‘The drive from Athenry is along an excellent rural roadway. The neatly coped walls which enclose the Lambert property soon come into sight, guarding well the vast acreage within them, and beyond on either side are the fairest pastures in the west. The impressive entrance is on the right of the roadway, great gates flanked by semi-circular curves of massive railings: long lines of laurels border the drive to the house, on which may be seen a solitary, leafless tree, gnarled and bent and throwing out a lichen-grey arm halfway across the drive. This, said Mrs O’Donoghue, is the fairies’ tree, where the little people sit at night and plan their pranks. The country folk will tell you that they have seen them, and they will also tell you that if the tree were to be cut down or injured in any way, a very disagreeable visitation would befall those who dared to do it.
The house itself is a great white mansion: solid, square and many windowed, fitted throughout with fine plate glass, and showing pretty blinds and silken curtains at every casement. It is entered by two flights of granite steps leading up to a handsome porch, whilst the interior reveals a large hall with cheerful fire and luxurious armchairs. The drawing room, which has recently been modernized, lies to the left behind immense mahogany doors, and on the right the large dining room is carpeted in crimson which complements the pale lettuce-green walls and shows off the quaintly twisted carving and the light oak paneling. There is a massive buffet in the room which bears the family plate.
Also on the ground floor are the morning room and the schoolroom, besides other apartments; whilst from the centre of the hall rises an elegantly bannistered staircase. As you mount this staircase you are confronted by a truly magnificent stained glass window bearing the crest and coat of arms of the Lambert family. From the half-landing stairways rise to the upper chambers.’
Nannie Power O’Donoghue on Castle Ellen, County Galway in 1900.
Nannie Power O’Donogue (née Ann Stewart Lyster Lambert) was born in Dublin in 1843, her father Charles Lambert having grown up on his family estate, Castle Ellen, County Galway. Believed to be of Yorkshire origin, the Lambert family were settled at Greg Clare not far away by the middle of the 17th century. By the end of the following century Walter Peter Lambert was living at Castle Ellen, initially in a castle but at some indeterminate date (between 1810 and 1840) he built a new residence for himself and his family. In 1846 his grandson, also called Walter Peter, married a Cork heiress, Elizabeth McO’Boy (likely necessary to replenish the family fortune, since his father had had no less than 19 children with two wives). Her money enabled further work to be undertaken on the property. In 1863 for example, extensive alterations and additions to the stables and yards were made to the design of Dublin architect Edward Henry Carson who twelve years earlier had married the owner’s eldest sister Isabella Lambert: their son was Edward Carson who as a child and young man often stayed at Castle Ellen. Castle Ellen remained in the Lambert family until 1921 when Captain Walter Peter Lambert offered house and remaining 600 acres for sale, the original contents being auctioned around the same time.
Like her cousin Edward Carson, Nannie Power O’Donoghue knew Castle Ellen well, having spent childhood holidays there. In 1869 at the age of 26 she married William Power O’Donoghue, composer and professor at the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin: he came from a affluent Cork mercantile family. The couple’s financial circumstances suffered a setback in 1885 when the Munster Bank, in which their money was invested, failed. However, even before then Power O’Donoghue had begun earning money through her writing: she published her first novel the year before her marriage. She soon became a prolific author, beginning in 1881 with a series of articles in Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News on riding techniques for women. These were so successful that they were published in book form as Ladies on Horseback, followed by a second similar work called Riding for Ladies (1887) which became an international best-seller. In the following decade she started to write for Irish Society (‘guaranteed Largest Circulation in Ireland of any Society paper published in the United Kingdom, and three times that of any Irish weekly journal or periodical’). Here she contributed a weekly column, ‘De Die In Diem. Or, Casual Jottings. By Candid Jane (Mrs Power O’Donoghue)’ covering whatever topic took her fancy. Although Irish Society did not survive Independence – the demand for reportage on Dublin Castle levées and charity bazaars having declined – and her views on the world often remained distinctly Victorian, she continued to write up to the time of her death, aged 96, in 1940. That same year, Castle Ellen was again offered for sale, this time by the Land Commission, which sought to dispose of the property with 66 acres. The new owners put it on the market eleven years later and in 1961 the house was temporarily used as a school. But by then it was already in a poor state of repair and the decline continued remorselessly until 1974 when local man Michael Keaney bought Castle Ellen. Since then he has been single-handedly working to keep the roof intact and ensure the house remains standing. He welcomes visitors (and even offers overnight accommodation in one bedroom) and is a wonderful fount of knowledge about the house and its history. There is, unquestionably, more work to be done but without his gallant intervention Castle Ellen would long ago have joined the list of Ireland’s lost country houses. His pluck merits appreciation and applause.