Sunday 25 January 2015

Rathmines Castle
Rathmines, Co. Dublin
Caption- Margaret, 1915, Oil on Canvas, 76 by 61 cm (30 by 24 inches)  by Sarah Henrietta Purser 
Accreditation- Private Collection, Image courtesy of Whyte’s

The angelic looking child in this captivating portrait was painted by the well-known Irish artist,Sarah Purser. In 1915, she painted her young relative against the backdrop of Rathmines Castle, the impressive Dublin home of the child’s grandfather. This painting is unusual as both subject and sitter shared a common ancestry to the Purser family who owned the castle. The girl in the painting had the lengthy name of Margaret Benigna Purser Griffith, her second name being something that passed through the female line of the Purser family. At the time of this commission, Margaret is seven years of age and holds her favourite toy, an elephant, to which she holds a bunch of flowers to its trunk. The castle which was located on the Upper Rathmines Road in Dublin is now long gone having been replaced in the 1960s by the Church of Ireland Teacher Training College.  Sarah Purser was not only an artist but during her lifetime she developed a network of people that helped her further the arts in Ireland in the early twentieth century.

A sketch of the Castle that appeared in The Dublin Penny Journal in September 1833 and was described as having a ‘very unantiquated appearance'.       Accreditation- The Dublin Penny Journal

Rathmines Castle was not a particularly old building and was largely built in 1820 by a Colonel Wynne. A building was illustrated on a map from 1816 which could indicate that there was an earlier castle on the grounds. The Purser family came to own the building around 1834 as their decedents are pictured in The Irish Times celebrating the centenary of their acquisition of the castle in June 1934. In 1833 in The Dublin Penny Journal , the castle is described as having a very un-antiquated appearance with round Norman towers connected by curtain walls, embattled parapets, mullioned windows with hood mouldings, oriels and machicolations however was said that ‘ it is only an imitation although a happy one’. At this time in 1833 the building is described as having been ‘erected or the original house enlarged and altered to its present appearance, not many years since, by Colonel Wynne’. After it was constructed, it changed ownership numerous times; it first became the seat of Sir Jonas Green, the late City Recorder and was later owned by the Rev. Thomas Kelly of Kellyville, Queens County. In the nineteenth century the walls were covered with creepers and trained plants and ‘ the polished ivy spreads luxuriantly over a great part of it , and the monthly rose, in bleak December intrudes its blushing head into the attic windows’. Its predecessor the  ancient Castle of Rathmines in the 1830s was described as ‘ lying a little more to the south is an irregular, uninteresting building, so far modernised as to have the appearance of an old white washed farm house. It is now occupied as a boarding house for invalids and unfortunately is seldom empty’.

The owner in the 1830’s was John Tertius Purser who had accumulated his wealth through the involvement of the family with the Guinness brewery. The artist Sarah Purser was the niece of John, being the daughter of his younger brother Benjamin, which explains her connection with the family. John Tertius married a lady with the usual name of Anna Benigna Fredleyius, the name Benigna was something that trickled down through the generations to Margaret featured in the painting by Purser from 1915. John Tertius and Anna Purser had two sons John and Frederick and a daughter named Anna. In later years despite Anna having two older brothers, it was she who became the eventual owner of Rathmines Castle. The family were members of the Moravian Church whose Irish branch was founded by the evangelist John Cennick in Dublin in 1746. The Moravian Church is located at 40 Lower Kevin Street in Dublin and it’s members were classed as being dissenting Protestants. This branch of the Church of Ireland had its origins in an area that is now the Czech Republic called Moravia in the fifteenth century. The Moravian Cemetery is located in Whitechurch in Dublin and adjoins Whitechurch Church of Ireland Rectory. The cemetery is unusual as it features rows of compact headstones with the male members of the church buried on one side of the church yard and the females on the other.

