by Brian Gabriel
How many people living locally realise that Blarney once had its own museum? Do others still remember it and where it was located? Who owned it or how long it stayed open? This is the background.
Knollys Stokes, a very well-known Cork city businessman and entrepreneur, lived in an exquisite 1850’s house at St Luke’s Cross. Knollys at one time owned the Milk Bar restaurant, later known as The Bridge House, on St Patrick Street. He commissioned his friend, sculptor Seamus Murphy, to carve a limestone trough at street level outside the premises for thirsty dogs to drink their fill at. It had the legend ‘Madraí’ carved on it and is still visible today. Knollys Stokes had been interested all his life in beautiful objects and his house was filled with rare and unusual antiques which had been lovingly collected and restored over the years. Among these was his first love, clocks. He had a vast collection of all shapes and sizes and was to become a well-known collector of Clocks and Veteran Cars and became very knowledgeable on these subjects as well as being very involved in a hands-on restoration of his own collection. His son Christopher decided to go in to the business of clock restoration and opened his shop and workshops in MacCurtain Street, Cork City where Philip, his son, now runs the business. In the mean-time, to accommodate his growing collection of beautiful antique cars and possibly a place to display them, Knollys had to locate a secure and dry lock-up building, and where better than in a vacant section of a local Blarney hotel.
The Blarney Vintage Car museum was housed in the Muskerry Arms Hotel which was owned at the time by the Stokes family. Mr. Knollys Stokes, the man behind Ireland’s first Veteran Car Museum, and his son, Christopher, housed the priceless collection of vintage and veteran cars in a part of the hotel which would have been the stable-yard in more ancient times and which was then used as a garage for the hotel guests’ cars before being completely converted to a modern ‘built for purpose’ building. The museum was planned and established by Knollys, who was also President of the Irish Vintage and Veteran Car Club, at a cost of £10,000, to which Bord Failte contributed a substantial sum. The Blarney site was selected because of the 100,000 visitors per annum to Blarney and its famous Castle. It was estimated that up to 40,000 of these visitors would also visit the museum, each of the visitors being charged an entrance fee of 2s. 6d. while children (with parents) were half-price and profits would be put back into the purchase of further cars.
Mr. Jack Lynch, Minister for Finance, formally opened the Veteran Car Museum on Saturday March 26th 1966. The museum had been registered as a company on June 2nd 1965. He was accompanied by Mr. R.P. Beamish, Chairman Beamish and Crawford; Councillor Con Desmond, Lord Mayor of Cork and Mr. Jim O’Brien, Bord Failte. Also at the opening were the Directors of the Museum, Mr. J. Martin Wheeler, Miss Christine Rosborough and Mr. Christopher Stokes. Directors of the Irish Veteran and Vintage Car Club and a great number of Cork business people also attended. Mr. Lynch remarked that he was very honoured at being given the opportunity and privilege of declaring the museum formally opened and said; “Blarney is one of the most famous beauty spots and tourist attractions in Ireland and the opening of this museum will add lustre to its name” and ‘will bring very many more people during the summer and through-out the year to this historic old village.’
Twenty of the most extraordinary cars were on show and it has been suggested that many of these would have been acquired by foreign collectors and left the country if they had not been purchased by the museum. A number of further exhibits dealing with early Irish motoring were promised by their owners, for the exhibition. Mr. Stokes said, “In addition to its value as a tourist attraction, the museum, which will be in the charge of a curator, will help to preserve the history of motoring in Ireland. It contains, already, the finest collection of veteran cars in the country, covering the years 1899 to 1920. One of the more famous cars housed there and of particular interest was the 1910 Wolseley Siddeley, which was the family car of the Gore-Booth family.” The Countess Markievicz was often driven about in this vehicle. It was eventually sold to the Killarney Motor Museum, which was owned by Mr. Denis Lucey and his wife from Macroom. The collection in the Blarney museum was worth over £20,000.
Among the other cars exhibited in the museum were: a 1900 Arrol-Johnson, a very rare model and the only one of its kind in the country at the time and then valued at £3,500, over seven times its original cost; a 1905 Bianchi, a 1904 Singer, a 1901 De Dion Bouton; a 1904 De Dion Bouton; a 1910 Rover, single cylinder; a 1905 Argyle; a 1923 Model T Ford 4 seater; a 1924 Morris Bull-nose; a 1910 Adler; a 1902 Sunbeam-Mabley. Knollys was an avid Wolseley collector and in 1963 he had acquired a 1904 Wolseley 6 h. p. Two-seater. At this time, a Veteran car was described as being built before 1904, those built between 1904 and 1918 were described as Edwardian and Vintage those built between 1918 and 1930.
The Caretaker of the museum was Mr. John Shine from The Groves, Blarney.
At the opening function, details were announced about the International Rally of Veteran and Vintage Cars at which over 300 entries were expected. This Rally was the seventh in the current International series and was a real boost for the Cork area with the organisers estimating the local expenses amounting to £17,000. The entry fee was 17 guineas per competitor plus the shipping costs of getting their cars to Cork. Entries had been received from as far away as New Zealand, Australia, America, Europe and many other countries so a person can see this is not a cheap hobby by any means. The programme included runs to Dungarvan, Killarney and Dingle Peninsula with the Grand Finale being a parade of the £500,000 worth of antique cars through Cork city.
On 16 May 1966, in the U.K., The National Union of Seamen launched a national strike which lasted until 1st July. Being widely supported, it caused great disruption to shipping from British ports. The Cork International Veteran and Vintage Car Rally had been organised to take place from the 18th to the 22nd May and just about all of the 300 cars competing were being brought here by sea from Britain but the strike resulted in the cancellation of the rally, causing the local Cork organisers to lose about £5,000 on office expenses, awards and the printing of an elaborate brochure for the event. It was the first time this international rally was to held in Ireland and about 1,000 visitors had booked accommodation locally and in the city for the rally. Just one of the more distinguished drivers was to be Nicolas Franco, son of General Franco of Spain. His car from Madrid was to be a 1911 Hispano Suiza. The event had been meticulously planned for the previous three years and it was regarded as a terrible blow for it to be called off at the last minute. Knollys Stokes was to become known as the organiser of ‘the greatest veteran car rally that never was’ and which came unstuck due to the British sea-men’s strike.
A number of British and Continental drivers had arrived in Cork earlier in the month, thereby managing to avoid the strike, while others from the Nordic countries and Southern European countries managed to get to Ireland by sailing direct from their own countries. Eventually, their numbers swelled to 105. Something had to be done to entertain them after making such journeys to get here and then finding the Rally cancelled. Knollys and Christine Rosborough, with their committee, arranged for a number of short runs through the countryside. This turned out to be a big success in its own right. Incidentally, the brochures printed for the ‘rally that never was’ have become highly sought-after collector’s items. The award plaques bore a silver hall-mark embodying the ‘Sword of Light’ in commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the 1916 Rising.
A large number of visitors did come to view the priceless collection as well as visiting the nearby famous Blarney Castle. These included Travel Agents from many of the European countries. Unfortunately, the initial surge of visitors and general interest slowed over the next few years and eventually in early 1970, the museum closed its doors for the final time.
However, the family sold off the hotel to the local Bradley family who then converted the exact building which housed the valuable cars into a brand new supermarket. Knollys Stokes then sold off and auctioned his valuable collection.
Today, the property is occupied by a SuperValu supermarket.
Ireland’s first sale of Veteran and Vintage cars was held in Portlaoise, Co. Laois, on Monday April 27th 1970 and included several of the most interesting vehicles from the now closed Blarney Motor Museum. One of these was one of Ireland’s oldest cars in perfect running order, a 31/2 h. p. De Dion Bouton in superb condition.
In early 1976, R.T.E. ran a six-week television series called ‘Private View’, about collectors and their collections and the first programme in the series was of special interest to Blarney viewers in that it showed the very unique and rare collection of valuable cars which had been housed in the Blarney Veteran and Vintage Car Museum.