Luxury, history and eccentricity collide at this charming Victorian castle hotel in Ireland’s rural northern borderlands. And I got to stay in its quirkiest room.
What do Winston Churchill, Attila the Hun, Game of Thrones, Paul McCartney, King Charles II and the Loch Ness Monster have in common?
Answer: ties to Castle Leslie, Ireland, and the colourful aristocratic family who’ve lived on this Co Monaghan estate since 1665.
The Leslie family history features not only the standard aristocratic melange of royal, political and military connections but also enough artists, philanthropists and all-round eccentrics — there’s a ufologist and Loch Ness monster hunter, for instance — to fill many a book.
Even if, like me, you rock up for a stay at the castle without any inkling of the long, idiosyncratic history of the place/its founding family, you’ll find its traces seep through the walls in its restored heritage rooms, quirky touches and hidden corners alike.
The castle (or is it?)
As it turns out, defining a castle is harder than you’d think. The term is often applied to buildings as unalike as manors and hill forts, so which features make a castle a castle? Must it have battlements, drawbridges and a moat to qualify?
To use the commonly accepted definition that holds a castle is ‘the private fortified residence of a monarch or nobleman’, alas, despite the name, Castle Leslie does not fit the bill. It’s perhaps more accurately described as a country house.
But what a country house it is. Castle Leslie itself was built in 1870, but the estate itself dates further back some 200 years prior. The family purchased the land here with the reward money given to forefather John Leslie — the so-called ‘fighting bishop’ — by King Charles II, for loyalty he’d demonstrated in fighting against Cromwell’s forces in Ireland. The estate has been in the family ever since.
The grounds span some 1000 acres, with ancient woodlands, a walled garden, rookery, wetlands, several lakes, old lodges and stable mews and all the sprawling green lawns you’d expect of the Irish countryside.
Walking along the expansive grounds you’re likely to spot a few rabbits darting across your path, some lazing cows and a horse or two. (In the interest of ethics in travel journalism I should also mention that as a self-proclaimed equestrian paradise, there’s also a decent amount of horsesh*t about. You’ve been warned.)
Overlooking the extensive estate is the manor itself, imposing and smart. Disputed ‘castle-ness’ aside, inside was — well, yeah, very much a castle. Wow. Sweeping staircases, barrel-vaulted ceilings, glistening chandeliers, exquisitely sculpted fireplaces, a grand piano, fine antique furniture, and busts and portraits galore — many depicting various members of the Leslie family, in the grand tradition of aristocratic families proudly celebrating their heritage (read: tooting their own horn).
A far earlier visitor had noted this tendency, too. According to the in-depth, wryly self-deprecating history section on the Castle’s website, Gulliver’s Travels author Jonathan Swift himself wrote:
Here I am in Castle Leslie
With rows and rows of books upon the shelves
Written by The Leslies
All about themselves.
Opulent enough to feel special and ‘castle-like’, yet not stuffy, the estate still retains that welcoming sense of being ‘lived-in’ — because, well, it is. All these centuries later, it remains in the hands of its founding family.
History and eccentricity
So who are the Leslies? I wouldn’t normally delve into family history within a travel article, but some stories are too good to pass by. For one thing, the family claims to trace their ancestry all the way back to Attila the Hun, who died in about 453 AD. As you do.
The more recent progenitor was a Hungarian-born nobleman and chamberlain to the Scottish Queen Margaret in the 1060s named Bartolf. He reputedly saved her from falling into a river on horseback one day by throwing her the end of his belt buckle. His words to the queen — ‘grip fast’ — became the family motto, and to this day a belt buckle forms a motif on the family crest badge.
Much of the family remained in Scotland. Game of Thrones fans may be familiar with one of the Scottish Leslies in particular: actor Rose Leslie, who played Ygritte. (On a side note, the Aberdeenshire castle in which she grew up is open to guests on Airbnb, but it’s nowhere near as affordable as Castle Leslie. And yes, GoT fans, the most iconic wildling grew up in a castle — ironic, no?)
