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

Tue, May 6, 2014, 06:04


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 . . .”