Bellamont Forest House, designed in the 1720s by Edward Lovett Pearce, a Coote relative.

Charles Coote: The maddest Earl in Town

In Jonathan Smyth's latest Times Past column, he takes a look into the world of the mad earl of Cootehill...

The Coote family were once the main landed proprietors and owners of the surrounding land, including the town of Cootehill, for many generations. The first in the area was Colonel Thomas Coote (1620-1671), a Cromwellian soldier who was granted O’Reilly lands under the act of settlement in 1662. Colonel Thomas married Frances Hill, daughter of Moses Hill of Hillsborough, Co Down, and tradition has it that Cootehill was named in honour of their two families.

The colonel’s nephew, also named Thomas Coote, was to inherit the estate after his uncle’s death. The new owner served as Lord Chief Justice of Ireland and edited a book on linen production, which earned him the title of ‘father of the linen industry in Ulster'. In 1725, he obtained a charter to hold fairs and markets and, through his efforts, Cootehill was made one of the top linen markets in Ulster, leading Cootehill to have 10 bleach greens and the production of around ‘one thousand pieces of linen cloth’ per year.

Mad Earl Coote

But it was Charles Coote (1738-1800), the designated first Earl of Bellamont, and grandson of Judge Coote, who ‘broke the mould’ when he succeeded as heir to the Coote estate. An earlier family title the earl of ‘Belomont’ had become extinct and, for Charles' efforts in supporting the crown forces in Ireland, he was awarded a new title.

His father died when he was aged just 12 years and the estate went to the young Charles who, among his other interests, was a keen musician. No expense was spared on the young maestro and his mother even employed and brought Italian baroque composer, Francesco Geminiani, to Bellamont to teach her son.

As an adult, Charles played the cello and his audience on occasion included royalty. Regarding his Cavan neighbours, he offensively referred to them as ‘Irish Hottentots’, which undoubtedly did little for him in the popularity stakes with the inhabitants on the estate.

After attending Trinity College Dublin and leaving without a degree, he embarked on a grand tour of Europe and afterwards, Coote was said to have pompously feigned a foreign accent while speaking English and was notoriously bombastic and loved ceremony. In his maiden speech to a yawning gallery in the House of Lords, he insisted on speaking in French and regularly published every political utterance in pamphlet form. Taking a stance in favour of self-determination in the 1780s, he favoured an end to Westminster interference in Irish affairs.

His personality, according to John Coleman, who wrote a paper about the Earl for the Breifne Journal in 2017, stated he could be both unpredictable and eccentric. Coote was referred to as a ‘mad man’ and this certainly fits when I think of how he got himself embroiled in a duel over a trivial disagreement with Lord Townsend, a former lord lieutenant of Ireland. The duel took place at Marleybone Fields, London, on February 2, 1773, and as the shots were fired, it was Townsend’s bullet that struck Coote in the groin.

Mad, bad and …

He married Lady Emily Fitzgerald in 1774, but it was soon discovered that the wild Coote already had privately married a ‘Miss McDermott'. Twenty years later, Lady Fitzgerald Coote grew tired of her husband’s ways and eventually left him in 1794. Like the poet Lord Byron, the hedonistic Charles Coote, an ‘inveterate womaniser’, was every bit as ‘mad, bad, and dangerous to know’, and of his 16 children, it is said that 11 of them were born to his lovers. This information might never have come to light but for the fact that a copy of Coote’s ‘last will and testament’ records the children’s names and his provision for them.

On October 20, 1800, Charles Coote died having developed inflammation of the lungs after returning from a race meeting at the Curragh. Coote’s only ‘legitimate' son Charles died in 1786 and, when the Earl died, the estate was left to one of his extramarital sons who was also named Charles Coote. One wonders, if the Earl’s ghost still might walk the grounds of Bellamont at night.

The last relative of Charles Coote, Earl of Bellamont to have lived in Bellamont Forest House, Cootehill, was John Coote, an interior designer, celebrated for his restoration of the Libyan Embassy in London after the SAS siege in 1984. He bought the Bellamont estate property in 1987 and took a keen interest in the conservation of the town’s heritage, while encouraging local people to do the same. Heritage groups were formed and a growing interest in the preservation of the community’s historic sites began. Another famous owner of Bellamont House was Brigadier Eric Dorman O’Gowan, a genius tactician who out-witted Rommel in the early stages of the Second World War. A beautiful Palladian style villa, Bellamont House currently belongs to Mr John Manuel Morehart.

For further reading on the Cootes, there is a detailed account by historian Patrick Cassidy, ‘The Cootes of Cootehill’, published in the Breifne Journal, in 2001.

The Dean and the Workhouse Doctor

In 1892, matters came to a head when the medical officer at Bawnboy workhouse, Dr Arthur McGuaran was dismissed by the master. However, it was the intervention of the doctor’s uncle, Dean McGuaran, a local man of the cloth, who being infuriated by how matters were handled made it into the headlines. The Dean demanded a sworn inquiry by the Local Government board to find out the facts. In addition to the Dean’s annoyance, theCavan Weekly Newshad wrongly suggested that he had found the job for his nephew, but in a later edition the newspaper apologised for what it said was inaccurate reporting.


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