Castle Ellen House Athenry, Co. Galway

by David Hicks.

Castle Ellen House

Athenry, Co. Galway

 
The Entrance Front of Castle Ellen, Athenry, Co. Galway

Picture ( above)  Copyright ICHC 

Today near Athenry in Co. Galway there is a house known as Castle Ellen that not only has connections with the political heavy weight, Edward Carson but also the literary genius, Oscar Wilde. There is even a possibility that they met here many years before fate brought them together in one of the most famous trials of that century. Today Castle Ellen is the home of Mr. Michael Keaney, a man who is devoted to this house and to whom we must grateful for his attempts to rescue it from ruin since he purchased it in 1974. While still a work in progress today, Michael has saved this house from the absolute brink of ruin and thus has preserved so many wonderful original features such as decorative plaster work and joinery. If a house could be heated by the warm welcome that it’s host offers, Castle Ellen would be one of the warmest homes in Ireland.

 
The owner of Castle Ellen, Mr. Michael Keaney, pictured on the front steps of his wonderful home

Picture ( above)  Copyright ICHC 

Castle Ellen is a large two storey, over raised basement house dating from the early 1800’s which is found at the end of a meandering avenue covered by a canopy of ancient trees. The first Lambert residence in the area, was a castle, the remains of which can be found in the grounds to the front of Castle Ellen House, Michael has also done his best to retain what remains of this ancient structure. It is said that the house was built around 1825, however some historians date its construction as taking place earlier in 1810. Peter Lambert, the head of this branch of the Lambert family, at that time, found the castle too small for his growing family and built the house to better suit his needs. One of the first children to be born in the new house was Isabella Lambert who would eventually marry Edward Henry Carson, an architect from Dublin, and this union would produce Edward Carson. Isabella’s brother Walter made many improvements to the estate during his tenure which included having a range of impressive greenhouses constructed. At this time the estate was at its peak and the grounds were made up of tennis courts, croquet grounds and expansive gardens while the lands of the estate extended to 3,500 acres.

 
 Castle Ellen when it was the home the Lambert family before their departure in the 1920’s

Picture ( above)  Copyright Castle Ellen

In 1859, the Lord Lieutenant appointed Walter Peter Lambert of Castle Ellen to the office of High Sheriff for Galway. The following year, in September of 1860, an advertisement appeared in the national papers indicating that Stump Hill House and demesne in Cork was being offered for lease. People who wished to lease this property were directed to send their proposals to Walter P. Lambert of Castle Ellen, Galway. This property had come in to the ownership of the Lamberts when Walter Peter Lambert married Elizabeth who was the daughter of William Mc OBoy of Stump Hill in Co. Cork. Walter Peter Lambert died in October 1892 in the Imperial Hotel in Tuam supposedly he choked to death while eating breakfast. He is described as a gentleman farmer who left an estate valued at £ 35,558 11s 5d ( which unbelievably is approximately £3.5 million in the money of today). His will was proved by his son Peter Fitzwalter Lambert of Castle Ellen also described as a gentleman farmer. Peter Fitzwalter Lambert married Julia Mary Hewetson in 1887 but their marriage would not be a long one.

 
The ancient castle of the Lambert’s, the remains of which are found to the front of Castle Ellen

Picture ( above)  Copyright ICHC

Peter Fitzwalter Lambert died on the 24th February in 1894, aged only 45 and left an estate valued at £10,806 10s, 7d.  Peter had been experiencing ill health after his father’s death, dying a year and a half later and five months before the birth of his third son, William Robert. A stained glass window was erected in the local church to his memory. An elder son of Peter Fitzwalter named William Peter was born in 1891 and inherited the estate after the death of his father. By the time of the census in 1901, Castle Ellen is described as having 23 out buildings with the main house comprising of 23 rooms which is owned by Mary Lambert, Peter’s widow. The house at the time of census is occupied by five servants, the house hold staff was made up of the cook, housemaid, kitchen maid, coachman and stable man. By the time of the 1911 census the house is again only occupied by four servants. In November 1907, the estates of Walter Peter Lambert (a minor) and Julia Mary Lambert (his guardian) in the townlands of Dunkellin, Athenry and Kilconnell in the County of Galway were sold to the Estates Commissioners.

