The Early Walshes

The surname Walsh is derived from the Irish name Breatnach, which literally means Welshman. The Walshes of Ballykilcavan are descended from Philip Breatnach, who arrived in Ireland in 1170 with Strongbow as part of the Norman invasion. Philip obtained grants of land in Co. Kilkenny from King Henry II, and his family set up their home at Knocktopher.

In 1446, his descendant Richard Walsh made a grant to Jerpoint Abbey of "all the messuages, lands etc. of Cloone in the Barony of Kells, and of Ballycheskin, in the parish of Aghaviller and Barony of Knocktopher". Richard's son, grandson and many other descendants were buried in Jerpoint Abbey, where their tombs can still be seen today.

Oliver Walsh was born in 1605, the great-grandson of Walter Walsh, who was the High Sheriff and Governor of Kilkenny County. As the grandson of Walter's fifth son Edmond, he would not have been in line to inherit much, so it seems he decided that it was time to set up by himself.

Jerpoint Abbey
Detail from 1855 map of Ballykilcavan

The move to Ballykilcavan

In 1639, Oliver Walsh made the move from Kilkenny to Ballykilcavan. He took out a lease on the lands surrounding the current location of Ballykilcavan House from Robert Hartpole, who came originally from Shrule, on the Laois/Carlow border. About 20 years later, he or his son, also called Oliver, bought out the lease and took full possession of the house and farmland.

The second Oliver's grand-nephew was General Hunt Walsh, who fought in the Seven Years' War in Canada. He commanded the 28th Regiment of Foot throughout the war, where it fought at the capture of Louisbourg and the Battle of Quebec in 1759. After the war, he returned to Ballykilcavan and represented Maryborough (modern day Portlaoise) in the Irish House of Commons between 1764 and 1776.

Both General Hunt and his brother, Dean Raphael Walsh died without having any children, so Ballykilcavan passed to their sister's son, Sir John Allen Johnson, who assumed the name Walsh when he took over in 1809. His son Sir Edward is said to have died suddenly, shortly after clearing a series of raths and fairy forts from a field behind the house. The rumour at the time was that a fairy curse had killed him.

The last 200 years

The third Baronet, Sir Hunt Walsh was a keen gardener and managed to persuade the local officials to allow him to build a tunnel under the new Athy to Stradbally road so that he could get access to the walled garden. He also employed William Robinson to run it. Robinson became well known later in life as a populariser of a more natural gardening style to rival the formal gardens of the time. He is supposed to have had a row with Sir Hunt and run off in mid-winter, having doused the fires that kept the greenhouse warm so that all the delicate plants in them died.

His grandson, another Sir Hunt, was the fifth and last Baronet of Ballykilcavan. Sir Hunt's only child Oonah married William Kemmis (known as Fred) from Shaen near Portlaoise, and the family changed their name to Walsh-Kemmis when they took over the farm in the 1950s.

Their son Peter and grandson David are the 12th and 13th generation of the family to live and work on the farm.

Ballykilcavan House
Jerpoint Abbey
Detail from 1855 map of Ballykilcavan
Ballykilcavan House