De Regge recalls her time in Ennis with ‘A Daughter’s Odyssey’

Ghislaine de Regge

Ghislaine de Regge is the daughter of Ernest de Regge, who was tragically killed in the Carmody’s Hotel disaster in Ennis 55 years ago. Ms de Regge has written movingly about her father and her family’s time in Ennis in ‘A Daughter’s Odyssey’ that has just been published. She spoke to Joe Ó Muircheartaigh.

IT was the first day of an auction in one of Ennis’ landmark
buildings, while it was also the first day back after Christmas for
students attending Coláiste Muire secondary school in the town.
No wonder there was some excitement and anticipation around the de
Regge breakfast table on 7 Bindon Street that January morning.
For 56-year-old Ernest de Regge there were antiques to be had in the
auction of the contents of Carmody’s Hotel, the great seat of Daniel
O’Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell and Eamon de Valera when they came
to Ennis.
For 17-year-old Ghislaine de Regge, it was Leaving Certificate year
and the beginning of the run into her final exams, after which a new
world of possibilities would open out before her.
“My father was very enthusiastic and maybe unrealistic by today’s
terms,” Ghislaine recalls. “We thought we could do anything, it was
just about setting our minds to it and off we went. If we worked hard
and followed the rules, we could study anything, go anywhere, do
anything – it was just like that the world was full of possibilities
and that’s the way I felt going out to school that day,” she adds.
And off she went across the road to the Coláiste, while Ernest headed
around a few corners to the Sarsfield Room of Carmody’s Hotel, which
had opened its doors for the first time in 1804 and whose contents
were now to be sold off over the course three days.
It was a Wednesday – January 15, 1958; it was 2.35pm as Limerick
auctioneer Louis de Courcy called for bids on his next lot – the hotel
linen, but before the bidding opened the floor underneath just gave way.
The Sarsfield Room practically disappeared, plummeting everyone into
the Commercial Room 14-feet below. The place was described as, ‘a
seething mass of humanity and debris’. Within minutes of this tragedy,
Gardai, firemen, ambulance men and other rushed to the scene. Local
clergymen, including the Bishop of Killaloe, Dr Rodgers, gave
conditional absolution to those trapped and administered the last
rites as the bodies were removed.
“Eight Dead in Ennis Hotel Disaster”, screamed the headline in The
Irish Independent afterward. “Fifty people pitched to room below”,
went the sub-heading. “Appalling Tragedy in Ennis – Eight Killed,
Twenty Five Injured,” said The Clare Champion.
The dead were: Ernest de Regge (56), Bindon Street, Ennis; Thomas
Donnellan (13), Bindon Street, Ennis; James Fitzgibbon (65), Marian
Avenue, Ennis; Mrs Bridie Byrne (38), Kilrush; Mrs Josephine Carmody
(50), Barefield; Mrs Norah Condsidine (60), Corofin; Mrs Michael
Coffey (41), Killoo, Clarecastle; Mrs Ellen McNamara (73), Crusheen.
At the same time Ghislaine was in the ‘Great Hall’ of Coláiste Muire,
watching a different type of tragedy unfold – William Shakespeare’s
Hamlet, with Laurence Olivier in the lead role.
“There was a knock at the door,” Ghislaine recalls 55 years on, “and I
was called out. It was Dr Bríd Moylan from Bindon Street who started
to tell me that something had happened”.
‘Your daddy had an accident.’
‘What? Papa? With the car?
‘No, at the hotel.’
‘That could not be, he had never had an accident – but then he did
drive rather dangerously. I had fleeting visions of Papa in a hospital
bed, head all bandaged but with his usual smile saying, “Ha, so I
frightened you, did I. He loved making much of his small ailments.’
‘No Ghislaine, I’m afraid it’s serious.’
‘But Bríd, it can’t be that bad.’
‘Ghislaine, darling, I’m afraid there’s no hope.’
‘No hope.’
‘It was not possible to associate that expression with Papa, there was
always hope, always an alternative. I was stunned, shocked and my mind
went blank. By this time we had reached our front door where our
housekeeper, Lucy sobbed.
‘Ghislaine, what will be do, what will we do.’
‘Now Ghislaine, you are the eldest, you must not get hysterical, give
an example to the small ones,’ said Fr Kelly.
‘Father, tell me right out if it is true that there’s no hope, no
hope, absolutely no hope.’
‘I’m afraid it is. Ghislaine, he’s gone.’
And with it the hopes and dreams of a family were gone.
“Our conversations at the dining room table were usually like ‘what if
we did this, if we went to America, if we went to Australia, if we
went back to Belgium’,” recalls Ghislaine.
“There was that level of fantasy and possibility and we were always
excited about the future. When he died, all that was gone. There was
no future. It was the end of a play, the curtains were drawn and
that’s the end. That’s what we felt.
“It was over for us.”

IT was over in Ennis for the de Regges. Ghislaine finished her
schooling and got her Leaving Cert. But by the end of the year the
Heléne de Regge and her six children, Ghislaine, Karel, Marie-Louise,
Honoré, Marie-Cecile and Godelieve had left for Belgium.
But it wasn’t over. Ghislaine de Regge later when to America and now
lives in Austin, Texas, with her time in Ennis never leaving her
either, the memories of which are contained within the pages of her
just published memoir, ‘A Daughter’s Odyssey’.
“I have been working on this, off and on for years and years,” she
reveals. “My mother had all of my father’s music manuscripts,
compositions, drafts of compositions and papers, at home.
“I brought all that with me to the United States and then I felt that
I had to do something. I didn’t know what to do exactly – it was sort
of an effort to prevent the music and the life disappearing into
“I thought, ‘if my house burns down, everything is lost’. I made
copies of most things and contacted Michéal Ó Suilleabháin at the
‘World Centre for Irish Music’ in Limerick and he suggested archiving
it in the Glucksman Library. I did that a couple of years ago.
“It’s all inter-twined; it’s all about the sense of responsibility
that I had. If I didn’t do it, nobody would,” she adds.
‘This odyssey is a mission to capture that time, that man, and the
people in his life, and to salvage his life’s work. We must play the
music, releasing it from the darkened handwritten manuscripts, and
hear the compositions not yet performed, the tunes not yet sung.’
It’s all contained in ‘A Daughter’s Odyssey’ – her 18 years in Ennis,
her father’s 35 years from 1923 to ’58, when he served as music
professor in St Flannan’s College and organ/choirmaster in Ennis Pro-
He was also a man with multiple business interests, a father and a
socialite, who mixed with some of the great entertainers, writers, and
artists of his day, and all-comers. Rich and poor, old and young.
‘Artists and foreigners that passed through the area converged at
Ashline,’ she writes.
‘There were often hitchhikers, traveling salesmen, friends met on his
journeys and those who were down and out at the kitchen table.
‘In the early days elaborate parties at Ashline included actors from
the Abbey Theatre such as Anew McMaster, Siobhán McKenna, Michéal
MacLiammóir and others who would perform after supper. One evening I
spied an inebriated violinist, Isidore Schlaen in formal evening wear,
playing at the foot of the staircase, surrounded by other artists and
women in long evening gowns.’
Ernest de Regge was born in Overmere in Belgium in 1901 and from the
age of 22 was employed by Bishop Michael Fogarty, who ruled the
diocese of Killaloe from 1904 until his death 51 years later in 1955.
“My father’s salary was a bone of contention with the Bishop,” recalls
Ghislaine. His salary remained the same from 1923 until he died in
1958. I don’t think he ever got a raise. In the 1950s he was earning
£300 for working in the college and the cathedral.
“We were living in Bishop Fogarty’s old house Ashline when he moved
into the new palace at Westbourne,” she continues. “When we were in
Ashline my brother and I walked to school to the Convent – we had a
tricycle and took turns riding the tricycle. That was a very pleasant
memory, going down the Kilrush Road and too school.
“It was absolutely idyllic for us children. The house was beautiful
and the grounds were terrific. I remember stocking up tea during the
war – we had a big box of tea in one of the bedrooms there was loads
of grain.
“My father had collected a lot of antiques, so the house was very
beautiful. In his study he had a Bechstein piano. There was a drawing
room with French furniture and there was a grand piano.
“I don’t know if we were paying rent, or whether we were living there
for free. I don’t know whether it was part of my father’s salary. The
roof leaked and I know my mother had asked my father to ask the Bishop
about it, but nothing happened.
“My brother and I sometimes went to visit the Bishop when he was
living in Westbourne – we were a little intimidated, as we would be by
any adult person. The robe, the kissing of the ring and all that and
the kind of language you were supposed to use around him – Yes My
Lord, Yes Your Lordship.
“He was warm towards us, but……..”
But, he was the Bishop of Killaloe and everyone genuflected at his
altar – his word was law, even if it came to the bailifs being
summoned to enforce this law.
‘His tender side the bishop showed to his elegant Irish wolfhounds,’
she writes diplomatically.
Less diplomatic, was the way the Bishop of Killaloe dealt with the de
Regges when it came to them leaving Ashline.
They were evicted, along with the Corry family who lived in an annex
on the edge of the estate.
“We left long before the Corrys were evicted,” recalls Ghislaine, “and
we spent several months or maybe a year in the Queen’s Hotel and from
there we went to the flat on 22 O’Connell Street and were there for a
couple of years. I was about 12 when we got to Bindon Street. Bindon
Street was a very roomy, pleasant house and was in very good
condition. The previous inhabitants were Dr Matchett, who was the
Presbyterian minister in the town.”
But still Ashline stays with her, nearly seven decades after the
eviction notice was served by the Bishop of Killaloe, Dr Fogarty, with
his newly appointed co-adjutor bishop, Dr Joseph Rodgers at his
‘The Corrys who occupied the wing attached to Ashline House, were also
told to move out by Bishop Fogarty. Apparently the new co-adjutor
bishop who was about to take up residence in the big house didn’t want
them there.
‘Jack Corry was a gentle man, but the feisty Mrs Corry refused to go.
Eventually the bishop had them evicted, and to the dismay of the
neighbours and people in the town, their miserable property was put
out in the rain in front of their house.
‘It is said that Mrs Corry then attached a photograph of Bishop
Fogarty to their door with the nails going right through his face. Not
long afterwards both Jack and his son died of TB, followed by Mrs
Corry and Edna. Some souls shuddered at the implications of thwarting
the Church.’
“I didn’t see the eviction,” says Ghislaine, “but I knew of it. I
don’t know how I knew, but I did and I knew what happened to that
‘The people of Ennis were outraged by the Bishop’s actions;
furthermore, the details of the eviction of the Corry family from the
Ashline annex harked back to the not so distant past when the British
had sole recourse to such ruthless means.
‘My parents were disillusioned and confused. Consequently he and my
mother considered moving back to Belgium.’
It was 1948, but the de Regges stayed, with Ernest continuing in the
employ of the Bishop Fogarty for a further seven years and then Bishop
Rodgers, while also dabbling in numerous business ventures over the
years: chicken farming, importing automobiles, a jewelry business in
Ennis, a music shop in Limerick, the property rental market and
collecting and dealing in antiques
Then there was the music – always the music. His multiple successes at
Oireachtas na hÉireann from 1939 until his death; his Radio Éireann
broadcasts; his compositions that welded him to Clare and the diocese
of Killaloe that he served.
And there was the life that lay ahead – the things to be done, with
his last business venture in the planning being a watch-assembly
operation that was to be housed in Carmody’s Hotel.
“He was a very upbeat person. He enjoyed life and he saw things in a
positive way,” says Ghislaine. “Things would turn out well, any
problems, you could wait and see and things would turn out right. He
was very optimistic and had a good sense of humour.”
Then came that knock at the door of Coláiste Muire’s Maria Assumpta
Hall on January 15, 1958 and everything changed.
‘I was brought to the morgue – a small white building behind the
County Hospital. There Papa lay in his black suit with swallow tails,
dressed for the magnificent event of meeting his maker.
‘The expression on his face was a happy one – a slight smile as if he
were about to make a humorous remark, which had a tremendously calming
effect on me. As I stroked his left leg, I thought I felt bandages.
Later I was told that his left and ribs had been broken’.
Three of the Carmody’s Hotel dead had their funeral masses in Ennis
Cathedral: Ernest de Regge, Tomás Donnellan and James Fitzgibbon.
The Bishop of Killaloe, Dr Rodgers presided at the solemn requiem
mass, while Taoiseach Eamonn de Valera was among those in the packed
‘Vague feelings of anger with the bishop alternated with pride at my
father’s indomitable spirit and my frustration on not being able to
fully understand the events that had led to this place and this time.
‘Unable to think or to realise the situation, I was dazed, and as if
drowning, desperately tried to surface amidst the murky maelstrom of
my mind, to grasp at the important and transitory words and the music
of the Mass.
‘On that day, all shops in Ennis had been closed and the National Flag
was flown at half-mast from public buildings. As the cortege passed
through the streets, men stood bareheaded reciting prayers for the
repose of the soul of the victims. Women wept as they watched, and
little children stood silently by their sides.
‘It was an especially cold winter day when the funeral procession made
its way to Drumcliffe a few miles from the Cathedral……The numbing
pace of the procession slowed down, and finally came to a complete
standstill. People waited, silent and cold, for the procession to
continue. The graveyard was a little less than a mile down the road.
‘The minutes passed, the mourners looked at each other shuddering,
becoming inpatient for the cortege to move on. Gradually word made its
way down the rows that the hearse had fallen still; its motor would
not start. The driver tried and tried to revive the engine but all to
no avail.
‘Some at the back of the funeral procession thought this explanation
was a bad joke, knowing that De Regge’s car regularly stalled
requiring his children and passers-by to push it into action, and
failing that – off the road.
‘After some time, the wind grew frigid, and it began to drizzle. Small
groups of people huddled to chat. Finally some strong fellows came
forward and tried to push the hearse to get the engine going, but the
hears was old and heavy and would no budge.
‘After much discussion on what to do, and how to proceed to the burial
place, several choir members came forward, opened the hearse, took the
coffin out and raised it on their shoulders. That is how my father’s
body was carried to the graveyard at Drumcliffe; in a final awesome and
fitting tribute to their choirmaster and friend on a cold January
afternoon in a small town in the west of Ireland.’
The greatest tribute of all is that Ernest de Regge is still
remembered in Ennis; through his music; through the 50th anniversary
of his death being marked by a celebratory concert in Ennis
Cathedral when the Enniscorthy Musical Society, under the direction
of Ennisman Donagh Wylde re-enacted the mass composed by de Regge for
Blessed Oliver Plunkett that was first broadcast on Radio Éireann in 1947;
through the RTÉ documentary ‘The Man and Musician from Overmere’
directed by Sinéad Wylde; through Gerry Quinn’s ‘As if Night Fell’
documentary on Carmody’s Hotel on Clare FM; through Niall Williams’
play ‘That We May Sing’.
And finally and most importantly of all, through ‘A Daughter’s
Odyssey’ that tells the story of Ernest de Regge through the prism of
his own family.


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