Dear Mr Semple I am that girl……

Week III

‘I am that girl’ Anne Root, formerly Browne.

‘I am that girl’ Anne Root, formerly Browne.

Anne Root (formerly Browne ) was about 16 years-of-age when she went to work for the Blakes at Menlo Castle. She was employed as a housemaid, and joined two other house staff, a parlourmaid, and a cook Delia Earley, with whom she shared an attic room. She and Delia became warm friends, and shared a terrifying ordeal when they were trapped together on the roof of the castle as it burnt in a raging fire on July 26 1910.

Delia and Ellen Blake, the daughter of the family, died that night. Anne leapt, in flames, from the burning roof but fortunately landed on hay, and survived.

Sixty-seven years later she described the last pitiful moments of the castle, and snatches of her life as a young girl in a letter to a Galway solicitor, Mr Maurice Semple.

She was born at her home, 14 Corrib Terrace, and went to school at the Mercy. She had four sisters and three brothers. Her father, Michael Browne, was a gilly, taking ‘rich people salmon fishing’, but he died of pneumonia at only 40 years. Her mother died two years later. The children were all separated, and, from that day ‘did not feel like a family’.

Long before she worked there, Anne must have been familiar with Menlo Castle. In her letter she recalled Sundays when, as a member of the Hibernian Hall, which let out boats for rowing up the river, she and a ‘gang of us boys and girls would take our boats, row away beyond Menlo Castle to a sort of a park. Everybody brought food and we did not have a chance to be hungry. Then we’d settle down and sing every song we ever knew. These were happy days.’

‘We were always hungry’

Anne’s first job was ‘at Philip O’Gorman’s stationery store’….where ‘I did not get much pay.’ She does not say how much she was paid at the castle, except for her friendship with Delia Earley there was not much comfort. There was the parlourmaid Delia Rabbitt who served the afternoon tea. The groom was James Kirwan, whom the girls liked, and who on the night of the fire had the sense to pile hay on the ground (see last week’s Diary ), and urged Anne and Delia to jump.

Lady Blake ran the house, and laid down ‘a lot of rules and regulations’ for the staff to follow. The work day began at 6am. But the man who appeared to control everything was James Ward, the gate lodge keeper. He always kept a large bunch of keys tied to his belt. He kept doors locked, and unlocked them when the room was needed. He would drive Lady Blake on her visits to town or to see her friends. Ward and Kirwan supervised the gardens which ‘were gorgeous’, but despite the great abundance of vegetables, Anne claimed that Ward only supplied the staff with the minimum of fresh vegetables to eat. Anne wrote that sugar, milk and eggs were equally sparse. ‘We were always hungry. I felt sorry for Delia. She wasn’t a very healthy girl, and she didn’t get enough nourishment.’

Only chance of escape

I described last week that on the night of the fire Lady Camilla and Sir Valentine Blake were away in Dublin. Before she left Lady Blake had impressed upon Anne and Delia that they must remove the oil lamp from Eleanor (Ellen ), their invalid daughter, before she went to sleep. But in a series of encounters with Ellen, whose moods swung from kindness to hysterical rage in quick succession, the girls eventually went to bed, the oil lamp fatally left in Ellen’s room.

At about 4am Anne suddenly woke. She smelt smoke and heard a big crash. ‘I opened the door, the whole lower floor was on fire, almost up to our door.’ Anne pulled Delia out of bed. ‘Poor Delia went limp.’ Their only chance of escape was to get onto the roof. Anne climbed out the window, and had to reach back to pull Delia after her. Delia begged her to let her go, but ‘God gave me strength to hold on. With my two arms around her I pulled her after me.’

Anne ‘screamed and screamed’ before she saw Ward and Kirwan running down below. ‘I begged them for help’, but Ward ran off looking for Miss Blake. Kirwan ran to the barn for hay. ‘Don’t jump together’ Kirwan shouted. ‘I let Delia go….By then my nightgown had caught fire, I jumped.’ She woke up and saw a priest kneeling at her side. ‘He anointed me. I woke again and there were crowds of people around….’

After a long period of recovery, Anne emigrated to America where she married, and had children and grandchildren. Maurice Semple’s books on the Corrib prompted her grandchildren to urge her to tell her story. She wrote two letters from America. The first one, on March 10 1977, began: ‘Dear Mr Semple, I am that girl……

NOTES: There was some interest in last week’s Diary. Many writers suggesting that the ruin should be preserved, at least the ivy to be removed. Otherwise its walls will collapse. The Blakes’ involvement with the governance and commerse of the town over many centuries, were part of the story of Galway.

Except for a brief period when Cromwellian soldiers took over the castle in 1651, the Blakes lived continuously at Menlo Castle from the late 16th century. After the fire of 1910, the castle was not rebuilt. The loss of his daughter Ellen, the death of Delia Earley, and his prestigious Menlo home had a serious effect on Sir Valentine Blake. His health declined and he died two years later. The Galway Express noted that his death was ‘widely mourned in the town’, whose citizens, who had enjoyed the freedom of the estate during the popular Maying festival every May, must have understood and shared his grief following the dreadful happenings that summer night. Lady Camilla died on March 4 1929.

Sources included By the Corribside, written and published by Maurice Semple, 1981, and Menlo - Memories and Folklore, by William Henry, on sale €20.

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