Rathfarnham Castle: A Potted History

February 6, 2024 in News

BILL TONER SJ :: Rathfarnham Castle lies only four miles south of Dublin City.  The Jesuits were the owners and occupants of the castle from 1913 to 1986, and many of their younger members, including myself, lived there for three or four years when they were attending university.  The castle also housed a very successful retreat house, and its closure in 1985, due to declining numbers of patrons, is probably as good a marker as any of the onset of a more secular Ireland. 

The history of the Castle mirrors the history of Ireland since Norman times.  The original building, of which significant traces remain, goes right back to 1199.  It was the custom of Norman rulers to give landed possessions as a reward for military service, and the area where the castle now stands was given by King John to Milo le Breton.  One of the conditions of these grants was that fortified towers were to be erected on the land, and military service for security and defence had to be supplied as required.  Rathfarnham was a townland on elevated ground, four miles from the Viking settlement that became Dublin city, and the area was under constant threat from various warlike Irish clans, such as the O’Tooles and the O’Byrnes, who lived in the mountainous area to the south of Dublin.  The earliest Castle was built according to the standard Norman model of the time, recalled in Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott, – “four grey walls and four grey towers”.

During parts of the 14th and 15th centuries the lands of Rathfarnham were leased to the Harolds, a clan of Danish origin, and it is from them that the nearby area of Harold’s Cross takes its name.  Later the estate passed to the Eustace family, from whom it was confiscated because of their participation in the Desmond insurrection in 1579.  The next, and most notable, occupier of Rathfarnham Castle was Adam Loftus, born about 1520 in Yorkshire.  Following studies in Cambridge he entered the priesthood and during the reign of Philip and Mary was presented with a parish in Lincolnshire.  However, after the accession of Elizabeth he changed his religion.  On the appointment of Sidney, Earl of Sussex, as Lord Deputy of Ireland, Loftus was commissioned to accompany him as chaplain.  He had a stellar career, becoming Archbishop of Armagh, then of Dublin, and finally Lord Chancellor of Ireland.  He was also, incidentally, the first Provost of Trinity College Dublin. In 1585, Loftus successfully petitioned the Crown for a lease of the confiscated Rathfarnham Castle and its surrounding lands.  Loftus initially spent most of his time at the bishop’s palace in Tallaght, a few miles to the south of Rathfarnham.  However, the palace was subject to hostile incursions by the Wicklow clans, during one of which Loftus’s nephew was killed, along with fourteen of his retainers, at the gate of the palace.  Loftus then took up residence in Rathfarnham, where there was better security.  He married Jane Purdon and had twenty children, though few of them survived into adulthood.

Notwithstanding his rapid rise to prominence, both in church and political circles, few of his contemporaries regarded Loftus with affection.  He had a cruel and ruthless streak.  He is particularly remembered for the central role he played in the imprisonment, torture, and execution of the Catholic Archbishop of Cashel, Dermot Hurley, in 1584.

It was part of the folklore of Rathfarnham Castle when I spent a few years there, that Oliver Cromwell had taken over the Castle when he was in Ireland, and stabled his horses in the basement ‘fort’ where we held meetings and concerts.  More reliable sources consider it likely that he held a council there during his campaign in Ireland, and the horses may indeed have been stabled in the fort. The castle remained under the control of the Loftus family for much of its succeeding history.   The fortunes of the family fluctuated.  One leading member was arrested for debt in London, and subsequently had to survive on a small pension from the government. Another fought alongside King William in the battle of Aughrim, and was subsequently killed in the siege of Limerick.  A later descendant was created Duke of Wharton; he sold the Rathfarnham property to William Connolly, the Speaker of the Irish House of Commons.  Connolly sold it to John Hoadley who became Archbishop of Dublin and of Armagh.  But in 1767 the castle passed back by sale to a member of the Loftus family, and was bequeathed to Henry Loftus, who was created an Earl by George III in 1771.   The Earl carried out considerable interior decoration, employing Venetian craftsmen, and made some changes to the fabric of the building.  The apartment at the end of the great hall was enhanced by a windowed wall, and was used as a boudoir; this later became the domestic chapel of the Jesuit Fathers.  The long drawing room was enhanced by paintings by Angelica Kauffman, a Swiss artist, one of the most celebrated in Europe, who began to paint commissions at the age of 12.  During this renovation the battlements extending around the top of the Castle were removed.

Towards the end of the 18th century, the Loftus family moved to Loftus Hall, a mansion they owned in Wexford, and took with them almost all the contents of the Castle, – paintings, statuary, tapestry and furniture.  The Rathfarnham demesne then fell into the hands of various tenants.  During the uprising of 1798 it was occupied as a military barracks, which did not improve its general condition.

Meanwhile, the Jesuit Order (suppressed in 1773 by order of the Pope, due mainly to political pressure) was restored in Ireland in 1814.  Fr Peter Kenney, who was Superior of the Irish Mission, was looking for suitable premises for a school, and it is believed that he showed an interest in acquiring Rathfarnham Castle.  However, the proposed proximity of a Jesuit institution so close to Dublin created an outcry among the Protestant ascendancy party, and the project was abandoned. Instead, the Jesuits purchased Castle Browne, near Clane, Co. Kildare, and founded what is now Clongowes Wood College. Rathfarnham Castle was acquired by Lord Chancellor Francis Blackburne.  In 1913 the Castle was put up for sale again, and this time the Jesuits were successful in acquiring it, along with adjoining grounds and pond.

After the Jesuits became the owners, some of Chancellor Blackburne’s descendants used to visit the Castle from time to time where they were entertained by the Rector, Fr Fergal McGrath.   Fr McGrath’s father, Sir Joseph McGrath, had been knighted in 1911 in recognition of his services to the university sector, and he may have had some acquaintance with the Blackburne family since Francis Blackburne had at one stage been vice-chancellor of Dublin University.  At any rate these visits of the Blackburne family created a small link between the old order and the new.

After the Jesuits took over the Castle, it no longer featured in political life, and became a peaceful residence of priests and students, and, from 1922 onwards, a well-known retreat house for men. Some buildings of little or no architectural merit (now happily demolished) were erected to house students and retreatants, but the Castle remained more or less intact, along with its fifty-acre cattle farm, and a large and well-maintained ornamental pond, constantly refreshed by a small stream flowing from the Dublin mountains.

Rathfarnham Castle’s main claim to fame then became its seismograph.  A Jesuit priest, William O’Leary (1869-1939) was sent to Louvain to study philosophy and astronomy, and subsequently became a seismologist of some renown.  In 1915 he was posted to Rathfarnham where he was given permission to build a world-class seismic observatory, with the involvement of an English commercial company.  Over time this became the chief source in Ireland of news about earthquakes worldwide, and its reports featured regularly on Radio Eireann news bulletins. The observatory eventually fell into disuse in the 1960s because of a lack of personnel to look after it, as well as the construction of more advanced seismographs elsewhere.

Rathfarnham Castle was purchased by the Office of Public Works (OPW) in 1987, and the surrounding grounds were acquired by Dublin County Council.  The Castle is carefully maintained by the OPW in a manner that makes its earlier splendour discernible, and it is open to visitors.

For most of this material, I am indebted to an article by J. B. Cullen, ‘The Associations of Rathfarnham Castle, Co. Dublin’, published in the Irish Ecclesiastical Record in 1922, which I chanced across in an old file in my office. Wikipedia was also helpful in filling out some details, as was the Rathfarnham Castle website maintained by the Office of Public Works. I am also grateful to our Province Archivist, Damien Burke, for making it possible to access so much material on our past.