An Irishman's Diary

About four miles south of Cork city, on the South Ring Road, the N25, and bounded to the west by Frankfield Road, is Mount Vernon…

About four miles south of Cork city, on the South Ring Road, the N25, and bounded to the west by Frankfield Road, is Mount Vernon House. It was owned by the Munster Motorcycle Club until about 15 years ago, when it was purchased by an American with Irish connections. In the words of the Irish Georgian Society, it is "in a desperate state of neglect".

A much earlier owner of Mount Vernon, Sir Henry Browne Hayes, was a wealthy citizen who, for all his irresponsible, gadabout ways, rose to be sheriff of Cork - the equivalent of mayor. In 1797, when aged about 35, he abducted a wealthy Quaker, Mary Pike, who was heiress to a fortune of £20,000, and forced her to go through a form of marriage ceremony with him at Mount Vernon. Soon after the abduction, Mary Pike was released. Was the "marriage" ever consummated? We shall never know.

After three years in hiding, in the belief that the passage of time would have softened the gravity of the offence in the eyes of the judiciary, Sir Henry surrendered himself to the authorities. The Irish Georgian Society in Dublin possesses a transcript of his trial. Because of water stains, some of the text is difficult to read. The prosecution was led by the eminent John Philpot Curran, whose presentation hardly lived up to his distinguished reputation. Addressing the crowd applauding him outside the court, he said: "If I gain the day, you must lose the knight."

The jury having returned a verdict of guilty, Mr Justice Day, who had no power to mitigate the sentence, condemned Sir Henry to be hanged at Gallows Green (Greenmount). Later, the sentence was commuted to transportation to the penal colony of New South Wales.

Local balladeers took a lighter view of the offence:

The fate of Sir Henry is such a hard case,

Unable in Cork to exhibit his face,

Pursued by the brethren, proclaimed in the papers,

Though his boyish misdeeds were mere boyish capers. . .

A bawdier version, to the tune of Merrily danced the Quaker, went:

Sir Henry kissed behind the bush,

Sir Henry kissed the Quaker,

And if he did the ugly thing

I'm sure he didn't ate her.

But the abduction really was no laughing matter. Mary Pike seems never to have recovered from her ordeal and, for the last few years of her life, was confined in a mental asylum.

Sir Henry travelled to New South Wales on the notorious Atlas, which was crammed with famished and dying United Irishmen. Being a man of means, he had been able to persuade Captain Richard Brooks to allow him certain privileges, even being permitted to bring his servant, Samuel Breckwell, along with him.

During his stay in the colony, he was suspected of sedition and endured terms on the hellish Norfolk Island, on Van Diemen's Land and in the coal mines at Newcastle, north of Sydney. He also incurred the governor's wrath for his attempt, in 1801, to found a masonic lodge. To this day he is honoured as the founder of freemasonry in Australia. He is best remembered in Australia for having built the original Vaucluse House, near Watson's Bay where his standard of living was "as civilised as that of a country squire". Not long after his return to Ireland, the house was purchased by William Charles Wentworth, a surgeon from Northern Ireland who would become one of the most eminent citizens of the colony. Wentworth demolished the house and built the house which stands at Vaucluse today.

After Sir Henry's return to Ireland in 1813, he settled back into life in Cork, but it seems unlikely that he was ever persona grata again in his native city. The following description suggests that, with advancing years, the slim man we see in the portrait had been transformed: "A portly person, wearing striped trousers, a blue coat with brass buttons, and having a rubicund face, charged with effrontery, and shaded by the broad leaf of a sombrero." In old age, enfeebled and blind, sitting outside his house in Grattan Hill, he would ask passers-by to take his chair and lead him into the sun. Perhaps acclimatised to the Australian weather, he was reported to have said: "It is so much colder nowadays to what it was when I was sheriff."

Sir Henry died in May 1833 and is buried in a vault in Christchurch in South Main Street. In its obituary, the Cork Constitution stated: "On Friday, at his residence, Grattan Hill, most sincerely and universally regretted, Sir Henry Browne Hayes, Knight, aged seventy years. He sustained a very severe illness for many months with pious resignation. He was a kind and indulgent parent, and a truly adherent friend. The suavity and gentlemanly manners he possessed made him endeared to every person who had the honour of his acquaintance."

About two years ago the Irish Examiner published several letters I wrote about the state of the wall paintings by Nathaniel Grogan in Mount Vernon. I had thought that, in the year when the cultural capital of Europe was about to mount an exhibition by James Barry, another distinguished Cork painter of the 18th century, the city fathers, the Crawford Art Gallery and the scores of Cork arts students would rally to the cause. They didn't.

In face of this extraordinary civic apathy, all credit to The Irish Georgian Society, whose efforts have resulted in Mount Vernon being included in the 2008 World Monuments List of 100 Most Endangered Sites, a list prepared every two years by the New York-based World Monuments Fund. The time has come for radical action. The makeshift cosmetic patchwork recently undertaken will not halt the inevitable ravages of time.

One can only hope that the staff of the Crawford Art Gallery and the students of Crawford Art School and UCC might bestir themselves to help rescue the house and those invaluable paintings by one of the city's most distinguished painters.