Tuesday, 4 October 2016
An insight into how Gormanston Castle has
seen many changes over the centuries
On Saturday afternoon [1 October 2016], I was part of a small group of people associated with Gormanston College, Co Meath, who were brought on a private tour of Gormanston Castle by Father Ulic Troy, the Rector of Gormanston, following a lecture by the local historian, Brendan Matthews.
As a schoolboy in Gormanston the 1960s, I had been in the castle a few times, and while I never got beyond the ground floor, I was able to admire the great hall and many of the once elegant rooms in the Gothic fantasy built at the end of the 18th century by the Preston family who hold the title of Viscount Gormanston and who lived there from the 14th century.
Gormanston, Co Meath, lies off the M1 between Drogheda and Balbriggan, about 30 km north of Dublin, near the mouth of the River Delvin and close to the border of Co Meath and Co Dublin.
The group of passage graves on either side of the mouth of river Delvin known as the Bremore and Gormanston group is believed by most experts on the passage grave culture in Ireland to mark the arrival of that culture from the Iberian peninsula and to be the precursor of later developments such as the Newgrange cluster.
The Gormanston area is rich in artefacts from the neolithic and later periods. When a gas pipeline was being built between Britain and Ireland, a seven-metre prehistoric dugout was found just offshore at Gormanston strand. Unlike other ancient Irish boats, the Gormanston boat seems to have been of outrigger construction.
Brendan Matthews spoke of how mythology associates the area the stories of Cuchalainn and Emer, and how he had slain 100 men at the river crossing on the Delvin while he was escaping from her father’s fortress at Lusk. Legend also associates the site with the first landings of Saint Patrick.
The first Anglo-Norman lords of the area were the powerful de St Amand family. Alemricus de St Amand bought the land confiscated from the O’Gorman family ca 1230, and his family built the Bridgefoot bridge over the River Devlin that separates Meath and Dublin.
From the 14th century, Gormanston Castle was the seat of the Preston family, a wealthy merchant family who took their name from Preston in Lancashire, and who first arrived in Ireland in the 14th century.
The earliest Preston of note, Roger de Preston, was appointed a judge in the reign of Edward III. he followed his brothers, William and Richard, to Ireland. His son, Sir Robert de Preston, was knighted in 1361, and became the first Lord Gormanston after he bought the Manor of Gormanston in Co Dublin and Co Meath from Almeric de St Amand. Robert de Preston also owned an estate at Carberry, Co Kildare, which was his main residence. He became Lord High Chancellor of Ireland and died in 1396.
His descendent, Sir Robert Preston, was appointed Deputy to Sir John Dynham, the Lord Chancellor of Ireland and Deputy to Richard, Duke of York, the son of Edward IV. He was given the title of Viscount Gormanston in 1478, making this the premier or oldest title of viscount in the Irish Peerage.
When he died in 1503, his son William Preston succeeded as 2nd Viscount Gormanston. He was Deputy to the Lord Treasurer, Sir James Butler, and was appointed Lord Justice of Ireland in 1525.
His eldest son, Jenico Preston, who became 3rd Viscount Gormanston, married Lady Catherine FitzGerald, daughter of Gerald FitzGerald, 9th Earl of Kildare. The FitzGerald family was almost completely wiped out after the Kildare rebellion led by Lady Catherine’s brother, ‘Silken’ Thomas FitzGerald. ‘Silken’ Thomas and seven of Catherine’s uncles were executed in the Tower of London. Shortly afterwards Jenico Preston voted in Parliament for the Crown of Ireland Act 1542, which declared Henry VIII King of Ireland.
Jenico Preston was succeeded by his son Christopher Preston as 4th Viscount Gormanston. Christopher’s second son, Thomas, was made 1st Viscount Tara. When Thomas Preston, 3rd Viscount Tara, was killed by Sir Francis Blundell the title died with him.
Following the Battle of Kinsale in 1601, Jenico Preston, 5th Viscount Gormanston received additional estates. He married Margaret, daughter of Nicholas St Lawrence, 8th Baron Howth. He died in 1630 and his titles and estates passed to his son, Nicholas Preston, 6th Viscount Gormanston.
In the Irish Rebellion of 1641, the Preston family supported Charles I and then the Gaelic lords supported them. At the Catholic Confederation in 1642, Nicholas Preston, 6th Viscount Gormanston, was commander of the Catholic forces and his uncle, Thomas Preston, 1st Viscount Tara, was a Confederate general.
Nicholas died during the war and was succeeded by his son, Jenico Preston as 7th Viscount Gormanston. When the Royalist and Confederate forces were defeated by the Cromwell’s forces, Jenico went into exile with Charles II and his lands were confiscated.
Legend associates the mouth of the River Devlin with the first landing of Oliver Cromwell, and the line of trees known as Cromwell’s Avenue is said to mark his route from the shore to the doors of Gormanston Manor, demanding its surrender, before marching on to Drogheda in 1649.
