Scott’s Country to Tralee:  Lives of the Chestnuts

Castleisland District Heritage has recently acquired a copy of The Chestnut Tree (1976), a genealogical work about the family of Reverend William Wallace Chestnut (1818-1888) the longest serving minister of Tralee Presbyterian Church.[1]  Its author, Norah (‘Chuni’) Henderson, was granddaughter of Rev Chestnut.


Norah records how her grandmother, Elizabeth, daughter of James Stewart, was born at Sandyknowe, Edinburgh, ancestral home of Sir Walter Scott, where her father had succeeded the Scott family as tenant.[2]  Rev Chestnut and Elizabeth Stewart had a large family of fourteen children, two of whom died in infancy.  The record shows that the surviving children were high achievers, many of them entering the professions.


Rev Chestnut (left), longest serving minister of Tralee Presbyterian Church. On the right, the late Tralee historian, Russell McMorran, whose study of the church will soon be available


Intellectual Capacity of Females


Two daughters, Agnes and Isabella, were joint headmistresses of Galway High School.  When they left Galway in 1907, a presentation was made, during which it was stated, ‘When the school was first opened, doubt still lingered in the public mind as to the intellectual capacity of girls.’


A few years earlier, the ladies had been congratulated for the remarkable success of their school in the Intermediate Examinations.  Their star student was Janet Hunter Perry, afterwards a Spanish scholar of distinction, who would later inscribe a book of translations of Spanish poems to her Spanish teacher, Isabella Chestnut:


We congratulate the Misses Chestnut for having secured for the second year in succession the first place in all Ireland in the Senior Grade, the fortunate young lady being Miss Janet H Perry, daughter of the County Surveyor of Galway.  Not only has this talented candidate secured first place and the gold medal, but she has also got an exhibition value £50, a prize of £4 in Latin composition, only three being given in all Ireland, and a prize of £4 in Spanish, the only one given in any grade.  This young lady last year was at the head of the Middle Grade and is, we are informed, a year under age.  Her sister, Miss Alice J Perry, has taken 3rd place out of 71, awarded in the Junior Grade … When we consider that the High School, Galway, is only a small one, existing in a thinly populated district, we think the Misses Chestnut are to be congratulated for their almost phenomenal success, out-distancing much larger and better equipped schools in the more favoured provinces of Ulster and Leinster.[3]


Another of Rev Chestnut’s daughters, Emily, who would become Lady Campbell, studied medicine at Belfast University, the only female student of her year, and qualified as a doctor.


Elizabeth, her sister, took charge of Lisanore House, a finishing school for young ladies in Belfast.


Presbyterian History in Kerry


The Chestnut Tree was acquired by the late Russell McMorran during his research of Tralee Presbyterian Church, where his father was minister.  His history was, unfortunately, incomplete at the time of his death on 5 December 2019.


However, it was found that there was sufficient material to produce an adequate record of Presbyterianism in Tralee.  It has been completed with the assistance of Clare and Chris McMorran, brothers of the deceased, and will shortly be published under the title, Recollections of the Presbyterian Church Tralee by Russell McMorran.


[1] Donated by Chris and Clare McMorran from the papers of their brother, the late teacher and historian, Russell McMorran. 

[2] Sir Walter Scott lived then in Abbotsford.

[3] Kerry Evening Post, 4 September 1901.  See Dictionary of Irish Architects (Alice Jacqueline Perry and James Perry).  Janet Hunter Perry (1884-1958) and Alice Jacqueline Perry (1885-1969) numbered among the five daughters of James Perry (1845-1906) and Martha Park.  Their siblings were Margaret Perry (born 1881), Agnes Mary Perry (born 1883) and Martha Perry (born 1888), who married Edward William O’Flaherty Lynam.  In 1968, Agnes Mary Perry (Mrs Shaw) erected a plaque in the Presbyterian Church, Nun’s Island, Galway (now Nun’s Island Theatre) in memory of her parents.  The memorial survives, but is in storage.  An inscription will be provided to Castleisland District Heritage when the current Covid lockdown is lifted.