Flying High


A crowning with laurel occurs in the central section of a painted ceiling in one of the first-floor rooms at Rathfarnham Castle, County Dublin. Measuring just eighteen by sixteen feet and formerly known as the breakfast or small dining room, this space has on stylistic grounds been attributed to James ‘Athenian’ Stuart; the proposal is supported by a comment made by Lady Shelburne in 1769 that some of the castle’s interiors were then being decorated ‘after Designs of Mr Stuart’s.’ For a long time it was also believed that the ceiling itself had been painted by Angelica Kauffmann who certainly came to Rathfarnham during her visit to Ireland during the winter of 1771-72, and while in the country painted a portrait of the building’s then-residents, the Earl and Countess of Ely, together with the latter’s two nieces (now in the collection of the National Gallery of Ireland). However, as Grainne Madden has observed, while quite delightful, the quality of workmanship here ‘is not as highly finished as one would expect from comparisons with authenticated works’ by Kauffman.

A Whiter Shade of Pale


It cannot be claimed that in the 17th and 18th centuries, Ireland’s senior Anglican clergy devoted themselves exclusively to matters religious. Indeed, they were often more preoccupied with politics and the acquisition of material goods than with spirituality, but in at least some instances we are today all the beneficiaries of their activities in these fields. The man who might be said to have set the tone for what followed in the Church of Ireland was Adam Loftus. Born in Yorkshire in 1533, apparently while still an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge he met and impressed Queen Elizabeth and thereafter enjoyed her patronage. Embracing Protestantism, he began to climb through the ranks of the Anglican Church but only really achieved power after serving as chaplain to Thomas Radclyffe, Earl of Sussex following the latter’s appointment as Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland in 1559. By 1561 Loftus was chaplain to the Bishop of Kildare and the same year was appointed to his first living. Thereafter his rise was rapid: in 1563 he was consecrated Archbishop of Armagh at the age of only 28, swapping this four years later for the Archbishopric of Dublin. In 1581 he was appointed Lord Chancellor of Ireland and then strove to ensure that the country’s first university would be located on a site of his choosing: in 1593 he became the first Provost of Trinity College, Dublin, named after his old alma mater. Meanwhile in addition to building up his political as well as ecclesiastical authority, he was acquiring land so as to leave something for his heirs: he and his wife had twenty children, of whom eight died in infancy.




One of the parcels of land which came into Loftus’s possession was located at Rathfarnham at the foothills of the Dublin mountains, confiscated from James Eustace, 3rd Viscount Baltinglass after he had rebelled against the crown. A castle of some kind existed on the site but soon after Loftus was granted Rathfarnham in 1583 at a nominal rent of thirty shillings he began work on a new residence, which remains to the present day. Although the interiors were said to have been luxurious, the castle’s external appearance was very much defensive being rectangular in shape with four massive corner flanking towers to allow guards watch for any approach to the building. Four storeys high,its walls are on average some five feet thick and running east-west through the centre of the entire castle is another wall almost ten feet thick: this seems solid but it is now proposed that in fact the wall actually held a series of chambers or corridors from which access was gained to rooms on either side. Nevertheless, Loftus was right to construct such a solid building since its location left Rathfarnham vulnerable to attack from the Wicklow clans. Five years before his death in 1605 it withstood assault from this source, and did so again during the 1641 rebellion before passing back and forth between different sides in the Irish Confederate Wars. It was only towards the late 1650s that the Loftus family was able to regain control of the place.




