The Story of Woodbrook | RTE Documentary Ireland VIEW SOURCE
The Passing of Woodbrook's Anglo-Irish Class Ireland VIEW SOURCE

Anne Feely (1864-1953) aka Nanny Maxwell of Usna, Carrick on Shannon, had her story immortalised in David Thomson's celebrated memoir "Woodbrook" (1974).  

Born in Usna, she was baptised on 2 Oct 1864, in Ardcarne, Cootehall, Co. Roscommon. She was the youngest of 15 children brought into the world by Michael Feehily (1816-1897) and Bridget Sharkett (1820-19 ) Michael Feehily worked as a herd on Kirkwood's Woodbrook Estate at Usna; first for James Kirkwood Esq. (1800-1857) who arrived during the Famine, and subsequently for his son Col. Tom Kirkwood (1843-1911).

Much that is written about the book states that the Kirkwoods had lived at Woodbrook House for centuries. Indeed, the family seat had been at 'Woodbrook' since the 17th century, however, this was an entirely different house and townland to their late 19th-century mansion (see Woodboork & Dorrary).  It was not until 1847 that James Kirkwood Esq. took up residence at Usna's big house ("Hughestown" seat of Coote Mulloy Esq.) which he renamed "Woodbrook Lodge". 

On 23 May 1892, Anne Fihily of Usna married Michael Maxwell (1862-1948) of Brackloon, son of William Maxwell, a farmer.  It was believed that the land at Usna (aka the Woodbrook Estate) was the ancestral birthright of the Maxwells. However, this too may be in error. Usna was the ancient homeland of Nanny Maxwells line, the Feelys. 


In 1833, Usna hill was occupied by the families Conlon, Feely, Flanagan, Glancy, Higgins, Horan, McConnell, McLoughlin and Oates. (The names in bold being the only ones to endure here after the Great Famine). The 70 acres around the big house was part of the estate of Coote Mulloy Esq. Hughestown which changed hands following his death in 1842. By the time of Griffiths's Valuation in 1857, Usna had come into the ownership of Robert Henry Brewster French. The Kirkwoods were leasing Woodbrook House and parkland. The Feely's were living in a herd's house (value 10s) at the top of Usna Hill #1(b). 


In the 1930s, David Thomson spent several summers at Woodbrook House tutoring Phoebe Kirkwood. The following extract from his book,  narrated by Nanny Maxwell, is the Feehily account of the Great Famine at Usna:

... Her parents were married very young, as was the custom then, and had at least one baby before 1845, more during the Famine, although she could not remember how many and was not sure of her own age. She knew she was born in the 1860s, the last of fifteen, and said she knew less of the bad times than many people of her age "on account of her brothers being all hot men that would not listen". Her father and mother used often to be talking about the hunger and the fever and the terrible evictions, but the brothers would say "Don't be telling us about those bad times, and walk out the door, and I along with them".  I suppose it was like listening to war reminiscences now. 

 But soon it was evident to me that she had listened to her parents. Part of what they told her made her very unhappy and I guessed that she had never repeated it even to her children. She told me this part in the end, although I had never pressed her. It is easier to speak of misery to someone emotionally detached. I was full of newly read books and talked more than she did at first. For one thing, she was busy with the teapot and with shooing out the hens which came in when they heard the clink of china, hoping for crumbs; and then I think she did not really wish to talk about it. She would hear of no earthly reason for the famine and when I said that disaster could have been averted she stood still and looked at me.

"It was the hand of God'" she said. "What else could it be but the hand of God when a white mist came down over the whole of Ireland on that day, and in the morning imagine if you was to walk out where you was working that yoke today" (she meant the spray can) and say to yourself, "There 's a grand crop growing", and the stalks thick and strong and all full green with the flowers on them. And in the morning the whole country to be black with rotten stalks.

I forget the name of the field I was spraying that year but am sure she mentioned it, for it was during that conversation that I found the origin of the field names we used daily without wondering why they were called so, as in a town one uses names of streets. 

