Clonegal Castle - Guide, History

The Castle from the North-East with the Old Dana Abbey on the right,at the end of the Lime Tree Avenue.

Guide to Clonegal Castle


In the South-East of Ireland between the Wicklow Mountains and the Blackstair Range, there flow two rivers. The main one is the Slaney, rising a few miles above Baltinglass, passes through that town, Tullow, Bunclody and Enniscorthy, then flows into the sea at Wexford. A smaller river, the Derry, rising near Tinahely, passes through Shillelagh, Clonegal, then about one and a half miles below Clonegal joins the Slaney. The triangular area enclosed by them upstream from the meeting, is the “Macha” or “Crow’s foot”. The Daughter, the smaller Derry, according to Colonel Sean O’Driscoll is usually the site of a matriarchal centre. His castle, Castle Matrix (Matres), Rathkeale, Co. Limerick, lies in that position.

From the Macha as far as Dublin, was primeval forest. The area including Clonegal was known as the Leveroch. Traces of the primeval forest are believe to remain today - (Legends of Mount Leinster, Patrick Kennedy p. 29) “As they descended a wild and broken road, through the gap of Coppenagh, they took little notice of the broad and high extent of the side of white Mountain, with its dark streaks of bog, its grey rocks and the primeval forest clothing its lower eminences.” - in Ballyredmond Wood, in a small area on the right bank of Slaney known as “Ryans Rocks”, at Altamont, and part of some of the oak woods of the Coollattin Estate, and in the name of the Derry (grove of oak trees), and in that of Shillelagh - this being a form of bludgeon.

A Scottish story, told recently by Mr. White relates that a certain Scottish Chieftain, wounded at Culloden, was told by a wise woman that he would find healing (slainte) if he went to a place between the river of Health and the river of the oak tree. I tis told that he was healed in the Slaney - Derry triangle, and so he may have stayed at Clonegal Castle.

A tradition related by Mr. Manning Robertson records how a Mrs. Benson, at the time of the flood, seeing the water rise, moved to higher ground; as she began to climb Mount Leinster (2,600 feet), Noah sailed by her in the Ark. Mrs. Benson called to Noah, “it’s a soft day.” “It is indeed” replied Noah. “Is ther any room in your Ark for me”? she asked. “There is not”, answered Noah, and then sailed away. Meanwhile Mrs. Benson had reached the top. As the waters still rose, she took some stones and threw them into a heap, forming the cairn, still to be seen.

Another tradition in the Lebor Gabala Erinn tells that the nieve of Noah, called Cesara, at the time of the Flood consulted an oracle which recommended her to build a ship like Noah’s Ark. She was told also to take 3 men, and 50 maidens and provisions for a very long voyage. They immediately applied themselves to the task, Noah telling them to go to the western extremity of the world. “Perhaps the Flood may not reach there.” After a long time they landed in Ireland. The maidens were the mother of the nations of the earth.

The district known as the Laveroch remained unconquered during the time of Henry II, and Richard still did not subdue it; probably for that reason, he gave it to the Irish. It was part of the lands of the Clonmullen sept of the Kavanaghs. (Legends of Mount Leinster p. 122) “It is about the Old Castle of Clonmullin on the valley that the Clody runs through, before it reaches the town. This old a castle and the lands about it belonged of old to the noble and royal family of the O’Kavanaghs”. Then, Elizabeth conquered it, and gave it to the Netterville family who later, in 1615, sold it to the Esmondes. She destroyed three Kings’s Castle including Clonogan Castle, which defended the Derry. Clonogan Castle, was later known as Clonegal Castle (Field of the Stranger), it was rebuilt by Lord Esmonde, created the first baron Limbrick, as a fort for soldiers, under the command of Dudley Cocclough. Its dimensions ( 40 feet x 60 feet) with a semicircular tower at the back (S.W. side) are exactly those laid down by James I for keeping the land of that area.

It was started in 1625 taking 5 years to complete. It is built of local granite and quartz and built on a batter, the walls 6 foot thick at the bottom, 4 feet on the first floor, and 3 foot 6 inches at the top. Probably it had a thatched rook, just as it is that nearby Carnew Castle, built in 1580, was known to be thatched. The original castle had five floors, unpartitioned, the basement including the Old Kitchen, with a very wide fireplace, the dungeon, and the Druid well. The first floor, including the Hall and the Drawing Room; the second floor, including the Blue, and Green, rooms and Stair Head Rooms, the third floor included the Red and Yellow, the White Rooms, the Mount Leinster Rooms, and the Red Room dressing room, the top floor consisting of the Attic, high enough to hold one fair sized bedroom.

