The involvement of Irish families in the Caribbean slave trade was discussed here some weeks ago when considering Monasterboice House, County Louth (see Dirty Money, March 11th 2019). The same source of revenue appears to have played a part in funding extensive work in the early 19th century at Kilwaughter Castle, County Antrim. The original house here is believed to date from 1622, a fortified dwelling built by Sir Patrick Agnew who around that time had purchased the land on which it stands from Sir Randall MacDonnell, first Earl of Antrim. Successive generations lived here until William Agnew died in 1776, leaving the property to his grandson Edward Jones, then still a boy, with the proviso that the latter take the surname Agnew. He was a younger son of Valentine Jones, who was extensively involved in slave trading in the West Indies, as was his eldest son (another Valentine) who lived in the Caribbean for some 33 years and, two years before Edward inherited Kilwaughter, was elected a member of the House of Assembly in Barbados. Unfortunately the next generation of Valentine Jones disgraced the family by misappropriating funds and colouring rum to give it the appearance of age: in 1809 he was found guilty of fraud and peculation, and sentenced to three years in Newgate Prison.
Edward Jones Agnew was only a child when he inherited Kilwaughter, and for the next 12 years the estate was administered by agents while he attended Harrow and then Trinity College Dublin. It was only in the late 1780s that he came to County Antrim and took responsibility for Kilwaughter, accompanied by his younger sister Margaret. Seemingly they arrived to find the house almost entirely stripped of its contents: ‘there was not so much as a tablecloth, or a spoon or a knife or fork for them to take their dinner with.’ By this date the old building was neglected, and out-of-date, so its young proprietor decided to embark on a an extensive programme of refurbishment and enlargement. The architect chosen for this task was John Nash, who from 1801 onwards was engaged in designing Killymoon Castle, County Antrim for the Stewart family, cousins of the Agnews. Beginning in 1806, Nash transformed Kilwaugher into an elaborate castle, adding a vast wing to the immediate east of the original fortified house. The focal point of his design is a castellated tower in the south-east corner, its sandstone window sills carved with elaborate abstract decorations. From here, a range of reception rooms ran northwards to a narrower but taller polygonal tower, with views over the parkland towards a newly created lake covering more than five acres. While his land holdings were substantial and could have borne much of the expense involved (Killymoon Castle is supposed to have cost £80,000), might Edward Jones Agnew have benefitted from the estate of his slave-trading father Valentine Jones who died in 1805, just a year before work began at Kilwaughter? The enquiry seems not unreasonable to make.
The later history of Kilwaughter is not especially happy. Edward Jones Agnew never married (nor did his sister Margaret with whom he lived) but had several children with the daughter of a tenant farmer: she and other members of her family were later sent to Baltimore, Maryland with the promise of an annual stipend. When Agnew died in 1834, the estate was inherited by his illegitimate son William who, together with his sister, were then cared for by their aunt Margaret. However, following her death and William Agnew becoming an adult, he moved to Paris and spent most of the next 40 years there, dying unmarried in 1891 and, it seems, leaving sundry debts for the payment of which a mortgage of £30,000 had to be raised. A niece, Mary Maria Augusta Simon (daughter of his sister) next inherited the estate but by this time she was married to an Italian count Ugo Balzani, and living between his family home near Bologna and Oxford. For some thirty years Kilwaughter was rented to John Galt Smith, an Irish linen exporter and distant relative of the Agnews, and his socially ambitious American wife Bessie who modernised the building and entertained extensively; he died in 1899 but she remained there until 1922 before returning to her native country. By now, the castle was surrounded by very little land and when the Second World War broke out it was seized by the government as ‘alien’ property (the Balzani family being Italian and therefore deemed to be enemies of the state). For a period it was occupied by American troops but then stood empty before being sold by the Northern Irish government to a Belfast scrap metal company which stripped off the lead, thereby leading to the roof giving way. What remained was handed back to the Balzani family, and understandably they decided to sell the property: this finally occurred in 1982. Since then efforts have been made to ensure the security of the building, and ideally its restoration: some of the walls are literally in need of support. The present owners, and a number of local people are valiantly battling to save Kilwaughter from total ruin (a task not helped by the presence of lime quarries in the immediate vicinity). As these photographs make plain, those involved in the project face a substantial challenge and deserve all possible assistance.
Much of the information here came from a most interesting article, The Agnews of Kilwaughter by Jacqueline Haugseng-Agnew in Familia: Ulster Genealogical Review, No.32, 2016.
For more on Kilwaughter Castle and work being undertaken to secure its future, please see https://www.kilwaughtercastle.com