Airfield was the former home of Letitia and Naomi Overend, they lived here their entire lives and enjoyed working on the farm and gardens. Prior to their death they set up the Airfield Trust, leaving this unique estate for educational and recreational purposes. Today Airfield is a place of escape, discovery and learning which celebrates farming and gardening through a range of exciting learning and cultural programmes.
Letitia and Naomi Overend in particular had earned quite a reputation in Dublin and further a field.
They are of course (nowadays) remembered predominantly for 3 things
Their very fine herd of Jersey cattle
Their spectacular motor cars
And also perhaps as a symbol of, I suppose what one could term, the old world (i.e. the world of the landed estate house, or even, the gentry class).
The Overend Home
The house was built in the late 1820’s as a small farm cottage named Bessmount. During the first 70 years of its history there were four different families who lived there. There was Peter Byrne, a bookseller from Dublin City, Thomas McKay Scully a local barrister, Thomas & Anne Cranfield and their 5 children and another well know Dublin family – the Jurys, proprietors of the Shelbourne Hotel. All of these contributed in their own way to improving the shape and interior of the house but most important of all were, Thomas and Elizabeth Scully, the second occupiers. They basically gave Airfield the shape it is today, dramatically increasing its size from a 2-3 roomed cottage to a substantial family home. And they are the ones who were also responsible for naming the house Airfield.
On the other hand then, the first owner of the land, rather than the house, can be traced back another 100 years to the early 1700’s as Airfield was then part of the extensive Pembroke estates owned by the Hon. Sydney Herbert, (who you may know as) a major landholder in Dublin city and county.
Together, the land and house originally occupied a site of about eight acres in total. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1920’s to the late 1960’s that Letitia and Naomi Overend began a policy of extending their land until it reached its maximum of just over 50 acres.
Now, the Overends first came to Airfield in 1894 when Trevor Overend a successful Dublin solicitor, bought the house and moved here with his wife, Lily Butler and two daughters, Letitia born 1880 and Constance, born in 1894. They came to the countryside, as of course Dundrum would have been, from Ely Place, their first home, which is just behind St. Stephen’s Green in the centre of Dublin. No 12, Ely Place was the head office of Trevor Overend’s solicitor’s practice and in the initial years the family continued to use it as a winter residence shutting up Airfield, and moving back into town.
Unfortunately Constance Overend died of meningitis, as a young child but happily (and somewhat unexpectedly) in 1900, they had another child, Naomi who quickly became the family pet.
What is probably worth mentioning here is that the two sisters, Letitia and Naomi, grew up as part of a large extended family of Butler and Overend relatives. Their mother was a Butler of Carlow, a cadet branch of the Kilkenny Butlers or Earls of Ormond and very proud of that connection. They were particularly close to their mother’s two sisters and their maternal grandmother, often using their house in Sandymount as a second home. They also had Butler relatives living on Highfield Road and Orwell Park in Rathgar and Overend uncles again in Rathgar. Both the Butler and Overend families had lost their ancestral home (in the Butler’s case on account of a death and in the Overend case on account of legal wrangling) so Airfield acted as a central point for both families.
In their early life, although a generation apart (Letitia was born in 1880 and would have been 20 years of age by the time Naomi was born) the routine of their childhood and early years was somewhat similar.
They were both educated at home by a governess, in a reasonably conservative range of subjects – English, French, Maths, dancing and music – although Naomi did share lessons, with a member of the Jellet family from Clonard (which is just up from Airfield) and she also went on to finish her education at Alexandra College, studying physiology and housekeeping.
Education was (from their parents point of view) considered essential but not of the utmost importance. A greater emphasis was put on acquiring social skills and hobbies such as horse riding or gardening and lots of ladies sports such as ping-pong, tennis, cycling or golf.
Golf was a particular passion of Letitia’s and she was a member of Carrickmines Golf Club in Dublin and Portsalon in Co. Donegal. This is a picture of a golf outing at Portsalon with members of the Barton family. The Overends and Bartons were related and both Letitia and Naomi spent quite a lot of time in Donegal with their cousins throughout their lives. For Letitia in particular it provided the only real contact she had with other children (or teenagers as we would say now) as her early life was dominated by adult company.
She was a very loved, a very happy and contented child but also quite serious and it is not really until her early to mid adulthood that she comes into her own forte and really begins to grasp lift to the full – and that’s how most people remember her.
Naomi on the other hand was much more outgoing. With the end of the Victorian and early Edwardian era social rules became increasingly more relaxed and certainly by her early adult years, just after the first world war, Naomi was living a world of frequent house parties, amateur dramatics, fancy dress and paper chases – a real product of the 1920’s.
From an early age, as I say, social activities were very important and may revolved around various fetes, and sales events to raise funds for charity. This was partly because of the social structures of the time (it/the charity world was a safe and acceptable world for women to move in and control) but also because of the Overend’s own sense of generosity.
One of their greatest achievements in this area was the finance, time and effort they dedicated to the opening and running of the Children’s Sunshine Home, Stillorgan, along with its founder Dr. Ella Webb. Originally opened as a convalescent home for children suffering from rickets in the early 1920’s, the outlook of the home changed with demand and today it is still in existence as a Care Centre for mentally handicapped people. We are looking at a side of the original home and which was based on the principles of good food, fresh air and sunshine.