 
The Dining Room of Castle Ellen is decorated with exotic stuffed birds 
that Michael has accumulated over the years

Picture ( above)  Copyright ICHC 

The connection with Edward Carson was through his mother Isabella who met the architect Edward Henry Carson when he came to Castle Ellen to design a stable block for her father. Isabella was the daughter of Peter Fitzwalter Lambert of Castle Ellen and Eleanor Seymour ofBallymore Castle. Peter Fitzwalter died in 1844 and Castle Ellen was inherited by Isabella’s brother Walter. In May 1851, the marriage took place of Isabella Lambert and Edward Carson atAthenry Church, where the ceremony was conducted by the groom’s brother Rev. William Carson. There is an entry in the Dictionary of Irish Architects which indicates that the architect Edward Henry Carson received a commission in 1863 to carry out extensive alterations and additions to Castle Ellen for his brother-in-law Walter Peter Lambert. Edward Henry Carson was quite accomplished in his field having designed the Colonial Building in the center of Galway city (opposite Brown Thomas today) and was also Vice-President of the Royal Institute of Irish Architects. The newlyweds made their home in Dublin and over the years welcomed six children, one of which was Edward Carson. Edward wanted to follow his father in to the architectural business but his father had decided that his son would enter the legal profession. As a child Edward Carson spent his summers in Castle Ellen and during this time spent in Galway he became friends with the Shawe-Taylor family of Castle Taylor in Ardrahan (Castle Taylor is featured in my second book Irish Country Houses – Portraits and Painters). It is also said that Castle Ellen provided the backdrop for the meeting of Carson and Oscar Wilde prior to the famous trial that would bring them together again in later years. It is also said that Edward attended many hurling matches and became so fond of the game that he tried to introduce it to Trinity Collegewhen he was a student there. Edward Carson’s career in law progressed until he became one of the most divisive figures in Northern Irish politics with his opposition to Home Rule for the island ofIreland.

 
Side view of Castle Ellen (Picture ( above)  Copyright ICHC)

Despite the time that he spent in Castle Ellen with the catholic community in his early life, his battle cry in later years was that ‘ Home Rule is Rome Rule’ as Carson wished to retain Ireland’s union with Britain. Today outside the Stormont Parliament Building near Belfast in Northern Ireland, stands a statue of Edward Carson which indicates the long shadow he still casts over Irish politics.  In June 1914, it was reported that despite his efforts in Northern Ireland, it appears that Edward Carson was still fondly thought of in Athenry, as a local Catholic farmer was heard to declare’ Ned Carson is a decent man. I take no notice of his ranging and ranting among the Orangemen of Ulster. Sure, isn’t every successful lawyer a bit of a play actor!’. Edward Carson obviously had great affection for the maternal side of his family as when his first son was born in 1880, he was named William Henry Lambert Carson, and thus ensuring the Lambert name would be carried in to the next generation of his family.

 
A statue of Edward Carson found outside Stormont in Northern Ireland

Picture ( above)  Copyright ICHC 

The famous playwright and wit, Oscar Wilde and Edward Carson’s paths often appeared to have crossed many times throughout their lives. As children in Dublin their homes were located near each other, when in Galway Carson and Wilde were said to have met at Castle Ellen and then they were contemporaries in Trinity College, Dublin. However it was their most infamous encounter that has gone down in history.  In 1895, Oscar Wilde took a libel case against the Marquis of Queensbury, the Marquis was appalled at the nature of Wilde’s relationship with his son and had used a public forum to express his opinion. Wilde sued the Marquis who had chosen to be represented by Edward Carson in the trial of the century, whose every detail was picked over in the press. Caron’s skillful cross examination of Wilde, extracted all the lurid detail necessary to ensure Wilde’s case against the Marquis collapsed.  Wilde was subsequently arrested and tried for gross indecency which resulted in his imprisonment and ruin. For two men who started life in similar circumstances, upon their death, one was celebrated with a state funeral and the other passed away in penury.  Wilde was released from jail in 1897 and immediately left for France where he died 3 years later, Carson’s career flourished, he became a key figure in the politics of Northern Ireland, dying in 1935 and received a state funeral.

