Saturday 29 June 2013

Moydrum Castle
Co. West Meath
The Unforgettable Fire 

The 1984, U2 album cover of the “Unforgettable Fire” which featured the iconic image of the castle.

Accreditation-  Copyright Universal Island Records Limited

Moydrum Castle stands near the small village of Ballylin outside Athlone in County Westmeath. This dramatic ruin has become a site of pilgrimage for fans of the band U2, since this building was featured on their ‘Unforgettable Fire’ album cover in 1984. The title of this album aptly describes how this now ivy covered hulk met its end in a conflagration of epic proportions in 1921. Today a lot of Moydrum Castle’s architectural detail is obscured by ivy which is also threatening the structural integrity of this building.   Modern houses have grown up around the demesne and a public road passes very close to what remains of the castle. The walled gardens and other outbuildings to the rear of the main structure are being reused and adapted to suit alternative modern uses. The derelict remains of Moydrum Castle are a sad reminder of the passive nature that is adopted in regard to the preservation of historical and culturally significant buildings such as this. The area immediately around the castle is out of bounds to the general public and over zealous U2 fans. Their scrawled tributes on the gate entering the castle’s curtilage are a sad reminder of what an untapped resource this building is for the local community.

 This photograph from the 1900s shows the garden front elevation of the castle that faced the lake in the vast landscaped grounds. The windows on this elevation had regular sash windows topped with hood mouldings.
Accreditation- The National Library of Ireland

The story of this building begins with William Handcock who was an M.P. for Athlone, who was created Baron Castlemaine in 1812 for his support for the Act of Union. In that same year in recognition of his new position in society he employed the leading architect, Richard Morrison, to design a castle in the Gothic Revival style. The building was essentially a two-storey, over basement castellated country house which was completed in 1814. It incorporated an earlier house that existed on the site from 1750 which had been described as an ordinary farmhouse with inconvenient interior arrangements. The completed castle had a battlemented entrance tower with two slender polygonal turrets on either side of the large entrance door. The entrance front was asymmetrical with a polygonal tower at one end and a square tower at the opposite corner. The windows of the front elevation had Gothic tracery while those on the side of the castle that over looked the garden had regular square headed sash windows. Over the front door there was balcony which could be accessed by a French door in an elaborate church-like window.  While the exterior of the castle was Gothic in style, the interior was classical and was described as being similar to Borris House in County Carlow. There were a substantial quantity of farm buildings and gardens to the rear of the castle which were necessary to service a building of this size. The castle had an extensive complex of twenty seven outbuildings and many local people from the surrounding townlands were employed in various parts of the estate. Morrison was also engaged to design a hunting lodge on Hare Island which was a retreat for Baron Castlemaine and allowed him the opportunity to engage in fishing, shooting and boating on Lough Ree. A set of imposing gates and an adjoining lodge provided access to the demesne and the road that winds through the estate is still used today. After travelling through the entrance gates, the road divided in two, one road led to the front of the house while the other diverged and led to the servant’s entrance at the rear. Those lucky enough to be guests of the Castlemaine’s travelled through the landscaped parkland and over a little bridge that spanned a lake to the right of the castles entrance front.

The entrance front of Moydrum Castle in the early 1900s which was home to five generations of Barons Castlemaine. The entrance door is surmounted by a gothic stone tracery fanlight and a first floor window with a balcony.
Accreditation- The National Library of Ireland

 The first Baron Castlemaine met an untimely end in 1839 when he fell out of his first floor bedroom window of the castle during a storm. As he had no children, the title and estate passed to his brother Richard. The second Baron Castlemaine did not enjoy the fruits of his new title for long, as one year later in 1840 he died in Dublin. He was then succeeded by his son, also named Richard, who was now styled the third Baron Castlemaine. Further problems were experienced by the family in 1840 when Moydrum Castle caught fire. An unattended candle in Lady Castlemaine's bedroom caused the blaze after it fell into a turf bucket. This was one of three fires that were to occur during the lifetime of the castle which seemed destined to burn down. In order to reduce the pain and suffering of the tenants on the estate during the famine in the 1840s, a number of building projects were undertaken as a form of famine relief.  These projects included the construction of a private family church, new entrance gates, farm buildings and an eight foot wall that enclosed the demesne. In 1859, the third Baron Castlemaine received six proposals from the architect William George Murray for a Tudor Gothic entrance gate and lodge but these were never executed. In 1869 the third Baron Castlemaine died and his son became the fourth Baron Castlemaine. Both of these Barons did not treat their tenants well and were considered tyrants and a lot of public resentment existed locally against them. Possibly to appease local sentiment, the fourth Baron instigated a number of works centred on Moydrum church. A plaque on the gable of this building records that the entrance porch was erected by the fourth Baron in 1876. From 1886 onwards the fourth Baron began to sell off the lands of the estate under the Land Purchase Acts. In just over twenty years, the Handcocks had reduced their land holding from 12,041 acres to just 550 acres. 
Richard Handcock, 4th Baron Castlemaine
by Frederick Sargent, sketch in pencil, 1870's

Both the fourth Baron Castlemaine and his wife died in 1892 and the Moydrum estate passed to their son Albert Edward Handcock now the fifth Baron Castlemaine. As Albert had received a substantial inheritance from his father together with Moydrum, he led a life of leisure as a country gentleman. He married Annie Evelyn Barrington from Kent in 1895 and after their marriage they returned to set up home in Moydrum. Two years later they were blessed with their one and only child, a daughter who they named Evelyn Constance. In the 1901 census the castle is described as having thirty-four rooms and nineteen windows across its entrance front. In residence at this time are the 38 year old, Baron Castlemaine, his wife aged 27, his daughter aged 3 and their ten servants. By 1911 the Castlemaine’s are still living in Moydrum and their retinue of servants now includes a German butler.

Today the ruin of Moydrum Castle is obscured by ivy that covers the beautiful architectural detail of its fa├žade. The castle was destroyed in a deliberate arson attack in 1921 that ended the connection of the Handcock family with their ancestral seat in County West Meath.
Accreditation- Photograph by David Hicks

Lord and Lady Castlemaine were very active in social circles and were often mentioned attending numerous balls and events. Many of these events included mixing in royal circles which would explain the visit of the Duke of Connaught to Moydrum in August 1905. His Royal Highness arrived in Athlone on the 7.15 train from Dublin and was met at the station by Lord Castlemaine. The entourage then proceeded to Moydrum Castle in a procession of motor cars. After a brief sojourn they drove all round Lough Ree showing Queen Victoria’s son the local sights. In the evening the Duke of Connaught returned to Moydrum Castle where he dined with Lord and Lady Castlemaine. He eventually left by motor car for Shannonbridge to witness the successful crossing of the river by the advanced party of the Red Army. In April 1909, Lord and Lady Castlemaine who had been spending the winter at Marlay Grange in Dublin returned to Westmeath. An enthusiastic welcome was given to the Castlemaine’s arrival at their family’s ancestral seat after a protracted absence. His lordship, accompanied by Lady Castlemaine and their daughter, the Hon. Evelyn Handcock arrived from Dublin by the afternoon train and drove immediately to their home. As they reached the Moydrum gates, lusty cheers were raised by their tenants while a local band played stirring music and bonfires were lit. It appeared that the animosity of earlier years had dissipated and that the Castlemaine’s were now much loved by their tenants.

A ruinous fire eventually sealed the fate of Moydrum but the castle had avoided disaster by the same incident previously in 1840 & 1912. An account of the 1912 fire was featured in the national press which explained that paintings and antiques to the value of £1,000 were destroyed in the blaze that nearly claimed the life of Lady Castlemaine. Lord and Lady Castlemaine were in residence in the castle, when a fire began to fill the interior with smoke which awoke the household. Lady Castlemaine and the servants made their escape from the burning building by placing wet towels over their heads. The fire was quickly brought under control by the servants who saved the entire building from being gutted. The Castlemaine’s leased a house in Foxrock in Dublin while repairs and renovations were being carried out the castle in the aftermath of the blaze. Another strange incident to take place in Moydrum that was also featured in the national press highlighted the hatred that was beginning to boil over against the local landlord. On November 15, 1913 at 7.30pm a gun was discharged through the window of the drawing room of the castle. The window shattered and shot grains were found embedded in furniture at the far end of the room which smashed some of the china on the sideboard. Lady Castlemaine was in the castle at the time and both she and the servants were shocked by the incident. For the next number of years the Castlemaine’s appeared to spend the winter months in Foxrock in Dublin and the remainder of the year was divided between Moydrum, London and Europe. By 1919, a worrying trend was developing in Ireland; the grand homes of the local gentry were being burnt down in order that the lands of the estate would be broken up. The Castlemaine’s were not initially concerned but as more and more houses were burnt; they thought it prudent to return to Westmeath. The fifth Baron was under the mistaken belief, that if he and his family were in residence it would ward off any attackers looking to take advantage of an empty house. In March 1921, Lord and Lady Castlemaine left Cannes in France where they had spent the winter. Lord Castlemaine returned firstly to Moydrum Castle and was joined shortly after by his wife who had spent some time in London Around this time, the house burnings in Ireland had become more sporadic and it was thought that the threat to Moydrum had lessened considerable. Now that Lord Castlemaine suspected that Moydrum was no longer a target for attackers he left for London and Scotland in mid June 1921. A further indication that he was not concerned with any threat to Moydrum was illustrated by the fact that he left his wife and daughter behind, convinced of their safety. However Lord Castlemaine’s home had become a target, as he was seen as a member of the British establishment, he was a member of the House of Lords, British officers had often stayed in Moydrum Castle and Lord Castlemaine had previously dismissed men from his employment that would not join the British army.

