In 1978, the administrators of Phoenix Park made a hard choice. Ashdown Lodge, the residence of the Papal Nuncio in Ireland, was in a sorry state. Dry rot had infested its timbers, and there was no alternative but to tear the old Georgian building down. But as they did so, they made an amazing discovery – something that had been forgotten for over two hundred years. Like a butterfly from a cocoon, as they pulled away the exterior inside they found, perfectly preserved, an entire castle. Rather than demolish it, the eighteenth century owners had just built around it, until Ashdown Castle once again emerged into the light.
Nobody is quite sure when this mysterious castle was built. It was definitely around in the early 17th century, as the roof timbers are dated to then – but they could have come from repairs done at that time. Some point to the correlation between the castle’s design and the specifications of a grant given by Henry VI in 1429 for the building of such castles. We do know that the area of Ashtown was originally the property of Fratres Cruciferi, the Brethren of the Cross. They were responsible for building Dublin’s first hospital in 1176, and wen on to build and maintain several hospitals around the city, including at Ashtown. They, like all the other monastic orders, were suppressed by King Henry VIII in 1539, and if they had still owned Ashtown at that time it would have been sold. At any rate, the first recorded owner of the castle (and thus the first record of the castle itself) is John Connell, in 1641. (The famous Irish politician Daniel O’Connell was a descendant of John.) John, or his heir, must have sold the castle and lands, because by 1668 Ashtown had become part of an expensive royal indulgence – the Dubin deer park of King Charles II.
The deer park also arose from the dissolution of the monasteries. The Knights Hospitaller had held a large area of land in Dublin, and this had been lost to them after the dissolution. It had been granted out on an 80-year lease, and after that expired it reverted to the crown. In 1662 James Butler, the first Duke of Ormonde, established a hunting park there for the new King. In order to contain the deer and pheasants, and to keep out poachers, the park was enclosed in a distinctive stone wall. The park contained a house that had been built by Sir Edward Fisher, which he sold (along with the lands he had been granted from the Hospitaller estate) to the crown for the princely sum of £2,500. This house was known as the Phoenix, and it is from it that the name Phoenix Park came. In 1668, Ormonde decided that the land he had was not enough to allow the deer to range freely, and so he purchased Ashtown Castle and the surrounding land, which was being farmed at the time. The castle was designated as the residence of one of the two Keepers of the park, responsible for maintenance and keeping poachers out. They served under the Ranger, Sir Marcus Trevor, who ran the park.
In 1745, deer hunting having fallen out of fashion, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland decided to remodel the park and open it to the public. He was Sir Philip Stanhope, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield, a British politician who ruled Ireland only for a short period but who did a lot of good for the country in that time. Numerous schools were established in his name, and he was responsible for placating the Irish to such an extent that when Charles Stuart raised a rebellion in Scotland in 1745, the former Jacobites of Ireland did not take part. His improvements to the park were numerous, adding paths and the famous statue of a phoenix at the heart of it, and the main road through the park is still called Chesterfield Avenue in his honour. The buildings in the park, including Ashtown Castle, were reserved for state use.
In 1774, Ashtown Lodge was built (around, rather than on the site of, Ashtown Castle). Work being completed, in 1782 it was designated as the official residence of the Under-Secretary for Ireland. (An Under-Secretary is a permanently appointed civil servant, whose job it is to lend continuity to a procession of democratically appointed Secretaries.) The first recorded as living in Ashtown Lodge was Alexander Marsden. Marsden helped to organise the defence of Dublin during the United Irishmen’s revolt, and would eventually retire in 1807 on a royal pension. He was a prolific letter-writer, and as well as serving as an important window into the politics of the time, they were also offered in evidence when his brother John’s will was challenged, as evidence that John was of sound mind. The letters were rejected as “hearsay”, an important precedent in British case law.
