I’ve been reading ‘A History of Celbridge’ recently and am thoroughly enjoying it. It’s accessible, colourful and hey, fun. If more local history books were like this, the world could be a better place. They’re not though, so it isn’t, but at least this book stands out.
Castletown House is one of Ireland’s biggest landmarks. Described as Ireland’s ‘Largest and Earliest Palladian style house’, it certainly boasts an amazing sight upon first glance. The only pictures I can show you are one’s from the outside, because although you can get a great tour of the place courtesy of the OPW, pictures are not allowed. Hence me putting up useful links that have pictures inside!
I’m going to talk about the people rather than the building itself. I’ve often found it hard to keep track of the history, so I want to lay it out easy.
William Conolly is the most famous figure associated with the house. He actually came from a humble background; born in Ballyshannon Co. Donegal in 1662, the son of a local Innkeeper. He married Katherine, who brought £2,300 into the marriage. With this William invested much into land confiscated after the Williamite Wars. In fact, by 1703, he has spent over £10,000 on buying 15,000 acres of land. Their first home was in Kilcock, before moving to Castletown. In 1709 he acquired Castletown and the surrounding states of 1,890 acres for £15,000. By the year 1728 Conolly owned a staggering 148,487 acres of land, with a rental income of £14,926. One of the reason’s for this is because he was Irish and landlords would rather sell to him than other English landlords.
He studied law in Dublin, becoming a solicitor and barrister. In 1692 he was elected to the Irish parliament and in 1709 he was named Commissioner of the Revenue. Finally in 1715 he was appointed speaker of the Irish House of Parliament ((hence his name ‘Speaker Conolly’). These three positions allowed him enormous amounts of power.
When Speaker Conolly died in 1729, Katherine was 67 and had no children. Castletown was divided between her and their nephew William. She is known for being generous to the poor and her building projects: the Death House, the Collegiate College, Conolly’s Folly and the Wonderful Barn. When she died, her nephew William took over, and a couple of years later, he too passed and his son Thomas now inherited the estates of Castletown.
Thomas Conolly married Lady Lousia Lennox in 1758 and it is said that Castletown became the house it is under Louisa. She kept a careful eye on all that happened here and was involved in everything from the finances to construction. Her husband Thomas spent much of his life, ironically in debt. He supported the Act of Union and this ended his political career of more than 40 years in the Irish Parliament. Interesting to note that Leixlip Lousia Bridge train station is named after Lady Louisa Conolly.
After Thomas passed away, the estate went to Edward Peckingham, son of his niece, as Thomas and Lousia has no children. It is said he spent most of his time in London at Parliament. During the famine, he told the House of Commons in England to ‘throw political economy to the wind and listen to the starving people’. I already mentioned how another local landlord, the Duke of Leinster at Carton, was also benevolent in his actions during the Great Famine. Edward died in 1848, succeeded by his son Thomas, and HE spent most of his time on the continent, becoming good friends with Napoleon the 3rd!
Tom’s eldest son Thomas, inherited Castletown, but was killed in 1900 and the Estate was handed to his brother Major Edward Conolly. In 1956, his nephew, Lord Edward Carew inherited Castletown. In 1965 he sold the House to Major Wilson for £166,000. In 1967, the Honorary Desmond Guinness (who I’ve been fortunate to meet and gave a fascinating tour of his home in Leixlip Castle) purchased Castletown and land surrounding it for £93,000. It was finally purchased by the State in 1994.
References: A History of Celbridge by Tony Doohan