Contact: Alex Conyngham
Open dates in 2021 but check due to Covid restrictions: April 19-29, May 2-20, 23-27, 31, June 1-3, 7-10, Aug 14-22, Sept 29-30, Oct 1-2, 4-7, Sundays 12 noon-5pm, Monday – Saturday 11am-3pm
Fee: adult €14, OAP/student €12.50, child €8.40
Today (Saturday 27th April 2019) my husband Stephen and I made our first official blog trip. We started in the “ancient east,” going to Slane Castle in County Meath. The land around the Boyne River is beautiful, rolling and fertile. It took almost exactly one hour to drive from our home in Dublin, taking the M1 which I find easier than the M2 through the city’s north side, with which I’m less familiar. Our timing was perfect, we arrived at 2:10pm, in time for the 2:15 tour – there are tours every hour on the quarter hour. 
The castle is three storeys over basement, in the Gothic Revival style. There is a bow on the back side of the castle, facing the river, and the basement serves as the ground floor on this side due to the steep slope down to the River Boyne. The bow forms a round tower, but you cannot see it as you approach the castle as the river is behind.
Our tour guide was a young very pleasant man named Matthew, who seemed very knowledgeable about the castle and its history and the history of the Conyngham family, who have owned the castle since 1703. The Conynghams of Slane Castle are descendants of the Conynghams of Mountcharles, County Donegal. The Conynghams lived in Donegal possibly as early as 1660, when Albert Conyngham purchased land there.  The first Conyngham to move to Ireland was Alexander (1610-1660), from Scotland, who joined the clergy and was appointed in 1611 to be the first Protestant minister of Enver and Killymard, County Donegal.  He was appointed to the Deanery of Raphoe in Donegal in 1630. His son Albert lived at Mountcharles. It was Albert’s son Henry (1664-1705), a military man who also served as MP for County Donegal, who moved to Slane Castle.
The Flemings of Slane
The Conynghams bought the land in Slane after it was confiscated from the Flemings. In 1175, Richard Le Fleming built a castle at the western end of Slane hill and, three generations later, Simon Fleming was created Baron of Slane. 
The Conynghams did not acquire Slane directly after it was confiscated from the Flemings – Terry Trench of the Slane History and Archaeology Society writes that the estate changed hands, at least on paper, seven times between 1641 and 1703. The estate was taken from the Flemings in 1641, when William Fleming, the 14th Baron Slane, joined the Catholic Irish forces in rebellion against the British. He remained loyal to the king, but objected to the laws that the British parliament passed to make the Irish parliament subservient to the British parliament. The estate was restored to William’s son Randall under the Act of Settlement and Distribution of Charles II’s reign, by decree dated 27th March 1663.  Many estates that had been confiscated by Cromwell’s parliament were restored when Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660.
The Flemings had their land confiscated again as Christopher, 17th Baron Slane (1669-1726), backed James II in his battles against William of Orange. He served in the Irish Parliament of King James II in 1689, and as colonel in James’s army in Ireland 1689-91, fighting in both the Battle of the Boyne and in Aughrim, where he was taken prisoner by William’s forces. Released, he emigrated and fought in the French and Portuguese armies, as did many of James II’s followers who were attainted and lost their estates, as they needed to be able to earn a living. He was later reconciled with Queen Anne of England (daughter of James II) and returned to Ireland, to live in Anticur, County Antrim. In 1703, Henry Conyngham purchased the estate of Slane.
The Building of Slane Castle
In 1785 the castle was remodelled to the design of James Wyatt (1746 – 1813). Wyatt also designed another house on the section 482 list this year, Curraghmore in County Waterford, and a house not on the list, unfortunately, as I would love to see inside, Abbeyleix House (incidentally, my father grew up in Abbeyleix and we used to enjoy the gardens which used to be open and which were reknowned for the bluebells. Also, coincidentally, according to wikipedia, Wyatt spent six years in Italy, 1762–68, in company with Richard Bagot of Staffordshire, who was Secretary to the Earl of Northampton’s embassy to the Venetian Republic. My family is rumoured to be descended from the Staffordshire Bagots, although I have not found the connection!).
Our guide told us that the castle was reconstructed and enlarged by William Burton Conyngham (1733-1796). It was built on the foundations of a medieval castle of the Fleming family, replacing an earlier house. William Burton Conyngham was a classicist and the front hall features Greek columns and key patterns on the walls and many marble Greek sculptures, including a sculpture of King George IV of England, donated by the king himself. William Burton Conyngham argued with his architects, Matthew told us, so ended up having three architects for his castle: James Gandon, James Wyatt and Francis Johnston. According to Mark Bence-Jones in A Guide to Irish Country Houses, Francis Johnston completed the house for the the second Lord Conygham’s son, nephew of William Burton Conyngham, Henry (1766-1832), who later became the 1st Marquess Conyngham. Other architects were consulted at various times, including James Gandon, who most famously designed the Custom House and the Four Courts in Dublin, and Emo Court in County Laois. Francis Johnston designed the General Post Office in Dublin, and Townley Hall, a grand house in County Louth. Another architect consulted was a favourite of King George IV, the English Thomas Hopper.