In the early 18th century Rathfarnham passed to Philip Wharton, who at the age of 19 was created first (and last) Duke of Wharton by George I; Wharton’s mother had been Lucy Loftus, only child of Adam Loftus, Viscount Lisburne. Wharton seems to have been a hopelessly character. His father Thomas Wharton although notoriously dissipated was at least politically astute and one of the leaders of the opposition to James II. Philip Wharton on the other hand, despite having every advantage, set out on a course of ruination that saw him end his days a hopeless drunk in a Spanish monastery, dead at the age of 32. In 1723 indebtedness caused by over-investment in the South Sea Bubble obliged him to sell his Irish estates including Rathfarnham which was bought by William Conolly, Speaker of the Irish House of Commons. He paid £62,000 for house and lands but never lived there, presumably because he had already begun work on his own house at Castletown, County Kildare (see Up Pompeii, June 17th). Instead the castle was let to various tenants who began to refurbish it before the whole place was sold in 1742 to another Anglican cleric, John Hoadly who had just been made Archbishop of Armagh. On his death Rathfarnham passed to Hoadly’s son-in-law Bellingham Boyle but like Philip Wharton he also suffered from chronic indebtedness and so in 1767 Rathfarnham was sold to Nicholas Hume-Loftus, second Earl of Ely, a descendant of the castle’s original builder. On his death without children it was inherited by his uncle Henry Loftus who also had no issue (compared to their forebear with his twenty offspring, these later Loftuses proved to be an unfecund set) and so Rathfarnham was inherited by a nephew Charles Tottenham who in 1800 would become first Marquess of Ely.




The Elys, who owned several estates, spent little time at Rathfarnham which at some date before 1852 was sold to Francis Blackburne, then Lord Chancellor of Ireland; he and his descendants lived there until 1913 when the place was bought by the Jesuit Order who used it as a seminary and added two long wings on the north- and south-east sides of the main building (they also seem to have taken out the main staircase which is a great shame). The Jesuits in turn put the place up for sale in the mid-1980s when it was bought by a firm of property developers. As the area by this date had become a suburb of Dublin and much of the immediately surrounding land was given over to housing estates, there were concerns that the castle itself would be left to fall into ruin or pulled down. In 1987 the Irish State acquired the building and immediate acreage and under the auspices of the Office of Public Works has been engaged in a process of restoration and refurbishment ever since (see
There is a great deal more one could write about Rathfarnham Castle, and perhaps might on another occasion. For the present, the accompanying photographs will give an idea of a notable feature of the building which attracts relatively little notice: its fine plasterwork. Throughout the 18th century a succession of different owners and occupiers did much to improve and update the building, and its interiors reflect changes in taste over that period. Different rooms are decorated in different styles, so that the whole castle becomes a history of fashion in stuccowork, ranging from the lightest rococo to severe neo-classicism (both Sir William Chambers and James ‘Athenian’ Stuart had a hand in the design of some of the interiors). All of it is of high quality and serves as an example of the level of Irish craftsmanship – and the ability to adapt to an evolving clientele – throughout the period. It is a pity more is not made of this aspect of the building since Rathfarnham Castle’s diverse decoration gives it a unique character and deserves to be celebrated. Hence the decision to feature only details of the house’s plasterwork today.


Next Saturday morning, I shall be speaking about Adam Loftus, as well as many of his successors, in the course of a talk entitled ‘Building Bishops: Architectural Ambitions among 18th Century Irish Clergy’ at the Roe Valley Arts and Cultural Centre in Limavady, County Derry as part of a three-day conference devoted to Frederick Hervey, the great Earl-Bishop of Derry. For more information about this event, see:

Thinking Periodically


Rathfarnham Castle, County Dublin as depicted in a watercolour by the Huguenot artist Gabriel Beranger in 1774. It shows the structure, built around 1583 for Adam Loftus, Lord Chancellor of Ireland and Protestant Archbishop of Dublin as a semi-fortified residence, after it had been extensively altered by his descendants in the 18th century.
In state ownership since 1987, today and tomorrow Rathfarnham Castle is the venue for the Period Buildings Show, an event organised by the Irish Georgian Society & South Dublin County Council, in partnership with the Office of Public Works. Ireland’s leading conservation practitioners will demonstrate everything from sash window repairs and stained glass and fanlight conservation to stone carving and traditional wallpaper making. Inside the house will be talks on a variety of topics relating to conservation. The occasion ought not to be missed especially since, mirabile dictu, admission is free.
For further information see: