Not very long ago I was told of an old family rumour that one of our ancestors was a child of one of the Meares – a landlord family based for many centuries at Mearescourt House in County Westmeath. My father often pointed out the little church of Almoritia, visible for some distance perched at the top of a hill near Mearescourt. Almoritia was principally funded by the Meares during their ascendancy, and for part of that time it was also the parish church of the local Small family, among whom were my great-grandmother, Marianne Small/Moxham (known to her family as Polly) and her sister Margaret Small/Poynton. The sisters remained close throughout their lives, and the extended broods of eleven Moxhams (at Killenboy), eight Poyntons (at Derryveagh) and numerous Smalls continued that close contact even after most of that generation emigrated to North America in the early 20th century. One of the first to leave was Jack Poynton, who became personal secretary to millionaire-turned-philanthropist Andrew Carnegie and was later a trustee of the foundation which built free public libraries all around the world that bore Carnegie’s name (including many in Ireland), and his surviving letters reveal that he was very protective of eight of his younger Moxham cousins as they gradually followed him over, even being asked to break the news of their father’s death in early 1922.
Letters to ‘Pollie’ Moxham from (left) her mother Mary Anne Small
(September 1906 and then in her 80s) and (right) her nephew
Jack Poynton (October 1906, on the death of her young daughter Kathleen)
To my surprise, one piece of evidence subsequently turned up which seems to support the rumour. On the 1846 marriage certificate of Francis Small, his wife Mary Anne gives her maiden name as Meares, and lists her father as ‘John D. Meares, gent’. While this is not entirely conclusive proof, the lord of Mearescourt at that time was John Devenish Meares, who could certainly have been described as a member of the gentry. Based on her approximate age at the 1901 census, Mary Anne Meares must have been born around 1822. In that year, John Devenish Meares would have been aged 27 and the heir to the estate. Mary Anne gave her address in 1846 as Kenagh, where the marriage took place, but the only other mention of the Meares name in the Church of Ireland records of Kenagh (Kilcommick) church is the death of a ‘Catherine Mears’ (1830-1836), who could possibly be her sister (and, perhaps coincidentally, John Devenish Meares’ two sisters were also named Mary Anne and Catherine). The identity of Mary Anne’s mother is completely unknown, but the story suggests she may have been a servant at Mearescourt. James Armstrong of Kenagh was a witness to the marriage and, going by the traditions of the time, could possibly have been a relative of Mary Anne’s mother. Francis Small was at that point a farmer in the townland of Aghnabohy (close to Mearescourt but not part of the estate) but by 1854 Francis and Mary Anne Small were living next to the church of Almoritia in the townland of Ballymorin, where their landlord, of course, was ‘John D. Meares’ of Mearescourt. It was at Almoritia Church that both Margaret and Marianne Small married their respective husbands in 1879 and 1884.
It seems odd that Mary Anne would be allowed to use the Meares surname and declare John Devenish Meares as her father if she had been an illegitimate child; could she have been publicly acknowledged as his daughter? If this was the case then his will may refer to her and provide a definite link. Unfortunately, his original will was destroyed in the Four Courts explosion of 1922 and a copy held by the office of the Land Commission cannot yet be viewed by members of the public, for reasons known only to the government of the Republic (the Land Commission records for Northern Ireland are completely accessible free-of-charge). John Devenish Meares married Maria Kelly in July 1831 and they went on to have a number of children together, the eldest being Major-General William Lewis Devenish Meares (1832-1907), a veteran of the Crimean War who inherited Mearescourt in 1876 (and was a strong opponent of the land agitation of the United Irish League, even becoming the victim of an incitement to murder case in 1902). Also of note, the probate of the will of Francis Small in 1904 was granted to George Mears, farmer – probably the George Meares of Moyvore who was born around 1842 to another George Meares.
The gravestones of Mary Anne Meares, c.1822-1909, and (at right)
John Devenish Meares, 1795-1876, both at Almoritia Church.
The Meares family first came from the village of Corsley in Wiltshire (very close to where the Moxham name originated). Lewis Meares was a teenaged soldier in the English army sent to crush the 1641 Irish Catholic Rebellion and in 1667, still in Ireland, he was granted estate lands on the Westmeath/Longford border where he built Mearescourt House and rebuilt Almoritia Church. The descendants of his eldest son remained at Mearescourt until the late 1930s, while those of his second son established themselves at the nearby townland of Killinboy or Killeenboy, County Westmeath (not to be confused with the Killeenboy in County Longford where the Moxhams later lived). The Westmeath poet Lawrence Whyte, in his 1741 collection of satirical rhymes, mentioned both branches of the family:
“With Will, the heir of Killinboy,
Who drank his neighbours round him dry
Before we finished that campaign,
We met at Tober once again,
Rouz’d up John Meares, who by and by,
Brought us some ale and Christmas pie.”
Through marriage, the Mearescourt line had much deeper Irish roots, tracing back through the Jones family of 17th century Bishops and soldiers to the Usshers of Anglo-Norman Dublin. Presumably, like other Irish estates, Mearescourt was broken up and sold to its tenants as a result of the Land Acts of the late 19th century. The present Mearescourt House was built around 1760 and, after the departure of the Meares, it and the remaining 190 acre demesne changed hands through the Winters and Lister-Kaye families. In more recent years it has operated as a hotel and restaurant combined with a working deer farm, though after being the subject of a legal dispute it is currently for sale. St. Nicholas’ Church of Ireland at Almoritia is still functioning though only occasionally used, with its small congregation joined with that of nearby Kilbixy. In recent years it was extensively renovated for the bicentenary of the present building.
Any more information or suggestions for further research on this possible link to the Meares family would be very welcome.
More on the Meares families of Mearescourt and Killinboy: