.

  • Eugene Hughes said on November 1, 2015 at 21:59:

    If you access online the National Archives Census Of Ireland 1901 and browse Census 1901 > Mayo > Burriscarra and Towerhill Demesne, you can see the actual Census form returned from Towerhill House in the handwriting of the head of the household. The number of rooms, windows, outbuildings, etc, are available on the original Census form. It is also interesting to compare the more than 13 rooms in Towerhill House with the average of the other houses in the townland. A lot of them are one room shacks. All that exploitation, wealth and privilege was gone in the space of 20 years in the early 20th Century.

  • emma hughes said on November 2, 2015 at 14:53:

    Is there any way, I wonder, of getting the walkway up to this beautiful house reopened. As I walk up there everyday, it’s impossible for the public to get up there in comfort to admire the building. There was also a beautiful bridge, but all the stone pillars were sadly stolen as well. Why people do such horrible things I’ll never know.

    • Barry Murphy said on November 8, 2015 at 14:55:

      Thanks for your comments, Emma. I guess access is a question for the landowner. The walk up to the house that goes over the bridge is lovely alright.

  • Bronwyn Smits said on July 9, 2016 at 04:57:

    Hello All,
    I too am a descendant of the Blakes of Towerhill and am visiting the region in October 2016. I would very much like to see the ruins of the house. Could you please advise who I need to gain permission from, in order to do this?

    • Barry Murphy said on July 31, 2016 at 21:07:

      Thank you for your comment Bronwyn and I have emailed you.

  • John O'Malley said on July 15, 2016 at 14:07:

    There is an old tree remaining from the estate to the right hand rear side of the house. It is a large Holm Oak or hybrid and holds its leaves all year round. It would be nice to have this house at least tidied up a bit, with consideration to the Horseshoe Bats that have taken residence. Also, the pictures above show a window with an arch which is on the gable wall and I believe this was part of the chapel in the house.

    • Barry Murphy said on July 31, 2016 at 21:09:

      Interesting about the Holm Oak, John, thanks. I’ll have to look out for it on my next ramble around the place.

  • Verplancke Johnny said on July 28, 2016 at 21:21:

    Hello Alexandra, planning my 2016 Ireland holiday I stumbled across Towerhill House and read your comment. As far as I know, the reason for the removal of the roofs of so many estate houses and other properties was due to the fact that if a house had no roof, the owner did not have to pay taxes on it. So I’m guessing the new owners who bought it, mentioned here, removed it for that reason. I will try to get to it in any case while I’m in County Mayo to take some photographs… Greetz John.

    • Barry Murphy said on July 31, 2016 at 21:10:

      Yes indeed, John, the roof was removed from many “big houses” for that reason.

  • Stephen Fitzpatrick said on November 5, 2016 at 20:15:

    I don’t return home often, but I agree with Emma that the forestry have let the road grow over and access to the house is near impossible. It should be cleaned up and some work done on the house itself, as it’s full of so much history. I’ve done a lot of research about the estate and the Blake family.

    • Barry Murphy said on November 7, 2016 at 09:41:

      Thanks Stephen for your comment, although we must also respect the current landowners and their usage of the land that is now theirs.

  • Maura said on November 16, 2016 at 23:39:

    Hello Barry,
    I’m a descendant of George Browne (born 1823?). As I understand it, George’s spouse was Bridget Blake. Together, they had six children, one of whom was John Browne.

    John Browne married Mary Ansbro. Mary’s parents were Joseph Ansbro and Mary Fallon.

    Do you or any others know of the Browne or Blake connection to Tower Hill? The “big house” is definitely part of my family history and I would love to know more, if possible.

    Thanking you kindly in advance for any information you might be able to provide.


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