An aerial view of Rathmines Castle from around 1949 where the beginnings of an extension are visible to the rear of the castle. One wonders if the outbuildings in the top of the photograph are a predecessor to Rathmines Castle as in the 1830s a building is referred to ‘ lying a little more to the south’ and is described ‘ an irregular, uninteresting building, so far modernised as to have the appearance of an old white washed farm house. It is now occupied as a boarding house for invalids and unfortunately is seldom empty’.            
Accreditation- Photograph from the collection of the Church of Ireland College of Education

It is the Whitechurch Cemetery that Anna Benigna Purser (nee Fridlezius) was buried when she died on the 26th December 1881 aged 78. She was later joined here by her husband John Tertius when he died on 5th April 1893 aged 83 years. Upon the death of John Tertius Purser, the castle now passed to his son John who became a professor of Mathematics at Queens University. In the 1901 census, John now aged  65 and his younger brother Frederick aged 61 are unmarried and living in the fifteen room castle with their four female servants, interestingly they described themselves as being of the Church of Ireland faith rather than being members of the Moravian church like previous generations. Their sister Anna Benigna Fredleyius Purser had married John Griffith in 1871, who took the additional name of Purser. It is said he took the additional surname due to the close friendship that existed between his and Anna’s father. One suspects however it was due to the fact that the Anna’s brothers were unmarried and the inclusion of the name was to prevent the family name dying out or it was a condition of a large settlement or dowry. It is interesting to note that Anna was eleven years older than her husband. They went on to have three children John William, Frederick and a daughter Alice. By the time of the 1901 census John Purser Griffith aged 52, his wife Anna Benigna Fridlezins aged 63, daughter Alice aged 24, son Frederic Purser Griffith aged 23 and two servants are living in a house on Temple Road in Rathmines. The son Frederick, who eventually became the father of Margaret who appears in the 1915 painting, was at this time an undergraduate in Engineering obviously following in his father’s footsteps with his choice of career.

John and Anna moved in to the castle in 1903 possibly after the death of Anna’s brother John who died in October 1903. He died an extremely wealthy man as the details of his will testify that his estate had a net value of £176,071. The probate of the will was granted to his brother, Mr Frederick Purser, Fellow of Trinity College, Mr John Purser Griffith of Temple Road, his brother in law and Mr Jacob T. Geoghegan of 8 Hatch St., Dublin, a barrister. He left his brother, Frederick, £100,000, the furniture and other effects at Rathmines Castle, his mortgages on Scaduff, Co. Tipperary and his share and interest in lands recently purchased by them. He bequeathed £40,000 to his sister Anna Griffith, £5,000 to each of her children and to his nephew John William Griffith, his share and interest in Arbour Hill and Clonmona, Tipperary. He left his share and interest in certain property in Blessington Street, Essex Street and Eustace Street to his brother-in-law, the said John Purser Griffith and the residue of his property in equal shares to his brother Frederick and his sister Anna.
In August 1910, Anna’s other brother Professor Frederick Purser died, he was a Fellow of Trinity College Dublin and Professor of Natural Philosophy in Dublin University. He had inherited the castle and a large amount of money from his brother however it appears that he was also independently wealthy. His personal estate was valued at £217,566 of which there was a personal estate in England which amounted to £80,224. He died intestate and his estate passed to his next of kin, his sister Mrs Anna Benigna Griffith.  Now with the passing of her brothers, Anna and her husband John now had sole occupancy of the castle. By the time of 1911 census, John aged 62 and his wife Anna, 73 together with their daughter Alice aged 34 and five servants are living in the castle which is listed as having thirteen rooms and fourteen windows in its entrance front.  However Anna’s ownership of the castle was not to be a long tenure as she died one year later in May 1912 and Rathmines Castle together with her estate valued at £170,681 passed to her husband.

The entrance front of Rathmines Castle which was demolished in 1963 however many of the ancillary structures that surrounded the castle, still survive today. 
Accreditation- Photograph from the collection of the Church of Ireland College of Education

