Hely-Hutchinson family papers shed light on life for landed gentry

Wartime letters from Lt-Col Dick Hely-Hutchinson to form core of exhibition

The Hely-Hutchenson family of Swords in north County Dublin, sent two sons to the first World War. The stories of Coote and Dick, culled from the family archive in Fingal, is the story of an Anglo-Irish family. Video: Ronan McGreevy


The story of the Hely-Hutchinsons of Donabate, an Anglo- Irish family, is contained inside 110 boxes in the archives of Fingal County Council in north County Dublin.

It is a remarkable collection of legal papers, letters and personal family memorabilia, including several albums of photographs that cast light on the economic and social life of a class of people now largely disappeared – Ireland’s landed gentry – and how the first World War affected it.

Among the papers are leases on many properties in central Dublin – St Stephen’s Green, Cuffe Street, Harcourt Street, Camden Street, Earlsfort Terrace and Leeson Street – and documents relating to properties farther out, such as in Rathfarnham, Palmerstown, Milltown and the area around Donabate and Swords.

Many date from the 1700s and bear the imprint of John Hatch – after whom Hatch Street is named. John’s father, Henry Hatch, was the land agent for the Church of Ireland archbishop of Dublin, for whom he bought and sold property, an activity carried on by John as land agent for St Patrick’s Cathedral.

Three families, Hatch, Synge (forebears of the playwright), and Hely-Hutchinson became intertwined through marriage in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In 1834, a considerable portion of the Hatch family fortune came with Sophia Synge Hutchinson when she married a cousin, a naval captain, the Hon Coote Hely- Hutchinson from Chapelizod, who decamped to Lissen Hall, the Hatch seat in Swords.

Thus began the Hely-Hutchinson family that was to make a notable impact on north Co Dublin, in the areas of Donabate and Swords in particular. They owned some 700 acres on the north bank of the Broad Meadow Water, between Swords and Donabate, and centred around two substantial homes, Lissen Hall and Seafield House.

The family’s archive was given to Fingal’s Local Studies Library and Archive in Swords some years ago by the two remaining descendants, Caroline Harlow and Fiona Selway, and archivist Colm McQuinn has been working his way through it since.

His current project – in preparation for an exhibition this summer – is on the family and the first World War.

This is based on the stories of two brothers, Coote and Dick, born in 1870 and 1871, who served in the British army before and during the war. They were both in the Royal Fusiliers (City of London) and each achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel.

The experience of Coote provides a fascinating insight into how their father, John Hely-Hutchinson, fought against the odds to preserve the family’s wealth and position. Dick, being the second son, was largely cut off from the family’s money, but a series of letters he wrote from the trenches in northern France describe vividly how grim was life for all, officers and men.

It is these handwritten letters to his father, mother, brother and a sister, Cissy, that will form the core of McQuinn’s exhibition.

While Coote purchased his rank and saw out the war in England, training recruits in rapid fire musketry (and received a military Order of the British Empire (OBE) for his efforts), Dick went to Sandhurst, the army’s officer training academy and earned his commission, eventually being dispatched to the front. He was wounded there three times and earned a Distinguished Service Order (DSO).

In an early letter to his mother, dated October 3rd, 1914, Dick writes almost lyrically about the quality of life and beauty of the French landscape. “They have the most beautiful farm buildings here,” he tells her, “enormous barns & stables, & acres & acres of corn, most of which is not stacked yet. There are no fences, great big bare plateaus, with very deep valleys & thick woods, ideal places for artillery fighting . . .”

What happened to this arcadian idyll is revealed in horrific detail in a letter to his father five months later, describing the reality of life in the trenches.

“The trenches were in an awful state, one Trench we had to abandon & dig a new one, we filled in the old one with 26 dead bodies in it, some of them all swollen up & so churned into the mud & slush that we could not pull them out even with a rope. In another they had to take the bodies out in bits and bury them, as the arms etc came away if you pulled them. I think we buried at least 120 bodies, all under heavy fire at night.”

In November 1916, the reali ties of being the second son and the declining fortunes of the Anglo-Irish landed gentry presented themselves to Dick when his father cut off his allowance. John was desperate to ensure that the first-born Coote inherit an unencumbered estate and that Dick’s apparently middle-class wife, Alice Cunningham from Northern Ireland, whom the father could not bear even to refer to by name, was kept away from the family’s money.

In a note in the archive, John gives short shrift to a suggestion about his will from his solicitor, dismissing it out of hand: “It gives the Belfast woman at Dick’s death the power to put £5,000 in her own pocket.”

By February 1917, Dick noticed that his allowance had been cut and, from his home in England, wrote a blistering attack, saying his father had treated him “real badly”.

Bemoaning his father’s failure to raise the matter with him when they last met, he writes: “Here am I, a Lt-Col with 26 years service, doing my best in this Great War and you treat me with as little consideration as you would a clerk.”

On the back of the original letter is written: “Dick’s last letter, February 18th, 1917.”

His father died in September 1919, apparently unreconciled with his second son.

The houses and land in Swords and Donabate went to Coote who farmed and gained standing in post-independence Ireland as a local councillor and a member of the boards, including the Royal Dublin Society. He also took a strong interest in St Ita’s mental hospital in Portrane.

Dick died in England in 1953, having apparently lived on his army pension. Coote died long before him, in 1930. His widow Julia sold everything, moving into a more modest home, Newport House, nearby.

On Coote’s death, WT Cos- grave, president of the executive council (as the post-independence Irish Free State cabi- net was known), wrote to Julia: “His country will miss the splen did public services and activities which he contributed to her welfare for so many years.”

Coote and Julia had five children – two sons and three daughters. Sons Michael and David had a daughter each, Caroline and Fiona, benefactors of the Fingal archive.

McQuinn hopes to have the exhibition open to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the start of the war on August 1st, 1914. He is taking part in a conference, The Country House and the Great War, at NUI Maynooth this Thursday and Friday.