Tom Ormsby, Rector of Oughterard (Kilcummin Parish), 1929-36

Joseph Melling, Leam West

Tom, Lucy and their niece Ruth Barber who was to later marry Canon Bernard Willoughby. Photo taken at Currarevagh House.
Richard Murphy, Poet

On the walls of Kilcummin Church in Oughterard are the names of its rectors, including Tom Ormsby who served from 1929 until 1936. Ordained in 1922 and Curate in the sister parish of St. Nicolas, Galway, he was appointed in 1929 to succeed Hugh Brice White as incumbent at Kilcummin Parish. Ormsby was a notable Church of Ireland figure, still remembered as an effective and popular minister by members of the congregation today.

Who was Thomas Ormsby?  He and his family connections with Connemara can tell us something about the part played by less wealthy landowners, with their Anglo-Irish backgrounds, in the social history of places like Oughterard during the years when Ireland was liberated and progressed to independence.  The Ormsbys appear to have been established in the Sligo area as early as the sixteenth century, possibly involved in the first Elizabethan plantations of west Ireland.[1] Thomas Ormsby was born on 30 May 1871 in Castleneynoe, Sligo, one of Anthony Ormsby’s five sons.  The family held a large estate at Ballinamore, Mayo, having connections with the Millers of Milford, Kilmaine (originally the parish of Kilmainemore in the Barony of Kilmaine, Mayo) from at least the mid-nineteenth century. The Millers had moved from Ballycusheen, Sligo, to a manor house originally built by a Catholic family in Kilmainemore. By the Victorian era, the Millers were producing female heiresses rather than males to inherit their lands and their names survived in double and triple-barrelled variations as a result. Connections with the Bowens and Croasdailes were notable additions, retained in Christian names of family members down to the present day. Tom’s grandmother was a Bowen-Miller though the Ormsbys inherited the Milford estate without adding yet more barrels to the family name! Charlie Ormsby, one of Tom’s four brothers who took over Ballinamore after the eldest, Anthony, died unmarried, was an engineer involved in building Clifden railway. Another brother emigrated to Canada.

Tom followed a long family tradition of military service in the British army.[2]  He served in the Paymaster Corps and in a long career published Army Finance As A Military Science. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order as a major in the First World War and was a Lieutenant Colonel when he retired in 1920-21. Serving in the South Staffordshire regiment, Tom courted one of five daughters of Captain Colin Hugh Thomson (who had himself served in India during the Mutiny) and the beautiful Maria Louisa Augusta West. The Thomsons were owners of the lovely Salruc estate around Little Killary, having themselves historic connections with the Millers. In 1815 Colonel Alexander Thomson had married the widow of his fellow officer in the Peninsula War, General Charles Miller. The Millers held an estimated eight thousand statute acres of land extending from Killary to Cleggan. After a legal suit, Thomson was allowed to purchase part of this estate.[3] Thomson acquired a reputation as a noted if not universally popular improver of land during the Famine years as well as a supporter of controversial Protestant evangelists active at that time, building a chapel on his estate for the small Protestant congregation around Rosroe. His second, much younger, wife bore him several children. His son and heir, Colin, had a less distinguished military career but still captured the beautiful Augusta West as his bride. Like the Millers, he produced mainly girls, Lucy Mary Thomson being the eldest of five sisters.

The daughters of Colin and Augusta acquired a reputation as romantic beauties, fond of Yeats’ poetry, even though Lucy was to accept a proposal from a man with as stolid military credentials as her own father and grandfather. In courting Lucy, it was later said that he followed protocol in pursuing the eldest and therefore most eligible of her sisters, rather than necessarily the most dazzling of the Thomson girls. Engaged to Lucy in 1893, they married three years later in southern India.[4]   Although Tom had ridden fifty miles on horseback from Ballinamore to Salruc to propose marriage, Lucy never seems to have been romantically captivated by her sober suitor, telling her grand-daughter she had never enjoyed her sexual life, perhaps because it dispelled her romantic illusions as a young bride/. Even so, she gave Tom two lively children in Betty born in 1898 and Jack in 1900.[5]  The contrast in their family background may have contributed to the different temperaments which Tom and Lucy displayed in their married life, the imaginative, artistic and free-wheeling Lucy finding delight in teasing her serious husband with mischievous humour and practical jokes at the expense of long-suffering Tom. The Ormsbys raised their children at Darroch Luss, near Loch Lomond, Jack being educated at Glasgow Academy.

