08 May 2019

How the last Hereditary
Admiral of the Port of
Malahide died at sea

Malahide Castle ... home to the Talbot family for almost 800 years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

As I waited for play to begin in Malahide last week at the One Day International cricket game between Ireland and England last week, I took an early morning stroll through the grounds of Malahide Castle.

It is about six years since I was inside Malahide Castle, but although it is still only early May, there were queues to get into the castle that morning, and an eager group of American tourists, anxious to have their photographs taken in ‘Rome and Juliet’ poses near the Gothic towers or on what they believed to be mediaeval steps.

And so, I contended myself with looking at the castle from the outside and walking around the castle gardens.

Malahide Castle is set in 250 acres of parkland, and was both a fortress and a private home for almost eight centuries, and it 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 present Malahide Castle.

Mediaeval-looking windows above the entrance to Malahide Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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, and it was bought by Dublin County Council for £650,000.

However, many of the contents and most of the furniture 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.

Malahide Castle is a five-bay, three-storey over basement mediaeval mansion, dating from ca 1450. It was renovated and extended ca 1650, and partly rebuilt and extended ca 1770, when the single-bay three-storey Georgian Gothic-style circular towers were added at each end of the front elevation.

The single-bay, three-storey flat-roofed entrance block with single-bay full-height square turrets at the corners was added around 1825.

The three-storey Georgian Gothic-style circular towers were added in 1770 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Inside the castle, the Oak Room 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 among 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.

A modern version of a mediaeval or Gothic portcullis at the side of Malahide Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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.

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.

Mystery steps at a corner tower in Malahide Castle … popular for ‘Rome and Juliet’ poses (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

A recent book asks whether Milo Talbot, the last Lord Talbot to live in Malahide Castle, was one of the Cambridge spies. In an 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 then entered 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.

And so, the last Hereditary Admiral of the Port of Malahide died at sea. But did he fall or was he pushed?

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.

And that was long before allegations of Russian intervention in the ‘Brexit’ referendum or Trump’s election.

The entrance to the Walled Garden at Malahide Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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