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Bills’ Rocks and a Manulla connection

County View

County View
John Healy

What has to be one of the most spectacular short videos of the wonders of Achill must have been that recorded a few weeks ago by Seán Molloy, with the help of Gerry Hassett and Martin Kane.
The unusually hot summer and perfect sea conditions had allowed them to capture unique footage of Bills’ Rocks, that rocky outcrop which rises 35-metres high from the sea, and which is a striking feature of the view south from Achill island across the Atlantic seascape.
Now designated as a Special Protection Area, Bills’ Rocks is rarely accessible, but the combination of favourable weather and seas afforded the filmmakers an opportunity too good to miss.
According to local lore, Bills’ Rocks gets its name – although there are purists who dispute the theory – from the seafaring exploits of a Danish sea captain, Mathias de Bille. He left Copenhagen in the winter of 1781 on the navy frigate, Bornholm, bound for the West Indies. However, as he rounded Ireland’s north coast, hurricane conditions drove his vessel down the west coast towards Clew Bay. The crippled frigate would surely have been smashed on the rocks or the cliffs were it not for the seamanship of De Bille, who managed to guide the ship into the relative calm of the waters of Melcombe Bay at Newport.
But the escape had been at a terrible cost. Many of the crew had been lost at sea, and the remainder were struck down with an incurable fever. The sailors were hospitalised in a building at Mellows Point, and those who died were buried in the adjoining graveyard.
De Bille himself, also stricken with the fever, was befriended by a local merchant, John McLoughlin, who cared for him in his own home, where he died on St Patrick’s Day in 1782. He was buried with full military honours in the old parish church graveyard in Newport, with Col Sir Neal O’Donel leading a parade of volunteers at his funeral.
The Danish Royal Family subsequently funded the construction of the landmark De Bille house in the centre of Newport in honour of the captain. The house is now the residence of Frank and Phil Chambers, from where they operate the highly successful Blue Bicycle tearooms.
But that was not to be the last of the De Bille connection with Mayo. Nearly a century later, in 1860, Captain de Bille’s grandson, Torber de Ville, served as Danish Ambassador at the Court of St James in London. His wife was an Irishwoman, Louisa Elizabeth Domville, of Dublin, and only a few years earlier, her brother had bought out the Mayo estates of the Trench family of Laois.
At the time of Griffith’s valuation, the Domville estate in Mayo ran to over 6,000 acres, centred mainly on Manulla, Killasser and Aghamore, and including Prizon House near Balla, currently being restored to public viewing. Sir Compton Domville never actually lived there, renting it on a long-term lease to the Barrett family, who became its occupants. By 1916, the Domville family sold off the Mayo estates to the Congested Districts Board for subdivision among the tenantry.
The Domville estate was also to feature in the story of the Land League Cottage in Manulla, which was built overnight in order to stave off the 1880 eviction of a local family. The cottage was constructed where the boundaries of three landed estates –- the Domville, the Kilmaine and the Lynch Blosse – met, thus posing a legal conundrum as to which landlord would pursue the matter through the courts.
In the end, the landlords decided it was not worth the trouble, and the Land League Cottage, like the De Bille house at Newport, still stands to this day.