© Christopher Earls Brennen


The house in Magherafelt which Wilfred and Muriel Brennen called ``Cranagh Dhu'' and in which they spent most of their life has a number of stories associated with it. We recount here what we know of its history and some of its legends. From the ``History of Magherafelt'' by W.H.Maitland we learn of the Vesey family who lived in the house in the 1800s. The Rev.Thomas Agmondisham Vesey was appointed the rector of Magherafelt in 1807 and lived in the Glebe house or Rectory until 1844. His son was Dr. John Stuart Vesey who was appointed the first Dispensary Medical Officer of Magherafelt on Nov.20, 1851, and also became Medical Officer of the Magherafelt Workhouse. In both the 1846 and 1856 Ulster Directories the physician and surgeon John Vesey, M.D., is listed as living on ``Castledawson Street'', Magherafelt. It is therefore possible that he had built and occupied ``Cranagh Dhu'' as early as 1846. Then, in the 1863-64 Directory he is listed as residing at ``Railway View'', Magherafelt, which is almost certainly ``Cranagh Dhu'' for the latter overlooked the local railway when the railway was still intact. If this identification is correct then this 1863 mention is the earliest record we have found so far for the house. It does not appear in the 1833 Ordnance Survey map [PRONI OS 9/20/1] of Magherafelt nor is it mentioned in the 1833 Ordnance Survey Memoirs of the town. Furthermore it is not included in the list of the four principal residences in Magherafelt compiled by Thomas Fagan in 1836. It follows that the main house must have been constructed after 1836 and before 1863.

John Stuart Vesey married Lucy Katharine Elizabeth Blathwayt and they had several children born in Magherafelt including Agmondishane Blathwayt Vesey who succeeded his father. On Sep.24, 1848, Thomas Agmondishane George William Blathwayt Vesey was born to John Stuart and Lucy Katharine Elizabeth Vesey, his birth being noted in the records of St. Swithins Parish Church. On Feb.3, 1851, Anne Frances Georgina Vesey was born to John Stuart and Lucy Vesey, her birth being noted in the records of St. Swithins Parish Church; Anne's sponsors were Rowley Millar, William Miller and Mrs. Wynton Blathwayt (perhaps Lucy's mother). On Mar.20, 1854, Elizabeth Mary Vesey was born to John and Lucy Vesey, her birth being noted in the records of St. Swithins Parish Church (there may have been other children). John Stuart Vesey died on Oct.8, 1874, at the age of 59 and was succeeded as Medical Officer by his son, Dr. Agmondishane Blathwayt Vesey. A member of the Royal College of Surgeons, this Dr. Vesey had held numerous high profile offices including Senior Resident Clinical Assistant of the House of Industry Hospitals, Dublin, and posts at the Rotundo Hospital, Trinity College, Dublin, and was Certifying Factory Surgeon, Medical Referee and Clinical Prizeman two years. In Magherafelt he would become a Justice of the Peace for County Londonderry and a Synodsman in St. Swithins Parish Church. This second Dr.Vesey lived at the house in question which he called ``Bellevue''; the location of the house is shown in the map which follows. Dr. Agmondishane Vesey was very much a local favorite, a country gentleman and an enthusiastic hunter. He died on Mar.12, 1901, at the age of 53. His successor as Medical Officer, Dr. A. Hegarty, did not live at ``Bellevue'' but at ``Ardrath'' opposite the Workhouse, a house which is also shown on the map which follows.

Map of Magherafelt showing Cranagh Dhu as Bellevue.

The Ulster Directory is an annual publication which provides basic information primarily for businessmen. For each market town it lists the principal officials and businesses. It addition it lists prominent gentry and their homes. Thus, we may determine the residents of ``Cranagh Dhu'' by looking for ``Bellevue'', Castledawson Road under the section on Magherafelt. Thus we find A.B.Vesey, ``Bellevue'' listed in the 1901 Directory. After 1901 it is clear that the house was either rented or vacant until it was purchased by my father in 1946. The Ulster Directories for this period tell us the following regarding the tenants. Edward Montgomery, M.D., lived in the house from 1902 until 1907. Perhaps Dr. Montgomery took over Dr. Vesey's medical practice. Then, for three years, from 1908 to 1910, an Edward Smyth occupied the house. He was followed by A.H. Greenacre who lived in ``Bellevue'' from 1911 until 1914. Such a succession of brief tenancies suggests the house was beginning to decline. However, in 1915, Wilson Gamble moved in and lived there until 1925. Wilson Gamble was a very prominent member of the local community. From 1901 to 1931 he is listed as a grocer and publican, the proprieter of a business and posting establishment in Rainey Street, Magherafelt. He was also a Justice of the Peace and the treasurer of the local Masonic Lodge from 1902 until at least 1907.

Some information concerning the ownership of the property during this period was obtained from the office of the Land Registry of Northern Ireland on River Road, Belfast. The house and grounds on which it stands were part of a much larger property of 23 acres, 1 rood and 386 square yards which was first registered in Folio 1772A on May 16, 1895. The ownership of this large property prior to 1921 is not clear though we might guess that it belonged to the Vesey's at least until Agmondishane Vesey's death in 1901. What is clear is that in 1921 the property was purchased by James McKenna, a merchant of Ballymoney Street, Ballymena, and that McKenna rented out the house during his ownership, that is during 1921-1944. However in that time frame, parts of this large property were sold off.