After the restoration of Charles II, Jenico Preston, 7th Viscount Gormanston, returned to Ireland and recovered his lands. The Yew Tree Walk, which is over 300 years old, probably dates from around this time. Local legend and popular tales given currency in my days by schoolboys say Lord Gormanston created this sculpted yew walk as a triangular-shaped cloister in the late 17th century to appease his daughter and to persuade not to become a nun.
In 1690, the 7th viscount supported King James II and fought at the Battle of the Boyne and defended the city of Limerick.
Jenico died in Limerick on 17 March 1691; a month later, on 16 April 1691, he was posthumously declared a traitor. He was indicted for high treason and his lands were forfeited. He had been married twice and had one daughter, Mary, but had no sons. After his death, the title passed to his nephew, Jenico Preston, who used the title of 8th Viscount Gormanston, although this title was not officially recognised.
Like his uncle, this Jenico had no sons and the now outlawed title was passed to his brother, Anthony Preston, 9th Viscount Gormanston, who recovered the family’s possession of the majority of the Gormanston estate under provisions in the Treaty of Limerick. The largest portion of the Gormanston estate papers relate to actions taken against the 9th viscount for money he owed to various parties, including one case about money he borrowed from his uncle and cousin by marriage.
This Anthony Preston married his cousin, Mary Preston, daughter of Jenico, the 7th viscount. Their son Jenico, unofficially inherited the family title as 10th Viscount Gormanston in 1716.
Jenico married Thomasine, daughter of John Barnewall, 11th Baron Trimlestown, and their eldest son, Anthony became 11th Viscount in 1757.
Anthony married Henrietta Robinson from Denston Hall, Suffolk. She was known in the family as Harriot and she signed legal documents by that name. The family papers show the marriage was acrimonious and the couple separated. They moved into separate houses and her husband was given custody of their son Jenico Preston.
When Anthony died in England in 1786, Harriot tried to abduct their 11-year-old son, who had become the 12th Viscount, in order to bring him to England and raise him as a Protestant. Instead, the Preston family secretly sent the child to Liège in Belgium and a custody battle ensued, and Anthony’s brother, John Preston, became the legal guardian of the young viscount.
The Preston family eventually succeeded in having Jenico Preston returned to Gormanston and he remained a Roman Catholic. It said that the Catholic Mass was celebrated in the chapel at Gormanston Castle throughout the Penal Times.
In 1800, the titles were officially restored to the Preston family and and the 12th Viscount took his seat in the Irish House of Lords on 2 August 1800. Meanwhile, the present Gormanston Castle was built ca 1790-1820 on the site of the castle first built in 1372. At the same time, the family also built Whitewood House, near Nobber, Co Meath.
The 12th viscount also built Silverstream House at Stamullen, Co Meath, for his youngest son, Thomas Preston, ca 1840. Like his father, this Jenico Preston was an active campaigner for Catholic Emancipation. He died in 1860.
In 1794, he married Margaret Southwell, daughter of Thomas, 2nd Viscount Southwell and Sophia (née Walsh). Their eldest son, Edward Preston, became the 13th Viscount Gormanston and was given a seat in the British House of Lords when he was given a new title of Baron Gormanston in 1868. At different times, he was Sheriff of Co Meath and Co Dublin. He married Lucretia, daughter of William Jerningham and their eldest son Jenico Preston, an army officer, succeeded as the 14th Viscount Gormanston.
The 14th viscount was the Governor of various colonies including Tasmania, British Guiana and the Leeward Islands. He also fought in the Indian Mutiny as a lieutenant in the 60th Rifles. Back in Ireland, he was a Commissioner for National Education, High Sheriff of Co Meath and Co Dublin, a Justice for the Peace a Deputy Lieutenant. In 1870, the first authentic game of polo in Ireland was played on Gormanston Strand involving members of the 9th Lancers, who stationed nearby.
He married Ismay Louisa Bellew, daughter of the 1st Baron Bellew, in 1861. She died in 1875 and in 1878 he married his second wife, Georgina Jane Connellan from Co Kilkenny. She carved the large oak piece on the chimney breast in the Great Hall, decorated with the coats-of-arms of the families who were intermarried with the Prestons of Gormanston. The shield immediately above the Gormanston coat-of-arms is flanked with her initials, ‘GG.’
In 1883, the Gormanston estate totalled almost 11,000 acres, of which almost 10,000 acres were in Co Meath, generating an annual income of £9,364. But with the passage of several Irish Land Acts, the 14th viscount was forced to divide up the estate and to sign over land to the tenants.
When the14th viscount died in 1907, the castle and titles passed to his son, also Jenico Preston, as 15th Viscount Gormanston. He too was a Justice for the Peace and Deputy Lieutenant for Co Meath. During World War I, he was a captain in the Royal Irish Fusiliers.
In 1911, this Jenico Preston married Eileen Butler, daughter of General Sir William Butler of Bansha Castle, Co Tipperary. Her mother, Elizabeth Butler (née Thompson), was the famous military painter, Lady Butler. Lady Butler is one of the few female painters to achieve fame for history paintings. She specialised in painting battle scenes, including the Crimean War and the Battle of Waterloo. Her better-known works include The Roll Call, bought by Queen Victoria, The Defence of Rorke’s Drift, and Scotland Forever!, showing the Scots Greys at the Battle of Waterloo and now in Leeds Art Gallery.
