It may reasonably be said that there is not a square inch of Ireland upon which the mighty feet of history have not somehow left their mark. In the case of Huntington Castle in County Carlow, one senses that those feet may be in a state of eternal, ethereal tap-dancing. The sumptuous Jacobean castle is located in a valley criss-crossed by rivers and encircled by hills with the stunning violet slopes of Mount Leinster rising highest of all. The avenue begins in the handsome village of Clonegal, an ancient settlement whose Irish name 'Cluain na nGall' translates as 'Meadow of the Foreigners'. Quite who the foreigners were is anybody's guess. Perhaps they were the fairies for whom a dolmen known as the Tomb of Laba na Sighe was erected some 3000 years ago. In the 13th century, the peaceful riverside setting attracted Franciscan monks from afar who established a priory. The monks planted a yew tree walk of 120 trees, beneath whose evergreen and inter-locking branches one can merrily stroll today. But be careful because one might stumble into the vaporous form of one of these very same monks. Unsurprisingly to anyone who has visited Huntington, this is a demesne with a high quota of ghosts.
In the early 17th century, Clonegal and its surrounding parkland, brickfields, bog meadows and orchards came into the ownership of Sir Laurence Esmonde. Sir Laurence was a zealous Protestant soldier who made his name suppressing the rowdy tribes of Connaught during the last days of Queen Elizabeth's reign. His wife Ailish O'Flaherty was a granddaughter of Grace O'Malley, the Pirate Queen. Considering Ailish was a devout Catholic and Sir Laurence a God-fearing Protestant, the marriage was by no means made in heaven. One night Ailish stole away with their baby son Thomas and returned to her family in Connaught. So delighted was Sir Laurence with this resolution that he took a new wife. Ailish's wraithlike spirit of is sometimes to be seen standing in the garden, combing her long hair by the moonlight and wailing in grief-stricken anguish at the unfairness of it all.
A wide and bumpy avenue leads directly from the entrance gates through cheerful hedgerows and stately lime trees to the towering three storey castellated bulk of Huntington itself, the top-flag in full flutter. This was the view that first grabbed Stanley Kubrick's attention when he selected the castle as a location for his epic, 'Barry Lyndon'. Sir Laurence built the castle in 1625, incorporating the wooden beams and granite stone of the original priory. His grandson named it 'Huntington' after the Esmonde's ancestral pile in Lincolnshire. In 1646, Sir Laurence was succeeded as Baron Esmonde by his son Thomas, the baby with whom his wife had fled. Raised a diligent Catholic by his O'Flaherty relatives, Thomas and his immediate descendents spent most of the next 150 years serving with varying success in the Catholic armies of France and Spain. In the meantime, Huntington passed by marriage to the family of John Durdin, a prosperous merchant from Essex who moved to Ireland in the 1630s and lived to the remarkable age of 108. In 1880, one of John Durdin's female descendents married a Robertson. The family sustained a huge loss with the death of David Durdin-Robertson on 14th April 2009 aged 56. His widow, the artist Moira McCaffery, and family friend Timothy Rearden, have played a pivotal role in keeping the whole place going,, while his son Alex has lately returned to Huntington with his wife.
Majestic oak doors swing back to reveal a large dark wooden hallway, typically Jacobean, with a broad open-hearth fireplace at its core. Along the walls hang the antlers and stuffed heads of luckless alligators, elephants and bisons shot by Nora Robertson, David's fearless gun-toting grandmother. Elsewhere, winged warriors and coats of arms jostle with creepy Victorian perambulators and dwarf canoes. In an alcove to the right, a collection of dusty muskets serves as an eerie reminder that this was the very hall where, in 1738, young Richard Esmonde lost his life through the 'accidental discharge of his fowling piece'. A bathroom to the left offers relief amid a whirl of military memorabilia - uniforms, emblems, saddle bags and regimental photographs, bright young chaps sporting fabulous whiskers.
The first flight of steps is commanded by a chain-mail suit of armour, perhaps worn by an ancestor, reflected in a heavily gilded mirror. The steps lead to one of several narrow, creaky carpeted corridors, walls lined with dark wooden panels, eye-balling family portraits and further spooky mirrors. There can be no escaping the sense of otherworldliness. The Durdin-Robertsons happily regale guests with the tale of Barbara St. Leger and her maidservant, Honor Byrne, whose ghosts still amble the corridors, jangling keys and polishing door-handles with their hair. They are certainly more cheerful than the spirit of a Cromwellian spy shot dead by a comrade who failed to recognise him in disguise.
On the right of the corridor is the dining room, a marvellous space dominated by an oak-leaf table. The walls are hung with tribal Bedouin tent hangings collected by Hebert Robertson during a visit to Tunisia in the 1870s. In one widow, a stained glass family tree traves the genealogy of the Esmondes from Lincolnshire. Usefully named portraits depict the Esmondes, Durdins and the various families into which they married - Butler, Drury, Hayman, St. Leger and Penn. Beside a grandfather clock, the once wealthy Sir Warham St. Leger who ill-advisedly mortgaged Leeds Castle and all his lands to finance Sir Walter Raleigh's disastrous expedition to El Dorado. Another portrays Anne Penn, wife of Alexander Durdin, through whom the family received vast estates in Pennsylvania in 1767. The lands were lost during the ensuing American War of Independence but their brief ownership is recalled today in the name of the small town of Huntington outside Philadelphia. On a side-table laden with family silver stands the cup of the 16th Irish Division of the Rifle Brigade raised by David's great-grandfather, Sir Lawrence Parsons, at the start of the Great War. Willy Redmond was one of the many nationalists who joined the regiment. A baby chair by the fireplace once belonged to John King, a cousin of the Drurys, immortalised in John Milton's Lycidas after he drowned in 1637.
