Harry Dyas: “A man of lax morality”

The pages of history of most communities in Ireland will no doubt document the lives of many characters who have survived in the local memory. Athboy is no different. One such historical character, a hero to some and a villain to others, is Harry Dyas of Gillstown.   

Boltown House, Kilskyre the birthplace of Harry Dyas
Boltown Hall, Kilskyre the birthplace of Harry Dyas

Harry Mortimer Dyas, to give him his full name, was born in the family home of Boltown, Kilskyre in 1857. He was one of 8 children born to Henry Dyas and Maria Dorothea Mortimer. The Dyas family held 398 acres of land from the Lord Darnley estate in Boltown while the Mortimer family were landholders in Mullagh, County Cavan. In his 58 years of a very colourful and eventful life, Harry was many things: a farmer, a land agent, a Justice of the Peace, an all round sportsman, a champion marksman, a racehorse owner and trainer, a card shark, a notorious gambler, a serial womaniser and one of life’s great “chancers”.

All through his life Harry Dyas was a prolific generator of newspaper column inches. He was seldom out of the news for one reason or the other and it is thanks to the many newspaper stories which outlived him that we can piece together a pretty detailed description of an extraordinary life.

As a young man Harry was destined to become a Doctor. He studied medicine along with his brother, but gave it up after his first year of study, while his brother did go on to qualify as a Doctor. In 1875, at 18 years of age, Harry was turfed out of the family home in Kilskyre for “ruining a young girl in his father’s house”.

He was taken in by Nathaniel Hone Dyas of Athboy Lodge who was a first cousin of Harry’s father and some 20 plus years older than Harry. Nathaniel at this time was unmarried but he took Harry under his care and looked on Harry much as an adopted son. He helped set Harry up in life, obtaining agencies for him in Meath and also in Co. Longford where Nathaniel was a Justice of the Peace. Nathaniel resigned his Magistracy in Longford so that the young Harry could take his place. Nathaniel also helped Harry to obtain lands, part of the Darnley Estate, in Gillstown, Athboy, which adjoined Nathaniel’s own lands in the neighbouring townland of Fosterfields.

Nathaniel Hone Dyas was not in the best of health and he took a yearly break in the warmer climates of France. In his absence he allowed Harry to run his farms for him. All was well at first but disagreements soon arose between the 2 men over money. At this time Harry was indulging in his lifetime passions of drinking, women, gambling and horses. Nathaniel enjoyed the drink and the women but abhorred the horses and the gambling. Around this time a series of anonymous letters were received by Maria Dyas, Harry’s mother, denouncing Harry’s debauchery and licentious ways. Harry blamed Nathaniel for the letters while Nathaniel denied all knowledge of them. Harry sued Nathaniel for libel and looked for £10,000 damages.

A very interesting court case followed in February 1893. The case was widely reported in all the newspapers of the day. Nathaniel said about Harry : “I did everything I could to raise him in life and my return was deceit, theft, and attempt to ruin me. Instead of being in an honorable position he is now a disgrace to everyone of his name. He put me in sore difficulties, while he kept racehorses with my money”. A lot of Dyas family dirty washing was aired. There were allegations of theft, kept women in Dublin and England (by both men) and illegitimate children. Harry claimed during this case that he won about £5000 as a result of tips he received from the famous jockey, Fred Archer. Harry claimed that he had rescued Archer from the wreckage of a train crash at York station and as a consequence they became great friends and Archer supplied him with the tips! In the end the Jury found that Harry was indeed libeled and they awarded him just 6 pence. In other words the Jury thought that Harry got what he deserved.

The Elco Shield. (Credit: National Rifle Club of Scotland)

Harry Dyas was a world class shot with a rifle and pistol and was a member of the Irish team in 1877 which won the Elcho Shield, an international shooting competition which was held annually (and still is to this day) between England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. He competed at international level for many years.

But it is in the world of horse racing that Harry’s legacy will live on. Harry trained many of his own horses in Gillstown. His training gallops extended over the green fields of Gillstown and the story goes that there was a replica of parts of the Aintree Grand National course in Gillstown with all the Aintree style fences, Beecher’s Brook, Canal Turn etc. In fact in October 1893 the Irish Times reported that “Harry Dyas has railed the entire length of his private course at Gillstown”.

As a result of winning one of the great Elcho Shield competitions, his friend, Lord Beresford, a celebrity of the English Turf, gave Harry a gift of a mare called Vae Victus. When this mare was covered by Harry’s own stallion, Man O’War the resultant foal, born in 1888, was called Manifesto.

Manifesto was lightly raced as a young horse. He grazed over the fields of Gillstown and was given time to mature. He won a couple of races as a 4 and 5 year old and in 1895 was entered for the first time in the Aintree Grand National. He finished fourth. The following year, 1896, they returned to Aintree for another try at the big race. This time the horse was ridden by Harry himself. However they got no further than the first fence where they fell after a mid air collision with another horse.

In an effort to improve his luck in the race Harry then sent the horse to be trained at the Curragh by Willie McAuliff. Ridden by Terry Kavanagh and carrying 11st 3lbs Manifesto started the 1897 National at 6-1 favourite and won by 20 lengths.

Manifesto, Dyas’ grand national winning horse. (Credit: Sporthorse-data.com

In his preparations for the 1898 Grand National, Manifesto unfortunately sustained an injury. While tending to his charge one day in McAuliff’s yard a stable boy carelessly left the horse’s stable door open. Manifesto escaped but injured his leg jumping over a gate before taking to the wide open plains of the Curragh. He was caught soon afterwards but his injury upset his preparations for the big race. It is reported that the unfortunate stable lad, no doubt fearing the inevitable retribution which he would face from both McAuliff and Dyas for making such an elementary mistake, jumped the yard gate in the wake of the fleeing horse and was never seen in McAuliff’s yard again. He was however found many months later working in another Curragh stable under an assumed name!!

Courtesy of Mary Oats.
Harry Dyas. (Credit: Mary Oats)

Following this unfortunate incident Harry Dyas sold Manifesto in 1898 to Mr. J G Bulteel for £4000. This was a rash decision in hindsight as the horse went on to win the National for his new owner in 1899, thus making Manifesto the first horse to win the Grand National twice. In this 1899 race Harry had another runner of his own, a mare called Gentle Ida. A half sister to Manifesto she started at 4-1 favourite, but fell.

Over the following years Manifesto ran a few more times in the big race, becoming a big crowd favourite. All in all he ran 8 times in the National, won twice, third three times and fourth once. In 1904 at the age of 16 he ran for the last time, carrying 12st 1lb he finished eight.

To this day, given his running record and the fact that he always carried top weight, Manifesto is generally regarded by many experts as the greatest Grand National horse ever.

Harry Dyas was a notorious gambler. Bookies dreaded to see him turn up at a racecourse because they were generally in for a fleecing. Whether this was done legally or not could never be proved. On more than one occasion Harry was called before the Stewards to account for the sudden improvement in his horses form. On one occasion, Harry, suspected of being involved in a sting with a horse called Herringbone, wrote to the editor of the Sporting Chronicle offering to put £1000 into the hand of the Editor to be given to anyone who could prove that he had had a shilling on the suspect horse.

In 1892 at the Commercial Hotel in Manchester, Harry was set upon by 3 bookies who demanded that he pay them £200 which they claimed that they had won from him at cards. Harry received a severe beating and the 3 men were arrested. They were sentenced to jail for violent assault but Harry intervened and they were let off with a fine. Harry’s own version of this story is slightly different from what was reported widely in papers the length and breadth of England. He claimed that there were ten of these ruffians, that he offered to take them on two at a time, that they refused and that he couldn’t cope with all ten of them together!

However, racing seems not to have always been a profitable enterprise for Harry Dyas. In August 1905 advertisements appeared in the papers for an auction to be conducted by Lowry Auctioneers of Kells for the dispersal of all thoroughbred horses owned by Harry Dyas of Gillstown, “who is getting out of racing”, including stallions, mares and foals. The auction was to be held in Gillstown on 18th August 1905.

On the local scene Harry came into serious conflict with Bernard Wauchop Parr from Ballyboy. There is no doubt that both these men would have shared a friendship at one time. They were after all neighbours. They would have hunted together and moved in the same social circles. They would have attended Church together in Athboy and they would have shared a common interest, both recreational and commercial, in horse breeding and racing. But a great rivalry always existed between these two men with Barney Parr sending many horses over to Aintree to try and emulate Harry Dyas’s achievement in winning the National. He came close with a second and a third place but never a win. A dispute arose between the two men over monies owed by each to the other and the case came up in Trim Courthouse in October 1904. During the trial Harry took great exception to being called a liar by Barney Parr and there and then threatened in front of the Judge to shoot Parr. On being severely reprimanded by the Judge for his outburst, Harry again threatened to shoot Parr, or, if Parr so wished, he would meet him in France where the law was not against it and they could settle their differences at 50 paces. Parr declined, a wise decision given Harry’s reputation with a gun. Harry was bound over to keep the peace for his outbursts.

