It seems only fitting that Lough Cutra, County Galway should be battlemented and turreted, and have the, admittedly deceptive, appearance of impregnability since for a long time it was associated with military families. But the spot on which it stands is deeply romantic: the castle is reached at the end of an exceptionally long drive through open parkland and eventually one arrives at a spot which, as the Knight of Glin and Edward Malins wrote in their 1976 book on Irish demesnes, is ‘picturesquely situated high above the banks of the lough, whose waters lash the terrace walls.’ Glin and Malins likewise admired the ‘extensive and deep planting of woods and plantations, and wooded islands with ruins of churches and mountains in the background.’
Based around the 1,000 acre lake several square miles in extent and from which the estate takes its name, Lough Cutra’s ruins indicate how long there has been human settlement here. The present owners explain succinctly the history of the estate, noting that ‘the local area is rich in remnants of churches, cells and monasteries due to the introduction of Christianity. A number of the islands on the lake contain the remnants of stone altars. It is quite likely that St. Patrick passed Lough Cutra on his travels and St. Colman MacDuagh was a relative of Gort’s King Guaire. A holy well with a cross with the date 1745 lies on the Eastern shore of Lough Cutra. The ruined church of Beagh on the North West shore was sacked by the Danes in 866 A.D. and war raged through the district for nearly 1000 years.’
From the 12th century onwards, this territory was controlled by the Ó Seachnasaigh (anglicised as O’Shaughnessy) family. The last to hold the land, Sir Roger O’Shaughnessy, supported James II at the Battle of the Boyne in July 1690 and died seven days later in his castle at Gort. His son and heir William went into exile and eventually became a general in the French army. In 1697 the O’Shaughnessy lands were seized and presented to Sir Thomas Prendergast who likewise became a general. The two men, O’Shaughnessy and Prendergast, would fight on opposing sides at the Battle of Malplaquet in September 1709 during which the latter was killed (O’Shaughnessy lived another thirty-five years in exile).
Despite the best efforts of successive O’Shaughnessys they never regained their former estates which remained in the possession of the Prendergasts, a branch of a family which had likewise been in Ireland for many centuries, descendants of from Maurice de Prendergast, a Norman knight who came to the country in 1169. Following the death of Sir Thomas Prendergast at Malplaquet, the newly-acquired estates in County Galway passed to his seven-year old son, also called Thomas, who in adulthood managed to sit in both the Irish and British Houses of Commons. Since he had no children, on his death in 1760 the property passed to a nephew John Prendergast Smyth, youngest son of Sir Thomas’ sister Elizabeth. Having begun life in the army, he subsequently became a parliamentarian (although in 1793 he was appointed Colonel of the Limerick Volunteers) and joined the peerage first as Baron Kiltartan in 1810 and then six years later as Viscount Gort. He died in 1817, again without children and so once more the estate passed to a nephew, his sister’s son Colonel Charles Vereker. Of Dutch origin, the Verekers had come to Ireland in the middle of the 17th century and prospered despite supporting the two unfortunate Stuarts, Charles I and James II.
Like so many of those who owned Lough Cutra before and after, Charles Vereker was an army man: leading the Limerick Militia established by his uncle, in September 1798 he checked the advance of the French force led by General Humbert at Collooney, County Sligo and later took part in the Battle of Ballinamuck where he was wounded. For all that, again like his uncle he was vehemently opposed to the 1800 Act of Union, declaring ‘I have defended my country with my blood, and there is nothing in the gift of the Crown that would tempt me to betray her by my vote.’ After the Union he represented Limerick in the British House of Commons until becoming second Viscount Gort. Incidentally, he was also last to hold the ancient feudal post of Governor and Constable of the Castle of Limerick.
The second Lord Gort inherited some 12,000 acres from his uncle, and even before then he had received that part of the estate which included Lough Cutra (then often called Lough Cooter). Here he decided to build a new residence, his initial intention being to commission an Italianate villa at a spot called Situation Hill on the opposite side of the lake from where the house actually stands. However at some date he saw architect John Nash’s own property, East Cowes Castle on the Isle of Wight. Supposedly accompanying the Prince Regent on a visit to East Cowes, he exclaimed ‘How I wish I could transport this Castle to the banks of Lough Cooter’ to which Nash replied, ‘Give me fifty thousand pounds and I will do it for you.’
In fact the eventual cost was closer to £80,000, probably because extensive work had to be carried out on creating the demesne envisaged by landscape designer John Sutherland: in 1855 J.B. Burke’s Visitation of Seats and Arms reported that the greater part of the area around the house and outbuildings ‘was blasted to a considerable depth out of the solid rock, and the gardens then filled with rich soil carried from distant spots, their walls being formed of limestone laboriously cut to the size of bricks…the undulating sward, which extends from the castle towards the lake is also to a great extent artificial.’ In addition, because of the site’s slope a terrace had to be built up in front of the lake before work on the house could begin.
Although Nash designed Lough Cutra, it is unclear what part, if any, he played in its actual construction. He does appear to have visited Ireland at least once: in 1821 he told the landscape artist and diarist Joseph Farington that he ‘had travelled in the three Kingdoms 11,000 miles in the year and in that time had expended £1,500 in chaise hire.’ The work at Lough Cutra was supervised by James Pain who had been apprenticed to Nash and was highly regarded by the latter. Pain came to Ireland in 1811, and remained here the rest of his life, being joined by his younger brother George Richard in 1815 after which the siblings ran a very successful practice for several decades.
Since James Pain arrived here in 1811 it is assumed that work started on Lough Cutra around that time. It was still going on in October 1817 since in that month the Limerick Gazette reported ‘with deepest regret’ that earlier in the month when Pain ‘was surveying some part of the beautiful building now going forward at Loughcooter Castle, County Galway, the intended mansion of Lord Viscount Gort, the scaffolding on which he stood gave way, and he was precipitated from an eminence of four stories high – his side first reached the ground, with the head inclining downwards – the collar bone has been broken, the brain has received a severe concussion, and several bruises on different parts of the body. – A report was current in the town on Sunday that he was dead, but we are happy to say, the arrival of Surgeon Franklin who (together with Surgeon Gibson of the City Regt. pofessionally [sic] attended) has not only contradicted that rumour, but has been given sanguine hopes of a speedy recovery.’ Indeed he did make a full recovery, living until 1877.
As originally built, Lough Cutra was more compact than later became the case, with sufficient variation in the disposition of towers and windows to give interest to the exterior. Inside, the main block of two storeys over sunken basement has a vaulted entrance hall behind which runs three reception rooms overlooking the lake. A round tower to one side contains the staircase leading to the first floor bedrooms opening off a top-lit central corridor.
It would appear that not only did Lord Gort spend much more on the property than had been intended but when he inherited his uncle’s estate it was discovered to carry debts of some £60,000. As a result he was rather impoverished and following his death in 1842 so too was his heir. The third Viscount did his best to provide assistance to his tenants during the years of the Great Famine by not collecting rents and providing work on the estate. The consequence was that he bankrupted himself and in 1851 Lough Cutra was offered for sale by order of the Encumbered Estates Court. Some sections of the estate were parcelled off and in 1852 the castle and immediate land was purchased by James Caulfield, in trust for a Mrs Ball, Superior of the Loreto Convent, Rathfarnham, County Dublin for £17,000. Lord Gort moved to England and ironically a few years later as a result of his second marriage came to own East Cowes Castle, the inspiration for his own former property. It was occupied by the family until requisitioned by the army during the Second World War during which the building suffered severe damage. East Cowes Castle was eventually demolished in 1960.
For a short period of time Lough Cutra Castle became a convent school. However in 1854 it reverted to private ownership after being bought by Field Marshall Hugh Gough, first Viscount Gough. Like the Verekers, the Goughs were another family long settled in this part of Ireland, being descended from three brothers, all Anglican clergymen, who had come here in the early 17th century. Likewise they subsequently became stalwarts of the British army, Hugh Gough’s father serving with Charles Vereker in the Limerick Militia during the 1798 Rebellion. Hugh Gough entered the forces when still in his teens (he was already promoted to the rank of Lieutenant a month before his fifteenth birthday) and fought with the future Duke of Wellington during the Peninsula War. After being responsible for the British forces in China during the First Opium War, he became Commander in Chief of the army in India and was responsible for the defeat of the Sikhs in two wars. It was following his retirement and advancement to the peerage that he decided to buy Lough Cutra, also purchasing back much of the original estate.
