A Whiter Shade of Pale


It cannot be claimed that in the 17th and 18th centuries, Ireland’s senior Anglican clergy devoted themselves exclusively to matters religious. Indeed, they were often more preoccupied with politics and the acquisition of material goods than with spirituality, but in at least some instances we are today all the beneficiaries of their activities in these fields. The man who might be said to have set the tone for what followed in the Church of Ireland was Adam Loftus. Born in Yorkshire in 1533, apparently while still an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge he met and impressed Queen Elizabeth and thereafter enjoyed her patronage. Embracing Protestantism, he began to climb through the ranks of the Anglican Church but only really achieved power after serving as chaplain to Thomas Radclyffe, Earl of Sussex following the latter’s appointment as Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland in 1559. By 1561 Loftus was chaplain to the Bishop of Kildare and the same year was appointed to his first living. Thereafter his rise was rapid: in 1563 he was consecrated Archbishop of Armagh at the age of only 28, swapping this four years later for the Archbishopric of Dublin. In 1581 he was appointed Lord Chancellor of Ireland and then strove to ensure that the country’s first university would be located on a site of his choosing: in 1593 he became the first Provost of Trinity College, Dublin, named after his old alma mater. Meanwhile in addition to building up his political as well as ecclesiastical authority, he was acquiring land so as to leave something for his heirs: he and his wife had twenty children, of whom eight died in infancy.




One of the parcels of land which came into Loftus’s possession was located at Rathfarnham at the foothills of the Dublin mountains, confiscated from James Eustace, 3rd Viscount Baltinglass after he had rebelled against the crown. A castle of some kind existed on the site but soon after Loftus was granted Rathfarnham in 1583 at a nominal rent of thirty shillings he began work on a new residence, which remains to the present day. Although the interiors were said to have been luxurious, the castle’s external appearance was very much defensive being rectangular in shape with four massive corner flanking towers to allow guards watch for any approach to the building. Four storeys high,its walls are on average some five feet thick and running east-west through the centre of the entire castle is another wall almost ten feet thick: this seems solid but it is now proposed that in fact the wall actually held a series of chambers or corridors from which access was gained to rooms on either side. Nevertheless, Loftus was right to construct such a solid building since its location left Rathfarnham vulnerable to attack from the Wicklow clans. Five years before his death in 1605 it withstood assault from this source, and did so again during the 1641 rebellion before passing back and forth between different sides in the Irish Confederate Wars. It was only towards the late 1650s that the Loftus family was able to regain control of the place.




In the early 18th century Rathfarnham passed to Philip Wharton, who at the age of 19 was created first (and last) Duke of Wharton by George I; Wharton’s mother had been Lucy Loftus, only child of Adam Loftus, Viscount Lisburne. Wharton seems to have been a hopelessly character. His father Thomas Wharton although notoriously dissipated was at least politically astute and one of the leaders of the opposition to James II. Philip Wharton on the other hand, despite having every advantage, set out on a course of ruination that saw him end his days a hopeless drunk in a Spanish monastery, dead at the age of 32. In 1723 indebtedness caused by over-investment in the South Sea Bubble obliged him to sell his Irish estates including Rathfarnham which was bought by William Conolly, Speaker of the Irish House of Commons. He paid £62,000 for house and lands but never lived there, presumably because he had already begun work on his own house at Castletown, County Kildare (see Up Pompeii, June 17th). Instead the castle was let to various tenants who began to refurbish it before the whole place was sold in 1742 to another Anglican cleric, John Hoadly who had just been made Archbishop of Armagh. On his death Rathfarnham passed to Hoadly’s son-in-law Bellingham Boyle but like Philip Wharton he also suffered from chronic indebtedness and so in 1767 Rathfarnham was sold to Nicholas Hume-Loftus, second Earl of Ely, a descendant of the castle’s original builder. On his death without children it was inherited by his uncle Henry Loftus who also had no issue (compared to their forebear with his twenty offspring, these later Loftuses proved to be an unfecund set) and so Rathfarnham was inherited by a nephew Charles Tottenham who in 1800 would become first Marquess of Ely.