Anna’s husband John who was now the owner of the castle had an accomplished career in the engineering profession. The son of the Rev. William Griffith, John was born in Hollyhead and received his early education in Devizes and Leeds. He later took a M.A. at Dublin University and was admitted as a member of the Institute of Civil Engineers. He received his first appointment as Assistant Surveyor for the County of Antrim but only remained there for only for a year when he came to Dublin to take up the office of Assistant Engineer to the Port and Docks. His long career extended to forty years, during this time he was promoted to the office of Chief Engineer of the Port and Docks Board in 1898 and under his supervision several great improvement schemes were carried out on the Liffey. He was instrumental in the construction of deep river quays on the north and south side of the Liffey, the Alexandra Basin, three light houses, the installation of illuminated buoys in the channel and a generating station was set up to serve both sides of the Liffey. With these successes came a number of important posts, he was a member of the Royal Commission on canals and waterways, a member of the Viceregal Commission on bridge construction  and he also acted as advising engineer to government on the development of harbours around the country. As his importance grew so did his stature in the field of engineering when in 1920 he was elected president of the Civil Engineers of Ireland and its British counterpart. He became Vice President of the Royal Dublin Society in 1922 and in the same year he was appointed a Senator of the Irish Free State. All these achievements did not go unnoticed as  he was awarded a knighthood in 1911 and in 1936 he was awarded the freedom of the city. His son, John William, succeeded him in this post as Chief Engineer to the Port and Dock Board but resigned from the board over economic policies. Sir John went on to be pioneer in the establishment of turf and hydroelectric power stations in Ireland and he set up the Leinster Carbonising Company. In 1924, he purchased two bogs in the Bog of Allen in which he invested £70,000 of his own money. In 1938 it was purchased by the Turf Development Board which later became Bord na Mona. He was joined by his sons in the engineering practise that he had set up and operated from Rathmines Castle.

John’s granddaughter Margaret, who is featured in the painting from 1915, was born around 1908 and at the time of the 1911 census, she and her parents Frederick and Marie are now living in Temple Gardens near Rathmines. They are possibly living in the same house that Frederick would have occupied with his parents in 1901. In 1911 he is now aged 33 and married for three years to Marie (formerly Wilson) aged 31 from Tipperary and their only daughter Margaret is now aged 3 .The family have one servant who lives with them in their ten roomed house. Frederick Purser Griffith had graduated from Trinity College Dublin in 1903. He became a partner in his father’s engineering firm and in 1911 he was managing director of the Leinster Carbonising Company. Up to and including 1915, the artist Sarah Purser, a relative of the family was a regular guest at Rathmines Castle and over the years completed a number of paintings of its residents. She was related to the Purser Griffith family and her father had lived in Rathmines Castle at the time of his marriage in 1836.  She painted her cousin Margaret when she was aged 7 standing in front of Rathmines castle clutching her favourite toy. Sarah made a stained glass image of the elephant in the painting from scraps of stained glass at An Tur Gloinne. This small panel was fitted with brass rings and hung near the portrait during the lifetime of the Margaret. In 1915 Sarah also painted the portrait of Margaret’s  Aunt Alice known as Elsie to her family. She had studied music in Berlin, from 1908 she helped organise the Feis Ceoil of which she was a honorary secretary for a decade and on her retirement from this role in 1939 was made vice president. She was involved in arranging Royal Dublin Society concerts, a roll that was eventually taken up by Margaret. As a result of this people involved in the Feis Ceoil and the RDS were often guests at Rathmines Castle. When Sarah Purser exhibited at the RHA in 1915 she included the portraits of Alice and Margaret and later they Margaret's portrait was included in an exhibition of Sarah Pursers work in Dawson Street in 1923. The 1923 exhibition ‘Pictures Old and New’ was arranged by Purser herself, was critically acclaimed as it contained over eighty paintings completed by her over the years. Sarah also painted a portrait of Margaret’s mother Marie around the time of her marriage but this was destroyed during the 1916 Rising. Sarah began a second portrait to replace it which remained in the possession of Margaret until her death and was mentioned in her will.

This map shows the topography of the site that surrounded the Castle, many of the surrounding buildings such as the gate lodges remain today.                                                                                                                                        Accreditation- OSI
The well-known portrait painter, Sarah Henrietta Purser, was born in Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire) Dublin on the 22nd March 1848. She was the daughter of Benjamin Purser a miller and grain merchant in Dungarvan, Co. Waterford. The family consisted of nine sons and two daughters. Sarah’s mother was Anne Mallet and so Sarah was related to the artists Sir Frederick William Burton and both William and Walter Osborne. Three generations of the Purser family were associated with the Guinness brewery in Dublin and Benjamin was an apprentice there before coming to Abbeyside, Dungarvan. Here he first set up a brewery on the site of what is occupied by the shopping centre in Dungarvan today. In 1848, Benjamin and Ann lived in Abbeyside in Dungarvan and later leased a house called 'The Hermitage.' At the age of 13, Sarah departed to a school at Montmirail Switzerland for two years to learn how to speak fluent French and it was here that she began painting. In 1873, her father’s business failed and he emigrated to America so Sarah and her mother moved to 19 Wellington Street in Dublin where they were supported by their Dublin based relatives. A year prior to this, four of her pictures were hung at the 1872 Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA). Herself and her mother were now living in reduced circumstances and Sarah now had to earn her own living. It is said that this time in her life instilled in her a need to be able to generate an income and to be financially secure. Sarah pursued a career as a portrait painter and attended classes at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art and joined the Dublin Sketching Club. In 1878, she again contributed to the RHA and for the next fifty years she was a regular exhibitor. After the death of her mother and with financial help from her brothers in 1878, she arrived in Paris with only £30 to study at the Academie Julian for six months. Women at this time who studied there were relegated to the top floor studio.  She shared an apartment with the artist Louise Breslau from Switzerland and they became close friends. After the six month period, she returned to Dublin and over the years became the city’s ‘wittiest and most vitriolic hostess’ and began to make her living painting portraits. Her career in portraiture became extremely lucrative and soon she making £30,000 a year from her commissions. One of her first commissions, was a portrait of her friend, Jane L’Estrange from Sligo, exhibited at the 1881 RHA. The sitter introduced her to Lady Gore Booth of Lissadell which resulted in Sarah painting portraits of Sir Henry Gore Booth, his wife Georgina and the famous double portrait of their daughters Eva and Constance.

The well tendered grounds of the castle are evident in this aerial view. The walled garden appears to be in use as a kitchen garden supplying the needs of the castle kitchen. This image is possibly taken after 1949 as the extension to the rear of the castle appears to be complete.
Accreditation- Photograph from the collection of the Church of Ireland College of Education

Sarah Purser’s home Mespil House which dated from 1752 and was leased in 1909 by her and her brother. In 1890, she became a honorary member of the RHA which was remarkable at the time as they did not usually admit women, she then became an associate in 1923 and the following year was elected as a member. She eventually purchased Mespil house with her brother, here she had a studio off the entrance hall. It was in the drawing room of Mespil House that Sarah held her famous ‘Second Tuesdays’. On the second Tuesday of each month the leading figures of Dublin’s artistic and literary circles came to tea. It was here she developed contacts, heard the latest gossip and helped promote a new artist or cause. She helped promote the careers of many artists and in 1901 she arranged an exhibition of the work of John Butler Yeats and Nathaniel Hone. Hugh Lane, the famous art collector, as a result of this exhibition commissioned John Butler Yeats to paint a series of portraits of notable Irish men. Yeats took so long to complete just five portraits that he was later replaced by William Orpen. Lane was also inspired to form a collection of modern art which eventually led to the founding of the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art. Sarah was close friend of Hugh Lane and it was she who went to Mr Cosgrave the President of the Executive Council and secured from him the gift of the site and building in Parnell square where the pictures of the Dublin Municipal Gallery of Modern Art was eventually housed. In 1903 she founded An Tur Gloine, a studio devoted to the making of stained glass at 24 Upper Pembroke Street, Dublin. It was Edward Martyn who had succeeded in persuading his friend T.P. Gill, secretary to the Department of Agriculture to set up classes in stained glass at the Metropolitan School of Art. Martyn suggested to Purser she should set up a studio which she managed until her death in 1943.

