The story is often told that Martinstown, County Kildare was built so as to provide Augustus Frederick FitzGerald, third Duke of Leinster, with a discreet location in which to meet his mistress. Curiously, the name of the duke’s inamorata is never mentioned, nor any further information given about the nature of the affair. Biographical information primarily focuses on his early support for Catholic Emancipation, his loyalty to the Whig party (traditional in the FitzGerald family) as well as his long and close involvement with Freemasonry: he was Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Ireland for 61 years until his death in 1874. In 1818 he married Lady Charlotte Augusta Stanhope, a daughter of the third Earl of Harrington, with whom he had four children. If there were any marital indiscretions, they do not seem ever to have become known in the public realm.
An estate map of Martinstown dated February 1833 and signed by one W. Clutterbuck, depicts an altogether more modest dwelling house than what can be seen on the site today, little more than a farmhouse (now the kitchen wing). At the time, the property belonged to Robert Borrowes (otherwise Burrows) whose family had moved to Ireland in the late 16th/early 17th century from Devonshire. Robert Borrowes was a younger son of Sir Kildare Dixon Borrowes, fifth baronet, of Barretstown Castle. That house passed to Robert’s older brother, while he was given the nearby Gilltown estate. Martinstown, therefore, was never a primary residence but rather a secondary farm which, according to Clutterbuck’s map, had been heavily planted with trees over the previous 15 years. However, a second extant drawing made in 1840 shows a building much closer in style to that which stands on the site today. The main, two-storey garden front is asymmetrical, heavily ornamented with a series of pinnacled gable-ends, cusped bargeboards and twisted, Tudoresque chimney stacks. Its design has been attributed to English architect Decimus Burton, best-known in this country for his work on the gate lodges of Dublin’s Phoenix Park. Martinstown is altogether more fanciful than those buildings, a late flowering of the Georgian Gothick cottage orné, likely developed as a shooting lodge rather than a venue for romantic ducal rendezvous.
The main entrance porch on the narrow north-west side of Martinstown has a half-timbered room above it which seems to be one of a number of later additions to the building. The walls of the house’s entrance hall show one of the most recent of such alterations: covered in murals representing an idealised landscape, they were an early commission received by artist Jane Willoughby. From here, visitors enter the central stair hall, decorated in a delightful Tudoresque manner. The west side of the room features a triple-arched arcade with open-work spandrels and a rosette cornice. Doors at either end of this open into the dining room and what is now a study.
As befits a cottage orné, the majority of rooms are cosy with low ceilings. An exception to this is the double-height drawing room with coved ceiling, added to the house in the 1870s when Martinstown was let to members of the British army then in residence just a few miles away on the Curragh: its scale is substantially larger than any other space in the building: the upper part of the walls here were painted with garlands of leaves and ribbons by another artist, Phillipa Bayliss.
Today available to rent for weddings and other events, during the last century Martinstown passed through several hands, the most notorious being those of Austrian-born Otto Skorzeny, a former Lieutenant-Colonel in the German Waffen-SS during the Second World War. Skorzeny and his wife, who were then living in Spain, visited Ireland for the first time in 1957 and two years later, they bought Martinstown and 168 acres of land from its then-owner Major Richard Turner, for £7,500. However, although they initially paid regular visits to the property, the couple were never able to secure residents’ visas from the Irish government and spent little time here after 1963, selling the place in 1971. Today the property acts as both a family home to the present owners, and as a popular venue for weddings: somewhere romantic for couples to marry rather than meet for illicit trysts.