The Perceval Family of Temple House

As a clergyman at Collooney in County Sligo in the 1840s Rev William Guinness would have believed all his flock equal in his God’s sight. As an astute clergyman there would have been some families who he might have regarded – to quote George Orwell’s famous line in “Animal Farm” – as more equal than others. Among those would have been the O’Haras of Annaghmore, Coopers of Coopershill, Coopers of Markree Castle, and the Percevals of Temple House.

Guinness soon discovered just how much influence the likes of Joshua Cooper had in the parish.  Cooper had been on particularly good terms with Guinness’ predecessor Rev Lewis Potter who had moved to the neighbouring parish of Dromard.  The Coopers felt that friendship so strongly that they paid to build a new church at Ballisadare, near Collooney, to replace the old ruined building, and arranged for Potter to be installed there as “officiating clergyman”, ie back in his old parish. Potter employed a curate to conduct services at Dromard on Sunday mornings and he preached at the new church, Holy Trinity, Ballisadare.

The Perceval family of Temple House was arguably the one William would get to know best. The original estate dated back to 1181 when the knights Templar built a castle on the site, and the Percevals became owners of the property in 1665. By the time Guinness arrived in Collooney the estate was owned by Colonel Alexander Perceval, with his wife Jane, and their several children, living in a new home the colonel built in 1825.

One of the family’s contributions to the wellbeing of their tenant families was a school, under the direction of Mrs. Jane Perceval, and overseen by Guinness as part of his clerical duties. It seems likely that one of the Perceval daughters – Elizabeth - was helping at the school, and no doubt they saw more of each other as she attended church on Sundays.  Their relationship flourished, and William aged 33 and Elizabeth 29 were married on 7 August 1844, by the bride’s uncle Archdeacon Marcus Beresford, later to become head of the Church of Ireland. The celebration was reported in the “Sligo Journal” under the headline “Marriage in High Life”, and it was noted that a “distinguished party of notables” was present.  The festivities continued for several days and a ball and supper were attended by all the “respectable tenants” on the estate “at which the utmost festivity prevailed”. 

In yet another tragic twist in William’s life the sense of promise and optimism of the marriage celebrations was short-lived - just ten months later Elizabeth died at Temple House. Again, the family reported to the “Sligo Journal” that “this melancholy event has plunged a large circle of respectable friends into the deepest affliction. Never was there a death more sincerely and deservedly regretted than that of this truly excellent lady, who possessed the respect and esteem of all who knew her.”  Despite such praise Elizabeth is not actually named as such in the death notice: she is simply “the lady of Rev W. Guinness”. Why was she at Temple House and not at the Guinness home?  The strong possibility is that she succumbed during pregnancy or in childbirth, the baby presumably dying too.  A second chance at happiness for William Guinness was snatched away, and in the final poignant moment Elizabeth was buried in the same grave as his first wife Harriette. 

For the Percevals however, much worse was to come. In the Famine that devastated Ireland in the 1840’s Jane Perceval and her daughters led the way in supporting the families on her estate, providing meals and support to the sick and dying at risk to her own health. Inevitably she too was struck down by famine fever (a combination of typhus and relapsing fever) and on 20 January 1847 died aged 57. A measure of her dedication is the wish she expressed in her final days that after her death the kitchen and ovens which she operated in her house for the poor should be kept going just as they had been when she was alive.

Remarkably Jane’s charity was specifically remembered by one family for over 160 years and was given as the reason Temple House was not burned down during the Irish fight for independence in 1919-21. The current head of the family, Sandy Perceval who now lives in a smaller home near Temple House, recounted to the author an experience he had at a funeral several years ago.  A stranger started talking with him. He said he was an IRA sympathiser and that but for the kindness of Jane Perceval Temple House would have been burned down in 1921 as were many similar “big houses”.

The man explained that his grandparents were teenagers during the Famine and on one occasion were fully involved in the day-long activities of a family funeral.  Such a day was risky for them all in that if they didn’t make sure they ate proper meals they would become weak and vulnerable to rampant disease.  To guard against such a fate Mrs. Perceval and two daughters brought food to the home.  So grateful was the family to her that they incorporated her death-date into their rosary prayer which has been said ever since. 

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