There was Flanagan's rock, Clancy's rock, Meehan's garden, Martin's garden, McLannies, Higgins', Cresswell's, Conlon's, Cregan's, Luffy's and five or six places with the names Feely in them. Nanny's maiden name. She knew the Christian names of everyone who had lived in the townland when the famine began. Her house was the only one standing after it, and most of the name had no landmarks now, the walls of the gardens having been pulled down with the houses to make a wide open space of the Hill of Usna, where the beasts grazed and we roamed on our horses every day.

She said there were 18 families living there in 1845, but I think there were nearly 30, all tenants of farms, called 'gardens' of under five acres and surrounded by low stone walls. Most of the tenants kept no animals at all, but her parents and some others had one cow, a pig, a few fowl and space enough to grow a little barley. corn, animals and butter were not used to feed the family but to pay the rent. She said the summer of 1845 began with the best growing-weather her parents could remember and that in that August, before the evening of the mist, every garden on Usna as far as they could see from their house 'shined with plants' and promised a big crop. Some people managed to save enough good tubers to keep them alive that year, but the crop of 1846 was a total failure.

When the eldest baby died next winter, her father persuaded her mother to go to the poorhouse with the other one or two - she could not remember how many - while he prepared the land in Spring. He had enough barley seed to give them hope. Hunger and dysentery had weakened them and the weather was bad, but they walked to Carrick 'without misfortune' and waited in a crowd of hundreds outside the workhouse gates, hoping to see Captain Wynne who was said to be a good man. They were admitted to the Gate Lodge after a couple of hours, but it was Captain Wynne's day at the poorhouse of Boyle. Only the workhouse master was there, at a table, but at least there was a warm fire. He asked if they were still in possession of their land. They held three acres, yes, from Mr Kirkwood of Woodbrook and the rent was paid. "Then I can do nothing," the workhouse master said.

By a new law from Westminster, they were not destitute. He told them to go home to Mr Kirkwood, sign a paper giving up their land and to bring it back to him. Then he would admit the whole family. When they pleaded he reminded them that their landlord was one of the Poor Law Guardians. How could he go against the rules and Mr Kirkwood not know?

They walked home in the dark. Of course, they did not give up their land. They were ill and almost starving like the rest, but they had escaped the cholera and had hope. Without the land the would have had stirabout  (porridge) and no hope.

In January or February 1848 they were offered an alternative even more cruel: James Kirkwood sent for Nanny's father to the big house and told him he wanted no rent from that day on. He said he would give them enough wheat flour to make bread for the year and barley seed for spring sowing, and when the baby boy was old enough he would take him into the stables to work with the horses. He was buying cattle he said and would need Nanny's father for a herd, and a herd is a permanent position which passes from one generation to the next, the house and 'garden' and the right of grazing a set number of bullocks on the master's land being free of charges. Nanny's father knew all about that, but asked how many cattle and where would they run, the only land for them being Shanwelliagh and the Bottoms which was bad grass, being rushy, and 'the Bottoms is often times flooded.'

Mr Kirkwood said he would put the cattle on the hill of Usna which had the best limestone grass, dry and could keep sheep and horses too. Nanny's father said 'It is, it is the best of land alright and will be again with the help of God. 'But he was thinking of the people's walls and crops and houses that would stop the cattle. Nearly half of the houses were empty, their people having died or the lucky ones gone to America. Even so, there were many that had the hope of a crop next year.

Mr Kirkwood then flattered him, saying that he was the best tenant he had and that the others all looked up to him for advice. He said all the others must give up their houses and land and go to the workhouse, or to America if they could. He said it was the best for them, and that they would be fed. He did not want the police or military to put them out, but that Nanny's father was to persuade them to go quietly, showing them how it was for their own good. He was, he said, their leader. At that meeting her father refused, saying he would leave only when the military tumbled his house down over his head along with the others. But when the day of the eviction, hunger and illness got the better of him, 'with the children and my mother sick, and another baby promised, what could he do?' said Nanny. 'He stood up on the houses and threw down the roofs of his own uncles even, many of his uncles and cousins, and he tumbled the walls down after. In the teeming sleet and snow, the people were cast out to die on the road. Some few had strength enough to win through to America and more reached the poorhouse in Carrick, but the poorhouse was already filled and many died outside it lying against the walls.

