A week ago the national tourist board, Fáilte Ireland, announced that €60,175 in funding is to be made available to Castle Saunderson, County Cavan. Seemingly this money is part of the organisation’s ‘New ideas in Ancient Spaces’ Capital Grants Scheme for attractions within the Ireland’s Ancient East initiative. The latter scheme was launched by Fáilte Ireland’s last April and ‘seeks to build on the wealth of historical and cultural assets in the east and south of Ireland.’ Leaving aside the fact that Castle Saunderson could never be described as being located in either the east or south of the country (north-midlands might be the simplest summary) one wonders what will be the result of this expenditure. According to Fáilte Ireland, the money ‘will be used to enhance the “on the ground” visitor experience and present the story of Castle Saunderson through the ages. This will be achieved through the development of a new “easy to explore” heritage trail – The Castle Trail. Through interpretative displays, visual art and written interpretation, the story will imaginatively portray the dramatic history and transition of this place as part of Ireland’s Ancient East from free land, through conflict, plantation and the divisive advent of Unionism and the Orange Order to the peaceful coexistence of the present day.’ In other words, the money doesn’t appear to be going towards the restoration of a building on the site which has only fallen into dereliction in the past twenty years and which, with a hint more creativity and resourcefulness, could be restored to serve as a splendid base for the aforementioned ‘on the ground’ visitor experience.
Around the middle of the 17th century the land on which Castle Saunderson stands passed into the hands of one Robert Sanderson whose father, Alexander Sanderson, had come to Ireland as a soldier and settled in County Tyrone. Robert Sanderson had been a Colonel in the army of Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, and in 1657 served as High Sheriff of County Cavan. On his death in 1675, the estate passed to his eldest son, another Colonel Robert who sat in the Irish House of Commons and married Jane Leslie, a daughter of the Right Rev John Leslie, Bishop of Clogher. The couple had no children and so Castle Saunderson passed to a nephew, Alexander Sanderson. It was the latter’s grandson, another Alexander, who changed the spelling of the family name to Saunderson as part of an ultimately fruitless effort to claim the Castleton peerage of the Saundersons of Saxby, Lincolnshire (the first and last Earl Castleton having died unmarried in 1723). It is his son Francis who is credited with having built the core of the present house. Staunchly anti-Catholic, he is said to have disinherited his eldest son for marrying a member of that faith (or it could have been because she was the daughter of a lodge keeper at Castle Saunderson). So the estate of over 12,000 acres went to a younger son, Alexander. He likewise disinherited his first-born son because he was crippled, and another son who proved rebellious, instead leaving Castle Saunderson to the fourth son, Colonel Edward James Saunderson who, like his forbears, was a Whig politician, and in Ireland leader of the Liberal Unionist opposition to Gladstone’s efforts to introduce some measure of home rule. It appears to have been after the death of his eldest son Somerset Saunderson in 1927 that the family moved out of the house, although they did not sell the property until half a century later.
As has been mentioned, at the core of Castle Saunderson is a classical house built by Francis Saunderson probably around the time of his marriage to Anne White in 1779. In the mid-1830s the building was extensively remodeled in a version of Elizabethan gothic for his son Alexander Saunderson. In December 1835 Nathaniel Clements wrote to Lady Leitrim that he had called by Castle Saunderson where the owner was ‘altering and castellating his house, so I was quite in my element’ The architect responsible for this work is now considered to be George Sudden, who was employed elsewhere in the area, at Lough Fea, County Monaghan and Crom Castle, County Fermanagh, Castle Saunderson displaying certain similarities with the latter (where the original design had been by Edward Blore). This intervention resulted in a bit of a mongrel, the east-facing, two-storey former entrance front retaining long sash windows to either side of a central three-storey castellated tower, its octagonal turrets echoed by lower, square ones at either end of the facade. The north and south fronts are asymmetric, the former having an octagonal entrance tower placed off-centre, the latter featuring a four-bay loggia between two further towers, as well as a substantial service wing at right angles that once incorporated a single-storey orangery. Although unoccupied by the Saundersons, the property was not sold by the family until 1977 when it was bought by a businessman who undertook restoration work. For a period it then became an hotel before being sold again in the 1990s after which fire gutted the house. In 1997 Castle Saunderson and its grounds were acquired by what is now called Scouting Ireland which initially appeared to show interest in restoring the building but eventually chose to construct a new centre elsewhere in the grounds at a cost of some €3.7 million. Meanwhile the old castle has continued to deteriorate: it looks unlikely Fáilte Ireland’s recently-trumpeted initiative will change this situation.