In 1921 an event occurred that changed the course of their lives.  On 6th September, Tom drove Jack to Helensburgh in his Morgan Tricar and after leaving his son at an appointment he continued to a local garage near the sea wall. There he had a serious accident and was so badly injured that the police surgeon advised Jack that his father was unlikely to survive. Tom’s wife and daughter arrived the next morning to find him in intense pain and suffering. Left alone, Tom called out in his suffering and with a clear mind he witnessed the visit of two or more contrasting figures.  A tall man in a black frock coat explained he was a Hindu, asking if Christ could not help him. On hearing the stricken patient say ‘a roomful of Christs’ could not relieve him, the visitor offered Tom a journey to Nirvana where his suffering would cease. On accepting this invitation, the agonised Tom heard another voice and saw a man in white robes with an extraordinary attractive face. This figure told him that Christianity offered more than other religions and that ‘The Master himself’ understood intense suffering, even despair. Realizing this was Christ himself, Tom experienced a feeling of ‘most intense emotion that seemed to shake me to the very soul.’  He then declared that he would “stick to Christ”.[6] This experience may have been the inspiration for a poem he composed later:

I feel each day a great and pressing need

I want a friend faithful in word and deed

A friend who when this mortal body fails

Will help me penetrate the mystery that veils

This little world from that great world unseen

And guide me o’er the gulf that lies between

I know this friend is there to play his part

If only I would take him to my heart

Dear Christ this day I give myself to thee

That whence thou art I too may ever be.[7]


The mystical encounter with Christ appears to have decided Tom to seek holy orders and a ministry within the Church of Ireland. Having left the army, he was soon ordained and served as a curate from 1922 before being appointed Rector at Oughterard in 1929. Tom was the youngest of Anthony Ormsby’s five sons and his eldest brother (another Anthony) had assumed responsibility for Ballinamore as early as 1888, passing it to Charlie on his death. Much of the larger Ormsby estates had been sold by 1917, mainly to the government purchase schemes for Congested Districts, though a limited acreage remained at Ballinamore and Milford. After the sales. Tom assumed responsibility for the house and remaining land at Milford, the Ormsbys establishing their home there sometime after 1922. On his appointment at Kilcummin, they moved much of their furniture to Rectory at Oughterard, leaving the Milford house largely in the care of servants. By this time, the Ormsbys had assumed a significant role in the care of their grandchildren. Their daughter Betty had married William Murphy, the son of Rev. Richard William Murphy, sometime Rector of Clifden (1905-1916). Repeating the venture of Tom Ormsby, William travelled many miles to Ballinamore (on Lucy’s advice), to seek her husband’s permission to marry their daughter. After persuading Tom and the numerous Ormsby and Thomson maiden aunts, guardians of the family honour in regard to marital affairs, to consent to the marriage, they wed in 1923. As an imperial civil servant, William had already served lonely years in India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), finally becoming the last British mayor of Colombo, Ceylon’s capital.