James Kirkwood was not exceptionally callous. He probably thought, as many of his neighbours did, that he was doing the best he could not only for himself but for his tenants. Whether he threw them out or not, the people would die. If he tumbled down their houses, his rates would decrease and the land opened out for cattle, would start to pay. Those evicted would have a chance however small of being fed in the workhouse. All these considerations led him to the harsh decisions which he made. Nanny's father had to make a similar decision, but for him, it was ten times worse because he could only save his family by turning against his own people. For him, it was solely a moral problem: his decision would not help or harm anyone, except his wife and children. If he refused Mr Kirkwood's demand, the 'crowbar brigade' - a gang of freelance ruffians - would be called with soldiers and police to guard them. He would save his honour and almost certainly commit his family to death, for it was unlikely that the Master, having been crossed in so important a matter, would have found him land elsewhere as he had done at Newtown for the Conlons and a few others whose rent was up to date. Feely's choice was also governed by the long-established instinct of a subject people. A few had shot their masters and went into hiding, but most were peaceable, even subservient. It seemed impossible to them to refuse a command from above.             [Excerpt from "Woodbrook" by David Thomson ISBN 009 935991; Chapter 9 Part 2]. 


Following James Kirkwood's untimely death in 1857, Mrs Kirkwood liquidated her assets selling all their livestock and farm equipment. When Col. Tom Kirkwood (1843-1911) came of age, he turned Woodbrook into a successful horse-breeding stable. In 1880 their horse "Woodbrook" won the Grand National and they began developing the estate, adding wings to the house and and gated railings along the road. 


Mick Feely and Brigid Sharkett both lived well into their 80s. Mick Feely died at Woodbrook in 1897


By the time of the 1901 Census at Usna Col. Tom Kirkwood owned the full townland. Nanny and Mick Maxwell, a shepherd, were still living atop Usna Hill in a tiny 3rd class house with one window to the front. Nanny's mother, Brigid Sharkett, was with them, age 80. She was the only survivor of that generation still living at Usna. Younger Flanagans were also still at Usna, in service. 


By the time of the 1911 Census at Usna Nanny and Mick Maxwell had 7 children, 6 of whom had survived:


William Maxwell b.1893

Michael Maxwell b.1895 emigrated to the USA and purchased Woodbrook House from the Kirkwood family in 1946. 
Ellen Maxwell b1897 

James Maxwell b1899
and his wife, lived in Woodbrook House but had no children.

John Maxwell 

Tom Maxwell b 1909 

In or about 1943, Woodbrook house was put up for sale, and the Kirkwood family moved to Sutton in Dublin. Shortly after this, Phoebe Kirkwood died suddenly of TB.

In 1946, with the help of Michael Jr. in America, the Maxwell's bought Woodbrook House. Over 50 acres were sold to the local Carrick on Shannon Golf Club and the remainder divided among farmers by the Land Commission.

In July 1948, Nanny's husband Michael Maxwell (1862-1948) land steward died at home at Woodbrook Usna. Nanny also lived to a good age. She died in July 1953, age 81. Their son, John Maxwell, was present at both deaths. 

[Research by Rua Mac Diarmada 2018]


~ Ancestors from Usna or Woodbrook House, Carrick on Shannon? If YES ... post your connection below ~


Additional Information
Date of Birth 2nd Oct 1864
Date of Death 17th Jul 1953 VIEW SOURCE
Associated Building (s) Hughestown CARRICK ON SHANNON  
Mother (First Name/s and Maiden) Bridget Sharkett (1820-19 )
Father (First Name/s and Surname) Michael Feehily (1816-1897)


  • Nanny Maxwell was my great grandmother. Am I related to the author of this piece?

    Maria Gallagher

    Saturday 18th August 2018 01:17PM
  • Not directly related (although there's probably only 6 degrees of separation!)

    I was researching Woodbrook House and ... given Nan's contribution to its historic record, I felt she deserved her own special mention.

    Please add to the story if you can!

    Rua, IrelandXO Volunteer ☘︎

    Monday 27th August 2018 01:17AM
  • Rua, IrelandXO Volunteer ☘︎

    Friday 27th August 2021 06:21AM

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