Rathfarnham Castle, which dates from Elizabethan times, is probably the earliest example of what is termed a ‘fortified house’ built in Ireland. State papers attest to the presence of a fortification at Rathfarnham from soon after the Norman Invasion. This was apparently one of a chain of castles built to protect Dublin from attack by Irish clans based in Wicklow. In 1583, following the Desmond Rebellion, the lands of Rathfarnham, then part of the estate of Viscount Baltinglass, were confiscated by the Crown, and Baltinglass and his four brothers were convicted of high treason for their part in the rebellion.
Adam Loftus, an ambitious Yorkshire clergyman, came to Ireland as chaplain to the Lord Deputy, the Earl of Sussex in 1560. He quickly rose to become Archbishop of Dublin in 1567, Lord Chancellor of Ireland in 1581, and was closely involved in the establishment of Trinity College Dublin in 1592. Even before the confiscation of the lands at Rathfarnham, envious eyes had been cast on them. ln 1583, Loftus was granted the fee farms of these lands at the nominal rent of thirty shillings. Within two years of acquiring the property he had apparently built the castle, which stands today. This has since been confirmed when wood from the roof beams was dated by dendrochronology to 1583.
Fortified houses mark an important stage in the transition from military castle to country house in Ireland. Built to provide a dwelling answering a desire for more luxurious living space, but sacrificing nothing of its defensive nature, Rathfarnham Castle is the first, and largest, of a number of similar fortified houses, such as Kanturk, Portumna, and Raphoe. However, it was not built primarily to defend the Pale, but as a comfortable and defensible country residence for Adam Loftus. Almost immediately, the luxury of its appointments was renowned. Loftus entertained lavishly and wrote to his friends saying that he hoped to make ‘his poor house’ the most remarkable in Christendom. He died in 1605 and the Castle remained in the family until 1723.
On the death of Sir Dudley Loftus, the castle was passed to his his eldest son Sir Adam Loftus. Adam was described as an opportunist of the first rank and it was said of him “that whoever held the reins of power was, for the time being, his friend…”
During the civil wars of the 1640s, Rathfarnham was garrisoned for parliament by Dr Dudley Loftus, on behalf of his father Sir Adam, who was Vice Treasurer of Ireland. In 1649 it surrendered to royalist forces under Ormonde, but was retaken by the parliamentarians and subsequently garrisoned by Cromwell.
Forty years later the Castle was owned by Adam Loftus, Viscount Lisburne, who switched allegiance from James II to support William of Orange, and was killed by a cannonball at the siege of Limerick in 1691.
In 1723, the then owner, the profligate Duke of Wharton, who had inherited the property through his mother, Lucy Loftus, had to sell the estate to defray his immense debts. Mr Speaker Conolly bought the property for £62,000 but never resided there, presumably preferring his primary residence of Castletown. He let the castle to a number of tenants who commenced the remodelling of it.
In 1767, the Loftus family returned to the Castle in the person of the youthful Nicholas Loftus Hume, 2nd Earl of Ely. The subject of a celebrated legal case concerning the soundness of his mind, Nicholas had been a delicate child, whose mother, a wealthy heiress, had died when he was only two years old. He had experienced a harsh and cruel upbringing from his father who kept him in ignorance of his maternal inheritance which he spent himself. Challenged by his mother’s family as to his mental capacity, Nicholas was successfully defended, after his father’s death, by his uncle, Henry Loftus. However, Nicholas died unmarried in 1769 and Henry inherited his nephew’s fortune. Although the original title became extinct on Nicholas’ death, it was recreated to allow Henry Loftus to assume the title Earl of Ely and he set about completing the remodelling of the ancestral home.
By the time of Henry’s death in 1783, the Castle was again renowned for the luxury of its apartments and its collections of furniture and works of art. Despite being married twice, Henry had no heirs and was succeeded by his nephew, Charles Tottenham, whose descendants gradually lost interest in the Castle. By the end of the eighteenth century it was described as ‘abandoned’ and the collections had been dispersed to other family properties, notably Loftus Hall in Wexford and Ely Lodge in Fermanagh.
Between 1847 and 1852 the Castle was purchased by Lord Chancellor Blackburne (also Vice Chancellor of Trinity College and for a time Lord Chief Justice) and was described as ruinous at that time. In fact Lord Blackburne may have resided in the Castle for a number of years before purchasing the Castle.