She was appointed to the Board of the National Gallery in 1915 and became a director of the Friends of the National Collections of Ireland in 1934. In the 1930’s Sir John Purser Griffith of Rathmines Castle and Sarah Purser endowed the Purser Griffith Travelling Scholarship and the Purser Griffith Prize to the best students in European Art History in Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin. She painted portraits up until the age of 85 and she took to the skies four years later in an aeroplane to inspect the condition of the roof of her house for herself. It is said that Sarah Purser’s paintings fell in to two categories, prominent society people and scholars and writers who she was introduced to by her brothers. Her friendships with Edward Martyn, WB Yeats, Doughlas Hyde, AE Russell, Maude Gonne and Michael Davit led to her painting them. She said of the writer George Moore that most men usually kissed and didn’t tell, but Moore told and didn’t kiss. For Pursers ninetieth birthday on March 22nd 1938 she was entertained to a celebratory dinner at the Shelbourne Hotel with special menu cards designed by her good friend Jack Yeats.  She died in 1943 and left a sizable an estate in Ireland valued at £41,209, with her British estate valued at £139,335. Her nephew, John Purser was appointed as executor and Sarah divided her estate up among nephews and nieces also leaving £200 to her chauffeur, housemaid and cook, she also left £25 to the Dental Hospital in Dublin. She was buried at Mount Jerome Cemetery and her home Mespil House remained unoccupied and eventually the contents were auctioned. The wonderful plaster ceilings were removed and reused in Aras an Uachtarain and Dublin Castle. The house was eventually demolished and replaced with a block of flats.

In 1934, the Purser Griffith family celebrated one hundred years since the purchase of the castle by John Tertius Purser however the years ahead would be marked with sadness. At the celebration in the castle, the family are photographed in the grounds, Margaret with her parents, her uncle John William, Aunt Alice and her cousin Sarah who were all present. However two years later in 1936 John William Griffith died and in 1938 and 1939, Margaret would lose both her grandfather and father. In 1939, the unexpected death of Margaret’s father took place in March. Frederick Purser Griffith died at his residence in Temple Gardens Dublin and like his father he had achieved many things during his life time. He instigated plans which led to lands being acquired at Killester and developed as housing for men who served in the World War. He was an organist of the Moravian Church in Dublin, an authority on hymnology, the history of music and on the construction of musical instruments. Prior to his death, he was working on the compilation of material for a history of his father’s civic and engineering achievements. He was buried in the Moravian Cemetery, Whitechurch Dublin and left a modest personal estate valued at around £12,000.His father Sir John Purser Griffith had died the previous year in October 1938 at his residence, Rathmines Castle, Dublin in his ninety-first year. He was also buried in the Moravian Cemetery at Whitechurch.

One of the surviving features of the now demolished castle is this gate lodge  
Photograph copyright of David Hicks

The castle remained in the Purser family until 1963 when The Most Rev. Dr. Simms Archbishop of Dublin announced that the Board of Governors had arranged to buy Rathmines Castle and the eleven acres on which it stood. It was their intention to establish a teacher training college on the site. In October 1963, the contents of the castle were auctioned and one of the paintings that used to hang in the drawing room of the castle depicting Irelands Eye with Lambay behind it now hangs in the State Apartments of Dublin Castle. At the time of the auction the castle was lived in by Mrs Jobling-Purser, who after the sale went to live in a house she had purchased in the Rathfarnham area. It evident that she was not attached to the castle saying that “Rathmines Castle is not very old” and that “The latest wing was built in 1809. It has not a very dramatic history”. The purchase price of the castle is said to be about £80,000 and by November 1963 a range of modern buildings were designed by the firm of Downes and Meehan to replace the castle. Rathmines Castle was demolished and little remains of it today, however numerous elements around the site such as the walled garden, its outbuildings and its gate lodges do still remain. Very little is known about Margaret the girl in the picture, in November 1928 she was awarded The Dunbar Ingram prize. The prize awarded to the candidate that obtained the highest marks at the Senior Freshman honours examination in History. She died in January 1986 having lived at Cashel Falls Road, Shankill, Co. Dublin. It was known that she had kept the painting and the stained glass panel Sarah Purser had made for her as a child until her death.  She died unmarried and in her will she bequeathed the painting of herself in 1915 to her godson. The painting was sold at auction in September 2006 for €35,000. 

( This text remains the copyright of David Hicks)


  1. Hello. A fascinating story. Do you by any chance have the photograph of the Purser Griffith family celebrating 100 yrs at the castle in 1934. My wife is related to the Purser family. Thanks. Nick Gammage

  2. Hi Nick, Im not sure if you will receive this message but I seen that image in the Irish Times from 1934 however when I requested a copy of it but the quality was very poor, so it would be great if you had a better quality photograph. My email is

  3. I’m a descendent of the Purser family on my mom’s side.