Lord Esmonde married an Irish lady, Ellice (Eilis) O’Flaherty, grand-daughter of Grace O’Malley (Grainne Mhaoil), the well-known hereditary Queen of Connaught, a rival of Elizabeth. Lord Esmonde, being a Protestant, had his marriage annulled on the grounds of her being ‘mere Irishry” and his son, Thomas by Eilis O’Flaherty was therefore illegitimate, and so the baronial title died out. Lady Esmond’s ghost is seen in the “Spy Bush” at the end of Back Avenue, where she watched for the return of her husband. She combs her hair in the moonlight, accompanied by a white cat; and the tradition holds that there are always white cats at the Castle. Subsequently he married a lady from the Butler family leaving no issue.

One of the tasks given to Lord Esmonde was to survey that part of Ireland and to map out “The County of Wicklow” from Dublin, Carlow and Wexford. A map in the Castle shows the original; counties of Dublin, Carlow and Wexford, before Wicklow County was delineated. Lord Esmonde was in the siege of Duncannon and died on his way back to Clonegal, in 1646.

Cromwell’s troops, under Colonels Reynolds and Hewson went through the country and at the ford of the Derry defeated the Irish at the battle of Clonegal: the site of the battle is said to be at Kilcarry. The castle was taken by them; but we know that a bill for the men who had stayed there was sent in earlier. Charles Topham Bowden recalls the first stanza of an old Ballad: -

“The sun of thy glory forever is set

Ill-fated Hibernia in darkness profound

With the blood of thy heroes Kilcarry is wet

Desolation and death roam at large all around

The streams of old Derry which silver was called

By the sweet bards of Orchard in happier days

Are tainted with murders and crimsoned with gore

Choked up with carnage and stopped in their way.”

The son, of Lord Esmonde, Thomas, left for France and joined Charles II and was made a baronet. Sir Thomas’ son, Sir Laurence, returned in 1680 and turned his castle into his residence. He added the partitions between the rooms dividing the various floors. He paneled the Drawing-room and Dining-room and put in a carved granite fireplace in the Blue Room. He also built on the porch in 1680. He roofed the Castle in slates, slightly lowering it. Also in 1680, he planted the Front Avenue mainly with lime trees which came from France, and also the lime trees bordering the “Esmonde fish ponds” and the Mill pond above the haggard. The name of the castle was changed about then. Sir Laurence Esmonde married Lucy Kavanagh, thus uniting with the old owners of the district.

The castle was formerly known as Clonogan or Clonegal Castle, but was renamed about then Huntington Castle after a place called Hunnington in Lincolnshire from which the Esmondes originally came. The name “Huntington” probably was due to a mispronunciation. It was changed back to its old name of Clonegal castle in the 1970’s.

Sir Lawrence possibly built on part of the Kitchen wing. The ceiling of the Kitchen was restored in 1989 and on a rafter on the hall side was carved the date 1678. The present Red Room a the top of the castle, was used as a chapel. In Sir John Esmonde’s time his brother, Richard, accidentally shot himself with a fowling-piece. The bullet mark is still to be seen about two feet up from the ground, the paneling to the left of the pair of front doors.

In 1758 Sir John Esmonde died, leaving a widow, Eleanor and three daughters, Helen, Lucy and Isabella, but no sons. The castle was left to the daughters and the titled passed to Sir Walter of another branch of the family. It was then decided to put the castle to auction because Eleanor’s brother had a mortgage on it. It was valued by Charles Frizell; and was sold in 1758.

Lewis, in his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1836) describes thus the parish of Moyacomb or Clonegal: -

“Partly in the barony of shillelagh county of Wicklow, partly in that of Scarawalsh, county of Wexford, but chiefly in that of St. Mullins, county of Carlow and province of Leinster, on the road from Tullow to Newtown barry, and on the river Derry; containing with the post-town of Clonegal, and the village of Johnstown, 4877 inhabitants. It comprises 28,204 statute acres applotted under the tithe act, includes the estate of Abbeydown, containing 452 plantation acres, which has been tithe-free from time immemorial and is considered extra parochial. The soil is varied, and there are some patches of bog. The state of agriculture is improving. A slate quarry has recently been opened on Gibbet Hill, near Johnstown. It is under a station of the constabulary police and contains an old castellated mansion of the Esmonde family. The Church, in the town of Clonegal, is a good modern building erected in 1819 for which the late Board of First Fruits granted a loan of £1,300, and the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, recently granted £186 for its repair. There is a meeting house for Methodists at Clonegal. At abbey town are the remains of an Ancient Religious House, of which no account is extant.”

A sketch map of the Castle was found among some deeds dated 1758. It showed a pediment but no other additions to the main block, the Avenue of trees were shown on it.

The highest bidder James Leslie, Bishop of Limerick, was declared the purchaser at £2,000. It is told that while he lived there, the balusters on the first and second flight of stairs did not extend as far as the stair, the last of the treads having no baluster. The Bishop tripped at this place and a newel-post of mahogany was put there; it is now known as the “Bishop’s Post”. He appears as a ghost in the four-poster bedroom standing to the left of the fireplace.