As for the Irish branch of Clan Leslie, however, the story really starts with the ‘fighting bishop’, John Leslie, who bought the estate from the confiscated lands of the McMahon and McKenna clans, and extended the original castle built by the latter in 1591.
His son Charles, a theologian, was arrested for treason after speaking out in defence of Catholics against the Penal Laws. Introduced in the 16th and 17th centuries, this code of laws basically aimed at forcibly converting the Irish colony to Protestantism by disenfranchising the Catholic majority from political and economic power.
The Leslies were long regarded as progressive and generous landlords, even if politically they were inconsistent (as is natural in families, I suppose, over time and the wax and wane of fortunes). Some opposed Home Rule, others were Irish nationalists — in one case it was father and son respectively.
When the Great Famine struck, far from evicting tenants who could no longer afford rent like other landlords, the family cancelled rents, set up soup kitchens to feed the starving and had a ‘famine wall’ built (which survives today) in order to provide relief work. (Locals joke that it was intended not to keep the masses out but rather the eccentric Leslies in!) A monument dedicated to Charles Powell Leslie III in Glaslough, the nearby village, was erected in 1871 ‘by his grateful tenants’, in the words of the inscription. In other words, no, it’s not just more aristocratic family pride horn-tooting; this was legit.
Of all the Leslies, however, perhaps the most noteworthy (read: badass) was Anita. While serving in the Free French Army in 1944, she drove ambulances behind enemy lines to rescue wounded French soldiers. Later a writer and biographer, Anita died in 1985 and her remains were buried on the Castle grounds according to her wishes. Today, like a handful of other Leslies, she has a bedroom named in her honour.
Today the presiding Leslie is noted equestrian Samantha. Conscious of the Castle’s heritage, she set out to restore the building and refurbish its bedrooms and bathrooms in their own distinctive styles (and I do mean distinctive…). Her goal was to generally regenerate the estate through tourism. And it’s safe to say she made it, if having a Beatle get married on your property (Paul McCartney to Heather Mills in 2004) is any indication.
As for Churchillian connections? In 1884 Leonie Jerome, an American socialite and accomplished pianist, married into the family via baronet Sir John Leslie. Leonie’s elder sister Jennie, on the other hand, wed Lord Randolph Churchill; you may have heard of their son Winston? Indeed, some items of furniture adorning the house today were hand-me-downs from the Churchills, who were said to regard the Leslies as the poor relations. Imagine.
The quirkiest room of the castle?
Our room was the Nursery — quite possibly the quirkiest in the place. It’s a light-hearted room with pretty wallpaper panels of the alphabet, an antique baby chair, and expansive French windows offering views of the lake below. And yeah, just in case the name didn’t give it away, the Nursery was the headquarters for the children here over several generations.
Most memorable of all was a giant dollhouse meant to resemble a manor (dated ‘1878’) — until you open the doors and find hidden away a sink, shower and toilet respectively, complete with vintage wallpaper and the most characterful hanging flush chain I ever did see: a guy dangling from a red and white parachute. Grip fast, indeed. It was cute and quirky, but I suspect on a purely practical level the novelty of such a claustrophobic, cutesy little bathroom may have worn off on longer stays. But at least I can now tick ‘peeing in an antique dollhouse — sober’ off the bucket list. Done.
On account of my photographic ineptitude, the many photos I took of the Nursery didn’t do it justice. Watch this marketing video for a better picture of the room.
Just outside the room is a single bell, used to alert the children at mealtimes or, when rung more vehemently, that they were being too noisy for the liking of the adults below. (Bit of a more elegant system than having one’s name yelled across the house come dinnertime as we all grew up with, no?) It’s these little reminders of Castle Leslie’s former life — and ongoing ownership — that make it so fun to explore.
Castle, country house, whatever you call it, the charming, quirky touches and family history made Castle Leslie a night well spent, and a fascinating little slice of Ireland.