Belfast Telegraph

Country estate Lissan House opens to the public

Portrait of Handsome Kitty will hang once again on the walls of her Tyrone home

By Lesley-Anne McKeown

It is Northern Ireland’s very own Downton Abbey. Lissan House — a sprawling country estate in the heart of Co Tyrone — has a history which is as colourful as the plots in the hit television drama.

The magnificent property, now run by a charitable trust, will be open to the public for the first time this week and the trustees are hoping that a portrait of one of its most famous female residents will soon become a major attraction.

An oil painting of Lady Catherine Staples, affectionately known as ‘handsome Kitty Hawkins’, is being auctioned at Bonham’s in London on April 17 and trustees are hoping to raise enough money to have it returned to its rightful resting place — in the ballroom at Lissan House.

“It is very important that the Lissan Trust attempts to get this painting back to the house,” trustee Kyle Leyden told the Belfast Telegraph. “We are hoping that the portrait will be an asset for everyone in the community to admire. We are hoping to bring back an important painting to an historically important house.”

The portrait, by renowned British artist Martin Cregan and dated 1825, was sold from Lissan in 1898.

Catherine Staples was a major figure in the history of the house and is widely blamed for starting its demise.

Her husband, Sir Thomas (ninth Baronet of Lissan who is buried alongside Catherine in the family graveyard) was one of the wealthiest men in Ireland and one of the country’s most influential lawyers, being appointed Queen's Advocate in Ireland.

He added the ballroom to Lissan House and even hired an orchestra to live permanently with his family, who divided their time between Co Tyrone and their mansion in Merrion Square, Dublin. When Sir Thomas died without any legitimate children, he left the Staples family fortune and the contents of Lissan House to his wife, Catherine, on the provision that it be bequeathed to his god-daughter Mary Banks who lived in Dublin.

By law, however, Sir Thomas had to leave his title and the Moneymore property to his nephew Nathaniel, a penniless civil servant who had spent years working in India. And, in 1898, a struggling Nathaniel was forced to sell the remaining contents of Lissan House in order to survive. There was little love lost between Nathaniel and Handsome Kitty, who had left him no money in her will so, unsurprisingly, the portrait was one of the first things to go.

Now, for the first time in more than a century, the opportunity has arisen to retrieve some of the contents which Nathaniel sold.

A reserve price has been set at between £6,000 and £8,000 and Lissan trustees have launched a campaign to raise funds to buy the portrait back.

“It is highly ironic that the portrait of the person who ensured the estate's demise has come up in these circumstances,” added Mr Leyden. “But we are hoping that the community will rally round and help us get it back.”

Anyone wishing to pledge money to help Lissan House buy the portrait is asked to contact lissanhouse@gmail.com or call 028 867 63312.

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Handsome Kitty Hawkins became Lady Catherine Staples when she married Sir Thomas Staples, ninth Baronet of Lissan. They owned the largest town house on Merrion Square in Dublin and were famous for hiring a “live-in orchestra” for their country retreat, Lissan House. Towards the end of his life, an eccentric Sir Thomas divided the Dublin property in two to accommodate the Banks family including his ‘god-daughter’ Mary. Mary inherited the Staples family fortune after Lady Catherine’s death, which began Lissan House’s decline.

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