In a report compiled for the Ordnance Survey in February 1836, Lt. I.I Wilkinson observed that in Raphoe, County Donegal, ‘The bishop’s palace stands on the eastern side of the town, in a pleasant demesne containing groves, serpentine walks, plantations and every other variety to please the human mind. A little distance to the north east of the palace is the residence of the dean, in the midst of an enclosed demesne full of groves and plantations with grand fields all beautifully round. Both places indicate as if Heaven itself had designed the place and situations for the use of the pious servants of the Lord.’ A year later in his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, Samuel Lewis wrote of Raphoe, ‘The Episcopal palace, formerly a strong castle, is about a quarter of a mile from the town: it is a handsome and spacious castellated building, pleasantly situated in tastefully disposed grounds…The deanery-house, which is also the glebe-house of the parish, was built in 1739, at an expense of £1680, and has been subsequently enlarged and improved from their own funds by various successive incumbents ; it is pleasantly situated about a mile from the town.’ Of these two buildings, the deanery – otherwise known as Oakfield – still stands and was discussed here a few weeks ago (see Et in Arcadia…, June 26th 2017). The former bishop’s palace, on the other hand, has enjoyed less good fortune.
A date stone on the building advises that Raphoe Palace was begun in May 1636 and finished in August the following year. It was constructed at the behest of the then-Bishop of the diocese, John Leslie. Born in Aberdeenshire in 1571, Leslie spent two decades in Spain before returning to Britain where he became a favourite of James I who made him a privy councillor of Scotland. In 1628 he was appointed Bishop of the Isles, and five years later translated to Raphoe where he found much of the Episcopal lands in lay hands but succeeded in regaining them. Bishop Leslie’s combative nature became more apparent and more necessary after 1641 with the onset of the eleven-year Confederate Wars. Leslie was a staunch royalist, and battled against both the Irish and Cromwell’s Parliamentary army, for this reason becoming known as the ‘Fighting Bishop.’ Despite ultimately being on the losing side, he was permitted to remain in situ during the Commonwealth period. When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, Leslie – then aged 90 – is said to have rode from Chester to London in order to pay homage to the king. As a reward for his unstinting loyalty, Charles in return recommended the bishop to the Irish House of Commons which voted him a gift of £2,000. By now transferred to the see of Clogher, he used this money which he used to buy the Glaslough estate in County Monaghan. His descendants live there still because at the age of sixty-seven the bishop finally married, his bride being Catherine Cunningham, teenage daughter of the Dean of Raphoe: the couple had five children. Bishop Leslie died in 1671, aged 100.
Writing in The Architecture of Ireland (1982) Maurice Craig notes the debt owed by Raphoe Palace to Rathfarnham Castle, built on the outskirts of Dublin half a century earlier (see A Whiter Shade of Pale, August 26th 2013). The latter had likewise been built by an Anglican cleric, Adam Loftus, Archbishop of Dublin, and had similarly been intended to withstand assault: as Craig points out in both instances the main block has four flanking spear-shaped towers which provided the occupants with a defensive advantage in the event of attack. This indeed is what happened during the Confederacy Wars, and the building was later plundered by the troops of James II in 1688. The palace as seen today is taller than would originally have been the case: it has been proposed that originally the palace was two storeys over basement, the additional floors being added in the 18th century. But the dimensions of the building remain as they were in Leslie’s day, the central portion being a square measuring forty-six feet each way, and the interiors of the towers being each 12 and a half feet square: the walls throughout are four feet thick. The palace’s architectural history in the post-Leslie period is unclear, although it remained in use as an Episcopal residence for a considerable time. Restoration works are known to have been carried out after John Pooley was appointed Bishop of Raphoe in 1702, and more alterations took place at a later date, the window openings being enlarged to admit additional light. The east front features a fine stone Gibbsian door with coats of arms inserted into the walls of the towers on either side. An attack during the 1798 Rebellion led to further renovations and the last bishop to live here, William Bissett, carried out improvements including the castellations and bartizans around the top floor. Following his death in 1834, the bishopric of Raphoe was amalgamated with that of Derry and the old palace put up for sale. In 1838 it was gutted by fire, and has remained a ruin ever since. Today the ‘pleasant demesne’ noted by Wilkinson has been turned over to pasture, and at its centre bullocks rather than bishops now occupy the palace.