Walking in the Great John McShain’s Footsteps, As Far as the Eye Can See

The moment was surreal. 

The bells from St. Mary’s Cathedral rang out over Killarney National Park. Up ahead a woman walked her small dog. A family of four cycled down the path. A couple stood to the side studying the park map, planning their course of action. The flowers in the gardens to the right swayed gently in the midday breeze. Far off to the left, the gold and hunter fields let out onto the deep shimmering waters of Kenmare lake. Just beyond the lake climbed the forests hugging Shehy mountains. 

It was an exquisite moment. Every bit of it made possible because of my great uncle John McShain. 

Ever since I can remember I have heard tales of my famous great uncle John McShain. How he was the son of an Irish immigrant who had come from next to nothing. How he continued his father’s business and had become the “Man Who Built Washington”. How he had been a man of generosity in wealth, faith, and spirit. How he had used his wisdom, wits, and work ethic to take care of his family, his church, and his community. And how he had bought a sprawling estate in Ireland where he spent the waning hours of his life. But all of the tales I had heard were just stories. That was until I stepped through the “Golden Gates of Killarney” on Wednesday morning, June 28th, 2017. 

Harry O’Donoghue met my wife, child, and I at the front door of Killarney House. The house was right in the middle of Killarney city, situated in Kerry County, Ireland. Harry was the butler, groundskeeper, house manager – basically, he was anything the house needed him to be. He had served at Killarney House all his life, just as his father and grandfather had before him. He was a tall man but never overbearing He was slightly hunched over from decades of faithful work. He had an easy smile and a confidence about him. A confidence that can only come from seeing the ebb and flow of life at a manor such as this. He showed a fondness for the McShains. 

“They were a good family. Took care of the house. Took care of the church. Nice people.” 

Valerie O’Sullivan, an energetic photographer from the local newspaper Killarney Today, showed up and offered a few more details of John McShain and the house. 

This July will be the grand opening of the house to the public. Last August they had opened the grounds and gardens, to the locals’ delight. Killarney House, known by many as the “Golden Gates”, had been a mystery to many for well over three centuries. 

The Earl of Kenmare had originally owned the estate which spanned over 8000 acres of southwest Kerry. The myth then grew to epic proportions when Queen Victoria visited the house in the late 19th century. But by the time John McShain, my great uncle, purchased the estate in the late 1950s, the house was in deep disrepair. The original estate, pictured below, had burned down leaving only the smaller, but still impressive, manor stables. 

John and his wife Mary set about renovating the house and the gardens, bringing beauty and vigor once more to the luscious grounds. Eventually, John and his wife bequeathed much of the land to the state to be joined with the nearby Muckross estate. They sold some of the land, but the majority of it, nearly 8500 acres, they gave free of charge for the public’s enjoyment. They only asked to stay on in their later years. John passed away in 1989. After Mary died in 1998, their daughter Sister Pauline McShain – our Aunt “Polly” – then gave the remaining house and gardens to the Irish government to make available to the public.  

Nearly a decade and a half after that act of generosity, on July 3rd, the Killarney House itself will finally join the gardens in welcoming every Kerry man, woman, and traveler that wishes to see the Killarney’s most coveted grounds. 

It was these thoughts that filled my mind as I walked through the house. Thanks to the likes of Harry O’Donoghue and Pat Dawson, the overseer of the whole project, the house was shaping up nicely. They had done a spectacular job in restoring and refurbishing many of the original furniture and decor which brought the house to such high esteem. Crystal chandeliers. Decadent curtains. Chests, dressers, and drawing tables of the finest wood. The dining room table could host 14 people. 

We walked through the car tunnel where Harry laughed. He shared how people used to know the McShains were coming out because they would hear the gates opening. This was a big deal because the family car was a Rolls Royce. This was at a time in Ireland when cars themselves were scarce. One of the locals, John Kearney, told us of how he used to have fun dreaming and planning of how they would steal the Rolls Royce and go for a joy ride. 

We finished our tour of the house and walked out to the gardens in the rear of the house. I looked out over the acres of green, and the lakes further down, the mountains careening off into the distance. I asked Harry, “How much of this was ours?”

“As far as the eye can see”, he replied. 

Silence. 

I couldn’t comprehend it. I could comprehend ANY of it. 

How!?!

“As far as the eye can see”

All of this had been ours. And now it wasn’t. I wasn’t bitter. On the contrary, I was filled with great joy. 

I looked at the families walking down the paths, and the couples taking photos by th flower beds, and the old man sitting quietly on the park bench, and I thought – McShains made this possible. 

It inspired me. 

It inspires me now. It drives me to create, to build, to care for and love my fellow man. To leave something behind for others’ enjoyment. 

John McShain was a brilliant man who continued the works of his father and left an even greater legacy. He became one of the richest men in the U.S. and Ireland. But through it all he maintained his humility and his regard for others. Even more, through all of his success he never forgot God, the one who made it all possible. He maintained his faith until the end. 

St Mary’s Cathedral- where John and Mary spent many a Sunday
John McShain built a legacy, one that I hope to continue. That is why I think Pat Dawson’s words perfectly summed up my experience walking in John McShains footsteps. 

“Ireland has put a lot of work into  your great Uncle’s house, rest assured, the McShain’s legacy will go on forever. ”

Correct you are Pat. The legacy goes on, in Ireland and in the United States, in name and in deed, because of John’s work and the generations of McShains to come. 

Photo courtesy of Valerie O’Sullivan, Killarney Today

Thank you to Harry O’Donoghue and Pat Dawson for their diligent work on the Killarney House and Gardens. Thank you to Valerie O’Sullivan for cataloging the restoration process. Thank you to Aunt Pauline McShain for such a model of courage and wisdom in our family. And thank you to John and Mary McShain for creating a legacy of diligence, success, and faith for our family to continue.