Barmeath Castle, Dunleer, Drogheda, County Louth

contact: Bryan Bellew. Tel: 041-6851205

Opening dates in 2020: May 1-31, June 1-9, Aug 15-23, Oct 1-20, 9am-1pm  

Fee: adult /OAP/student €5, child free

photograph taken from National Inventory of Architectural Heritage [1]
photograph taken from National Inventory of Architectural Heritage [1] I myself didn’t manage to take a photograph of the entire building.
photograph taken from National Inventory of Architectural Heritage [1]. Square tower which was added in 1839, with its Romanesque arch and portcullis.
photograph taken from National Inventory of Architectural Heritage [1]

I was excited to see Barmeath Castle as it looks so impressive in photographs. We headed out on another Saturday morning – I contacted Bryan Bellew in advance and he was welcoming. We were lucky to have another beautifully sunny day in October.

We drove up the long driveway.

The Bellew family have lived in the area since the 12th century, according to Timothy William Ferres. [2] The Bellews were an Anglo-Norman family who came to Ireland with King Henry II. The Castle was built in the 15th century by previous owners, the Moores, as a tower house. The Moores were later Earls of Drogheda, and owned Mellifont Abbey after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, which became the Moore family home until 1725. [3]

We were greeted outside the castle by Lord and Lady Bellew – the present owner is the 8th Lord Bellew of Barmeath. I didn’t get to take a photograph of the house from the front as we immediately introduced ourselves and Lord Bellew told us the story of the acquisition of the land by his ancestor, John Bellew.

The name “Barmeath” comes from the Irish language, said to derive from the Gaelic Bearna Mheabh or Maeve’s Pass. Reputedly Queen Maeve established a camp at Barmeath before her legendary cattle raid, which culminated in the capture the Brown Bull of Cooley, as recounted in the famous epic poem, The Tain.

The Historic Houses of Ireland website tells us:

“Barmeath Castle stands proudly on the sheltered slopes of a wooded hillside in County Louth, looking out over the park to the mountains of the Cooley Peninsula and a wide panorama of the Irish sea. The Bellew family was banished to Connacht by Cromwell but acquired the Barmeath estate in settlement of an unpaid bill.” [4]

John Bellew fought against Cromwell and lost his estate in Lisryan, County Longford, and was banished to Connacht.

Theobald Taaffe, Lord Carlingford, also lost lands due to his opposition to Cromwell and the Parliamentarians and loyalty to King Charles I. The Taaffes had also lived in Ireland since the twelfth or thirteenth century, and owned large tracts of land in Louth and Sligo. Theobald Taaffe, 2nd Viscount, was advanced in 1662 to be Earl of Carlingford. He engaged John Bellew as his lawyer to represent him at the Court of Claims after the Restoration of King Charles II (1660). Theobald’s mother was Anne Dillon, daughter of the 1st Viscount Theobald Dillon. John Bellew, while banished to Connacht, married a daughter of Robert Dillon of Clonbrock, County Galway. The Clonbrock Dillons were related to the Viscounts Dillon, so perhaps it was this relationship which led Lord Carlingford to engage John Bellew as his lawyer. Bellew won the case and as payment, he was given 2000 of the 10,000 acres which Lord Carlingford won in his case, recovered from Cromwellian soldiers and “adventurers” who had taken advantage of land transfers at the time of the upheaval of Civil War. Lord Carlingford may have taken up residence in Smarmore Castle in County Louth, which was occupied by generations of Taaffes until the mid 1980s and is now a private clinic. A more ancient building which would have been occupied by the Taaffe family is Taaffe’s Castle in the town of Carlingford.

The Baronetcy of Barmeath was created in 1688 for Patrick Bellew, the lawyer John’s son, for his loyalty to James II. [see 2] Patrick, who was High Sheriff of County Louth, married Miss Elizabeth Barnewall, sister of Sir Patrick Barnewall Baronet of Crickstown Castle, County Meath (a little bit of a ruin survives of this castle). His son John inherited Barmeath and the title, 2nd Baronet Barmeath.

John’s second son, Christopher, remained in Galway and established the market town, Mount Bellew.

A three storey seven bay house. Two round corner turrets were added on the former entrance front, which is now the garden-facing side.

The castle we see today was built onto the 15th century tower house, in 1770, for Patrick Bellew, 5th Baronet, and enlarged and castellated in 1839 by Sir Patrick Bellew, 7th Bt, afterwards 1st Baron Bellew. The title Baron Bellew of Barmeath was created in 1848 for Sir Patrick, who had previously represented Louth in the House of Commons as a Whig, and also served as Lord Lieutenant of County Louth. Part of a genuine tower house is still part of the castle, detectable by the unusual thickness of the window openings at the northeastern corner of the building. [5] Before the 1839 enlargement, it was a plain rectangular block, two rooms deep and three storeys high, with seven windows across the front, and a central main door.