The eldest of the three Esmonde sisters Helen married in 1754, a Richard Durdin, and his brother Alexander rented the Castle and Estate on a three lives lease, £117 a year, and in 1828 he rented the estate from the Hon. Mrs. Halliburton, a niece of Bishop James Leslie. Alexander Durdin died in 1807 and left it to his widow and four sons; the youngest son William, bought out the leasehold from his three brothers. “As the castle was greatly out of repair “, £200 was remitted out of the rent, Alexander contracting to pay that amount on repairing the Castle and its outbuildings.

Alexander Durdin married four times (1) Miss Duncomb, (2) Mary Duncan, (3) Mrs. Anne Penn. Being a lawyer, Alexander was called in to make a will for Mrs. Penn. He asked her: “Why not marriage settlements”? They were married, and she died 3 weeks later. Mrs. Penn was the widow of the grandson of William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania. The miniature of the grandfather of this William Penn is in the possession of David Durdin-Robertson. The Penn family started a law suit, which lasted 40 years; as a result, the Penns were given the American property, while the Irish property went to the Durdins. On Manning Robertson’s marriage in 1912 the Penn-Gaskells gave him a mahogany tea-caddy fitted with cut glass, saying “It was to end a quarrel which lasted 150 years”. Alexander’s 4th marriage was to Barbara St. Leger descended from Sir William St. Leger, Lord Deputy of Munster (1627). A miniature of him, painted by Laurence Crosse in 1680, is in the possession of David Durdin-Robertson.

By Barbara, Alexander had 14 children; he died in 1807. He also built the battlements of bricks and plaster.

Bowden, traveling through all Ireland, describes the Castle thus:

“Huntington is likewise contiguous to poor Clonegal. Here is the delightful seat of Mr. Durdin, which commands a very extensive prospect. A superb avenue leads from this to Clonegal. The exuberant branches of the venerable trees at either side form a shade through which neither the sun, rain or wind can penetrate.”

William Leader, Alexander’s eldest son planted Scots Pine along the edge of the Bush meadow, along the Chapel field and also around the rath on which stands the Protestant Church. Being a medical doctor, he is believed to have attended people in the Famine; he died soon afterwards in 1849.

William Leader’s son, Alexander (second) came into possession in 1849. He built on, in 1860, the Tapestry Room and the Library above it, and the Tower Room including the Tiled passage, the Pillar room (previously the pantry and scullery), the housekeeper’s room and the room over the Potato house, also the Red house (cow byre and corn loft) and the pigsties. Up to 1884 the courtyard (S.W. of house) had a wall running diagonally from north to south, which supported a row of hen-houses and pigsties. With the buildings in the farmyard, the mounting block was left and still stands. Outside, he made the terraces, installed electric light in 1888, built the weir and turbine house with head race. It as the second house in Ireland to have electricity. An electric light bulb was installed on the top of the Castle so that local people could see the new wonder. He installed a system of central heating beneath the conservatory. The radiator in the Library was among the original ones used. He also installed a system of plumbing. He paneled the Hall passage in oak and put in doors of oak to the Hall and between the Hall and Drawing Room. The old Abbey ruins to the North of the Castle was used as a kennel for harriers. In 1892 he died, leaving the place to Helen his eldest daughter.

Helen married Herbert Robertson later Conservative M.P. for South Hackney, London. He built the Anglican Chapel in 1907 for his wife, and the Brushing Room beneath. The Chapel was under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Stepney. He also built the green-house and acquired the Gate Lodge, the entrance cottages and the Derry House (formerly barracks of the R.I.C. and later of the Civic Guard). He also constructed the cut granite balcony designed in wrought iron by Manning Robertson. He had the tiles laid on the Tiled Passage and Conservatory floors by some Italian workmen, who it is reported had rows sometimes and fought each other. Herbert also bought out many Headrents. In 1916 he formed the Library, at one time known as the “Red Room”. His wife, Helen, only occasionally lived in the castle living mainly in Bristol, where she died in 1932.

In 1926 Helen made over the castle and estate to Manning Durdin Robertson, her eldest son. Towards the end of the 19th. Century, according to a report of Manning Robertson, a meteorite fell near the Front Avenue. For two years it glowed and the rooks were very interested in it. No one appears to have moved it. He worked a lot in concrete, building the present green houses with concrete rafters made by himself and Mr. Denis Lacey, also the white Bridge, the kitchen chimney, remodeled the drainage system, built a fountain stem and the front gates and repainted the paneling inside the house and up the main stairs and elsewhere. In 1929 he removed the ivy from and repointed the front of the house. He leveled the lawn immediately in front of the house and moved the tennis court and made it face N.W. and S.E. He removed the battlements and turrets. He bought the sand banks adjoining the Derry near its mouth and laid out the 18 hole golf-course on the banks adjoining the Slaney. In 1927 he, helped by the butler Denis Lacey, built the concrete fishing cabin above the Moss House. He had married, in 1912, Nora, only daughter of Lieut. General Sir L.W. Parsons K.C.B. of the Parsons family of Birr Castle.

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