The Elys, who owned several estates, spent little time at Rathfarnham which at some date before 1852 was sold to Francis Blackburne, then Lord Chancellor of Ireland; he and his descendants lived there until 1913 when the place was bought by the Jesuit Order who used it as a seminary and added two long wings on the north- and south-east sides of the main building (they also seem to have taken out the main staircase which is a great shame). The Jesuits in turn put the place up for sale in the mid-1980s when it was bought by a firm of property developers. As the area by this date had become a suburb of Dublin and much of the immediately surrounding land was given over to housing estates, there were concerns that the castle itself would be left to fall into ruin or pulled down. In 1987 the Irish State acquired the building and immediate acreage and under the auspices of the Office of Public Works has been engaged in a process of restoration and refurbishment ever since (see http://www.heritageireland.ie/en/Dublin/RathfarnhamCastle).
There is a great deal more one could write about Rathfarnham Castle, and perhaps might on another occasion. For the present, the accompanying photographs will give an idea of a notable feature of the building which attracts relatively little notice: its fine plasterwork. Throughout the 18th century a succession of different owners and occupiers did much to improve and update the building, and its interiors reflect changes in taste over that period. Different rooms are decorated in different styles, so that the whole castle becomes a history of fashion in stuccowork, ranging from the lightest rococo to severe neo-classicism (both Sir William Chambers and James ‘Athenian’ Stuart had a hand in the design of some of the interiors). All of it is of high quality and serves as an example of the level of Irish craftsmanship – and the ability to adapt to an evolving clientele – throughout the period. It is a pity more is not made of this aspect of the building since Rathfarnham Castle’s diverse decoration gives it a unique character and deserves to be celebrated. Hence the decision to feature only details of the house’s plasterwork today.


Next Saturday morning, I shall be speaking about Adam Loftus, as well as many of his successors, in the course of a talk entitled ‘Building Bishops: Architectural Ambitions among 18th Century Irish Clergy’ at the Roe Valley Arts and Cultural Centre in Limavady, County Derry as part of a three-day conference devoted to Frederick Hervey, the great Earl-Bishop of Derry. For more information about this event, see: http://www.herveysummerschool.com/

21 comments on “A Whiter Shade of Pale

  1. Mary says:

    As Managers of Rathfarnham Castle we are delighted that the Irish Aesthete has shared this excellent write up on the owners of the Castle over the centuries with your readers. Please be reassured we continue to do all we can to engage audiences to come and experience the extraordinary craftsmanship to be experienced at the Castle. I moved the Castle to opening all year since 2011 and we have seen visitor numbers increase from an annual figure of 6,000 to now approx. 22,000 per annum to the Castle alone with additional visitors to the Café and grounds. I am also really proud of getting a number of the smaller rooms of which you have shown pictures of the plasterwork ceilings open for the first time to visitors since my team started working there in 2009.
    You will be aware the IGS Traditional Building Skills weekend was held at Rathfarnham Castle this year and we used this opportunity to gatet large numbers in to experience the craftsmanship in the Castle. What have you in mind in terms of bringing out the significance of the plasterwork more. Specific plasterwork tours. It is certainly worth exploring more.

    I have to put in a word of defence for Farmleigh – I don’t think it can be compared to works carried out at Powerscourt and Carton. Farmleigh House, Gardens and Grounds have been conserved with a huge emphasis on the presentation of the home of the late Victorian/early Edwardian owner Sir Edward Cecil and Adelaide Guinness, First Earl and Countess of Iveagh. The State has presented the interiors very carefully with the Dining Room a completely intact 1880’s interior with all of its original contents in place. The Library likewise is a wonderful double height late 19th c. interior with what is probably the finest book collection of bindings in Ireland. The gardens created by Adelaide and successive Countesses of Iveagh in particular the late Miranda Guinness continue to be maintained according to their original schemes. With no commercial aspects to the Estate, save the Café, and visitor numbers of 350,000 annually I would argue that Farmleigh has contributed in no small way to visitors getting an appreciation of our built heritage including gardens in a friendly way. We are working all the time to increase access and raise education about the incredible inheritances we have a duty to care for and hand on to those coming after us.
    If you haven’t been there for a while please come back and take in the beauty of the House and gardens.

  2. Mairtin D'Alton says:

    I can get the exact details, but the building was sold by the family to a Dublin building contractor, and it was them who sold the land to the golf club, as well as the Chambers staircase and the original fireplaces, before selling on to the Jesuits. Wonderful photos, you have a gift.
    It is a wonderful building, and a miraculous survival, as it’s demolition has been prompted many times. A visit to the basement and roof is strongly recommended

    • Thank you for your observations. It had been my belief that the Blackburnes sold Rathfarnham directly to the Order of Jesus but if there was another owner between these two and I have therefore maligned the Jesuits I happily apologise. If you can find that additional information and forward to me I would be most grateful. I did explore the fascinating basement but not, on my most recent visit, the roof: for another time. Thank you for compliment about the pictures, amazing what can be done with an iPhone.

      • catalina says:

        The Castle was indeed sold to contractors by the Blackburnes – it isn’t really certain who was responsible for removing the grand staircase nor when it was removed, but it was certainly gone by the time the Society of Jesus purchased the Castle.

      • Mairtin D'Alton says:

        Hi Robert. I can’t find a written reference, however last year Archaeologist Alan Hayden worked in the castle, and he said a firm of builders called Bailey and Gibson bought the castle and sold the Chamber’s staircase and fireplaces to a company in London whereafter they disappeared. The Jesuits replaced the fireplaces with comparable examples. The vaulting for this fireplace is still in the basement of the flanking tower, and Alan’s survey of the building showed that this towers geometry does not match the other 3, and does not line up with the musket loops, which he ascribes to this being the location of the Eustace castle. He also showed me the likely location of the medieval staircase. I will try to check citations with him, the OPW may have exact references. Sorry I can’t be more precise.

