A Less Austere Residence


Rathcoffey Castle, County Kildare has a complex history, involving multiple changes of ownership. The first to be recorded dates from the late 12th century when lands in this part of the country were granted by the Anglo-Norman knight Adam de Hereford (responsible for building Leixlip Castle elsewhere in the same county) to his brother John. When that line of the family failed, the land reverted to the crown and in the early 14th century Edward II granted it to John de Wogan, Justiciar of Ireland. The Wogans, thought to be originally from Wales, retained the property (albeit with a certain amount of the inevitable internecine feuding) until the mid-18th century, despite remaining Roman Catholic, and rising against the Crown in 1581 and again in 1642. They also supported James II, the last of the line and so went into exile. The last of the male line, Charles Wogan, led a rather romantic existence, escaping from London’s Newgate Prison in 1716 on the eve of his trial for high treason. He managed to reach France where he joined a regiment under the authority of another Irish exile, Colonel Arthur Dillon. Next, he became involved in securing a bride for the Old Pretender: this included securing her release after she had been captured by the Austrians, for which he was made a Roman Senator by Pope Clement XI. The Old Pretender (James III to loyal Jacobites) made him a baronet, while in France he was known as the Chevalier Wogan. Next he joined the Spanish army where he was promoted to the rank of Brigadier-General and made Governor of La Mancha. While living there he corresponded with Jonathan Swift in Dublin, sending the latter more than one cask of wine and some writings which he hoped Swift would help to get published. This never happened, although Swift described Wogan as ‘a Scholar, a Man of Genius and of Honour. As late as 1746 he was still trying to help the Jacobite cause, travelling to France in the hope of joining the Young Pretender (Bonnie Prince Charlie) in England, an aspiration never realized. He died, it appears back in La Mancha in 1752.






With the death of the Chevalier Wogan and then his younger brother Nicholas, what remained of the family’s Kildare estate was divided between the latter’s two daughters, one of whom Frances married John Talbot of Malahide. In the 1780s their grandson, Richard Wogan Talbot, second Baron Talbot of Malahide, sold Rathcoffey to another fascinating character, Archibald Hamilton Rowan who just a few years later would be a founding member of the Dublin Society of United Irishmen. In 1792 he was first arrested for seditious libel and two years later was jailed in Dublin. However, just like Charles Wogan, he managed to escape and to flee to France. Finding the Revolutionary climate too unstable, in July 1795 he moved to the United States, settling first in Philadelhia and then Wilmington, Delaware, borrowing money to operate a calico mill in the area. Finally in 1799, following persistent appeals from his wife Sarah to the British government, he was allowed to return to Europe, being reunited with his family in Hamburg. Then in 1803 he was permitted to live in England and finally, following the death of his father in 1805, back in Ireland. Thereafter he divided his time between the family’s original home, Killyleagh Castle, County Down and Rathcoffey where his loyal wife, then his eldest son and finally he all died in the same year, 1834. After which the contents of the building were auctioned and the estate leased, then sub-leased before being taken back by the Hamilton Rowan family. However, as early as 1902 the house was described as being a ruin, in which state it has remained ever since.






The site at Rathcoffey contains a number of substantial ruins, the oldest being an L-plan late-medieval gate house, possibly dating from the 15th century. This would have provided access to the main castle enclosed within a bawn wall, which has since gone. The gate house has undergone changes since first constructed and, it is speculated by Andrew Tierney, may have been converted into a coachhouse in the 18th century. That is certainly when the old castle, which stood a short distance to the east, was radically altered and given the form it still retains. The work is thought to have occurred after the estate was acquired by Archibald Hamilton Rowan in the 1780s: in his Beauties of Ireland (1826) James Norris Brewer noted that Hamilton Rowan had ‘commenced a less austere residence’ at Rathcoffey. Its design has been attributed to amateur architect and neighbour Thomas Wogan Browne, a relation of the previous owners. It will be remembered that the Wogan property was inherited by two sisters, one of whom married a Talbot. The other married a Browne, who lived not far away on an estate called Clongowes Wood (since 1814 a school run by the Jesuit order)*. Thomas Wogan Browne was responsible for giving his family home its Gothick appearance, but Rathcoffey on the other hand, although already a castle, was now thoroughly classicized. The older building to the rear and occupying the north-east corner of the site, was incorporated into the new and the greater part of the ground floor is groin-vaulted, even the handsome ashlar, three-bay loggia that sits between the three-storey façade’s projecting wings, each once finished with pedimented gables. Since it has stood empty for so long, little of the interior survives; one of the small reception rooms to the south-east has an internal bow-end and its equivalent in the south-west retains a number of niches. Otherwise it is impossible to determine what the house looked like when occupied by the Hamilton Rowans.


*There was another, and later link between Rathcoffey Castle and Clongowes Wood, since for much of the last century the Jesuits resident in the latter owned the land on which the former stands.

4 comments on “A Less Austere Residence

  1. Colm says:

    Interesting piece. Is there any known connection to the famous mathematician William Rowan Hamilton?

    Wikipedia tells me W.R. Hamilton’s parents were also Sarah and Archibald Hamilton, though it gives their dates of death as 1817 and 1819, respectively.

  2. Colm says:

    Any connection to the famous mathematician William Rowan Hamilton?

    Wikipedia tells me Hamilton (the mathematician) was born in 1805 to Sarah and Archibald Hamilton, though it lists their dates of death as 1817 and 1819 respectively.

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