In common with other empire families, Betty Murphy and her children were often separated from William. Fathers were expected to remain at their foreign postings, alleviated only by periods of several months’ leave granted every few years. The birth of Mary Murphy in 1924 was quickly followed by Christopher in 1925 and Richard in 1927, the last being born in the ‘guest bedroom’ at Milford. About the time that Tom and Lucy took up residence at the Oughterard Rectory, William arrived for long leave and rented Ardnasillagh Lodge near Aughnanure Castle, Oughterard, and on his return to Ceylon, Betty and the children stayed on at the Lodge for a period. Richard’s younger sister Elizabeth was born at the Rectory in May 1930. When Betty decided to join her husband with her children in 1932, Mary and Christopher did not remain very long and were sent back to the care of their grandparents in 1933 for perhaps a further two years.[8] One reason was that it was thought that children should be protected from premature puberty in the tropics. If Betty came with them briefly, she certainly returned to Columbo until 1935. Entitled to another period of leave, William rented Rosleague House near Letterfrack (now Rosleague House Hotel) for six months. Returning to find his older brother had acquired considerable knowledge of Irish customs and beliefs, Richard also provides a portrait of domestic life Oughterard Rectory during these years:

We were all a little afraid of Grandfather because he looked severe in a black suit with a broad Church dog collar and a monocle dangling on a thread. He parted his grey hair in the centre and closed his pale blue eyes while saying grace. Little things made him cross. His habit of coming in late for meals at the Rectory annoyed Granny, while she annoyed him by letting her favourite black Labrador, Annie Snipe, jump up behind her with her head resting on Granny’s left shoulder, waiting for titbits to be popped into her mouth. …

Granny was as small as our mother and just as thin… She suffered greatly from rheumatism…[but] she never lost her sense of fun or her tolerance of our misbehaviour.[9]

Tom did not always find the burdens of the obligations pressed on him by high daughter very congenial and he was at this time also struggling to persuade the Fianna Fail government of De Valera not to confiscate the remaining Milford land. The house at Milford was in a poor state of repair, not always helped by the boisterous behaviour of his grandchildren. Receiving several plaintive letters from her father, Betty resolved in 1937 to return to Mayo with the younger children, persuading William to allow her to spend his precious savings on rebuilding the former servants’ quarters at Milford as a self-contained wing suitable for their family. They would share the house with Tom’s son Jack, his wife Bunty and their children Rosemary, Louise and Tom, who lived in the main house along with the children’s grandparents. In retrospect, a decision to spending scarce capital renovating an ancestral home that would always belong to her father Tom and her brother Jack, may appear foolhardy. Why did Betty not urge William to buy a house or continue renting? One explanation lies in the correspondence between her father and herself, questioning whether Milford was at all suitable as a family home for her children in an unmodernised condition, with ceilings collapsing. Tom retired from his Kilcummin responsibilities in 1937 and returned with Lucy to Milford. His daughter appears to have  calculated that she needed the continued support of her parents for the care of her children, more particularly the wayward older boys, and also that an association with Milford would help secure their status as Anglo-Irish gentry as the children grew to marriageable age, even though their actual means remained modest. As the wife of the mayor of Columbo, Betty had lived in some style with several servants in a large government residence and she rebuilt a wing of Milford with an eye to grandeur as well as the practical needs of her children, including a schoolroom and a modern bathroom.

At this point in the family’s history, Tom had indeed demonstrated his value in the care of his grandsons by discovering in Spring 1937 that the Cathedral Choir School at Canterbury were offering trials for twelve selected choristers to become boarders. He urged his daughter, still in Colombo with William, to allow their sons to seek admission to the prestigious places at Canterbury. The boys had attended some classes at Kylemore Abbey with their sister Mary and William had already laid out the cost of sending Christopher and Ricard to Baymount Preparatory School in Dublin, being intensely conscious of the disadvantages he had suffered as a senior civil servant in not having attended a British public school. His means remained restricted and he was no doubt as delighted as Betty when Christopher and Richard proved themselves good enough to join the ancient cathedral school, singing at the inauguration of Archbishop Temple. The remained there until the fall of France in May 1940, whereupon Betty recalled her sons to the safety of Ireland. There they remained for some time until returning to the King’s School in Cornwall. Mary at eighteen had met a young officer in her uncle Jack’s regiment (her grandfather Tom’s former regiment), wounded at Dunkirk and soon became engaged, though her misgivings and attempt to break off the engagement was cut short by her grandfather who urged her not to breach her word and to  honour her promise to marry. They married in February 1942, though her reservations were later shown to be sadly well-founded.

