In the early hours of July 26 1910 Menlo Castle, on the bank of the river Corrib, was totally gutted by a fire. Sir Valentine and Lady Blake’s daughter, Ellen, was lost in the flames. The cook Delia Early, who lived on the attic floor, jumped to her death. Delia shared a room with housemaid Anne Browne, who waited until her clothes were in flames, before jumping. She landed on a pile of hay placed by other household staff to break her fall. Severely injured and burnt, Anne was driven on an open truck, slowly into the Galway Infirmary, lying on a door to ease her movement and pain. Local farmers gave her milk to drink to try to cool her down.
It was a dramatic night, and widely reported throughout these islands. Built in 1550, and occupied by the Blakes from 1600, the family had added a Jacobean mansion to its original old tower house. It enjoyed an outstanding view of the river. Surrounded by its famous woods Menlo Castle was a picturesque sight, and a popular meeting place for generations of Galway people who went there in their thousands to celebrate the Maying festival, during the first three Sundays of May. Even as an ivy clad ruin, it holds our gaze today as we pass it by boat, or view it from the Newcastle/Dangan side of the river.
The details of that terrible night, except the efforts made by the local people, the fire service (for such as it was at the time ), and soldiers from Renmore barracks, to tackle the blaze, were lost. The only surviving witness, Anne Browne, who was in the house the night it was destroyed, seemed to have disappeared from this world. But in fact she made a remarkable recovery. She lay on a waterbed for five months until she was well enough to leave hospital, and stay with her friends, the Cloonan family, of Bohermore. After some attempts to get work in Galway she emigrated to America where she married, had children and grandchildren. In fact it was as a result of the promptings of her grandchildren in March 1977, that she wrote to the late solicitor Maurice Semple, and told him the story of that fatal night.*
Flew into a rage
In his recently published Menlo - Memories and Folklore ** William Henry describes the final hours of that great house, and the two women lost in its flames. Sir Valentine and Lady Blake had to go to Dublin, without their daughter Ellen, whom they left behind with Delia and Anne, along with the groom, James Kirwan.
Ellen, who appears to have suffered from extreme mood swings, always liked to have an oil lamp in her room at night. Lady Blake impressed upon Delia and Anne that they must take the lamp away from Ellen as she settled down to sleep. However, when they tried Ellen flew in to a rage, and drove them from the room. Later she called them back and played the piano for them, before dismissing them again in a tantrum.
They decided to wait until Ellen was asleep. Creeping down the stairs later, they looked into her room to see Ellen still awake, hugging her cat, the lamp burning by her bedside. They went to bed concerned by the situation, but fell asleep.
At about 4am Anne suddenly woke up smelling smoke. She called Delia, but as they went to escape down the stairs, it was already on fire. Terrified they retreated back into their attic room, and climbed onto the roof. James Kirwan also woke up and found that he too was trapped by the flames. He broke the window and climbed down the ivy and ran for help. He ran to the gate lodge and came back with James Ward and Michael Faherty.
At this stage the two women were screaming for help. The men found a ladder but it was too short. They ran to the barn and collected as much hay as they could, and made it into a pile close to the castle wall. They shouted to the women to jump. Delia jumped first and was killed instantly as she landed on her head. Anne jumped immediately after, and landed on the hay. “O Kirwan,” she cried, “I am killed." Kirwan ran for the priest.
In the meantime the flames had been noticed far and wide. People came to help, and, I suppose, to stare in awe at the terrible sight. Soldiers came from Renmore Barracks, the local fire service came; but the entire castle was now engulfed in flames. Its roof collapsed. Ellen’s body was never found. One fire fighter claimed he saw a black figure moving rapidly through the flames. People agreed it probably was Ellen’s cat.
Next week: Anne Root (nee Browne ) described life in Menlo Castle
NOTES: *Maurice Semple published the letter from Mrs Anne Root (formerly Browne ), in By The Corribside, published by the author 1981. **Menlo - Memories and Folklore, by William Henry, on sale €20.