Story of Castletown House by James Fleming published on May 23 1936
“Just out of Kildroghan (Celbridge) is much ye grandest house we have seen in Ireland. Castle Town, Mrs Conolly’s , built in 1725, of a bastard marble dug up some 15 miles hence, but being unpolished it looks like a fair white stone. This very lofty and deep house, taking up a great deal of ground, stands upon arches, has no less than 13 windows in front, to many either for beauty or strength; on each side wind in a circular manner stone cloisters supported on columns of ye ionic order; butting ye extremities of ye cloisters are built of a darker stone, and something higher than ye cloisters, on one side, ye kitchens and offices; on the other ye stabling. The rooms are large and well proportioned, and as well furnished, though ye inside is not furnished throughout, for ye great staircase is not yet begun, and some of ye rooms have no furniture, as ye long gallery proportionally wide. No tapestry, but what was made in Dublin, ye figures are small, ye colours very lively. The garrets, or rather rooms in ye uppermost story, are exceedingly good apartments, all wainscotted and well furnished, y chimney pieces or ye marble ye house is built of, when polished gives a grey cast. The Liffey flows below ye fruitery.
Castletown house was not completed when Loveday visited it in 1731, and his quaint description, just quoted, conveys an inadequate picture of the palatial splendour which the finished structure present to subsequent travellers.
The Finest House in Ireland
Sixty years after Loveday’s visit another tourist describes the mansion as “the finest house in Ireland, and not exceeded by many in England.”
“It is,” he add, “a large handsome edifice, situated in the middle of an extensive lawn, which is quite surrounded with fine plantations disposed to the best advantage.”
“Castletown,” says Bowden, in his Tour of Ireland 1791, “I consider the finest house in his majesty’s dominions.”
The charm of the house and the beauty of its surroundings did not escape the critical and observant eye of Lewis whose Topographical Dictionary 1837 contains the following entry: “Castletown, the splendid mansion of Col Conolly, is a noble structure of hewn stone, consisting of a centre connected with two wings by semicircular colonnades of the Ionic and Corinthian orders; it is situated in an extensive park, intersected with numerous avenues of stately timber and sloping gently to the Liffey, which flows through the demesne, and separates the parishes of Celbridge and Donacomper.”
The palatial mansion has the reputation of exceeding in size every private house in Ireland, and is said to be the earliest stone building in the classic style erected in this country.
Although Loveday and others assert Castletown House was erected in 1725, there is evidence to show that the building was in progress in 1722. Bishop Berkeley, in a letter dated 29th July 1722, to Sir John Perceval says: “Mr Conolly is building a stone house at Castltown, 142 feet by 60 feet and 70 feet high.”
The Dongan Family.
Castletown Estate was in the ownership of the Dongan family in the year 1587 – John Dongan of Dublin, who married Margaret Foster. He was succeeded by his eldest son, Walter, in 1592, who was created a baronet on 23rd October, 1623. Walter died in 1627,m and was succeeded by his eldest son, Sir John Dongan or Castletown, who married Mary, daughter of Sir William Talbot. Sir John’s will was proved in 1663. His eldest son was one of the Confederate catholics of Kilkenny, but died without issue, and was succeeded by his brother, Sir William, 4th baronet, who was created 14th February 1661m, Viscount Dongan of Clane, and on the 2nd January, 1685, he was created Earl of Limerick.
The Dongans were Jacobites, and at the Battle of the Boyne the Earl of Limerick, as well as his son, Walter, fought. The latter was killed in the battle.
After the Treaty of Limerick, the Earl and his wife left Ireland for France, thereby forfeiting his estates. He died in 1699 when his brother, Colonel Thomas Dongan, succeeded to the Earldom, which, on his death, 14th December 1715, became extinct.
Another member of the Dongan family, Thomas Dongan, a younger son of Sir John Dongan, became famous in American history; he was appointed Governor of the colony of New York by Patent dated 30th September 1682. In 1685 Governor Dongan visited Milford, Connecticut, to confer with Governor Treat regarding the boundary between the two colonies.
Under his administration the first legislative assembly met in the colony, and under it a law was enacted granting religious toleration to the members of all Christian churches.
There is a drive leading through the woods from Castletown to Kilmacredock which is still called “Dongan’s Walk” after the family who lived there two hundred and fifty years ago.
Richest Man in Ireland
The successors of the Dongan family at Castletown, at the end of the 17th century, were the Conollys. The property was purchased by the Right Hon William Conolly, who built the present mansion. He sat for Donegal in two Parliaments – 1692-5, 1695-09. In 1703, and again in 1713, he was returned both for Newtown-Limivady and the County of Londonderry; but elected to sit for the latter, which he represented till his death. He was unanimously elected Speaker in 1715, and he was in 1716 and on nine subsequent occasions sworn a Lord Justice for the government of the country.
