The Opulence, Wild Beauty, Romance and History of Muckross House

Artist Bernadette O'Sullivan looking back on the life and work of Mary Balfour Herbert
Artist Bernadette O’Sullivan looking back on the life and work of Mary Balfour Herbert

The Art Arcade – By Bernadette O’Sullivan

There’s unabashed opulence, wild beauty and true romance attached to the history of Muckross House, Killarney.  I recently took a guided tour of this magnificient building and how I wished I could have been transported back in time to silently witness the hustle bustle of the 32 servants that once served the every need of the residents.  The wear and tear of the Valentia slate floors in the basement bear testament to this servitude.

One of the main reasons I wanted to tour the house was to view the art of Mary Balfour Herbert and to get a sense of the life she lived.

The Herbert family owned The Muckross Estate from 1670 and accrued most of their vast wealth from copper mining on the Muckross peninsula.

While travelling in Europe,  Henry John Herbert met and fell in love with Mary Balfour (who grew up in Scotland).  They married in 1837 when Mary was twenty and they moved back to the Muckross estate.  They first lived together at Torc Cottage , under the shadow of the waterfall – (this has since been demolished).  Mary brought a large dowry to the marriage and so I guess it was with ease that they decided to start work on their new dream home in 1839 and in 1843 Muckross House was ready to move into.

Having had no formal art education apart from drawing lessons in childhood, Mary became an accomplished water-colourist.  Another example of my strongly held belief that learning the tricks and skill of illustration  from a young age opens the way to excelling in your chosen field of art.

Torc Waterfall - By Mary Balfour Herbert
Torc Waterfall – By Mary Balfour Herbert

As I walked through the grand rooms I wondered where she might have mixed her paints or where she did her sketching.  In my mind, I could hear echoes of her four children screaming in play as all children do.

She was quite a prolific artist.  On her husband’s birthday in 1860, her gift to him was an album of forty two landscape views of the surrounding district and when pompous Queen Victoria visited in 1861 she was given a parting gift of three of her paintings.

Torc Bridge By Mary Balfour-Herbert
Torc Bridge By Mary Balfour-Herbert

Nearly three years work went into preparing for the queen’s visit.  There was extensive landscaping  work done and lavish changes made inside too.  All for the prestige of hosting this woman and her entourage of fifty servants for only two nights.   This silliness contributed to their financial ruin which culminated in forfeiting the house and estate to the bank in 1899.

It was eventually bought by Lord Ardilaun, of the Guiness family.  He let it out as a shooting and fishing lodge.  William Bowers Bourn, wealthy owner of Empire Gold Mining in northern California was one of his visiting customers.  He and his wife fell in love with the place and bought it as a wedding gift for their only child Maud.  Maud married Arthur Rose Vincent from Co.Clare and they lived there with their two children.  Sadly, in1929 Maud died of pneumonia in New York at the age of 47.  She was actually on route to California to see her father who had a stroke.  He made a full recovery after, which makes it even more sad.

In 1932 Maud’s widower Arthur and her parents decided it was too much for any one person to maintain and presented it as a gift to the Irish nation.  What a gift it is!

I would highly recommend the guided tour.  There are many examples of Mary Herbert’s paintings on show.  For me, seeing this work brings to life her spirit and her passion for her beloved lakes and woodlands.  She is buried alongside her husband in Killegy Graveyard not far from Muckross.

Contacts for Bernadette O’Sullivan are: Email :
Address: Ballybeg, Currow, Killarney, Co. Kerry, Ireland.
Tel: +353 (0)87 2804574