Located a couple of miles west of Lismore and on a superb site above the Blackwater river, Fortwilliam has an interesting story to tell.
The Gumbleton family originally from Kent purchased the land on which Fortwilliam now stands in the early eighteenth century. The land was left to the youngest son William Conner Gumbleton who in the early part of the nineteenth century built a house on the land. This was named after himself – Fort William.
William Gumbleton died an unmarried man and therefore left his beloved Fortwilliam to his nephew, John Bowen Gumbleton. In 1836, this nephew demolished the existing house and the current Fortwilliam house was built.
Fortwilliam was erected to the designs of those prolific brothers James and George William Pain, both of whom worked as apprentice architects for John Nash in London before moving to Ireland. The Pains produced houses in whatever style was requested by their clients and at Fort William they came up with a benign form of Tudor Revival.
Faced in local sandstone which has a wonderfully mottled appearance, the exterior is ornamented with an abundance of gables and pinnacles and angled chimneys but these are decorative flourishes on what is essentially a classical building, as can be seen by the regular sash windows.
Their main residence – once called Castlerichard but later renamed Glencairn – lies a little further upriver. The property on that site was substantially transformed around 1814 by John Gumbleton’s father into fashionable High Gothic (complete with faux cloister) and this may be the explanation for Fort William’s appearance: in every sense a chronological continuation of the parent house.
On John Bowen Gumbleton’s death in 1858, the estate was inherited by his son 17-year old John Henry but he died at sea eight years later in 1866. It then passed on to John’s daughter Frances. By 1910, Frances was living abroad and rented Fortwilliam to Lt-Col. Richard Keane, whose older brother is Sir John Keane of nearby Cappoquin. Frances Gumbleton died in 1914; however the Keane family continued to rent Fortwilliam until 1925 when Lieutenant Colonel Keane died.
Richard Keane and his wife Alice ‘had two cars, one of which – replete with a cocktail cabinet – was commandeered by the IRA during the War of Independence and never returned.’ Furthermore during the subsequent Civil War the servants’ wing at Fort William was occupied by Free State troops; this may help to explain why Sir John Keane’s house was burnt out in 1923 by the opposition.
Richard Keane died in 1925 following the accidental discharge of his shotgun, at this time, the property had been inherited by Frances’ nephew, John Currie, and seven years later he went on to sell it to Mr Paddy Dunne. He continued the established pattern of renting the house; among the tenants at this time was Adele Astaire, sister of Fred, who in 1932 had married Lord Charles Cavendish, younger son of the ninth Duke of Devonshire; for centuries the Devonshires have owned the neighbouring estate of Lismore Castle.
Eventually in 1944 the Gumbleton family bought Fortwilliam back before selling it once more in 1946, this time to Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor, the second Duke of Westminster for £10,000
This was the famed Bend’Or, one-time lover of Chanel who following the failure of his third marriage had fallen in love with Nancy Sullivan, daughter of Brigadier-General Edward Sullivan.
The duke bought Fort William as an Irish fishing and horse-riding retreat, but mostly as a way to woo and wed Ms Sullivan, who was 30 years his junior. An outstanding horsewoman she had grown up in Glanmire on the outskirts of Cork city. He grew up in Grosvenor House in London and, as well as Fort William, owned estates in Cheshire and Scotland.
A daughter from his first marriage, Lady Ursula Grosvenor, together with her second husband Major Stephen Vernon lived at Fairyfield outside Kinsale, County Cork.
The Duke certainly spent time in the house the dining room panelling is said to have come from the interior of one of his yachts and he is also believed responsible for installing the French painted and gilded bosieries in the drawing room.
Following his death in 1953 his widow (who only died in 2003) retained Fort William but spent the greater part of her time at Eaton Lodge, Cheshire where her stables held many fine racehorses, not least Arkle who won the Cheltenham Gold Cup three times in succession. She included the British Queen Mother among her close friends.
Fortwilliam was briefly the home of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Drummond-Wolfe .
Fort William was sold again in 1969 to an American couple, Murray and Phyllis Mitchell.
Following her death, it was bought by Ian Agnew, one-time Deputy Chairman of Lloyd’s. Ian acquired the place on a whim but he had strong Irish connections through his mother, Ruth Moore who had grown up at Mooresfort, County Tipperary. The Moores were an old Roman Catholic family. Ian’s great-grandfather, Arthur Moore was created a Papal Count in 1879; the previous year he had provided most of the funds necessary to establish the Cistercian monastery of Mount St Joseph outside Roscrea, County Tipperary. Curiously Glencairn, the estate immediately adjacent to Fort William is today occupied by Cistercian nuns.
Ian’s maternal grandmother, Lady Dorothie Feilding, was a much decorated volunteer nurse and ambulance driver during the First World War, in September 1916 she became the first woman to be awarded the Military Medal for bravery in the field. After she died in 1935 her husband Captain Charles Moore moved to England to become manager of the Royal Stud. Continuing those links, Ian’s father Sir Godfrey Agnew was for 21 years Clerk of the Privy Council.
Ian Agnew went to enormous trouble to restore and modernise Fort William while ensuring none of the patina it had accumulated was lost. The outcome was a house of tremendous comfort and warmth, very much a reflection of his personality and that of his beloved wife Sara. After Ian’s death in 2009 his wife Sarah had been literally holding the fort, and continuing the tradition of abundant hospitality already established while her husband was alive.
In 2013 Sarah Agnew decided to return to the UK and Fortwilliam was acquired by its current owner Mr David Evans Bevan .