The Earls of Shannon are a branch of the Boyle family, descendants of Richard Boyle, the Great Earl of Cork. The title dates back to 1756 when Lord Cork’s great-grandson Henry Boyle, after a remarkably successful political career which saw him sit on the Irish privy council, serve as chancellor of the exchequer and Speaker of the Irish House of Commons for almost 23 years, was created the first Earl of Shannon. During that period and in the years prior to his death in 1764, he also found time to carry out many other duties, not least looking after the Irish estates of his cousin Richard Boyle, the architect Earl of Burlington, as well as his own property in Castlemartyr, County Cork.
For much of the Middle Ages, Castlemartyr was under the authority of the powerful FitzGerald family, who in 1420 were made governors, or seneschals, of Imokilly (a historic barony that covers a substantial area including Youghal, Cloyne and Midleton). Some twenty years later, Maurice FitzGerald chose to settle in Castlemartyr and erected a substantial tower here. Inevitably, such a prominent building was attacked on more than one occasion, being captured by Sir Henry Sidney in 1569 and again in 1581 by the 10th Earl of Ormond who is said to have hanged the mother of the castle’s owner,John FitzEdmund FitzGerald, from its walls. Although the building was restored and considered extended in the 17th century, further assaults occurred: it was burnt by Lord Inchiquin in 1645, plundered in 1688 and then stormed and burnt by Williamite forces two years later. Not surprisingly, the castle, or what remained of it, was thereafter abandoned and left to fall into a picturesque ruin. At some point in the early 18th century, the future first earl – whose family had been given the property in 1665 – embarked on construction of a new house to the immediate west of the old one, but little information exists about when this work started and what form it took. Further additions and alterations followed over the next two centuries, so that today Castlemartyr is long and low, the centre of the facade marked by a two-storey pedimented limestone portico with Tuscan columns, much the most satisfactory feature of the building. The entrance front likewise shows evidence of regular modifications being made, with a four-bay centre block, a nine-bay wing to the east centred on a bow, and a recessed four-bay block to the west; the loggia here replaced a conservatory in the early 1900s. The demesne was also extensively developed by the first earl and then his heir, the latter described by Arthur Young in 1776 as ‘one of the most distinguished improvers in Ireland.’ The grounds had been extensively planted with trees, some of which survive still, as does the ‘river’ which was created by diverting the Womanagh river to run through a channel cut west of its natural bed.
In 1907 Castlemartyr was sold to the Arnott family, but was then acquired by another owner just a decade later, and in 1929 was bought by members of a Roman Catholic religious order, which used the house as a boarding school. This closed in 2004 and since then, further substantial additions have been made to the site which now operates as an hotel. Taken during the last decades of the 19th century, today’s photographs show the property as it looked when still owned by the Boyles. In the first group, the conservatory still occupies a site on the east side of the garden front, since it was only replaced by a balustraded loggia during the Arnotts’ short tenure. The pictures therefore provide an insight into the house’s appearance and character prior to the place changing hands and purpose several times over the past 115 years.