The Conynghams of Slane
The Conyngham motto, Over Fork Over, recounts the way Duncan hid from Macbeth (familiar to us from Shakespeare). Matthew told us that Duncan hid in straw in a barn, having it forked over him. After that, he managed to defeat Macbeth and to become king. So the Conynghams are descendants of a Scottish king!
Alexander Conyngham moved from Scotland to Ireland when he was appointed in 1611 to be the first Protestant minister to Enver and Killymardin the diocese of Raphoe, County Donegal. He was appointed dean of Raphoe in 1631. He settled at Mount Charles, an estate he leased from John Murray, earl of Annandale, the owner of ‘a vast estate’ in Scotland. Conyngham subsequently acquired the Mount Charles property through his marriage to the earl’s grand-neice, Marian, daughter of John Murray of Broughton, in Scotland (see ). Alexander’s grandson Henry purchased the land in Slane in 1703. Brigadier Henry Conyngham’s father Albert had fought with William III’s troops in the Battle of the Boyne, against Fleming and James II’s troops. Albert married Mary, daughter of the Right Reverend Robert Leslie, Bishop of Raphoe – this Bishop is the ancestor of the Leslie family of Castle Leslie in County Monaghan, another property on the Section 482 list that I will be visiting. Albert was killed by Irish Royalist rebels, and succeeded by his only surviving son, Henry. Henry Conyngham built himself a residence, Conyngham Hall, on the foundations of an older castle formerly belonging to the Flemings.
Henry Conyngham (d. 1705) fought first in James II’s army, but then persuaded his regiment to transfer their loyalty to William III. Henry’s son Henry (1705-1781) inherited the Slane estate. Henry became an Member of the Irish Parliament and was raised to the peerage in 1753 to the title of Baron Conyngham of Mount Charles, and later became Viscount and eventually, Earl. He died without a son so the Barony passed to his nephew, Francis Pierpoint Burton (his sister Mary had married Francis Burton). On inheriting the title and estate, Francis took the name Conyngham [see 3]. He married Elizabeth, the daughter of amateur architect Nathaniel Clements, whose work we will see later in other houses on the section 482 list of heritage properties. For himself, Nathaniel Clements built what is now the Áras an Uachtaráin, the residence of our President, Michael D. Higgins, in Phoenix Park in Dublin.
The castle and estate passed to Francis’s son Henry. Henry served as politician and moved quickly up the ranks of the peerage and was Lord Steward of the Royal household between 1821-30.
In 1821 King George IV spent time in the Castle with his lover, the wife of Conyngham, Elizabeth Denison. In return the king made Conyngham a Marquess . One of the rooms of the castle, the Smoking Room, has two cartoons from the period mocking the King and his consort Elizabeth, drawing them as overweight. In one, she aids her son when he has to move from the Castle of Windsor where he was Royal Chamberlain. It was he who announced to Victoria that she was Queen, upon death of the previous monarch. He was let go from his position when he tried to move his lover into his rooms in Windsor. His mother came to fetch him, with several wheelbarrows, the story goes, and she took all the furniture from his rooms. Somehow she brought a grand piano back from Windsor to Slane Castle where it sat in a specially made arbor for music in the Smoking room, until it was destroyed by a fire in Slane Castle in the 1990’s. One of the Punch style cartoons is of Elizabeth with a wheelbarrow fetching her son from Windsor. I can’t quite remember the other – it had King George IV and herself in a carriage. The Irish were very annoyed that when he came to Ireland he spent his entire time at Slane Castle!
The Irish Aesthete writes of the visit:
“Neither the king nor his inamorata were in the first flush of youth, and both were equally corpulent. These circumstances however did nothing to dampen their ardour. As was written of them at the time, ‘Tis pleasant at seasons to see how they sit/ First cracking their nuts, and then cracking their wit/ Then quaffing their claret – then mingling their lips/ Or tickling the fat about each other’s hips.’ And according to one contemporary observer, Lady Conyngham ‘lived exclusively with him during the whole time he was in Ireland at the Phoenix Park. When he went to Slane, she received him dressed out as for a drawing-room; he saluted her, and they then retired alone to her apartments.’” 