Before the marriage took place, Tom received the shattering news that his beloved son Jack, heir to the Milford estate, had been killed in action in north Africa. Tom is said to have died a broken man weeks later on 18 March 1942.[10] He was buried in the ancestral Bowen-Miller graveyard at Kilmaine Church, near Milford, carried there on a carriage drawn by his favourite horse and followed by locals from the estate. His son-in-law William arrived back after three years absence in Ceylon having been appointed governor of the Bahamas, succeeding the Duke of Windsor (former King Edward VIII). The parents accepted the prohibition on their children joining them and with Mary married they left the four younger children to the care of nannies, schools and the widowed Lucy. Their parents sailed for a ceremonial life in the sunny Bahamas in 1942. One of the lasting monuments to the tenure of Tom and Lucy at the Milford estate was her selfless work with local mothers and children, establishing a ‘kitchen dispensary’ at Milford to provide basic medical and sanitary advice, with simple medicine, to poor women who attended in large numbers, often with malnourished and deprived children. Although not on the scale or renown of Lady Dudley’s contemporary efforts at Screebe House, near Oughterard, Lucy’s dedicated care of impoverished local people confirmed the reputation of the Ormsbys as an unusually good neighbour among poorer tenants. It is unlikely that the story, still prevalent, that their efforts protected Milford from the fate of some other ‘big houses’ of the Anglo-Irish gentry, burned during the war of independence and civil war in 1916-23, since Tom and Lucy did not settle as Milford hosts until after this period.[11] Even so, Lucy’s heroic contribution to basic medical care and Tom’s commitment to making Milford an effective working farm after 1937 possibly helped to persuade the Dublin authorities that this Anglo-Irish family, one of the few survivors of the ‘plantation’ incomers in the Elizabethan and Stuart decades, should be allowed to retain a significant remnant of the original estate. Among the monuments to Lucy are the celebratory poems of William Murphy’s second son, Richard, born in Milford and whose own childhood is recalled as the wondrous years of the “pleasure ground” on the estate.[12]  The connections between the Ormsbys, the Murphys and Oughterard continued in the shape of Tom’s grandson, Christopher, who drove goats along the Clifden Road in 1940, loading them onto the Oughterard Ferry where they were ferried them to Kilbeg Pier. In later life Christopher seriously considered leasing and renovating Aughnanure Castle during 1968-69 before finally deciding the fort’s submerged foundations were too great a challenge. He opted instead to rebuild the ruined castle at Carraigin on the other side of Lough Corrib, where he still lives, close to the former ferry pier at Kilbeg that faces the ancient town of Oughterard.


Joseph Melling, Leam, January 2024


[1] Family History and Genealogy in County Mayo, Ireland, including Ballycastle, Killala, Crossmolina, Belmullet & Ballina. (
[2] National Archives, Kew, British Military Records, Reference WO 76/442/15 for Tom Ormsby, b. 1811, military service 1827-1836.
[3] Thomson | Landed Estates | University of Galway.
[4] Richard Murphy, The Kick: A memoir of the poet Richard Murphy (Cork: Cork University Press, 2017), 12.
[5] Murphy, The Kick, 12-13.
[6] ‘An account of my Strange Experience in September 1921’, Personal Testimony of Lt. Colonel Tom Ormsby, dated 12 May 1922. Copy held by Christopher Murphy.
[7] Copy courtesy of Leslie Lyons. Addended, ‘This was given to me in hand-written version by Rosamund Previte.’
[8] Murphy, The Kick, 25.
[9] Murphy, The Kick, 35.
[10] Murphy, The Kick, 63-65,
[11] Fiona Murphy, The Other Irish Travellers. Storyville: documentary. BBC Four, December 2012.
[12] Richard Murphy, The woman of the house: an elegy (Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1959).

This page was added on 29/01/2024.

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