On many many other occasions Harry appeared in Courts, a lot of the time to settle disputes with neighbours. One case he did not win though was in February 1909 at Athboy Petty Sessions where he sued 3 local youths, Thomas Gilsenan, Christopher Gill and Thomas Carey for trespassing and playing football on his land in Moyagher. As no damage was done the Judge dismissed the case against the 3 youths and told Harry that he should be delighted to see such fine young men partaking of such a healthy passtime as kicking football.

On the romantic side Harry Dyas’s love life was as varied and colourful as the man himself. He was never short of female company and he openly boasted of his many conquests. He had one long term relationship with a Dublin barmaid, but in true Harry Dyas fashion, this was a union of mystery and intrigue and scandal and lies. Harry met Sarah Ann Ryan, or Sadie as she was best known, who worked in a Dublin hotel, as he was returning from his success at Aintree in 1897. They commenced a relationship which was to last until 1913. For reasons unknown Sadie became known under the assumed name of Mercedes Sonico. From 1899 onwards they lived together in Boltown, Kilskyre. Harry passed her off as his wife while they were in England and as his housekeeper while they were in Ireland. In 1900 Sadie received a visit from her sister who urged her to break off this sinful relationship. Sadie returned to Dublin where she became reacquainted with an old friend, Sgt. James Williams of the Royal Artillery. She married Williams, but returned to live with Harry a few weeks later. In a letter to her new husband, dated 29th May 1900, Sadie wrote:

“Dear Jim – I am sorry I cannot see my way to live with you any longer, as I was forced into marrying you by my sisters, and I was in a semi-state of drunkenness all the time. I cannot live with you. I would sooner cut my throat or drown myself than live with you.”

The 1901 census of Ireland shows that Mercedes Sonico was indeed living in Boltown, her occupation being given as “Housekeeper and Nurse”! The 1911 census of Ireland shows a more complex situation however. By now Harry, the head of the household, declares that Mercedes is his wife of 6 years and that they have one daughter, named Mary, aged 6 years old who was born in England. There are however no records on these islands of a marriage between Harry Dyas and Sarah Ann /Sadie Ryan/Mercedes Sonico. It therefore seems probable that Harry and Sarah/Sadie/Mercedes concocted a lie for the sake of their daughter!

In December 1913 a separation was on the cards and a row erupted in the kitchen at Boltown. Harry struck Sarah and knocked her to the floor. She sued Harry for assault, wages due, the return of 2 diamond rings, a horse carriage he had given her, piano, a suite of bedroom furniture and a gramophone. Sarah also kept possession of a pet dog which Harry had given her. When asked in Court what was the dog’s name she replied “Smut”. “Very appropriate” was the quick reply from the Attorney to howls of laughter from the packed courtroom. She won her case and was awarded £482 damages. All of these facts just mentioned about the relationship between Harry and Sadie were taken from the court testimony in the case and were widely reported in the newspapers of the day. In his summing up of the case the Judge described Harry Dyas as “A man of lax morality”.

St. Columba’s Chuch of Ireland Church, Kells (Credit: Sitomon)

Just one month later, on 28th January 1914, Harry, aged 57, married Hilda Mary Carmel O’Brien, aged 22 from Grove Park in Rathmines, Dublin. They actually married twice and the wedding was registered twice! The first time was in the Registrar’s Office in Dublin and then 2 weeks later in the Church of Ireland in Kells. They had one daughter, Laura Dorothea, who was born New Years Eve 1914.

After this Harry fell into poor health. He had been ill with kidney trouble for some time and died from hepatitis in Boltown Kilskyre on 25th August 1915. He was buried in the Church of Ireland cemetery in Kells.

An obituary appeared in the Meath Chronicle shortly afterwards. It contained all the usual things that one finds in an obit, a brief description of Harry’s life and a list of the chief mourners. Strangely, although it lists his surviving brothers and cousins, there is no mention of Harry’s wife of 18 months or his daughter of 7 months.

At the time of his death Harry Dyas was surely one of the biggest farmers in County Meath. The administration papers of his Estate show that between Gillstown Great and Gillstown Little in Athboy, Moyagher and Balruntagh in Rathmore, Staholmog, St John’s Rath and Legagh,( three adjoining farms between Kells and Ardee), Thomastown (near Kells) and his home at Boltown, Kilskyre, Harry held 2875 acres of land. Of these, the lands of Boltown, Stalholmog and St John Rath, and part of Gillstown amounting in total to 1206 acres, were held in fee simple, i.e. they were owned outright. The remainder of his farms were held under judicial tenancy agreements. Harry’s will was proved at about £35,000, a hefty sum in those days!

