Fernhill House Hotel and Gardens

A Gem of West Cork Hospitality – Steeped in History!

Summer 1988 – I walked through the front door of the historic period property that is Fernhill House Hotel for the first time. It was my first time as a “proper” wedding guest- feeling somewhat grown up, (being in my teens). The occasion? – a neighbour’s wedding. Passionate (even back then) about old period properties and the stories those old walls could tell. For some reason the front door of Fernhill House remained etched in my mind. Now many years, later as a historian let’s go beyond the door and explore- a rich history of architecture, period features and interesting personalities.

Fernhill House Hotel and Gardens – Fernhill House
Fernhill House circa 1890

Built as an impressive Georgian Manion House in the early 1800s, Fernhill was one of the most expensive mansion houses in the Clonakilty area complete with acres of gardens- over a 1,000-acre estate, servants’ quarters and a picture from the 1870s shows an adjoining orangery. As the estate developed: tennis courts, a cricket crease and an impressive four storey tower were added. Resplendent with many period features – “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and as a historian I am hooked by period details. Today, many features visibly exude a charm reminiscent of a bygone era, such as the ornate details of the ceilings, the stairs, the old photographs. Vestiges of old-world charm mingle seamlessly with the very best of luxurious accommodation and cuisine making Fernhill House Hotel what it is today, a West Cork Gem in Hospitality.

If the walls could talk what would be revealed about the lives and families of those early proprietors? Over the course of two centuries many personalities linked to this Georgian mansion have ensured that Fernhill House has an interesting historical pedigree, in the legal world, the literary world, Napoleonic years and the second world war.

William Francis Atkin (1798-1844) and Alicia Hungerford Stewart married in the diocese of Cork and Ross in 1826. The young couple moved to Fernhill and together had four children.

Fernhill House Hotel and Gardens – Robert Travers Atkin
Robert Travers Atkin

I have identified three, two girls Grace and Kate, and the youngest son was Robert Travers Atkin (born 1841). William Francis passed away at a very young age in 1844, aged approximately 46 years when Robert was only three years of age. Following his death, the estate was sold due to mismanagement. Robert – largely educated in France, married a Welsh woman, Mary Elizabeth Ruck in 1864. I managed to locate their marriage details and it appears they were married in Notting Hill. Shortly thereafter the couple with Robert’s two sisters, Kate and Grace and his mother moved to Australia. Kate died enroute and Grace died aged 32 in 1876. Robert excelled in Australia, becoming hugely influential. He founded a newspaper and became a distinguished politician and is recognised as a “founding father of social justice”. He died aged only 31 years. Despite his young age his influence was immense, and this can be seen in the memorial monument honouring him erected by the “Hibernian Society of Queensland in memory of their vice-president”. The monument refers to Robert as being from Fernhill- County Cork, Ireland. Following his death his widow Mary Elizabeth returned to Wales and his legacy was solidified by his son James Richard Atkin. James being called to the bar became a judge, was knighted, became a Baron and later- Lord Atkin. He is one of the most influential judges of the twentieth century famed for his judgment in the famous Donoghue-v- Stevenson Case whereby a woman found a snail in her bottle of ginger-ale, and thus began laws governing consumer protection and a duty of care to the consumer. From William Francis to his grandson- Lord Atkin, Fernhill had many influential connections.

Fernhill House Hotel and Gardens – Mr. and Mrs M. J. O’Neill
Mr. and Mrs M. J. O’Neill

Another connection I discovered was the connection between Robert Travers Atkin and Young Irelander – Thomas Davis.

Thomas Davis (Young Irelander), according to the Dictionary of Australasian Biography, Thomas Davis was a relative of Robert Travers Atkin. Thomas Davis (1814-1845) was born in Mallow, to James Davis, a Welsh surgeon and an Irish mother. His father died a month before Thomas’s birth while on way to the Peninsular War. His mother was Protestant and was supposedly related to the Chiefs of the Clan O’Sullivan Beare and old Gaelic Nobility. Thomas Davis is synonymous with the Young Ireland movement and wrote several songs including “A Nation Once Again” and “The West’s Asleep”.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder!”

Fernhill House Hotel and Gardens – O’Neill butchers – circa 1951
O’Neill butchers circa 1951

Irish novelist Margaret Wolfe Hungerford (nee Hamilton, 1855- 1897) was born in Rosscarbery, daughter of the Rector and Vicar Choral of St. Faughnan’s Cathedral, Rosscarbery. Her second marriage was to Thomas Henry Hungerford in 1882, the same familial lineage as the Hungerford women who married into the Atkin and Wright families. These were the owners of Fernhill from 1820s until just after the second world war. Margaret wrote prolifically under both her own name and that of a pseudonym “the Duchess”. She is referenced by James Joyce in Ulysses and perhaps we all know the saying “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”- yet did we know it was from her novel Molly Bawn, a famous idiom from a novelist born in Rosscarbery with links to the Hungerfords who married into Fernhill House! A wonderful literary link.

Fernhill House Hotel and Gardens – Robert Travers Memorial Queensland
Robert Travers Memorial Queensland

In the mid – 1840s the Wright family bought Fernhill and cared for Fernhill for almost a century until the O’Neill’s saw an advert for its sale in 1946. Henry Thomas Wright of Fernhill (died during the First World War, 1916) had an intriguing mother-in-law, Mary Boone (nee Cowper) Hungerford (wife of Henry Jones Hungerford). Her father (Henry Augustus Cowper) was the Consul General of Havana, Cuba. A picture of her relaxing in the gardens prior to World War I can be seen in the hotel. The Wright Family like the Atkin Family before them married Hungerford women. Mary’s sister, Inez Temple Cowper, married a grand-nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. He changed his name from Henry Bonaparte to Henry Jerome.

Since the mid-1940s Fernhill has become one of the most beloved and well-known hotels in the county and the country. Steeped in the O’Neill tradition of providing excellence to their customers, good food with the entrepreneurial distinction of being specialists in that special occasion, a business acumen dating from early days of the Butcher shop to the beautiful gem that is Fernhill House Hotel and Gardens today.

A Quick Chronology

  • 1826 William Francis Atkin and his wife, Alicia move to Fernhill.
  • 1841 Robert Atkin born later to become one of the founding fathers of social justice in Australia and his son Lord Atkin was one on the most influential judges in world history.
  • 1845-52 A soup kitchen was established by the proprietors of Fernhill during the Great Irish Famine.
  • 1900 George Wright of Fernhill House became solicitor General of Ireland.
  • 1920 Michael Collins visited Fernhill to meet his friend, Bertie O Donovan.
  • 1938-45 The land at Fernhill was used by the army as a base during World War II in preparation for a potential invasion. An ammunition magazine is still standing.
  • 1946 M.J. O’Neill purchased Fernhill and started the O’Neill tradition of welcoming guests to Fernhill.
  • 2013 President Michael D. Higgins and his wife Sabina dined at Fernhill as part of the celebrations for Clonakilty 400.
  • And the rest as they say is History, a wonderful hotel in a wonderful setting, well deserving of all its accolades.

Additional Information

Michelle O’Mahony is passionate about history, she has a great interest in Ireland’s Famine history and in particular its Workhouse Legacy. Her professional qualifications include a BA (Hons) in both History and English, a Higher Diploma in Education and a Research Masters M.Phil in History awarded by UCC.

Her professional affiliations include membership of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland and the Royal Historical Society together with local history groups. She has published many articles and books and her mission is all about “Unlocking The Past” for her clients.

For more information visit her website.

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