 
This image shows the expansive glass houses that once existed to the side of Castle Ellen

Picture ( above)  Copyright Castle Ellen

There has been a lot of discussion over the years as to what precipitated the departure of the Lambert family from Castle Ellen. However an incident that occurred in 1920, I think, shows the beginning of the end of the family’s tenure of their ancestral home. When Walter Peter Lambert, who inherited Castle Ellen as a minor, came of age he joined the Connaught Rangers where he rose to the rank of Captain. After the First World War he returned to Castle Ellen and was on extremely good terms with his neighbours and the local community. His father, before his death, had sold all his available land to his tenants, retaining only a small amount of demesne lands around Castle Ellen. In early 1920, it appears that not all in the locality were on such good terms with the then current occupant of Castle Ellen. In January of that year, it was reported that a group of men approached the house and demanded the land that the Lamberts still held in their possession. Walter Peter Lambert responded that he had no land to give and owned nothing other than the demesne around the house. Walter also informed one of the men in the group that they actually owned more land than himself. The angry group departed but as they did, they informed Captain Lambert that they would take his remaining lands by force and would plough the land that surrounded Castle Ellen up to the front door. The following day, those who worked for the Lamberts received threats that they should cease working for them or face the consequences, threats were also received by Captain Lambert and members of his family. Local people condemned the attack but possibly it left Captain Lambert in no doubt as to which way the wind was blowing.  A friend of the family, Frank Shawe-Taylor of Castle Taylor in Ardrahan was shot in March 1920 while travelling to the fair in Galway which probably only heightened the fears of the family. It is part of local lore that the family left suddenly on St. Patrick’s Day in 1921 and it is possibly as a result of the unsettled times in which violence and the burning of landlords houses was commonplace in Ireland.

 
Advertisement for the sale of Castle Ellen in 1921

Picture ( above)  Copyright ICHC

In November 1921, an advertisement appeared in the national press offering Castle Ellen and 600 acres for sale by auction on the 1st December 1921 in a Dublin auction room. The house is described as having an entrance hall with double staircase, two drawing rooms with folding doors and marble chimney pieces, morning room and dining room. Also on the entry level was a butler’s pantry, gun room and store room. On the first floor were six family bedrooms, two dressing rooms, a bathroom, two lavatories and linen press.  Servant’s quarters in the basement extended to a tiled kitchen, scullery, pantries, dairy and maid’s rooms. The enclosed yard consisted of out offices, garage, chauffeurs living quarters, stables, two stalls and nine loose boxes together with a large coach house, lofts, kennels, cart sheds, haggard, large hay shed and cattle sheds. Also included was the large walled garden, the ruins of a castle and tennis courts.

 
A decorative capital found on a pilaster on the half landing at Castle Ellen

Picture ( above)  Copyright ICHC

Now that the house was on the market, the auction of the house contents was set for Monday 19th, December 1921. The sale consisted of antique and modern furniture, silver, Sheffield plate, farm vehicles, farm implements, farm horses, carts, ewes, hay, oats, straw, turnips and potatoes. These sales were carried out under the instruction of Captain Lambert, the last Lambert landlord of Castle Ellen. Some of the furniture was described in later advertisements for the auction, included in the sale was an antique cellarette sideboard, a set of mahogany pillars, a claw foot dining room table with twelve chairs and two carver chairs. The drawing room had tapestry covered chesterfield sofas, a Sheraton writing table, Venetian mirrors and mahogany bookcases. Walls were decorated with coloured engravings, sporting prints and tapestries, floors were covered with Axminster carpets and around the windows were hung damask curtains. The yards offered up a range of items associated with a time when the horse was the king of the road which included a Governess cart and numerous farm wagons.

