Dunsany

The Dunsanys and Dunsany Castle

Dunsany Castle today, viewed from one approaching avenueDunsany Castle and Demesne are situated in the townland of Dunsany (Dun Samhnaigh or Dun Samhna), between the historic town of Trim, with Ireland's largest castle (King John's Castle or simply Trim Castle, a former Dunsany holding) and the large village of Dunshaughlin on one of the country's main routes, in County Meath. There is a hamlet, with post office store, church and school, in Dunsany; the next village is Kilmessan. Meath (the current county, formerly known as "East Meath", and County Westmeath, combined) once formed a seperate, fifth, province of Ireland, which was the territory of the High King (Ard Ri); today, this is all within the eastern province, Leinster. The former seat of the High Kings, Tara, is only a few kilometres from Dunsany. Also nearby is Bective Abbey.

Origins
The Castle was established as a towered fortification of the Norman Pale (an area of strong Norman/ English control in the east of Ireland, established shortly after Strongbow's invasion) in the period 1180 - 1200; construction is believed to have begun in 1180/1181. The first building on the site was a motte-type fortification, believed to have been the site of the Dun (fortress) for which the area and demesne are named.
The Castle was built for a key Norman warlord, Hugh de Lacy, whose chief seat was at Trim (Trim Castle has been made available for viewing having passed from Lord Dunsany to the State some years back and undergone several million pounds worth of work; details of the site including access are here).
Parts of the original building still stand - the huge foundations and the four main towers form a key part of the current structure. Much additional work has of course been performed over the years, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the current Castle is more than three times the size of the original.

The Plunketts of Dunsany
Crest of the 1st Lord Dunsany The Plunkett connection began with the knight Sir Christopher Plunkett (Deputy Governor of Ireland in 1432), who had come into the lands in the area through marriage in the early 1400's (with Joan Cusack, whose father held Dunsany and Killeen), and two of his sons, John and Christopher. John, the eldest, was heir to nearby Killeen Castle (his family were Lords of Killeen and later became Earls of Fingall also), while Christopher was given Dunsany, becoming its first Lord (it is one of the oldest Irish titles, created by summons in 1439 under Henry VI and documentary form later under Edward IV). Family legend relates that the areas of the demesnes of the two castles was decided by a race, with Killeen, starting from higher ground, having the advantage. In the same generation, the Church of St. Nicholas ("The Abbey"), within the demesne, was reputedly built after a rift between Lady Dunsany and Lady Killeen - the two families had both used the church at Killeen - with the specification that it be one foot bigger in length, breadth and height than Killeen Church.

The 1st or 2nd Lord Dunsany and his wifeThe Castle is the longest occupied home and one of the oldest continuously inhabited buildings in Ireland, though the Lords of Dunsany have suffered on a couple of occasions, such as when the ninth Lord, elected by the Catholic peers of Ireland to assert their loyalty to the State, was imprisoned for several years in Dublin Castle before being sent to Connaught. While his family died on the journey, he was reinstated at the time of the Restoration. Later, the tenth Lord fought for James II at the Battle of the Boyne and was outlawed but the estates were restored to his successor after the Treaty of Limerick.

Inside the Castle
Dunsany Castle The Castle is entered through a large lobby with a finely worked ceiling, which opens into the central hallway, featuring the principal stairway and a vaulted ceiling. On the ground floor are a fine dining room, featuring portraits of past family members from over the centuries, and a substantial, well-proportioned billiards room while up the stairs are the library and drawing-room. The bright and airy drawing-room has Stapleton plasterwork from 1780. The unique library, which may have been worked on by James Shiel, is one of the star features of Dunsany. Displaying a form of the "Gothic Revival" style, it has a wonderful "beehive" ceiling from the early 19th century and grained Gothic decoration. There is a fine collection of books from across the centuries, including material by the writer Lord Dunsany and the writing table at which he (and others, such as the poet Francis Ledwidge) worked. Other features include a winding secondary stairway (where a "priest's hole" formerly existed) and an old vaulted hall, built from the original 12th century kitchen and now displaying part of the Dunsany Home Collection.

Dunsany Demesne
Inside the demesneAs with many land holdings, much of the estate of Dunsany was transferred to tenants under Ireland's unique Land Acts (originally introduced by Westminster but never in Britain), which have given the country an extraordinarily wide distribution of land ownership. The Demesne, the heart of the residual Dunsany Estate, features farmland, park and woodland (with many species, including some ancient native trees such as oak), surrounded by a Famine wall (a project to provide work for the destitute during Ireland's terrible potato famine) with three major entrances. The former main gate has a castellated appearance; this leads to the Main Avenue, which passes the Church of St. Nicholas and one of the motte mounds, and comes upon the concealed Castle suddenly in a piece of clever landscaping.

Dunsany CrossThe current main gateway has the appearance of a Gothic ruin but is a later "sham", concealing a residential gatehouse; it faces the ancient Dunsany Cross, a pilgrim cross on one of the long-distance ways for the devout. The Castle is fronted by a lawn, protected from browsing animals (though not deer!) by a well-concealed ha-ha. At the back of the demesne runs the River Skane (coing from the direction of Dunshaughlin), a tributary of the Boyne. Also within the grounds are enclosed yards (farm and stables), a fine walled garden, an ice-house and wells.

Inside the demesneThe fine Church of St. Nicholas (of Myra), locally known as "the Abbey", and built on the site of an earlier building (standing in 1305), was commenced in the 1440's and holds within and around tombs of family members and local residents. It is a substantial building and the walls still stand solidly, although it has been largely disused for many years (a new church was built for local worship at Dunsany Cross) and the roof is long gone (the church is still consecrated). Within are the remnants of lofts and living spaces. There are also some of the best medieval carvings surviving in Ireland, notably on the baptismal font, and a fine carved fifteenth century tomb (with effigies of a knight and his lady, either the first or second Lord Dunsany and his wife).

Dunsany Today
The family, headed by the 20th Lord, Edward Plunkett, and his wife, Maria Alice de Marsillac Plunkett, still live at Dunsany. They retain a fine collection of heirlooms, including an enamelled silver mug presented by Elizabeth I and the watch and cross of St. Oliver Plunkett, and some beautiful works of art, notably paintings and porcelain, though for security reasons some are no longer held at the Castle.
 

The Castle can be visited at certain times, especially in the summer and towards Christmas - please e-mail the office at office@dunsany.com or write for more information.

More details will be presented at a later time on various aspects of the Castle, the church and on other items of local interest.
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