Mr Conolly was almost as remarkable for his great wealth as for the fact that, although an Irishman, and without connections, he rose in an incredibly short space of time to the highest office in the State.
His fortune is said to have been founded by his having acted, when a youth, as agent to two elderly maiden ladies, who left hi a considerable sum of money.
His first great purchase of lands was in 1691, when he acquired the entire manor of Limavady from George Philips, and soon afterwards he became possessed of property in the Counties Meath, Westmeath, Roscommon, Wexford and Dublin.
He was the richest man in Ireland at the time of his death, which took place at his house in Capel Street, Dublin, on the 30th October 1729.
His wife, with whom he obtained a large fortune, was Catehrine, eldest daughter of Sir Albert Conyngham. She survivied her husband for twenty-three years.
His funeral was the occasion of a great public manifestation of respect and sympathy. A vast concourse followed his remains to celbridge, and at it the custom of wearing white linen scarves was first adopted, in order, it is said, to enourage the Irish linen manucature.
- “How low like him shall sad Hibernia find
- With heart sincere, and dignity of mind,
- When public and domestic virtues blend
- Humble and great – a statesman and a friend
- Self-raised, with independent worth he shone,
- Immortalised by merits all his own
By his will Mr Connolly bequeathed to his executors, in trust, a sum of £500 sterling for the erection of a building in or near the town of Celbridge for the reception of forty orphans or other poor children; and he left a yearly sum of £250 (issuing from the manor town and lands of Rathfarnham, Co Dublin) for their maintenance and education in the linen and hempen manufacture of in husbandry.
He was succeeded by his nephew, William Conolly, who died in 1754, and who was succeeded by his son Thomas.
First Gentleman in Ireland.
The Right Hon Thomas Conolly was MP for Co Londonderry; a Governor of that county and of the town of Coleraine, and a Trustee of the Linen Manufacture for the Province of Ulster. He was considered as the first gentleman in Ireland, his landed estates produced more than £20,000 a year.
Successive Viceroys had courted his support by offering him a Peerage, and leaving it to him to name his own terms.
He always gave them for answer that if their measures were good they might be sure of his unbought, unbiased and firm support; but if they should be bad, the whole patronage of Ireland would be insufficient to make him give one single vote which he could not reconcile to his conscience, his honour and his duty to the public.
Thomas Conolly, while still under age, married, in 1758, Lady Louisa Lennox, third daughter of Charles, 2nd Duke of Richmond, and sister of the beautiful Duchess of Leinster. Lady Louisa, to whom it is said Lord Mornington had made his addresses, was then a pretty girl of sixteen. Lord Mornington was well received and much encouraged by all the family, and no appearance of dislike in the young lady’ but before an answer was positively given, Mr Conolly proposed and was accepted; the answer to Mornington was ‘the young lady had an insurmountable dislike of him.” This Lord Mornington was the father of the Duke of Wellington.
The young couple lived almost without intermission at Castletown. “The seat of Mr Conolly,” says a contemporary biographer, “the greatest commoner in the Kingdom, is fitted up in the most elegant modern taste, and his mode of living is in the highest style of hospitality. He has a public news or coffee roomforthe common resort of his guests in boots, where he who goes away early may breakfast, or who comes in late may dine; or he who should chose to go to bed may sup before the rest of the family. This is almost princely.”
“Castletown,” observers Brewer, “in the time of the Right Hon Thomas Conolly, was distinguished by the exercise of an unbounded hosptilaity which will long be remembered in Ireland.”
The Devil and Tom Conolly
There is a legend that on one occasion, after a hard day’s hunting over a stiff country, Squire Conolly entertained a stranger at dinner, who had won the admiration by the way he had ridden during the run. After dinner, when the punch was being passed around, Squire Tom had occasion to stoop down to pick up his table napkin which had slipped under the table; he perceived to his amazement that the stranger who sat next to him had one of his shoes off, and that a cloven hoof was visible. The eviction of the stranger was thereupon attempted, but he could not be induced to move. As a last resort, the parish priest of Kildrought was sent for, and he promptly put in an appearance. The episode is vividly described in a long ballad, too long to quote in full, published in a collection called the “Kishogue Papers” but –
- Father Malachi, sure that for Nick he’s a match
- Doesn’t ask better sport than to come to the scratch;
- And arrives in the hall,
- In the midst of them all
- While the frightened domestics scarce venture to crawl;
- And learning the state of affairs from the squire,
- Says he’ll soon make his guest from the parlour retire.”
- That Father Malachy succeeded may be gathered from these concluding lines:
- There’s a terrible yell.
- That might startle all hell.
