The Etchingham family can be traced back at least as far as the mid-12th century when Simon de Etchingham was recorded as living in Etchingham, Sussex. Some two hundred years later, a descendant inherited Barsham Hall in Suffolk and from this branch would come Osborne Etchingham who served as Marshal of Ireland in the 1540s. He was the son of Sir Edward Etchingham, an English naval commander who 20 years before had been appointed by Henry VIII as Constable of Limerick Cathedral. A tradition of service to the crown ran in the family, which helps to explain Osborne Etchingham’s presence in Ireland in the aftermath of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. As a reward for his efforts, and in return for exchange with property he held in England, in 1545 he requested and received the lands of Dunbrody Abbey, County Wexford which had been suppressed nine years before. Dunbrody, of which considerable ruins remain, was a Cistercian foundation dating from the 1180s.
Osborne Etchingham died a year after receiving Dunbrody Abbey, so it is unlikely he ever spent much time there. He was succeeded by his son Edward, reported to be ‘of dissolute character’. He may have been responsible for converting Dunbrody Abbey into a residence, but it is unclear how much time he spent there since he was arrested by government forces for being involved with pirates, and is said to have died in the Tower of London in 1582. Dunbrody passed to his brother John, and then in turn to the latter’s son and grandson, both also called John. When the last of these died in 1650 leaving no sons but a daughter Jane, to whom the Dunbrody estate was specifically left by the terms of his will, thereby overriding an earlier entail. Her uncle Arthur Etchingham disputed the will’s terms, and even at one stage forcibly seized Dunbrody. However, in 1660 Jane Etchingham married Sir Arthur Chichester, future second Earl of Donegall and together the couple succeeded in securing their ownership of the property. The Chichester family, now Marquesses of Donegall, remain living in the area to the present time.
The remains of Dunbrody Castle lie some short distance from the old abbey. The building’s origins remain unclear, as it has been suggested that at least in part it is a medieval castle. However, more likely it dates from the first half of the 17th century and was constructed as a modern alternative to the converted abbey buildings. This suggests that either the penultimate or last John Etchingham commissioned the work, but that it was left uncompleted following the outbreak of widespread civil unrest from 1641 onwards. The castle consists of a rectangular bawn, with a substantial cylindrical tower on the east side and three similar but smaller towers on the west. Linking them are the bare bones of a long, two-storey house that appears to date from the 18th century, the frontage bearing the remains of weather slating while its roofline is castellated in brick (which may be a still later addition). Occupied at one point by the Chichesters’ land agent, the building was never a permanent home, which accounts for its odd appearance. Today the ruins provide the backdrop for a craftshop and yew maze.