Following his acquisition, the castle was considerably extended to the designs of an unknown architect. In April 1855 the Civil Engineer and Architect’s Journal advised readers, ‘Loughcooter Castle…the property of General Lord Viscount Gough, is now undergoing vast alterations and improvements There is a new tower at present in a state of progression; there have been large numbers of artizans and labourers employed during the last four months, and from the extensive works about to be executed are likely to be constantly employed for the next two years.’ In the late 1890s the third Viscount Gort commissioned a further extension, known as the Library Wing, from architect George Ashlin to house his grandfather’s war spoils: this was demolished in the 1950s and the cut stone used in the restoration of Bunratty Castle, County Clare. Changes were made to the interior also, some of which have survived. In the drawing room, for example, the walls are papered with the Gough coat of arms created by Coles, and the elaborately painted ceiling is believed to be by John Gregory Crace.
Commentators have often been rather sniffy about the Goughs’ interventions at Lough Cutra, one author opining ‘The additions were heavy and ill-proportioned and turned a neat and successful composition into an unwieldy and rambling one.’ But photographs of the building from the late 19th/early 20th centuries show that some of the changes were not unattractive. Full-length projecting window bays on either side of the main entrance, for example, probably increased the amount of light in the hall immediately behind, while the drawing room certainly benefitted from a similar window overlooking the lake: all of these have long since gone.
In the 20th century the Gough family, no longer as affluent as had been the case and with the greater part of their estate taken by the Land Commission, could no longer afford to maintain the castle and in the 1928 the family converted part of the stable yard into a residence. Thereafter Lough Cutra stood empty except during the years of the Emergency (1939-45) when it was occupied by members of the Irish army; as with East Cowes Castle at the same time, the outcome was not beneficial for the house. In 1952 the estate was placed on the market and eventually bought by the seventh Viscount Gort, great-grandson of the man who had sold it a century earlier. Lord Gort is today remembered for having bought and restored Bunratty Castle in the 1950s (when stone from parts of the Gough extensions to Lough Cutra were used to make repairs). He gave Lough Cutra to his great-niece the Hon Elizabeth Sidney who in 1966 married Sir Humphrey Wakefield. Together the Wakefields embarked on a restoration of Lough Cutra which by this date was in a near-derelict condition, with much of the interior decoration including the staircase pulled out. Had they not done this work, almost certainly the castle would no longer stand.
However in 1971 the Wakefields divorced and once more the estate was put onto the market. As is well-known Sir Humphrey, who worked in the furniture department of Christie’s before becoming a director of Mallet, went on to buy and restore Chillingham Castle in Northumberland. Here he has one significant souvenir of Lough Cutra: an equestrian statue of the first Viscount Gough. The work has had a troubled history: it was designed by John Henry Foley who died before its completion and there was then difficulty finding a site. Eventually the statue was placed in Dublin’s Phoenix Park where on Christmas Eve 1944 the figure of Lord Gough was beheaded and his sword removed. In November 1956 the right hind leg of his horse was blown off and the following July the entire statue was hurled from its base by a huge explosion. It then languished for almost thirty years in storage before being bought by Robert Guinness, a friend of Wakefield, who afterwards brought the statue to Chillingham where it can now be seen.
As for Lough Cutra, in the aftermath of the Wakefields’ departure the estate was bought by the present owner’s family. Since then the programme of refurbishment has been ongoing, with a new roof on the main body of the castle completed in 2003 and other remedial work done on the tower roofs, plus attention given to buildings such as lodges and yards, as well as the woods and what survives of the once-extensive gardens. As is so often the case, this is a project without visible end but thanks to the commitment and enthusiasm of the owner it is also an enterprise that exudes success. Nash’s East Cowes Castle today can be recalled only through old photographs but what might be described as its progeny Lough Cutra Castle looks set to enjoy a long and happy life yet.
The Lough Cutra estate hosts a wide variety of events. For more information, see: http://www.loughcutra.com/
*Virtue Overcomes All Things: the motto of the Gough family.