Our tour started with a video of Charles Conyngham, now known as Lord Mount Charles, telling of his childhood in the Castle, growing up in a very old-world upper class manner. He did not join his parents at the dining table until he was twelve years old, dining until then in the Nursery. His nurse, Margaret Browne, came to the Castle at 16 years old, and he held her in such regard that he named his bar after her. We had lunch in the bar after the tour. The food was delicious! Stephen had bread with buttery mushrooms and creme fraiche, and I had Thia carrot lentil soup. With good strong Americanos our meal came to €24 with tip, the same price for entry for two adults to the Castle Tour.
But, back to our tour! Lord Mount Charles described how he started out, when he had to take over the Castle, with a restaurant, which is now the Gandon Restaurant. To further fund the Castle maintenance, Lord Mount Charles started concerts at the venue, beginning with Thin Lizzy in 1981. To seal the deal, the next show was the Rolling Stones! With such august imprimateur, the Castle’s concerts became world-famous and featured many top performers including David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Queen.
However, there was a disasterous fire in the castle and roof and one third of the castle was destroyed.The magnificent library with its intricate ceiling and impressive wooden chandelier was saved by two firemen fighting the fire from within the room, battling for nine hours. The smoke was so thick that one couldn’t see the ceiling. I think they deserve a plaque in the room to recognise their effort! Meanwhile the family saved as many priceless historic paintings and antiques as they could, including a huge portrait of King George IV that is now hanging again in the library, by cutting it from its giant gilt frame then taking the frame apart into four pieces in order to get it out through the doors. Lord Mount Charles now suffers with his lungs, probably partially as a result of long exposure to the flames and smoke. It took ten years to reconstruct the castle, but it has been done excellently so traces of the fire barely remain.
We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside, as usual with these properties. There is a picture of the ornate roof in the library on the wonderful blog of the Irish Aesthete .
Mark Bence-Jones describes the room in his 1988 book (published before the fire, but this room remained intact!), A Guide to Irish Country Houses:
“…the great circular ballroom or library which rises through two storeys of the round tower and is undoubtedly the finest Gothic Revival room in Ireland; with a ceiling of Gothic plasterwork so delicate and elaborate that it looks like filigree. Yet this, too, is basically a Classical room; the Gothic ceiling is, in fact, a dome; the deep apses on either side of the fireplace are such as one finds in many of Wyatt’s Classical interiors, except that the arches leading into them are pointed; they are decorated with plasterwork that can be recognised as a very slightly Gothicized version of the familiar Adam and Wyatt fan pattern.”
Of the tales on the tour, I especially enjoyed the story of the funeral of a soldier’s leg. Apparently it was quite the custom to have funerals for body parts – his leg had to be amputated on the field of battle and the soldier brought it back to be buried with a full-scale military funeral. It must have been to do with the fact that a person’s body is to be resurrected on the Last Day, so it’s good to know where all the parts are! Cremation used to be forbidden in the Catholic church, as somehow it would be too difficult for God to put the ashes back together – never mind a disintegrated body!
There is an adjoining distillery in what used to be the stables, and a tour of that can be purchased in combination if desired. Lord Charles’s mother bred horses before the stables were converted. The stables were designed by Capability Brown.
According to the Irish Aesthete:
“Henry Conyngham, grandson of General Henry Conyngham who purchased the property, around 1770 invited Capability Brown around 1770 to produce a design both for the landscaping of the parkland at Slane, and also for a new stable block. In the collection of the Irish Architectural Archive in Dublin a drawing survives of Brown’s proposal for the latter. It is not unlike the finished building, but more elaborate than what we see today.” 
I found a blog by the Irish Aesthete on a portrait now in Slane, of Lady Elizabeth wife of the first Marqess’s daughter, Lady Maria Conyngham. Reportedly Lady Elizabeth looked very like her daughter – which one would not guess from the unflattering cartoons of her! 
“She probably became his [George IV’s] lover in 1819, when he was Prince Regent, but finally supplanted her predecessor, Isabella Seymour-Conway, Marchioness of Hertford, after he became king in 1820. He became besotted with her, constantly “kissing her hand with a look of most devoted submission.” While his wife Caroline of Brunswick was on trial in 1820 as part of efforts to divorce her, the king could not be seen with Lady Conyngham and was consequently “bored and lonely.” During his coronation, George was constantly seen “nodding and winking” at her.
“Lady Conyngham’s liaison with the king benefited her family. Her husband was raised to the rank of a marquess in the Peerage of the United Kingdom and sworn to the Privy Council, in the coronation honours of 1821. He was also given several other offices, including Lord Steward of the Household and the lieutenancy of Windsor Castle. Her second son was made Master of the Robes and First Groom of the Chamber.”