We presume that Wilson Gamble rented the property until his death in 1931 though the Directories provide no listing for ``Bellevue'' for the period 1926 until 1932. It maybe that the house fell into some disrepair during this period. Then it became occupied again for the Directories for the period 1933 until 1937 list as the tenant, Mr. J. O'Reardon, the manager of the National Bank in the Diamond in Magherafelt. Mr. J. O'Reardon was suceeded as manager by Mr. J. Farrell both as manager of the National Bank and as tenant of "Belleview", where the Farrell family took up residence in Nov. 1937. (The Directory editors list the surname as "O'Farrell", perhaps in order to identify them as Roman Catholic.) An account of the Farrell family's residence in the house was provided to me by the son, David Farrell, after he read an earlier, inaccurate account on this website. David and his brothers enjoyed growing up in the large grounds with plenty of space to play.

On Sep.27, 1944, the house, "Bellevue", and the remaining land were sold to Robert J.A. Loughlin, a farmer whose address is given as ``Bellevue'', Magherafelt. From the records of a separate transaction involving Folio 1772A and the recollections of David Farrell, we know that the new owners, retired farmer James A. Loughlin and his wife Sarah Loughlin, lived in old railway carriages (with seats removed) that they placed on the property in late 1944. Parenthetically we note that Robert Loughlin seems to have borrowed money from a Dr. William Johnstone of ``Oakfield'', Maghera, in order to make this purchase. The railway carriages were a temporary residence while the Loughlins built a more modern home about fifty yards away on Station Road. They moved into this more modern home where they continued to live until the early 1950s. (This house on Station Road was occupied by the McKeown family from the late 1950s until about 1980).

Partly because of the death of one of the Farrell sons in Dec. 1944 and partly because they may not have welcomed the proximity of the new owners, on Jan.31, 1945, the Farrells moved to a town house on Broad Street in Magherafelt, between the houses of the lawyer, Mr. Hastings, and Dr. Kerlin.

On May 22, 1945, and prior to the Farrells departure, the house and the 2 acres, 1 rood and 19 perches on which it stood was transferred to Folio 16752 as part of the process of purchase of that part of Folio 1772A by a consortium consisting of farmer Hugh E.Thompson and his wife, Lily Thompson, both of Ballindrum, Moneymore, James Johnston, Presbyterian Minister of the First Presbyterian Church, Magherafelt, and Thomas S. Fazackerley, Headmaster of Rainey Endowed School, Magherafelt. It is clear that this consortium purchased the house in order to fix it up and offer it to my father, Wilfred M. Brennen, as part of the inducement to move from Belfast to Magherafelt to take charge of converting the Workhouse to a modern hospital. My father was registered as the new owner on July 26, 1946, and he and my mother renamed the house ``Cranagh Dhu'', a name which was largely of my mother's making. It means the dark (or wooded), prominent place.

At the time of their move to Magherafelt in 1945 my parents, Wilfred and Muriel Brennen were shown this large, grey, three storey Georgian house on the outskirts of the village. It stood on a wooded hill surrounded by about two and a half acres of land with many trees, chestnuts, rhodedendrons, and large beeches. There were entrances from both Castledawson Road and Station Road. The house faced northeast and at the front there was a large lawn and a sweeping driveway lined with rhododendrons on one side. On the southeast side, raised above the Castledawson Road with steps down to a gate, was the garden with flower beds, a vegetable garden and an apple orchard. Behind the house on the southwest side was a courtyard defined by crumbling stone walls and, under about a foot of gravel in this yard we found what seemed to be an old cobblestone surface. On the side of the courtyard opposite the house stood old stables and an old two storey structure which now served as a garage, hayloft and coalshed. This structure may well have predated the main house; more about that in a moment. To the northwest, the main house looked down toward the railway line and the railway station.

The house, however, needed modernization at the time my parents were shown it. During their tour of inspection they met the tenants at the time, the Farrell family. Despite wartime scarcity, materials were scraped up to renovate the house prior to occupancy by the Brennen family. Electricity was added and new bathrooms were built at the rear of the house. This addition spanned the ground and first floors and included new pantries added onto the kitchen. During these modernizations the Brennen family lived in Nissan huts in the grounds of the hospital-to-be.

Not many substantial changes were made to the property during the Brennen years, 1946-1989. However the Castledawson Road was widened in 1959 and a thin slice of land (and many trees) were purchased by the government in order to effect those road improvements. As part of this deal a stone wall was built along the length of the property line.

After my father's death in 1987, my mother eventually sold the house to the Royal British Legion Housing Association (Northern Ireland) Limited who became the registered owners on Jan.3, 1989. The British Legion plan was to convert the property into a home for disabled veterans. However there were some delays in effecting this plan and during this time the house became derelict again. During the troubles in the 1970s the British Army had constructed a base in the field immediately north of ``Cranagh Dhu'' and during one attempted I.R.A. bombing of this base, all the windows facing that base were blown out and had to be boarded up. However, eventually, the conversion plans were carried out. As well as renovating the big house a number of other smaller homes were constructed on the property and the whole complex was opened by my mother in a ceremony on Jul.3, 1992.

Apart from this documented history, there are a number of legends and stories associated with the house that merit the telling. When my brothers and I were young we sensed that some of the older locals were apprehensive about approaching our property. Though the stories varied they all implied a degree of hauntedness. More specifically the old structure was the object of particular apprehension. It was said that this building had at one time been an inn and a stopping point for stage coaches which was at least consistent with the cobblestone surface. One story was that a stagecoach on its way to Magherafelt was once robbed and all of its occupants murdered. Yet the horses, knowing their way, pulled the coach with its gruesome contents up to the inn. The shock of this sight on a dark winter night was still reverberating after more than a century. It is however equally possible that the entire incident only materialized in some over-eager Irish imagination.

Last updated 8/8/08.

Christopher E. Brennen