05 April 2013

An afternoon at Malahide Castle, the gardens and the beach

Malahide Castle ... home to the Talbot family for almost 800 years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

Although the cold snap has left a bite in the air and temperatures in Dublin are still in single figures. But there were bright blue skies with only small trickles of white cloud, and four of us drove 16km north of Dublin to Malahide for lunch at the Avoca Foodhall beside Malahide Castle.

We then visited Malahide Castle, which has reopened to the public, with a new Talbot Family Exhibition and interpretation area on the ground floor of the castle and with guided tours in the family rooms above.

Later, we visited the castle’s walled gardens, which recently opened to the public for the first time.

Welcome to Malahide Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Malahide Castle, set in 250 acres of parkland, was both a fortress and a private home for almost eight centuries and displays an interesting mix of architectural styles. The Talbot family lived here from 1185 until Milo John Reginald Talbot (1912-1973), 8th Baron Talbot of Malahide and the last resident Lord Talbot, died in 1973.

The Talbots of Malahide Castle were a branch of the Talbot family of Staffordshire, Earls of Shrewsbury. Richard Talbot arrived in Ireland in 1174, and in 1185 he was granted the lands and harbour of Malahide by Henry II. The first castle was possibly a motte and bailey castle, the earthwork remains of a motte survive at Wheatfields, south-east of Malahide, before a stone castle was built on the site of the current Malahide Castle.

Malahide Castle was enlarged in the 15th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The castle was enlarged in the reign of Edward IV, who in 1476 granted Thomas Talbot all the customs of merchandise brought into the port of Malahide and the rank of Hereditary Admiral of the port.

After Milo Talbot, a former British Ambassador to Laos, died on a Greek cruise in 1973, his only sister, the Hon Rose Talbot, sold the castle at auction in May 1976, partly to pay death duties and inheritance taxes. It was bought by Dublin County Council for £650,000.

However, many of the contents, notably furnishings, had been sold in advance, leading to considerable public controversy. Hundreds of years of accumulated furniture and treasures, including some beautiful Irish Chippendale – some were bought by Mick Jagger for his French chateau – were lost to Malahide Castle, although some were retrieved by private and government parties. She then moved to the Malahide estate in Australia, and died in Tasmania on 14 February 2009.

Inside Malahide Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The house is furnished with period furniture and an extensive collection of Irish portrait paintings, mainly from the National Gallery. Four main rooms are open to the public: the Oak room, the Small and Great Drawing Rooms and the Great Hall.

We began our tour of the castle in the Oak Room, which is panelled in wood with large roof wooden roof beams. The carved panels set into the north wall depict Biblical scenes, including Adam and Eve, the Temptation, the Expulsion, and the Sale of Joseph.

The Small and Great Drawing Rooms are recognised as one of the finest suites of mid-Georgian rooms in Ireland. The smaller of the two rooms originally served as a Dining Room. The Large Drawing Room shows the transitional character of the mid Georgian decoration of these rooms, from rococo to neo-classical. The drawing rooms were rebuilt between 1765 and 1782 after a fire in the west wing of the building, and two circular corner turrets were added in picturesque Gothic Revival style.

The Great Hall was significantly refashioned around 1825 and most features date to this period, including the joinery and fireplaces. The history of the Talbot family is recorded in the Great Hall, with portraits of generations of the family. The minstrels’ gallery of 1825 is an unusual feature: the balusters are of a type popular in the Elizabethan period, while the frieze is made up of fragments of carvings dating from the 16th or 17th centuries.

At the opposite end of the Great Hall, one wall is almost totally covered with Jan Wyck’s great painting of the Battle of the Boyne. The Talbot family played a leading role at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690: it is said 14 members of the Talbot family had breakfast together in this hall on the morning of the battle, but only one of the 14 cousins returned to Malahide when the battle was over.

In the Great Hall, this afternoon’s tour guide also claimed the castle is haunted by at least five ghosts, including Lady Maud Plunkett, who is buried in the graveyard and a 16th century castle caretaker named Puck.

Off the great hall is the Library. The Talbot family was connected to Samuel Johnson’s friend, the author and diarist James Boswell, and part of a unique collection of his papers were discovered here in the 1920s.

A peacock in the walled garden at Malahide Castle this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Later, we visited the castle’s walled gardens, which recently opened to the public for the first time.

A new interpretation and exhibition area in the courtyard tells visitors the story of the walled gardens as seen through the eyes of Milo Talbot, the creator of the gardens and grounds as seen today.

