Lady Desart and her Legacy to Kilkenny – Part 1
After William, the 4th Earl of Desart died in 1898 his widow Lady Ellen remained in residence at Desart Court, so Captain Otway Cuffe came to live at Sheestown House. He was not long in establishing links with the local people, farmers and townsfolk. They in turn came to like him, and were calling him the Captain from his British Army days. He had already organised a Social Club in Sheestown and now proceeded to start a similar club in Kilkenny City. He acquired a room hired a drill sergeant, installed equipment and named the club The Kilkenny Social and Gymnastics Club. The membership had grown to such numbers larger premises were required, the Captain obtained a house in Patrick St. alterations were been made when Captain Cuffe had more ambitious plans, why not extend the building making it suitable for staging plays concerts and dances in fact a theatre. It had its own electricity plant and was capable of seating 800/ 900 patrons. The entire cost was borne by Lady Desart and opened in Oct. 1902. To day this building is known as Zuni townhouse and restaurant.
On the opposite bank of the river Nore from Talbot’s Inch lay an old mill ruin, which tradition had it was one of Irelands best known Woollen Mills. When the Woollen Industry failed this mill was used for producing wheaten starch. That industry too failed and in 1904 Lady Desart encouraged by Captain Cuffe purchased the derelict mill and adjoining land. The Kilkenny Moderator of 28th January 1905 wrote, while a great deal of credit is due to Captain Cuffe, it is Ellen Countess of Desart who has already shown her warm interest in the City by building the Theatre.
It is due to her generosity and foresight that the land and site have been secured. A large and enthusiastic crowd gathered at Greenvale for the official opening of the Woollen Mills on Easter Monday 16th April 1906. The mill was decorated in bunting and triumphal arches to celebrate the revival of an old industry. Many speeches were made and the function concluded to the strains of the Sheestown fife and drum band. While work was in progress on the mill, Lady Desart purchased a 90 acre farm at Talbot’s Inch. Housing accommodation for the mill workers was provided when the Countess had thirty cottages built and were so attractive that the area became known as the garden village.
The Countess had a residence for herself built adjacent to the village which she named Aut Even derived from the Irish meaning a pleasant place.
To connect the mill to the village a bridge was built over the river Nore, this was known as the Suspension bridge but was swept away in the 1947 floods. Another enterprise got underway in 1905 when a Woodworkers Guild was formed by a group of young men from the new Technical school. With little capital and a lack of an outlet for their wares, Captain Cuffe was approached for help, he immediately took up the case with Lady Desart and a premises was purchased in Patrick St. Soon afterwards the wood workers moved to a larger factory in Talbots Inch where the most up to date machinery was installed. This was known as Kilkenny Woodworkers Ltd. In 1906 a shop was opened in Nassau St, Dublin for the sale of the furniture. This shop later transferred to no 66 Grafton St., but the date of its closure is not known.
In 1910 the Kilkenny Moderator wrote, as if by magic there spring up on the banks of the Nore, factories and works which have throbbed and pulsed with strong hopes of future prosperity. The factory all but closed down in 1920 due to friction between management and staff. Most of the plant was sold and when work did resume it was only for rough timber work. A fire in 1927 destroyed the factory, it was decided not to rebuild.
The beautifully carved front doors of the original building at Aut Even hospital, with their Celtic design, book cases in St Kierans College and P.T Murphys (jewellers) shop front on High St are reminders of the Kilkenny Woodworkers craft.