The family installed bathrooms, rebuilt the front steps and installed a large dance organ in the ballroom. Lord Blackburne was closely involved in the musical life of Dublin and was said to be a wonderful interpreter of Moore’s Melodies.
Francis Blackburne was a vigorous opponent of Daniel O’Connell and he also presided over the trial of William Smith O’Brien. Rathfarnham Castle remained in the Blackburne family for three generations. Following the death of the Lord Chancellor’s daughter-in-law Georgina Arabella in 1911 the castle was sold by Lord Blackburne’s great grandson in 1913.
The twentieth century saw great changes to the Castle. Sold by the Blackburnes in 1913, part of the estate was purchased by the Society of Jesus who, while maintaining the structure and main rooms of thc Castle in good condition, added two large wings during the 1920s to accommodate a hall of residence for the seminary and a retreat house and chapel. Fr John Sullivan, a candidate for canonization, was Rector during the 1930s.
In the early 1980s, the Society decided to sell the Castle as they no longer needed it as a seminary. Their decision caused great concern for local residents who feared that it might be demolished. These fears were allayed when the Castle was declared a National Monument in 1986 and purchased for the Nation by the Office of Public Works in 1987. At the same time, Dublin County Council acquired the grounds.
The castle built by Archbishop Loftus in the latter years of the sixteenth century was rectangular in shape, with four corner flanker towers. These flankers were battered, that is, the walls, on average just over 1.5 metres thick, sloped gently towards the top and were so designed that each wall of the central block could be covered by soldiers on guard in the adjacent corner towers. The central block has three storeys above a vaulted ground-level basement. However, the arrangement of room spaces of the original interior is not recorded.
Running east-west across the central block is what appears to be a solid wall, almost 3 metres thick penetrated by door openings. While the wall supports the three large chimney stacks as well as the roof, such a massive structure would not have been required for these purposes. The discovery of a built-up chamber at basement level suggests that the wall, when first built, was not solid but was a series of chambers or corridors. A similar arrangement is apparent in Portumna Castle.
During recent renovation work, a large stone arch on the west façade was discovered, suggesting that this may well have been the original entrance to the Castle.
The tenants of Mr Speaker Conolly, and later purchasers of the Castle, started its remodelling between 1723 – 1767. This was continued by Henry Loftus when he inherited the estate and his nephew’s fortune in 1769. Over the course of the sixty years from 1723 until Henry’s death in 1783, the battlements were replaced with an ornamental stone coping; the original small stone mullioned windows were replaced with larger windows and a semi-circular extension was built onto the eastern façade of the central block; a kitchen wing was added on the south western corner; the main entrance was moved to the northern side of the house where two flights of steps led up to a portico which, it is said, was of eight Doric columns, supporting a dome on which were painted the signs of the Zodiac. The entrance was therefore now at first floor level. Today, the existing porch is un-decorated and is supported on only four columns.
Henry, like his ancestor Adam, was an ambitious man and employed the best architects, artists and craftsmen to decorate the castle. The names of most of these are no longer known, but the principal reception rooms were remodelled to the designs of Sir William Chambers and James ‘Athenian’ Stuart. The highest quality neo-Classical decoration and Rococo stuccowork still survives. Angelica Kauffman, the prominent portrait artist, visited Rathfarnham in the winter of 1771-72 and painted the family portrait of the Earl and Countess of Ely with his niece Dolly Monroe which now hangs in the National Gallery of Ireland. Ceiling panels of the saloon, sold at auction in 1913, have been attributed to her but those on the first floor ceilings are not now thought to be her work.
Since 1988, the Office of Public Works has undertaken considerable work including repairing the fabric of the building, re-roofing the Castle, removing the 1920s wings and renovating the eighteenth-century kitchen wing. The exterior of the castle has been re-rendered using traditional lime harling. Some internal partitions, which were removed in the nineteenth century, have also been reinstated. Much work remains to be completed including the decoration and furnishing of the principal rooms. This will require careful research together with the skills of the foremost conservators and craftsmen to enable the conservation of the Castle to be completed to the same high standards demanded by Adam Loftus in the sixteenth century and Henry Loftus in the eighteenth century.