      • Thank you for this, most helpful. I will have a word with the relevant people in the OPW and see if I can find out anything further, but this is an excellent start, so I am very grateful.

      • Mairtin D'Alton says:

        Sorry I meant the vaulting for the staircase

      • Mairtin D'Alton says:

        Perhaps there is a history of Castle Golf Club out there, i will have a look.

  3. Jane Fenlon says:

    Wonderful photographs of the plasterwork Robert. With regard to making more of that aspect of the building, patience and a lot more research is required before a more detailed presentation can be made. For instance the fact that Edward Worth, cousin of Dr. Edward Worth lived there for at least 30 years has rarely been noted. Is it not likely that he would have made more alterations and ‘improvements’ to the building than Archbishop Hoadly who lived only 4 years after his purchase of Rathfarnham in 1742.

    • Dear Jane,
      Thanks for you comments. Of course you are right, I am sure that Hoadly, who only bought Rathfarnham in old age and then died a few years later, probably made little intervention to the structure – and likewise his son-in-law who had other distractions (and debts). There is more research to be done, but in the meantime it would still be worthwhile drawing visitors’ attention to the fascinating wealth of plasterwork in the house and the variety of styles therein. I feel at the moment that this resource, and tribute to Irish craftsmanship, is being insufficiently celebrated, and that must be regretted.

  4. I really enjoyed reading this article, thanks for writing so much about it (and do hope there is more). It’s interesting that the whole article can be illustrated by just plasterwork photos. Had a great time visiting there and the staff were very informative – they gave a great overview of the place while we were at the model in the stairwell.

    The door opposite the entrance has an unusual window over it – it funnels upwards if I remember correctly. Would there have been a mirror there originally, or what is the idea behind that design?

    Thanks again,

    • Dear Michael,
      Thanks for yours. Yes, the staff are very good and keen to communicate with visitors, which is wonderful. I can’t remember the door opposite the entrance and fear I didn’t take a picture of it, so can’t answer your query right now. Let me check and if I can I will revert to you.

      • catalina says:

        The door opposite the Entrance Hall has a mirror over it – the mirror is tilted at an angle and this allowed the servant charged with opening the door to keep an eye out for approaching carriages/guests as no servant would have been allowed to be seen looking out the window.

      • Thank you for this information. Most interesting. If you see just after you Mairtin d’Alton provides some information about builders owning Rathfarnham Castle between the Blackburnes and the Jesuits, during which time, he explains, both the staircase and the original chimneypieces were removed.

      • Thanks for that information – that’s really fantastic to know!

  5. Pauline Kelley says:

    I love you blog. Best to you and please don’t stop. Best regards, pauline kelley

    • Thank you for getting in touch and for your kind remark. Likewise, please don’t stop reading what is here!

      • Jane Fenlon says:

        Robert, would you like to visit Rathfarnham during August while the archaeologist are working there?


        From: The Irish Aesthete Reply-To: The Irish Aesthete Date: Sat, 1 Feb 2014 13:42:58 +0000 To: Jane Fenlon Subject: [New comment] A Whiter Shade of Pale

        WordPress.com theirishaesthete commented: “Thank you for getting in touch and for your kind remark. Likewise, please don’t stop reading what is here!”

      • Jane Fenlon says:

        Robert, would Wednesday a.m., 8th October suit you to visit Rathfarnham Castle? Regards, Jane

  6. Simon Loftus says:

    I was interested to read the comments about Rathfarnham’s sale to a firm of builders who stripped out and sold the fireplaces, because I have in my house in England a fireplace that my grandfather bought, which certainly came from Ireland and was said to have come from a house in Merrion Square, but which seems to be the fine surviving twin of a somewhat mutilated Bossi fireplace that is still at Rathfarnham. So maybe it was one of those sold to dealers in London.
    I have been delighted to read your beautifully illustrated article about the Castle, and at the risk of sounding opportunistic, should like to draw your readers’ attention to my recent book – The Invention of Memory, An Irish Family Scrapbook 1560-1934 (Daunt Books) – an extended meditation on my family history which also includes a great deal about Rathfarnham. A paperback edition is due out in June.
    Simon Loftus

    • Thank you for getting in touch. Indeed I am familiar with your book, which I would likewise very much recommend to readers: I am giving a talk next Friday on Ireland’s Building Bishops which begins with a discussion of your forebear Adam Loftus.
      The chimneypiece you mention does sound most interesting and if you wished to send me privately a photograph I would be delighted to see it: the stripping of Rathfarnham a century ago, including the loss of its main staircase, was a great loss to the building.
      Thank you again for your interest.

Leave a Reply