In 1860, Alexander Durdin and his wife Melian added an extension to the castle consisting of a dining room on the ground floor, a library upstairs and a workshop below. As this new wing had considerably better light than the original castle, the dining area was converted into a family drawing room during the 1960s. This is where the family unwind today, sprawled on Turkish rugs and sumptuous day-beds, listening to the crackling flames of the Connemara marble fireplace, Bedouin music echoing out from the record player. An elegant box-bay window beholds the castle's verdant lawns and croquet hoops, weeping willows and clipped yew trees. By the door hangs a large unfinished painting of 'The Slaney Valley' by the English landscape artist, Cecil Gordon-Lawson. The latter was a frequent visitor to Huntington during the 1870s. While courting Alexander and Melian's eldest daughter Helen, he began the painting as a token of his good wishes. When Helen was instead betrothed to Herbert Robertson, Cecil stomped off in a huff leaving the painting as it is today. An ornate Italian cassone chest beneath the painting overflows with costumes and uniforms from parties gone by. The surrounding walls are cloaked in hand-woven Aubusson tapestries, lately restored by Melian Robertson and her niece Sarah. Amongst other portraits here are one of the huntress Nora Parsons and David's beautiful aunt, Barbara Pryor.
A conveniently located bar separates the drawing room from a tiled Victorian conservatory. Perfumed with fresh flowers, the conservatory boasts grapes directly descended from a Hampton Court vine given to Anne Boleyn by Cardinal Wolsey. The morning sun bursts into the room, rebounding off a crumbling mural on the wall painted by children in the 1930s and depicting the zany architectural eccentricities of their father, Manning Durdin Robertson, whose main legacy was to strip the turrets from the castle roof. They were replaced shortly after his death in 1945. Also present are some sculptural works by the late David Durdin Robertson, who was commissioned by both Johnny Ronan and Tony Ryan, while a classical statue of Atlanta stands at full trot in the garden outside.
A staircase to the right of the castle leads up to the bedroom wing. An alcove on the first floor is bedecked in tapestries and classical paintings of the Piazza Barberini, forming an enchanting contrast of orange and yellow hues. Along the staircase walls, an antique harp and a remarkable collection of 17th century maps of Ireland are juxtaposed with contemporary paintings by Moira McCaffery and shelves of dusty books. One bedroom claims to have been the final resting place of no less than thirteen people. In the nearby Four Poster Room, occupants frequently claim to have seen the spectre of the Bishop of Limerick, who died here in 1770. His hefty spirit roams past a nursing chair, bedpans, butterfly fire-screen and leopard skin throws. Sometimes his face appears in the place of Murillo's portrait of a 'Spanish Flower Girl' above the fireplace. Anyone familiar with Castle Leslie in Co. Monaghan will not be surprised to learn that the Bishop's name was the Reverend James Leslie. Perhaps the Bishop is friendly with Harmony, 'a gallant hunter who died hunting', whose hoof now stands on the writing reincarnated as an inkwell.
Returning to the ground level, a series of stone steps leads down to perhaps the most startling of Huntington's many startling aspects, namely the Temple of Isis. In the 1640s, Cromwell's men used this space as a dungeon for their enemies. In 1921, Republicans imprisoned the cook and other members of staff here. In 1976, Lawrence Durdin-Robertson, Baron of Strathloch, a former Church of Ireland clergyman, combined forces with his wife Pamela and sister Olivia to convert the cellars into the earthly head-quarters of the Fellowship of Isis. The well-read and sprightly trio sought to provide the world with a spiritual platform that would acknowledge the immense importance of female deities throughout the history of mankind. At the heart of this was Isis, the Egyptian goddess, mother of all. The incense-scented Temple of Isis now consists of twenty-six shrines set in a winding pattern throughout the cellars. Within the chapel is a nave, a high altar and a chapel of Brigid, situated near a Neolithic well known as Brighid's Well and famed for it's healing properties. There are also twelve shrines dedicated to the twelve signs of the Zodiac and five small chapels devoted to the elements of earth, air, fire, water and spirit. Huntington certainly has strong otherworldly connections. Just over a hundred years ago, a meteorite fell to earth and landed near the front avenue. It glowed for two years, providing a delightfully warm perch for crows who, as any Isis devotees will tell you, are the avian messengers of the Morrigan, one of the major goddesses of Ireland. At the age of 92, Lady Olivia, the high-priestess, can take her place alongside the Pope and the Dalai Lama as a spiritual leader. The benevolent Fellowship is now a recognised religion in the USA and has a worldwide membership of over 27,000 people, including a large number from Nigeria. Many gather at Huntington for the four annual festivals, one held every season, involving intensive meditation sessions followed by refreshments in a nearby public house.
Huntington Castle is a remarkable and magical place that has casts its spell on many throughout the ages. Today, the estate is home to such artists as muralist Michael Dillon and sculptress Rosie Rathdonnell. The Durdin-Robertson's continue to make their mark from the canvas (Moira spends her autumns in Florence) to the stage (daughter Sarah strode the boards of the Edinburgh Theatre Festival in 2008) while they also now run a delightful craft shop, combing first-rate Irish pottery and glassware with miscellaneous goods collected during travels in Florence and Tuscany. Clonegal boasts the acclaimed Sha-Roe bistro, run by a scion of the Gordon Ramsay school, while Osborne's pub is one of the few authentic traditional Irish pubs still in existence. And those seeking a new life in the countryside can consider one of the new houses being built in a multi-million Euro development around the village.
Open for tours every day in June, July and August.
Huntington Castle & Gardens Clonegal, Co. Carlow. Tel: +353 (0)59 54 77552.