Milo Talbot’s garden and plant collecting records are his great legacy to Malahide. The first evidence of ornamental gardening at Malahide Castle appears on the Ordnance Survey maps in 1872, when the triangular section of the north-west corner was sectioned off for flowers. Originally this was a kitchen garden for growing fruit and vegetables, and the walled garden replaced an earlier garden to the south-east of the castle.

The gardens were extended in 1902 by Isabel Talbot, the second wife of the fifth Lord Talbot and a keen gardener, and again in 1946 as Milo Talbot’s plant collection increased. The garden is divided into different areas and gives the impression of a series of secret gardens. There are seven glasshouses ranging in size from the Primula house to the Victorian Conservatory.

Inside the Victorian Conservatory at Malahide Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

A new book published last year asks whether Milo, the last Lord Talbot to live in Malahide Castle, was one of the Cambridge spies. In his 800-page family history, Into the Lion’s Den: A Biographical History of the Talbots of Malahide, Stephen Talbot says that while Milo was at Trinity College Cambridge in the 1930s, he was a favourite pupil of Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt. Talbot himself passed into the diplomatic service where he was involved in sensitive security work during and after World War II.

He was the British Ambassador in Laos in the 1950s, but took early retirement shortly after Blunt was unmasked as a spy. He was in negotiations with the Irish Government to hand Malahide Castle over to the State as a Taoiseach’s residence when he died unexpectedly at the aged of 60 on a cruise with a friend in the Greek islands in 1973.

Suspicions were aroused because there was no post-mortem, the friend who was with him on the cruise was never interviewed, and a maid saw his only sister burning all his papers after his death. The new book sets out circumstances from which it might be inferred that he was murdered either by Soviet or British intelligence.

The ruins of Malahide Abbey, in the grounds of Malahide Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

And what about the links between Malahide and Dr Johnson’s biographer, James Boswell?

Richard Wogan Talbot (1846-1921), the fifth Baron Talbot of Malahide, mar¬ried Emily Boswell, great-granddaughter of James Boswell (1740-1795). When Emily died in 1898, Lord Talbot inherited the Boswell estate in Auchinleck in Scotland. When Auchinleck was sold, its contents were moved to Malahide Castle in 1905 and 1914.

Along with contents came a Flemish ebony cabinet that became known as the James Boswell Cabinet, and that contained the Boswell Papers. At the time, it was one of the largest and most important finds of English literary manuscripts.

In 1920, Professor Chauncey Brewster Tinker of Yale placed a notice in The Times, announcing his plans for an edition of Boswell’s letters and asking the owners of letters to get in touch. A postcard from Dublin, with an illegible signature, suggested he should visit Malahide Castle. However, a letter to Lord Talbot did not receive a positive response.

In 1925, Professor Tinker tried again, and this time he visited the castle. Lord Talbot refused him permission to publish the manuscripts as he considered that many of Boswell’s Papers were of a “rather delicate nature.” Dr. ASW Rosenback then offered £50,000 for the contents of the Boswell Cabinet, but this was refused in¬dignantly. In 1927, Colonel Ralph H. Isham, an American collector of 18th-century rarities, visited Malahide Castle, and with extraordinary diplomacy arranged to buy the Boswell Papers. In 1930, a box supposed to contain croquet equipment was unearthed in a cupboard in the castle. It contained more manuscripts, and these too were bought by Colonel Isham.

In 1937, during another search of the castle, Colonel Isham found more Boswell Papers. Then, when World War II broke out in 1939, another large cache of papers was found in the loft of an outbuilding filled with old furniture from Auchinleck.

But the story was not over yet. Lord Talbot, who had held onto one important manuscript, died in 1948. Colonel Isham bought this in 1950, and along with it acquired a number of additional papers that previously had been over¬looked.

Today, Yale University is today the centre of Boswell Scholarship and holds both the Boswell Papers and the Boswell Ebony Cabinet, which for many years was in the Castle Oak Room, where we began today’s tour of the castle. The remainder of the Talbot family papers from Malahide – some dating back to the late 13th century – were acquired in 1987 by the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

On the beach at Malahide this afternoon, looking out towards Lambay Island (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

After visiting the walled gardens, with the Victorian Conservatory, pond bell tower and bright peacocks – we drove back through Malahide village, and went for a walk on the beach at Malahide.

The skies were still blue, there was a hint of spring in the air, and there were clear views out to Lambay Island, which had once been part of the estate of the Talbots, Lords and Admirals of Malahide.


Anonymous said...

The Yale Professor's name is Chauncey Brewster Tinker, not Jinker. An easy mistake, but nonetheless important. I envy your visit to Malahide as I am deep into research at Yale on Boswell's papers, and have read quite a lot of them and, of course, seen and photographed the ebony cabinet.

Patrick Comerford said...

Thank you, much appreciated. Correction now made to the original comment.