Many stories which have endured after the passing of Harry Dyas have, no doubt, been well embellished with the passing of time. One such story though which is based in truth concerns local man Jack Stanley who was a stable lad in Dyas’s Gillstown yard. As mentioned earlier, Harry Dyas was a champion rifle shot. On one occasion Harry stood Stanley against a wall with an apple on his head (some say it was an egg) and shot the apple/egg off the poor young mans head! Much to to the relief of onlookers (and Jack himself) the young man was unharmed. When asked years later why he stood for such inhumane treatment at the hands of his boss Stanley simply said that he did not want to loose his job. Jack Stanley lived in the townland of Gillstown, on the Athboy to Kells road until his death in the 1940s and retold this story many times throughout his lifetime.

It was well known that when Harry was going away for a short while on any of his frequent trips that he quietly went round all of his employees beforehand telling each of them that he was leaving them in charge. This way he was sure to hear about everything on his return.

On one particular occasion Harry was going away on a short trip and left orders that the dung in the dunghill was to be turned while he was away. This turning of the dung was done to facilitate the rotting down of the material in the dunghill but was a labourious and backbreaking job and very unpopular with the workmen. So a plan was hatched that the men would ruffle up the top and sides of the dunghill, thus giving the impression that the job had been completed and allowed the workmen some easy time while the boss was away. On his return Harry enquired if the dunghill had been turned to which he was told that it had. He then proceeded to dig with a fork in the dunghill and exposed a full bottle of whiskey which he had hidden there. There is no record of what was said to the workmen involved.

A land steward employed by Harry on his farms at Staholmog also incurred Harry’s wrath. In making his weekly written returns of stock numbers to his employer the steward recorded incorrect numbers, being one beast short in his total. Harry sued the steward, accusing him of stealing the missing bullock. The case ended up in court where Harry was asked what proof he had that the steward had stolen the beast. Harry replied that when he accosted the steward on his lands at Stahalmog and asked him about the missing beast that “the man looked guilty”! The case was dismissed. It seems likely that such heavy handed tactics used by Harry were designed to let his employees know that “you don’t mess with Harry”.

In the summer of 1908 the workers on The Spandaw Estate near Carlanstown, Kells, went on strike. In an effort to break the strike “emergency workers” were drafted in from Dublin to make the hay and save the crops at Spandaw. These emergency workers were a source of much amusement to the local population because they were a collection of Dublin unemployed men who never set foot on a farm in their lives and had absolutely no idea about farm work. Furthermore they were guarded over by a contingent of RIC Officers. However, Harry Dyas’ support for the strike breakers backfired on him. The Meath Chronicle of 8th July 1908 reports that:

“The men employed by Mr. H. M. Dyas, at Staholmog, struck work as a protest against the action of their employer in aiding an abetting the emergency expedition to Spandaw. It is stated that after the arrival of the emergency force Mr Dyas sent a cow to the camp. The men have already found employment with the neighbouring farmers.”

To commemorate her husband, Hilda erected a stained glass window in the Church of Ireland in Kells which is there to this day. (Incidentally, Nathaniel Hone Dyas is commemorated in Athboy Church of Ireland by a smaller stained glass window while, rivals even into eternity, Bernard W. Parr is commemorated in the great stained glass behind the main altar in Athboy Church)

After the selling off of Harry’s farms at an auction which was held in the Gresham Hotel in Dublin in October 1916 and the settling of Harry’s estate Hilda and Laura Dorothea went to live in London. It is very notable at this stage that there was no provision made in Harry’s Will or Estate for his previous long time partner Sarah Ann/Sadie/Mercedes and their daughter Mary. Neither did they make any claim on Harry’s Estate, further proof, if any was needed, that Sadie and Harry never married and that Mary, their illegitimate daughter, had no claim on his Estate. Laura married in London in 1939. Hilda though was killed in a German bombing raid in London in 1940. Her body was returned to Kells to be buried alongside Harry in the Dyas family plot there.

The truth or otherwise of one last story about Harry Dyas is best left to the discerning reader to decide upon. A Meath County Council road crew were tarring roads in the Kilskyre area. In those days the steamroller driver stayed overnight in a caravan which he towed from area to area behind his roller. Having parked up for the night near Boltown, the driver was disturbed by a noise outside his caravan. On investigation he saw a man leaning over an adjacent field gate. The driver recognised the man as Harry Dyas. Harry had died several years previously! It is said that six Priests prayed at that spot for half a day to settle the ghost of Harry Dyas!

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