Luxury, history and eccentricity collide at this charming Victorian castle hotel in Ireland’s rural northern borderlands. Every room is different — and richly storied. And I got to stay in the quirkiest one.
What do Winston Churchill, Attila the Hun, Game of Thrones, Paul McCartney, King Charles II and the Loch Ness Monster have in common?
Answer: connections 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 default old money line-up of royal, political and military figures one would expect (tick, tick, tick), 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. Or blog post, as it were.
Even if, like me, you rock up for a stay at the castle without any inkling of the long, idiosyncratic history of the place and/or its founding family, you’ll find their traces seep through the walls of its restored heritage rooms, quirky touches and hidden corners alike.
The castle (or is it?)
Coming from Australia, where castles are not exactly commonplace, I never realised how contentious it is to define what makes a castle a castle. The term is often applied to buildings as unalike as manors and hill forts. Does a castle need old, medieval-looking battlements, drawbridges, moat and dragons 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. As it stands today, Castle Leslie was built in 1870, but the estate itself dates further back some 200 years prior. Originally hailing from Scotland, 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.**
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 at all 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. A rare thing in Ireland today.
History and eccentricity: Famine relief, a war heroine and a life-saving belt buckle
So who are the Leslies? I wouldn’t normally delve into family history within a travel article, but some stories are too damn quirky 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 was previously open to guests on Airbnb, albeit 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 — colonialism at work — 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, thousands of landlords throughout Ireland evicted tenants who could no longer afford their rent. But under the leadership of widow Helen Powell Leslie, who was then running the estate, the Leslies took a different approach:
She was a very able lady and managed to feed all the people on the Estate. She had a famine wall built around the Estate to provide work (this was not to keep the Leslies in as some people have suggested) and set up soup kitchens to provide food for the starving.
This famine wall still stands today, as does a monument dedicated to Charles Powell Leslie III in Glaslough (Helen’s son) in the nearby village. It was erected in 1871 ‘by his grateful tenants’, in the words of the inscription. So in other words, no, the claim of being actual decent people during the Great Famine that so deeply scarred Ireland is not just more aristocratic family horn-tooting; this was legit.
Of all the Leslies, however, maybe the most noteworthy and downright badass was Anita. According to the Irish Times:
She was born in 1914 and was, in some ways, a typical daughter of the Anglo-Irish landowning classes – badly educated, horse loving and with a sparkling sense of fun. In other ways, she was an oddity; her father, Sir Shane Leslie, had renounced his inheritance and the Ulster Protestant values of his family to become both a Catholic and an Irish nationalist.
In World War II, Anita leapt into action. She served as a mechanic and ambulance driver in North Africa, delivered supplies to remote field hospitals in Lebanon and Syria, edited a newspaper, joined the Red Cross and tended to the injured in Italy following the Battle of Monte Cassino… And then joined the Free French Army, where she drove ambulances behind enemy lines alongside other women drivers to rescue wounded French soldiers. She also helped out on a rescue mission bringing a group of starving French POW survivors home from the concentration camp at Nordhausen, Germany, where they’d been used for slave labour making V2 rockets for the Blitz.
Legend has it that in the aftermath of Nazi Germany’s collapse, Anita wrote letters home to her family on papers with a swastika and eagle letterhead — apparently souvenired from Hitler’s own desk in the ruined Reich Chancellery. An earlier letter she wrote to a friend back in 1940, as she made her way to Africa to join the war effort in the first place, captures her spirit:
Never again am I going to live a dull, domesticated existence. I’m just going to be naughtier and naughtier!
She was awarded numerous military decorations for her efforts. Later a writer and biographer, Anita penned 17 books in total — apparently while enjoying a staple diet of champagne and smoked salmon. As you do.
Anita died in 1985 and her remains were buried on the Castle grounds, on the far side of the lake, according to her wishes. Along with a handful of other Leslies, she now 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 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 those 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? Apparently some items of furniture adorning Castle Leslie today were originally hand-me-downs from the Churchills, who were said to regard the Leslies as the poor relations. Imagine.
The quirkiest room of the castle?
Each room of the Castle has a story spanning back through the decades, speckled with little nods to some Leslie or another, often with feature appearances of royals or celebrities.
Our room was the Nursery — quite possibly the quirkiest in the place. In case the name didn’t give it away, the Nursery was the headquarters for the Leslie children over three generations. Anita included. Here, they played, frolicked about and studied, learning the basics thanks to governesses and home tutors before being carted off to boarding schools further afield.
Being in the Nursery made me think about how rare it is that we get even a glimpse into the lived experiences of children in bygone times (beyond the average dad’s ‘when I was your age…’ lectures, at least).
It’s a light-hearted room featuring pretty illustrated wallpaper panels of each letter of the alphabet, an antique baby chair, and expansive French windows offering views of the lake below.
Most memorable of all was a giant dollhouse meant to resemble an 1870s manor — until you open the doors and find a (not-doll-sized) sink, shower and toilet respectively stashed away inside. Complete with vintage wallpaper and the whackiest hanging flush chain I ever did see: a guy dangling from a red and white parachute. Grip fast, indeed. It was a nice quirky surprise, 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’ off the bucket list I guess. So there’s that.
Apparently this inventive case of adaptive re-use all started as a joke:
When Sammy announced her intention to convert the Schoolroom, her father jokingly suggested she turn the dollhouse into a loo. She not only did so; she added a bath and wash basin as well.
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 idea of the room.
Just outside the room is a single bell, which was used to alert the children at mealtimes that their food was being served. Or, when rung more vehemently, that they were being too noisy for the liking of the adults below.*****
And, according to a tipoff from the Castle website, look closely and you might just make out the grubby child-sized fingerprints of some of the Nursery’s former charges still visible on the pillars on the ledge above the main staircase. It’s a testament to the little daredevils’ cheeky attempts to walk around this ledge unharmed — a dangerous spot they were strictly not allowed to be. Naturally. You can almost hear the children’s singsong taunts daring one another to make the climb. Perhaps unwittingly following in the footsteps and fingerprints of their own parents as children before them.
It’s these little reminders of Castle Leslie’s former life — and ongoing ownership within the family — that make it so fun to poke around in and explore. And the fact that it’s all shared so readily with visitors only adds to the intrigue.
Castle, country house, whatever you call it, the charming, quirky touches and rich family history make Castle Leslie a night well spent, and a fascinating little slice of Ireland.
*Which, incidentally, in Australia would suggest a verandah-lined cottage… by the by…
**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 along some of these paths. You’ve been warned.
***Imagine having a family motto and crest badge. Lol.
****Totally off-topic tangent here from decades after the Great Famine: you need to read the story of what happened when, from the 1870s to the 1890s, more landlords in Ireland (who were often actually British) set about evicting people en masse once more. It involves cow dung, spiky shrubs and what came to be known as a ‘boycott’ (this is the origin story of the term) being deployed against actual battering rams. F*ck I love Irish people.
*****The rich people equivalent of having one’s name yelled across the house, I guess.