One of the most famous residents of Ashtown Lodge was Thomas Henry Burke, who along with the Secretary Lord Frederick Cavendish was murdered by the Irish revolutionary group “the Invincibles” in 1882. Burke was the target, as he was associated with British actions during the Land War (a long-running series of evictions, protests and occasional violent outbreaks). Ironically, he himself was a believer in Irish nationalism and a supporter of Home Rule, although as a civil servant he did not espouse these views publicly. The murder shocked the British political establishment, and ensured the defeat of Charles Stewart Parnell’s Home Rule Bill. Had it been passed, prior to the rise of the Unionist movement in Ulster, Irish political history would have been very different. As it was, when the Irish Free State was established in 1922 the last Under-Secretary left Ashtown Lodge. Or rather, Under-Secretaries – the job was being shared between James McMahon and John Anderson. McMahon retired to continue to live in Dublin, while Anderson returned to England, where he would have an illustrious career in politics. He was a member of Churchill’s War Cabinet (at one point the second in line to succeed Churchill if both he and Anthony Eden were killed), and it is after him that the prefabricated air raid shelters were known as “Anderson shelters”. He was nicknamed the “Home Front Prime Minister”, and became Viscount Waverly after he left office.
The lodge originally became the residence of the US ambassador, Frederic Augustine Sterling. America had been pivotal in its support for the fledgling state, and he was an experienced career diplomat who had, prior to entering civil service, been both a cattle ranch manager and a woollen manufacturer. He helped negotiate Ireland’s entry into the League of Nations, as well as their signing of the Kellog-Briand Pact, the original basis for a -lot of later international law. He was the only US Ambassador to live in Ashtown Lodge, as in the later part of his residence he moved to the larger Vice-Regal lodge, the former residence of the Secretaries for Ireland.
Ashtown Lodge then became the residence of the Papal Nuncio to Ireland, one of the most significant ambassadors to the country under the pro-Catholic governments of the time. The first Nuncio in residence was Paschal Robinson, a former journalist who had been born in Ireland and raised in the United States. He had become a priest at the age of 31, and went on to become one of the world’s greatest authorities on medieval history, before the Pope took him into the diplomatic service. The most famous episode of his time in Dublin took place when the German ambassador kissed his ring when they were introduced – a traditional Catholic gesture of fealty to the papacy. A photo of this was published in the paper, but it was extremely poorly received by the Nazi government of Germany. The ambassador, Georg von Dehn-Schmidt, was recalled to Berlin and dismissed from the diplomatic service for “unbecoming conduct”.
The last resident of the lodge was the papal nuncio Gaetano Alibrandi. Alibrandi was an archbishop from Sicily, and his appointment at the outbreak of the Troubles in Northern Ireland was somewhat ill-timed. His strongly pro-IRA stance put him in conflict with the three Taoiseachs who were in power over his tenure. He also was core to the debate in 1977 over whether Ireland should allow mixed marriages between those of the Catholic and Protestant faith, and may have warned the Vatican that their refusal to compromise on the issue would risk seriously undermining the amount of power that the church wielded in Ireland at the time. Alibrandi later came under investigation when the Irish tax office discovered that he held “vast sums” in three separate Dublin bank accounts – far more than was needed to run the Nunciate. The money originated from South America, where he had previously served as a Nuncio. Alibrandi indicated that it was “family money”, and was told that it would need to be declared for tax purposes. He then told them that he would soon retire, and the accounts would be closed, so they would not need to be declared. This he did, and the matter was hushed up until 2012. Alibrandi’s name has also surfaced in recent years in reports that priests came to him with concerns about other priests who were molesting children, but he was “not interested”.
It was at the end of a long and colourful life, then, that the workmen went to demolish Ashtown Lodge, and it was like a miracle that the shape of Ashtown Castle emerged, The stone construction and solid foundation meant that it could be left intact, rather than needing to be demolished like the rest of the lodge, and it was declared a National Monument. It became a popular backdrop for album photos and music videos by artists like Coldplay, U2 and Robbie Williams. In the 1990s it was thoroughly restored, and a visitors centre for the park was built next to it. Protected from the elements for two hundred years, it is one of the best-preserved medieval castles in the world – the unlikely contents of a building-sized time capsule.