During the Irish Civil War, many of her paintings, including a set of water-colours painted in Palestine, were transferred to her daughter in Gormanston Castle for safe keeping. She died at Gormanston Castle in 1933, shortly before her 87th birthday. Lest anyone think Lady Butler was glorifying war in her paintings, in her autobiography in 1922 she wrote about her military paintings: ‘I never painted for the glory of war, but to portray its pathos and heroism.’ She died at Gormanston Castle in 1933.
Meanwhile, Jenico and Eileen were the parents of three sons. The estate dwindled away after the Irish Free State Land Act was imposed in 1923. When the 15th viscount died in 1925, his eldest son, Jenico Preston, succeeded as the 16th viscount at the age of 14. The estate papers, from the early 20th century up to 1931, show the precarious financial state of the Gormanston estate and discuss its possible sale.
The 16th viscount was educated at Downside and had a military career. He was a second lieutenant in World War II and was killed in action at Dunkirk on 9 June 1940. His only child, also Jenico Preston, was born on 19 November 1939 and inherited the title when he was only a few months old. He is the present and 16th Viscount Gormanston, and now lives in London.
The coat of arms of Lord Gormanston carved by Georgina Gormanston in the great hall includes a fox as the crest and as one of the supporters. According to legend, when the head of the family is in his final hours, the foxes of Co Meath, except for nursing vixens, make their way to the door of Gormanston Castle to keep vigil until he has died, in thanksgiving for the deliverance and protection from marauding predators of a vixen and her young by an earlier Lord Gormanston in the 17th century. They are said to have made their appearance on the castle lawns prior to the deaths of the 12th, 13th and 14th viscounts.
Gormanston Castle, which was built by the Preston family in 1790-1820, is an impressive, three-storey castellated building with a quadrangular plan and with a tower at each corner except the north-west corner. The central part of the frontage is flanked by two narrow castellated towers on either side of the entrance.
Gormanston Castle remained the seat of the Preston family until 1947.The writer Evelyn Waugh, author of Brideshead Revisited, planned to buy the castle until he read in the Evening Mail of Billy Butlin’s plans to build a holiday resort at the nearby beach at Mosney.
Waugh did not feel ‘entirely at ease in the role of nouveau riche invader of an historic property.’ But the Irish aristocracy still had a few surprises for this English writer. When he visited Gormanston Castle, he said: ‘It’s sad to think of this place changing hands after so many centuries.’ He claims a worker replied: ‘Ach, his lordship never came to this place but to kill somebody.’
Waugh described Gormanston as ‘a fine, solid, grim, square, half-finished block with tower and turrets.’ In his diaries, he continues:
‘The ground floor rooms were large and had fine traces of Regency decoration. Pictures by Lady Butler were everywhere. There were countless bedrooms, many uninhabitable, squalid plumbing, vast attics. On the whole I liked the house; the grounds were dreary with no features except some fine box alleys. The chapel unlicensed and Mrs O’Connor evasive about getting it put to use again.’ Pamela O’Connor was the widowed Lady Gormanston, and had married Maurice O’Connor after her first husband was killed in the war.
The castle was valued at £13,000, with another £5,000 needed for repairs. Waugh authorised his agent to put in a bid.
However, on learning that Sir Billy Butlin (1899-1980) was planning to open a holiday camp at Mosney on the beach beside Gormanston, he promptly changed his mind. He explains in his Diaries: ‘On boarding the ship [for England] I bought a local evening paper and read that Butlin had acquired a stretch of property at Gormanston and was planning a holiday camp there. This announcement made us change all our intentions. It came just in time for us, disastrously for Mrs O’Connor.’
The castle and the estate were then sold the Franciscans, who opened Gormanston College in 1954. My brother arrived at Gormanston as a schoolboy in 1959, and I followed in the 1960s.
Since 2015, the school has been managed by Meath VEC under Franciscan trusteeship and is now a co-educational day school. The sports facilities and accommodation is separately managed by a new company, Gormanston Park, which plans to reopen the refurbished swimming pool to the general community.
The Gormanston family papers were originally deposited on loan to the National Library in 1964, and were bought in 2002. The majority of the papers comprises estate papers including title deeds, leases and agreements dating back to the early 17th century. Earlier documents relating to the estate from the 12th century are in the Gormanston Register, also housed in the National Library. They also include architectural drawings of Gormanston Castle and Whitewood House.
At the end of my visit to Gormanston Castle on Saturday, I walked through the Yew Tree Walk that leads down to the graveyard, where several of the priests and some former students are buried, including one boy who died at the age of 15 during my final year at school, and I then walked out the main gates into the autumn countryside, through fields that were once part of the vast Gormanston estate, where the trees and the fields are changing colour.
Today is the feastday of Saint Francis of Assisi [4 October 2016]. Times have changed for the Preston family at Gormanston in the past century, and now they are changing for the Franciscans at Gormanston too.