 
The poly-chromatic plaster work found in the entrance hall

Picture ( above and below)  Copyright ICHC

In January 1940, Castle Ellen appeared on the market again, this time under the instruction of the Irish Land Commission for sale by public auction however the land associated with the house was reduced to 66 acres. The house at this time is described as being in excellent condition. Another fascinating glimpse in to what the interior would have looked like is provided, interestingly the entrance hall is described as having stained glass windows and a glass dome overhead.  The grand staircase only provided access from the ground floor to the first floor bedrooms and would have been solely for the use of the family. A secondary staircase was discretely located to one side of the main stairs. This plain, utilitarian stairs provided access from the basement to the top of the house and was used by the servants. The dining room was located near this stairs which provided access from the kitchen in the basement. The dining room has two doors, one door allowed the family and guests to enter from the main entrance hall whereas the second door provided access for the servants from the kitchen.

 
One of a pair of entrance door to the Dining Room, this one was for the use of the servants

Picture ( above)  Copyright ICHC 

The stained glass window on the half landing of the staircase was emblazoned with the Lambert crest and coat of arms. The advertisement now says that there are seven large bedrooms on the first floor with two attic bedrooms. The description of the basement is further elaborated on from earlier advertisements, which is said to contain a kitchen, large servant’s hall, three servant’s bedrooms, three pantries, two coal houses, wine cellar and a single w/c. A number of years later in September 1945, four young men were sentenced to two months imprisonment for stealing apples from the garden at Castle Ellen which was now in the ownership of Mr. Herbert Mc Nally ofGalway. In 1951, Castle Ellen was again offered for sale described as a ‘Georgian Residence in the centre of Galway Blazer Country, standing on 70 acres of land’.  Castle Ellen was sold by a Mrs Mc Nally back to the Land Commission, it would appear that she sold it after her husband had died. In 1961 when the local school was being repaired and was not fit for use, Castle Ellen was sequestered and used a temporary school house. The house at this time was beginning to become down and at heel as the staircase is described as not being suitable for use and there was a hole in the roof.

The advertisment that appeared in 1974 which first drew Michael Keaney’s attention to Castle Ellen

Picture ( above)  Copyright ICHC 

By 1974, Castle Ellen and 11 acres are offered for sale by public auction by the Irish Land Commission however the house is now described as derelict. Michael Keaney spotted this advertisement and fortunately purchased the house for sum of £6,800. The house he now owned was badly vandalised over the previous years that it had remained empty. Windows had been broken and lead had been removed from the roof which allowed water to destroy the interior, rot floors and destroy ceilings. Any fixtures such as fireplaces had been stolen and the only way to enter the house was through a window. Over a number of years, before Michael made the house his full time residence, he secured the external fabric which meant reinstating the roof and windows in an effort to make the building water tight. During his restoration, any element of architectural merit was saved and stored until the time came that it could be reinstated. A lot of decorative plasterwork survives in the reception rooms of the house, however the entrance hall and staircase ceiling had collapsed before Michael’s tenure. Large sections of this ceiling survive and give tantalising glimpses of what this area of the house once looked like. Decorative capitals of pillars remain on the half landing of the stairs around which cling elements of the polychromatic plasterwork with its daring red, green and gold colour scheme.

 
Wonderful pieces of joinery and plaster work that survive in Castle Ellen

Picture ( above)  Copyright ICHC 

Michael over the years has used many ways to publicise his historic property which once involved an appearance on ‘Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners – Country House Rescue’ on Channel 4. In this programme, two individuals were tasked with de-cluttering Castle Ellen but a lot of items hold memories for Michael so this job wasn’t always easy.  Despite a few disagreements during the course of the episode, the kindness of Michael’s character couldn’t help but shine through. TodayCastle Ellen is open to the public by appointment and for special events. Michael has also grasped the nettle of modern technology and rooms in Castle Ellen now appear on Air B&B. I am so grateful to have been offered an opportunity to visit Castle Ellen and meet with one of the most engaging and interesting people whom I have encountered in the last few years. I wish Michael all the best with Castle Ellen and do hope to make a return visit in the near future.

The wonderful detail of entrance porch is illuminated in the autumnal sunshine

Picture ( above)  Copyright ICHC

Some of the original plaster work that survives in Castle Ellen, together with a piece Michael has salvaged for reinstatement.

Picture ( above)  Copyright ICHC

 

Posted by David Hicks at 07:30

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