How did a Gonzaga boy end up running a 208ac estate in west Limerick and why is he selling it? The story of the White family and Nantenan Estate at Cappa near Askeaton is a tale of dispossession, acquisition, inheritance and planned succession.
imon White was born and reared in Dublin, but his uncle, Colonel Martin White, who farmed the family estate, had no heir.
The young Simon was identified as the one to take up the stewardship of the property, which has been in the family name since 1853.
Although living in Dublin, far from the farm, Simon took the prospect of his inheritance seriously. After completing school at Gonzaga College in Ranelagh in 1971 he went on to agricultural college at Gurteen, where he did a diploma in dairy management.
He served a one-year farm apprenticeship with David Bird in Cobh before taking his place farming at Nantenan.
Originally granted to the Royce family by Queen Anne around 1707, the Co Limerick estate was held by them until it was bought by Lieutenant Colonel John White in 1853. He built the present house on the site of a former residence.
The estate was handed down through six generations of the White family before it came to Simon. In 1974 he arrived at Nantenan to work under the tutelage of his uncle, who had specialised in flowers and market gardening, and had leased much of the land.
Simon’s job was to re-establish the estate as a mainstream farm. Over the next 24 years he developed a 50-cow pedigree Friesian herd delivering 1,350 gallons per cow, and a 40-cow Limousin suckler herd.
In 1998 he decided to go back to education, so he leased the farm and went to college.
“I always wanted to study science but we covered no science subjects at Gonzaga so I took on a basic environmental science degree,” he says.
After graduating he became a research scientist and ended up lecturing and working in medical research. He has a keen interest in ecology and environmental issues, specifically as these relate to farming and farmers.
In the early 2000s Simon found himself double-jobbing when the lease on the farm was terminated and it came back to the family. He worked as a scientist while managing Nantenan’s beef operation.
He continues to combine scientific work with farming and serves in a voluntary capacity as an advisor on environmental issues with the IFA.
At a time when much farm policy is being shaped by environmental issues, Simon is an advocate for what he calls sensible policies.
“It appals me when legislation on environmental issues is brought in that doesn’t make sense,” he says.
“At least I am in a position to be able to negotiate with people who are making decisions on environmental issues.
“I can say, ‘if this makes sense it is worth doing, if it doesn’t make sense it is going to fail’.
“There is no point pushing people into doing things that are not going to have an effect.”
He is also chairman of the Limerick and Tipperary Woodland Owners Association and is active in negotiations with the government on the ash dieback situation.
“Our group has become the voice of people with Ash dieback in the country,” he says. “We are trying to persuade the government to bring in some form of support mechanism that is meaningful and will help people.
“It is the only sector of Irish society that has been affected by a disease that hasn’t been compensated in any way.”
Simon is now selling the 208ac farm with its seven-bedroom mansion, one of the most substantial residential farms to come on the market in Limerick in recent years.
He approached the decision to sell with the dispassion and rationality of the scientist.
“I have four daughters who are married. We brought in a mediator a few years ago to see if anybody wanted to be identified to take over.
“Two of them weren’t interested and two said they might be. They wanted five years to see how their lives would change and they came to the conclusion that they had different lives.”
Simon and his wife Hillary would love to stay at Nantenan but if someone comes along with the right price, willing to continue the place as an active farm and a family home, they will gladly move on.
“I am very pragmatic,” he says. “If we don’t get the right price I am happy to live here for the rest of my life.”
Nantenan the placename comes from the Irish word for nettle, nantóg, meaning the land of the nettles. “As we all know, it takes good land to grow nettles,” explains Simon.
About 20km west of Limerick city, the estate has extensive frontage on to the R518 between Askeaton and Rathkeale, off the N69 that runs parallel to the Shannon Estuary.
The property is centred around a well-maintained, Victorian era 7,363 sq ft house with its own chapel. The extensive parcel of land is made up of silage ground, permanent pasture, forestry and parkland making it both a country estate and farmer’s farm.
The property is accessed from the public road. A bell-mouthed, stone-wall entrance leads to a tree-lined, stud-railed avenue to the front of the house set on an elevated site.
The two-storey residence has all the grace and elegance one would associate with a country house of its vintage. Features include a decorative Doric portico, sash and case windows and shutters, corniced ceilings with centre roses, decorative fireplaces and architraves.
A spacious hall leads to a library and to an interconnected drawing room and dining room, which have floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides. The ground floor also contains a Tridentine chapel.
The kitchen includes a moveable island, an oil-fired AGA and a wood-burning stove. Off the kitchen are a utility room, tool room and store.
The seven bedrooms are on the first floor, along with three bathrooms.
The farm buildings include a disused milking parlour, a dairy, a hay shed and cubicle accommodation for up to 60 cattle.
There is also a slurry store, hard standing and a derelict former cottage. A two-storey former coach house could be refurbished and repurposed. Water and electricity are supplied to the farm buildings.
The gardens around the house are mainly in lawns dotted with a range of specimen trees, while the walled garden to the rear is being restored to productivity.
The land is in one block and made up of grassland and mature woods.
The farmland includes 35ac devoted to silage production and 62ac in permanent pasture.
The woodland extends to 98ac and includes a wide variety of species. While the commercial forestry, planted in 1998, no longer generates payments it holds its timber value, with the conifers ready for clearfell in the next 10 years while the Norway spruce will be ready in 20 years.
Overall, the woodland sustains and enhances the biodiversity of the estate, although the ash is suffering from die-back. The buildings and roadways take up about 13ac
The property has extensive frontage onto the R518, with a network of internal roads and tracks servicing all parts of the estate.
James Butler of selling agents, Savills Country Agency is guiding the sale at €1.6m. He says the land offers a great amenity appeal, which will attract the interest of agri-businesses, lifestyle buyers looking to diversify and conservationists.
‘They got a dispensation from the Pope’
The presence of a chapel in the house is testament to the staunchly Catholic background of the Whites. The family history reads like a blockbuster novel covering a period from the Siege of Limerick, to Catholic Emancipation, through the emergence of post-Famine Ireland and the Boer War.
The milestones on the Whites’ path through the last three centuries are not far from those marking major events in Irish and world history.
“Lt Col John White, who built Nantenan, only got the place because of Catholic Emancipation and O’Connell,” Simon explains.
“They had lost their lands around Ballyneety, which is Baile an Fhaoitigh, ‘the home of the Whites’, because they backed the Jacobites instead of the Williamites.
“They continued to be wealthy merchants in Limerick but because of the Penal Laws couldn’t own land.
“When they were allowed to do that, they made a statement by buying large tracts of land, building a house and saying, ‘look we’re here and we’re a Catholic institution’.”
At the turn of the last century the family included a Jesuit priest, two nuns with the Order of the Holy Child Jesus, and two officers in the British army. The latter went to fight the Boers and one, Michael, was killed.
“The family wished to get together to mourn the loss of Michael,” Simon says, “but in order for the nuns to get home and stay in the house, they had to have Nantenan designated the headquarters of the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus in Ireland since the order, a Belgian foundation with houses in England, had no house in this country.
“They also got a dispensation from the Pope to build a chapel and, a few years later, a dispensation to have Mass said in the chapel on Christmas Day and Holy Days so that Fr Tom, the Jesuit priest, could come and stay.”
On a visit to South Africa at the turn of the Millennium, Simon found the grave of his uncle near the farm where he was shot. He was hosted by the family whose Boer forebears were involved in the incident that led to the death.