- A flash, and a very strong brimatory smell.
- And save a great cleft
- From his exit so deft.
- Not a trace of the gentleman’s visit is left.”
Thomas Conolly died on the 27th April 1803. “I hope and recommend,” he writes in his will, “to the persons who will be entitled to my estate, that they will be resident in Ireland, and will always prove steady friends to Ireland, as their ancestor, Mr Speaker Conolly, the original and honest maker of my fortune, was.”
“In him,” says a contemporary, “his tenants lost a father rather than a landlord, the industrious apatron, and makind a friend.”
His parliamentary career has already been referred to; although he shocked his followers by supporting the Union, his conduct was entirely disinterested, and his honesty and sincerity were never questioned.”
First Industrial Schools
After the death of her husband, Lady Louisa Conolly resided almost entirely at Castletown, where she devoted herself to the education of the poor, and the general improvement of all living upon her estate.
She erected extensive brew-houses, bake-houses, and buildings of a similar nature within the boundary of the demesne, and upon the ruined kennels of her late husband’s house she built the first industrial schools in Ireland.
Her energy of mind and her intellectual requirements were very great. Lady Conolly designed every building that she had erected; she washer own architect and all the materials used in all the buildings erected by her – such as timber, stones, bricks, lime and sand – were all the produce of the Castletown Estate.
At Newgate Prison
Lady Conolly was an aunt of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, and between them there existed a deep and lasting affection.
“This lady,” states Lecky, “whose rare gifts of mind and character made a deep impression on her contemporaries, was deeply attached to Lord Edward.”
When she received a message from the doctor that her favourite nephew was dying, she at once came from Castletown to Dublin in the hope of seeing him for the last time. She drove, first, to the Viceregal Lodge to ask permission from Lord Camden, who, although the grief-stricken lady had even knelt at his feet in suppliance, refused her. She then went to the Lord Chancellor – Lord Clare – who said he would take the responsibility of admitting her to Newgate, and would himself accompany her. With a thoughtful kindness, he suggested that they should first drive to Leinster House, and take up Lord Harry, the favourite brother of Lord Edward. The party then drove to the gaol, where aunt and brother were permitted to pay their last farewell to the dying patriot.
The wise and good woman was in her eightieth year at the time of her death, which took place in August 1821. She died in a tent, which she had erected on a grass plot in front of the house at Castletown. In her last illness she was attended by Sir Philip Crampton, the eminent Dublin surgeon; the immediate cause of her death being an abscess to the hip.
The Pakenham Connection
Thomas Conolly, by his will, proved 1808, devised his estates to his widow for life, and at her death they devolved to his grand-nephew, Edward Michael Pakenham (son of Admrial the Hon Sir Thomas Pakenham, second son of Thomas, Lord Longford), who assumed the surname and Arms of Conolly, by Royal Licence, 27th August 1821.
Edward Michael Conolly married 1819, Catherine, daughter of Chambre Brabazon Ponsonby-Baker, of Kilcooley Abbey, Co Tipperary. On his death in 1848, he was succeeded by his eldest son, Thomas Conolly, who, in the splendour of his entertainment at Castletown, emulated his eighteenth century namesake.
As a young man, he became acquainted with Louis Napoleon, who preserved his friendship lone after he became Emperor. He died in 1876, and was succeeded by his eldest son Thomas, an officer in the Scots Greys, who was killed in action in the South African war, 11th July 1900. Lieutenant Thomas Conolly was succeeded by his brother, Captain Edward Michael, the present owner of Castletown.
Referring to the first Thomas Conolly, MacDougall, in his “Irish Political Characters” says: “He claims no honour from a long line of ancestry; the father of the Conolly from whom he derived his great estate being only the master of a little thatched ale-house in the North of Ireland.”
“The master of this little ale-house,” was Patrick Conolly of Ballyshannon, who had three sons, Patrick, John and William. The latter was the founder of the distinguished family of Castletown. John matriculated at Trinity Colege, Dublin, 21st May 1682; and Patrick, who settled at Dunton Basset, in Leicestershire, was the father of that William Conolly who inherited Castletown on the death of his uncle, the Right Hon William Conolly, speaker of the Irish House of Commons.
- Authorities consulted in the preparation of this article include: –
- The Georgian Publications, Lecky’s “Ireland in the 18th century,”
- Brewer’s “Beauties of Ireland”
- Burke’s “Landed Gentry in Ireland,”
- Lewis’s “Topographical Dictionary,”
- Young’s ”Tour in Ireland” 1793,
- Journals of the Kildare Archaeolocial Society,
- Blackburne’s “Illustrious Irishwomen,”
- MacDougall’s “Irish Political Characters,”
- Bowden’s “Tour” 1791 etc etc