The Secrets of Massy's Estate
"Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you" - Frank Lloyd Wright
In the midst of a global pandemic, in a world that's been enveloped in a cloak of fear and uncertainty, there are few constants. Except, that is, for nature. Like most people, nature has been my steady companion for the past six months. It's offered a welcome reprieve from the tedium of lockdown; it's given me the space to think, breathe and find perspective; it's reminded me to appreciate the small things.
Living in close proximity to many of South Dublin's forested walking routes has been a lifesaver. As part of the Dublin Mountains Way we've got Cruagh Wood, Tibradden, Kilmashogue, Ticknock and the Hellfire Club, all within eight kilometres and part of our frequent hiking routes. Somehow Massy's Wood & Estate seemed to have slipped through the cracks for me. That was, until last week. I think it might be my new favourite.
Unlike some of the other routes, this one is relatively flat throughout. It's more of a gentle amble really than a hike and is very easy to navigate. There are two main routes through the forest with many crisscrossing paths on which to veer off. You can choose to follow the Nature trail or the River Trail, the longest of which is 6 kms - maps available for download here. In the 1930s, a German forester planted this area as an urban forest, introducing species from Europe, America and Asia. As you stroll the Nature trail, these impressive specimens will keep you company. Many have plaques to tell you what they are. Make sure to seek out the giant Redwoods. As you can see, they're very friendly. And absolutely enormous (no plaque necessary).
The forest is dense throughout and forms the lushest green canopy overhead; the definition of a verdant sanctuary with the soothing sounds of the Owendoher River flowing by. It's incredibly peaceful. I imagine the sun finds it difficult to penetrate those trees, even on the sunniest days - they're all encompassing. In these woods you might be lucky enough to see a Sika deer or maybe a badger, though you'll be more likely to see foxes or red squirrels.
Following the bends in the River trail, there are lots of nooks and crannies to explore with a series of waterfalls trickling between the rocks along the way. But now for the best bit. What makes Massy's Wood so special is the remains of the estate hidden within - a secret garden, if you will.
It's almost impossible to believe that a magnificent mansion once stood on this site. The woods and estate are named after the Massy family; of Norman lineage, members of which were part of the Norman invasion of Ireland in 1066. However, the family only developed land holdings in this country after the Cromwellian invasion of the 17th century. The history of this family and their relationship with Ireland is a fascinating one, but not one I'm going to delve into much here other than to say there was intrigue, nihilism, alcoholism, financial mismanagement, love affairs and bankruptcy. There's a brilliant book about the Massys, ‘If Those Trees Could Speak’ by Frank Tracy which you can read here. Dying to find out more about these ruins, I stumbled upon this book and devoured it in one evening.
Much of what remains is tragically in a ruinous state, enclosed within an outer garden wall with a number of entrances including the arch above. The mansion was known as Killakee House, built in the early years of the 19th century; all the more surprising when you see how little is left of it. Here is the house in its heyday, an ascendancy mansion overlooking impressive formal gardens. At this time, the estate was vast and included the Hellfire Club. It had come into the hands of the Massys through marriage.
I was gobsmacked when I saw this image online. For anyone who's walked in Massy's Wood, it's difficult to reconcile this photo to what currently stands on the site today. I find it a little bit heartbreaking to see the mass destruction of history. Apparently these walls once housed one of this island's finest formal gardens with a conservatory by one of Ireland's foremost designers of glasshouses, Richard Turner. Mr Turner is probably best known for his wonderful Curvilinear glasshouse at the Irish National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, as well as his Palm Houses in Kew Gardens, London and the Botanic Gardens in Belfast.
Above you can see what's left of the few remaining walls: the central image shows what was formerly a series of irrigation troughs. We know from historical records that these woods were once the highlight of the estate - now they are the only remaining feature. So what happened to this once impressive estate? In a nutshell, it all started to go downhill under the ownership of the 6th Baron Massy, whose extravagant lifestyle led to a downturn of fortune for the family. He died in 1915, leaving behind an estate which by now was in huge debt to the bank. His unfortunate son Hugh, and subsequently his grandson Hugh Hamon, the 8th Baron, inherited everything, including those debts, and the associated high running costs of maintaining such a home.
You get an idea of the once-status and wealth of this family when you read about the sale of contents in 1919, executed to generate some disposable income for the remaining family: listed were paintings by Giotto, Raphael and the Irish painter Walter Osborne. But none of their efforts were enough: the estate was finally appropriated by the bank in 1924 and the 8th Baron forcefully evicted. What a sad fall from grace. The only concession made to the family was to allow Hugh Hamon and his family to remain living in the nearby gate lodge, Beehive Cottage. The bank put a caretaker in place but unable to find a buyer, sold Killakee House to a builder for salvage. In 1941 it was demolished. Can you imagine how devastating that must've been for Hamon, watching on from his little cottage. He died in 1958, aged 63.
Thankfully, the woods have been preserved and maintained by forestry service Coillte and a conservation group Friends of Massy Woods. It's a wonderful resource for walkers and lovers of nature alike, though I wonder how many are aware of its past stories. You can really feel the pull of history as you walk through what's left of this estate. Surrounded by dense forest, it's dark and feels somewhat eerie. You almost expect to meet the ghost of Hamon, doing as he'd been doing for many years after the demolition of his childhood home - wandering the woods and making amiable conversation with the locals. Think of him when you make your next visit.