Atilla the Hun’s descendants making good in Ireland

If you’re looking for a posh weekend away in Ireland, you’ll be spoiled for choice. There are any number of castles and country manors to choose from, depending on what you’re looking for. I believe the Monart in Wexford makes you check in your tablet/laptop at reception and only allows phones to be used in the bedrooms. I don’t know, I’ve not been there myself, and doubt I’d enjoy such a forcible unplugging.

The Lodge at Castle Leslie
The Lodge at Castle Leslie

Contrast that with a recent stay in the Lodge at Castle Leslie, where I spent a lovely few hours working away in one of the many drawing rooms dotted around the place. I was checked on regularly by various staff members who were quite happy to get me tea, coffee, or even a cheeky afternoon cider. Were I in the hospitality business, I’d be poaching these staff, or whomever picked and trained them. Gems, all of them.

There were nine of us in total – a lot of oestrogen to pack for a weekend away. We were kicking off a year of noughty birthdays and while individual tastes and pleasures varied, Castle Leslie had something for us all.

It bills itself as being first and foremost a home. Second an equestrian centre. Third a hotel. And fourth a spa.

But let’s back up a little. Apparently the Leslies descended from Atilla the Hun and the first of note was a Hungarian nobleman, no less, a chap call Bartholomew Leslie (mmmm… not a name I’ve run into much in Budapest). The first of the clan to come to Ireland was a Bishop who built Raphoe Castle in Co. Donegal back in the 1600s. Marrying at the ripe old age of 67, he managed to five children, and at the age of 90, rode from Chester to London in a day at the behest of the King. He bought the current Castle Leslie, then known as Glaslough Castle and Demense, and lived till he was a 100. That’s some ancestry.

His son Charles had an eventful life. A staunch defender of Catholic Ireland, he was arrested  by King William accused of treason and later pardoned by George I and sent home to Ireland to die. Friends included Dean Swift, Samuel Johnson, and Oliver Goldsmith.

Charles’s son Charles took over the estate in the mid-1700s. His claim to fame is the help he gave his impoverished nephew to get an education. An excellent investment given that the nephew – the Duke of Wellington – grew up to defeat Napoleon at Waterloo.

His son Charles died before the famine, during which time his wife Helen ran the estate. Her good deed was to build a famine wall around the estate to keep the locals in work and to run soup kitchens to keep starvation at bay.

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Her son Charles was quite extravagant, loved to party, and had great plans for the estate that included a nine-story Gothic tower in the middle of the lake accessible by gondola. [I checked the boathouse. There is no tower and there are no gondolas.] He choked to death on a fish bone before he depleted the family coffers and his brother John took over. It was he who built the castle.

Castle Leslie
Castle Leslie

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While I thoroughly enjoyed the grounds and loved the house itself, I’m a tad confused at what makes it a castle. There isn’t a turret to be seen. It is magnificent inside and I had little trouble imagining myself at home to guests or taking tea in the drawing-room. I was glad though, that we were
bedding in the Lodge as those I saw in the castle barely spoke above a whisper and took their handbags to breakfast. That said, as guests on the estate, we had access to the Castle, too. And its magnificent library and home theatre.

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But back to John. Apparently, the older he got, the more his wife Constance grew to detest him. While dining, she hid him from view behind a massive flower arrangement  she called ‘un cache marie’ (hide husband).

Her son John, the 2nd Baronet, married the younger sister of  Lord Randolph Churchill’s wife, Jennie. And his son Shane was the one who converted to Catholicism and married an American whose family was great friends with Robert Louis Stevenson. [Can you just imagine the dinners, the guest lists, and the conversations that the castle has witnessed?]

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Running the castle wasn’t for Shane though, who passed it on to his eldest son John (known to all and sundry as Jack). Jack, in turn, turned the estate over to his sister Anita and went to live in Rome. He returned to Ireland, to Glaslough, to the Castle, in 1994 and can still be seen taking tea in the Lodge.

Anita was awarded two Croixes de Guerre by French General de Gaulle for her work as an ambulance driver during the war. She married a submarine commander and moved to Galway in the 1960s, turning the estate over to her younger brother Desmond, coauthor of the best seller Flying Saucers Have Landed, which was, apparently, the first book to record human contact with an alien. No room for ordinary in this family. In the early 1990s, Desmond handed over the Estate to his five children, and it’s now run by his daughter Samantha, or Sammy, as she’s known.

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A woman of vision, she started small. With tea rooms. Room by room, the castle was restored to its former glory. And when, in June 2002, Castle Leslie Estate,   Paul McCartney and Heather Mills got married there, over 800 million people worldwide now knew it existed.

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In 2004, Sammy bought back the Equestrian Centre and Hunting Lodge, renovated them and opened to the public in 2007. It was in the Lodge that we stayed. Fair play to her. There’s nothing like having a vision and the will and determination to realise it. The stables, too, have been converted and as we walked the grounds, we came across all sorts of hidden gems, including gate lodges and the famous famine wall.

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There’s lots more to the Leslie story. If you’re interested, check the website. As a weekend away, I can highly recommend it. I’d go back in a heartbeat. And again, I’d stay in the Lodge. As I said, something for everyone – horse riding, boating, fishing, cookery classes, spa treatments, and lots comfy armchairs, pots of tea and 88 types of gin – but more of that later.

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