Moydrum Church is located not far from the castle and bears a plaque that states the entrance porch was erected by the fourth Baron Castlemaine in 1876. The main block of the church was built in the 1840s as one of the famine relief projects. Despite its small size, this church has many beautiful architectural features and was used by the Handcock family as their private family place of worship.
Accreditation- Photograph by David Hicks

On July 3, 1921, armed men gathered in the castle grounds at 3.30 am on the Sunday morning and surrounded the building. Present in the castle was Lady Castlemaine, her daughter and eight servants. After a loud knocking at the door, her ladyship looked out her bedroom window where she seen about sixty men outside with revolvers. As their knocks went unanswered, they smashed through the ground floor windows and made their way up the stairs. Before they reached her bed chamber they encountered a frightened Lady Castlemaine on the landing. She was given five minutes to leave the castle as the intruders intended to burn it to the ground.  They said that they were burning her home as a reprisal for the recent burnings at Coosan and Mount Temple by the Black and Tans. They had procured paraffin from the Castlemaine’s chauffeur and proceeded to move through the building, moving furniture in to piles in the center of the rooms and dousing it with the paraffin. Every method was used to accelerate the forthcoming flames, all the windows were opened and holes were punched in the ceiling and roof to create a draught. As the raiders were doing their destructive work, Lady Castlemaine and the servants set about removing personal belongings and the family silver, trying to save what they could. The servants were rounded up by the raiders and two armchairs were placed on the lawn in front of the castle for Lady Castlemaine and her daughter to view the destruction of their home. In anticipation of the fire, the leader of the raiders addressed Lady Castlemaine as to why her home was being burnt. Once the fire had taken hold and the castle could not be saved, the raiders dispersed. By the time authorities arrived, the castle was a blaze and nothing remained but the walls by the following morning. The damage was estimated at £120,000 and the majority of paintings, antiques, silver and jewelry had been lost. Lord Castlemaine quickly returned from London to view the blackened ruins of his castle. Upon his return he organized a cleanup operation, while he pondered what to do with the ruins of the castle and the remaining lands of the estate. One week later, he sent Lady Castlemaine and their daughter to London to recover from their terrible ordeal. In the month after the fire, a story appeared in The Irish Times that inferred that some of the servants had used the fire to steal items from the castle. Michael Grady and Patrick Delany pleaded guilty to a charge of having stolen an eclectic number of items from Moydrum on the night of the fire. These items included a fur coat, two dress shirts, a smoking jacket, a suit case, a bicycle and other articles that were the property of Lord Castlemaine. Grady was a Butler and Delany was a footman and both had worked in the castle. When the fire broke out, Delany reported the matter to the military and both he and Grady saved a considerable amount of valuable property and gave assistance to fight the fire. After the military had left, the men took away some of the aforementioned articles. After the fire they were unemployed and traveled to Dublin in search of work. While in the city they were badly in need of money, pawned the coat and this is how they came to be arrested. Grady was sentenced to six months imprisonment with hard labour and Delany who was under 21 years of age received four months imprisonment with hard labour.

In October 1921, £101,359 was awarded by Judge Fleming in Athlone to Lord Castlemaine for the destruction of his castle, furniture and personal belongings. In March 1922, a dispersal sale of the Moydrum farmyard equipment was advertised and in 1924, the remaining land of the estate was sold to the Land Commission. After the fire, Baron Castlemaine and his wife went to live at Langham House in Surrey, paying only occasional visits to Athlone where Lord Castlemaine’s brother still acted as his agent. On his death in the 1930s, the title and estates passed to his brother Robert Handcock. The castle languished in obscurity for decades until it played host to U2 in 1984.  A number of photographs that were taken at the time and the iconic image of the front of the castle appeared on the album sleeve of the ‘Unforgettable Fire’. Over the years, many fans from all over the world have scoured the Westmeath county side to find this enigmatic building that now sits silent and bears little testament to the tumultuous events that occurred here.