World War I had an impact on the peaceful lives of the Overend family. Many friends lost sons in the war and Airfield played its part, in that it was used as a place for soldiers to visit and relax and be entertained to tea etc. and also the family cars were used to collect soldiers from the North Wall and transfer them to various hospitals. Mrs. Lily Overend and her daughters became ardent workers at the Irish War Hospital Supply Depot, in Merrion Sq. (There was also a depot run from Airfield for a time). As the name suggests this organisation dispatched supplies for the war, things like bale of dressings, clothing and cigarettes to hospitals in France, Belgium and Ireland.
And a large extend this prompted Letitia’s interest in the St. John Ambulance In 1913, she had actually decided to start her training with St. John (although she wasn’t with them for the war) and this decision paved the way for a lifetime of work and a great deal of friendship within that association. It bought out all her organisational skills, her ability get on with people and to make good friends and her sense of fun – she was in her mid thirties, had just become financially independent (through her Uncle) and was unmarried, at a time when the world was structured around the family unit – St. John moved her out of Airfield and gave her a world of her own and awarded their highest honour becoming Dame Justice of the Order of St. John and in 1961 she proudly accepted an Honorary Doctorate from Trinity College in recognition of her public services.
Now despite the twenty year age gap between the two sisters and the fact that they led quite independent lives – they remained very close. They were united by their mutual friends, their motorcars and travel.
Letitia Overend kept a flat or apartment in Ely Place but Airfield was always regarded as home and the two siblings continued to live together throughout their lives. Trevor Overend had taken great pride in purchasing Airfield (it was essentially a symbol of his success) and after his death in 1919, Lily Overend continued to instil this pride or pleasure in her daughters. Letitia, Naomi and their mother thoroughly enjoyed Airfield and in the early 1920’s, they began a policy of expanding the land around it. Over a forty year period the land grew from the original eight acres, to 20 acres in the 1930’s; 25 acres in the 40’s and 50’s and finally, doubling and reaching its height of 50 acres in 1964 with the acquisition of Eden Farm.
Both sisters took an active interest in the outdoors. The gardens were very important and there were used for relaxation and more practical reasons, like growing vegetables. In fact, although the farmland remained small until the 1960’s there were always chickens and a few cows kept and quite a fascinating array of fruit and vegetables such as – grapes, tomatoes, strawberries, beans, cabbages, cucumbers and potatoes. The vegetables, eggs and milk were used for domestic purposes or sold to close friends and family. Hay was grown for use by the cows and horses – there was generally one working horse and a donkey or pony used for transport– in fact the pony and trap were used in conjunction with cars or bicycles right up until the 1950’s. Now by, the 1950’s the number of cows had risen to 8 and in 1953 the first Jersey cow was purchased at the RDS. This sparked the beginning of the wonderful pedigree herd of Jerseys – the Dromartin herd was probably one of the reasons why Eden Farm was purchased. These animals were named after different characters in the Gilbert & Sullivan operas and were regular entrants and prizewinners at the RDS Spring Show. Both Letitia and Naomi were interested in the breeding of jersey cows and became quite experts on the subject and the milk was sold to local individuals or the dairy.
In terms of the animal world the only animals who surpassed this interest were their dogs. There was always a much loved and pampered population of dogs, several are buried in the Pets Graveyard at Airfield.
Now besides their interest in Airfield one of the activities the sisters had in common was their motorcar. In 1903 Letitia and her father had attended the first Irish motorcar rally and she credits this as sparking a lifelong interest for both. Trevor Overend purchased one of the first motor cars in the Dundrum area, a Daimler, and Lily Overend drove this small Peugeot, nicknamed “ the flea” by her family. In 1927 Letitia was given a present of her own car, a magnificent Rolls Royce and this is it. By this point Naomi was also a keen motorist and in 1936 she was given an Austin Tickford. Both women attended a course at the Rolls Royce School of Instruction in London although it was Letitia who really enjoyed carrying out basic maintenance on her own car and often changed the oil and spark plugs and stripped and cleaned the engine. They were both members of various vintage motoring clubs and love to travel around Ireland entering rallies and to socialise at the Automobile Club in Dawson Street. The ability to drive from an early age gave each sister the freedom to be independent and also pursue one of their favourite activities of the time : Picnic-ing.
Throughout their lives both women were prolific travellers and visited a great variety of countries and continents. They particularly favoured travelling by cruise ship and their first holiday of this nature was a family trip to the Mediterranean in 1928– both spent weeks or months away visiting Europe, India, America and Australia and together they toured northern Europe/Scandinavia several times favouring Norway and Denmark. Naomi was an excellent skier and annually went to Austria with friends until she was into her early 60’s.
In Ireland, they frequently spent holidays in Portsalon, Co. Donegal and in 1947 they purchased their own holiday home, ‘Stella Maris’ in Brittas Bay, Co. Wicklow. The house was beside the sea, with a large garden leading down to the beach and once spring set in, they often visited for a night or long weekend of a few weeks.
Finally then on a similar vein, their other great love, was the garden at Airfield. They took a great interest in the grounds and always had a permanent gardener on staff. Both Letitia & Naomi enjoyed helping out, planting, weeding and showing flowers, vegetables or cacti at various fetes.