Mark Bence-Jones suggests in his A Guide to Irish Country Houses that the design for the enlargement may have been by John Benjamin Keane. [6]. Lord Bellew recalled Mr. Bence-Jones’s visit to the house! However, the Irish Historic Houses website names the Hertfordshire architect, Thomas Smith, as the designer of the Neo-Norman castle.

John Benjamin Keane worked first as an assistant to Richard Morrison, and went into independent practice by 1823. According to the Dictionary of Irish Architects, during the next two decades he received several important commissions including the new Queen’s College, Galway, and a number of major Catholic churches in Dublin and elsewhere, and in 1846-48 he was engineer to the River Suir Navigation Co. [7] He also designed several houses, such as Stradone House in County Cavan for Major Burrowes (1828), Cloncorick Castle County Leitrim for Edward Simpson (1828), Ballybay House in County Monaghan for Lt. Col. Leslie (1829), Laurah in County Laois for Sir Walter Burrowes (1829), Belleek Manor in County Mayo (around 1830), Gothicization of Castle Irvine County Fermanagh in 1831-1835, Glencorig Castle County Leitrim, probably Pilltown House County Meath (1838), Edermine County Wexford in 1840, Magheramenagh Castle, County Fermanagh for James Johnston (1840, now a ruin), Oak Park mausoleum in County Carlow, and Glencara House County Westmeath. It makes sense that he could have Gothicized Barmeath since he worked on Castle Irvine in that period.

However, the Dictionary of Irish Architects attributes Barmeath to Thomas Smith (1798-1875). He also worked on Castle Bellingham in County Louth (another magnificent castle which is available for weddings) [8], and Braganstown House in County Louth (privately owned).

The faces in the carving around the windows reminded me of Borris House.

At this time, Bence-Jones tells us, two round corner turrets were added on the former entrance front, which became the garden front. A new entrance was made under a Romanesque arch guarded by a portcullis on a square tower which was built at one end of the side elevation. On the other side of the castle, a long turreted wing was added, enclosing a courtyard. The castle kept its Georgian sash-windows, though some of them lost their astragals later in the nineteenth century. The entire building was cased in cement, lined to look like blocks of stone, and hoodmouldings were added above the windows.

The Bellews brought us inside, and Lady Bellew had us sign the visitors’ book. I told them I am writing a blog, and mentioned that we visited Rokeby Hall and met Jean Young, who had told us that she is reading the archives of Barmeath. Lord Bellew proceeded with the tour. 

On the staircase, we chatted about history and enjoyed swapping stories. Lord Bellew pointed out the unusually large spiral end of the mahogany staircase handrail, perpendicular to the floor – it must be at least half a metre in diameter. The joinery of the staircase is eighteenth century, with Corinthian balusters.

Mark Bence-Jones describes it:

“Staircase of magnificent C18 joinery, with Corinthian balusters and a handrail curling in a generous spiral at the foot of the stairs, opening with arches into the original entrance hall; pedimented doorcases on 1st floor landing, one of them with a scroll pediment and engaged Corinthian columns.”

Bence-Jones continues his description:

“Long upstairs drawing room with Gothic fretted ceiling. Very handsome C18 library, also on 1st floor; bookcases with Ionic pilasters, broken pediments and curved astragals; ceiling of rococo plasterwork incorporating Masonic emblems. The member of the family who made this room used it for Lodge meetings. When Catholics were no longer allowed to be Freemasons, [in accordance with a Papal dictat, in 1738], he [Edward Bellew, 3rd Baronet] told his former brethren that they could continue holding their meetings here during his lifetime, though he himself would henceforth be unable to attend them.”

When in the library, I told Lord Bellew that I’d read about his generous ancestor who continued to allow the Freemasons to meet in his home despite his leaving the organisation. Lord Bellew pointed out the desk where Jean works when she visits the archives. What a wonderful room in which to spend one’s days!

The rococo details pre-date the exterior Gothicization. The egg-and-dart mouldings around the first floor doors, Corinthian columns and staircase all seem to date, according to Casey and Rowan, to approximately 1750, which would have been the time of the 4th and 5th Baronets; John the 4th Baronet (1728-50) died of smallpox, unmarried, and the title devolved upon his brother, Patrick (c. 1735-95), 5th Baronet [see the Lord Belmont website, 2]. The library might be from a little later. Casey and Rowan describe it:

“The finest room, the library, set on the NE side of the house above the entrance lobby, is possibly a little later. Lined on its N and S walls with tall mahogany break-front bookcases, each framed by Ionic pilasters and surmounted by a broken pediment, it offers a remarkable example of Irish rococo taste. The fretwork borders and angular lattice carving of the bookcases are oriental in inspiration and must reflect the mid-C18 taste for chinoiserie, made popular by pattern books such as Thomas Chippendale’s Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director (1754). The ceiling has a deep plasterwork cove filled with interlaced garland ropes, a free acanthus border, oval motifs and shells set diagonally in the corners. Free scrolls, flowers and birds occupy the flat area with, in the centre, a rather artless arrangement of Masonic symbols, including three set-squares, three pairs of dividers, clouds and the eye of God.”

an example of Masonic symbols from the wonderful Freemasons Hall interior in Molesworth Street in Dublin, open during Open House Dublin each year.
Freemasons Hall interior in Molesworth Street in Dublin, Open House Dublin 2010.

We saw some of the bedrooms next, which provide accommodation when the house is used as a wedding venue. [9] A wing of the house is also advertised for accommodation on Airbnb. [10]

Next we headed outside, and Lord Bellew took us on a tour of the garden. According to the Britain and Ireland Castles website, Barmeath Castle is set on 300 acres of parkland with 10 acres of gardens, including a lake with island. I found a short video of Lord Bellew discussing the castle on youtube, and he tells how his son made the “temple” on the island, in return for the gift of a car! The temple is very romantic in the distance, and extremely well-made, looking truly ancient.

The Irish Historic Houses website tells us about the gardens:

“The lake and pleasure grounds were designed by the garden designer and polymath, Thomas Wright of Durham (1711-1785), who visited Ireland in 1746 at the invitation of Lord Limerick and designed a series of garden buildings on his estate at Tollymore in County Down. Wright explored ‘the wee county’ extensively and his book “Louthiana“, which describes and illustrates many of its archaeological sites, is among the earliest surveys of its type. His preoccupation with Masonic ‘craft’ indicates that Wright is likely to have been a Freemason, which probably helped to cement his friendship with the Bellew of the day [this would have been John the 4th Baronet]. He may well have influenced the design for the Barmeath library and indeed the mid-eighteenth century house.

Wright’s highly original layout, which is contemporary with the house, is remarkably complete and important, and deserves to be more widely known. It includes a small lake, an archery ground, a maze, a hermitage, a shell house and a rustic bridge, while the four-acre walled garden has recently been restored.”

Thomas Wright also designed the perhaps more famous “Jealous Wall” and other follies at Belvedere, County Westmeath. He may have designed them especially for Robert Rochfort, Lord Belvedere, or else Lord Belvedere used Wright’s Six Original Designs of Grottos (1758) for his follies. The Jealous Wall was purportedly built to shield Rochfort’s view of his brother George’s house, Rochfort House (later called Tudenham Park).

The lake was created to look like a river, and indeed it would have fooled me!

The topiary is unique:

We walked along the lake to the specially created bridge by Thomas Wright. We walked over it, and I marvelled at how it stands still so solid, after two hundred and fifty years!

The view through to the archery ground:

 The current owners have been working to restore the four acre walled garden. Lord Bellew and I discussed gardening as he showed us around.

A cottage in the garden contains beautiful painted walls:

The walls depict scenes of Venice.

The gardens are open to the public as part of the Boyne Valley Gardeners Trail. [11]. More visitors were scheduled to arrive so Lord Bellew saw us to our car and we headed off.

Later, on a visit to the Battle of the Boyne museum, we saw the Bellew regalia pictured on a soldier. I also took a photo of this information panel:

[1] https://www.buildingsofireland.ie/buildings-search/building/13901817/barmeath-castle-barmeath-co-louth

[2] http://lordbelmontinnorthernireland.blogspot.com/search/label/County%20Louth%20Landowners

[3] http://www.turtlebunbury.com/history/history_family/hist_family_mooredrogheda.html

[4] http://www.ihh.ie/index.cfm/houses/house/name/Barmeath%20Castle

[5] p. 152-154. Casey, Christine and Alistair Rowan. The Buildings of Ireland: North Leinster. Penguin Books, London, 1993.

[6] Mark Bence-Jones. A Guide to Irish Country Houses.(originally published as Burke’s Guide to Country Houses volume 1 Ireland by Burke’s Peerage Ltd. 1978); Revised edition 1988 Constable and Company Ltd, London.

[7] https://www.dia.ie/architects/view/2896/KEANE%2C+JOHN+BENJAMIN#tab_biography

[8] https://www.bellinghamcastle.ie

[9] https://www.britainirelandcastles.com/Ireland/County-Louth/Barmeath-Castle.html

[10] https://www.airbnb.ie/rooms/14447440?source_impression_id=p3_1571074477_5G4k1LLpF4gKSz4n

[11] https://www.garden.ie/gardenstosee/barmeath-castle/

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