The Blake family of Menlo were raised to the peerage as barons in 1622 and from that time they had a serious influence on many aspects of Galway life.
The 14th Baron of Menlo, Sir Valentine Blake, was born on 2 December 1836. His parents were Sir Thomas Blake and Letitia Maria nee O’Brien. She was the only daughter and heiress of Ulick O’Brien of Waterview, County Galway.
Thomas Blake and Letitia had one son, Sir Valentine, and two daughters, Louisa and Eliza Maria. During their youth, they had many visitors to the castle at Menlo, including Sir William Wilde, father of Oscar Wilde. Wilde later described visiting Menlo in his book, ‘Lough Corrib’.
Sir Thomas Blake had been a Catholic since his youth and frequently attended mass at St Nicholas’s Pro-Cathedral in Galway. When Sir Thomas died on 2 January 1875, his son, Sir Valentine, decided to have him buried in the Protestant tradition. He said that his reason for this was that his father had a ‘softening of the brain’, which had impaired his judgment. The tenants at his Menlo estate were greatly angered by this and a riot broke out at the funeral, which had to be brought under control by the parish priest. Some of the men who tried to stop the funeral cortège were charged with disturbing the peace and brought to court. According to one source, four of them received a month in prison and others fled to Australia.
Sir Valentine Blake married Camilla Eugenia Combe on 25 June 1864. She was the youngest daughter of Harvey Combe of Cobham Park in Surrey, England. Her father was a member of the brewing and hunting dynasty and worked closely with the Madras Civil Service.
Sir Valentine and Camilla had six children – Eleanor (b.1865); Florence Anne (b. 1866); Julia (b. 1868); Sir Thomas (b. 1870); Valentine Joseph (b. 1871); and James Herbert (b. 1874). Valentine Joseph Blake died in his teens, while his brother, James Herbert, passed away when he was 30 years old. Eleanor suffered from severe rheumatism for most of her life. It was because of this that she was unable to escape from the tragic fire that destroyed the castle in 1910. Her body was never recovered.
One of the servant girls, Delia Early, was also killed as a result of the fire. Sir Valentine and his wife were away in Dublin at the time. He was in hospital to have minor eye surgery carried out.
Sir Valentine held many prominent positions in the town and was a very influential man. He seems to have enjoyed sporting events and opened his grounds at Menlo to accommodate the Galway Regatta.
However, the loss of his daughter and home at Menlo had a dreadful effect on him and his health declined. He died on 24 July 1912 and, according to his obituary published in ‘The Galway Express’, his passing was widely mourned in the town. However, this does not seem to have been the case in Menlo, where it was reported that there was a large police presence to ensure that his funeral passed off peacefully.
People remembered his father’s funeral and the subsequent court cases. According to local sources, Sir Valentine Blake’s headstone was erected over his feet.
His son, Sir Thomas Blake, succeeded him as the 15th Baron of Menlo. He served as a Captain in the Royal Garrison Artillery. On 8 July 1903, he married, Evelyn Winifred, the youngest daughter of Lewes Gower Stewart of the Royal Engineers. Sir Valentine’s widow, Dame Camilla, survived him and died on 4 March 1929. The following is a copy of Sir Valentine Blake’s obituary:
Death of Sir Valentine Blake, Bart., J.P.: Not for the past half century has there passed away a more popular Galway gentleman than has been the case in the lamented death of Sir Valentine Blake, the owner of Menlo Castle.
When it became known here by telegram on Thursday that he had ‘crossed the bourne from which no traveller returns’ a universal feeling of sorrow was experenced, and the sad announcement fell as a pall upon the entire community, and as a mark of his esteem for his memory the windows in the several establishments in the town were heavely shuttered. So well known and so highly popular was the late Sir Valentine Blake amongst the people of Galway that it would be superfluous on our part to pass enconiums on him for the kindness of heart, his generosity, and his unostentious character.
Suffice it is to say that there is not a single individual in Galway, regardless of position, creed or class, who has not felt a pang of deep regret for his loss from amongst us. It is only two years this very week that the splendid old Castle of Menlo, the ancestral home of the Blakes, was burnt to the ground, and which at the time was the scene of more than one tragedy, and since then Sir Valentine and Lady Blake have resided at Monkstown, Co. Dublin, where Sir Valentine had gone a few days before the sad catastrophe at the Castle for the purpose of placing himself under the care of an eye specialist, but the shock occasioned by the melancholy tragedy at his ancestral home preyed severely on him, and it was never expected that he would long survive the harrowing incident.
Sir Valentine held honorary rank of Major in the Galway Militia. He was a Justice of the Peace for the borough and county of Galway, and for many years held positions on the Harbour Board, Town Board, and Board of Guardians. He was also a member of the Navigation Trustees, and no honour which his fellow-citizens in Galway could procure for him but was bestowed with the fulness of grateful and loving hearts. He was High Sheriff in 1872. In 1864, he married Camilla Eugenia, the daughter of Mr. Harvey Coombe, formerly of the Madras Civil Service. He is succeeded by his son, Mr. Thomas Patrick Ulick John Harvey Blake, who was born on 18th March 1870. He was in his 76th year. The remains will arrive in Galway to-morrow (Saturday) by the 1.40 p.m. train, after which they will by removed to Menlo Cemetery for interment in the family vault where lie the remains of Sir Valentine’s ancestors.
Events of note: An event to organise a commemoration of the life of Liam O’Flaherty will take place in Galway City Library, tomorrow, Thursday 29 November between 6pm and 8pm. All are welcome. People are asked to attend and share stories, information and ideas about commemorating the great writer.
The St Bridget’s Terrace Residents Association is organising a Christmas party for 14 December at 8pm in the Western Hotel, Prospect Hill. (Sit-down meal €15) as part of St Bridget’s 100 year celebrations. Tickets are available from Brian Kennedy on 091-562495.