Glenveagh Castle – Cruelty, Cowboys and Celebrities

glenveagh castle

In the heart of Donegal sits the second largest national park in Ireland, forty two thousand acres of wilderness. Here are found many iconic Irish creatures, from Ireland’s largest herd of red deer to a population of golden eagles, once extinct on the island but reintroduced in the year 2000. Here also, on the shore of Lough Veagh sits a castle. One of the youngest castles in Ireland, less than a hundred and fifty years old, it was also for a time one of the most infamous, home to one of Ireland’s most detested landlords. Now it belongs to the people, and it and its gardens are open to the public to roam. The park is Glenveagh, the castle is Glenveagh Castle, and the man who built it is one whose name was once as a curse to the lips of any Donegal native, John George Adair.

John George Adair

John George Adair

Adair was born in 1823 in “Queen’s County” in Ireland, as it was then known. A hundred years later, following the establishment of the Irish Free State, it would take its modern name of Laois. He was descended from Sir Robert Adair, who had fought for William at the Battle of the Boyne and been knighted for his trouble. John (or Jack, as he was known) was educated at Trinity College, in Dublin, in order to prepare him for a career as a diplomat, and on graduating he entered the service with the rank of captain. It was an ill-fitting career, as there were few as undiplomatic as Jack Adair – he had by most reports a temper and a sense of his own worth that did little to endear him to those he met. He had a better head for business, and in the 1850s he travelled to New York, where he soon made a fortune through unclear means (possibly short-term investments in property). He invested some of his profits in Donegal, where he began to buy up smaller holdings of land to create a single large estate, which was named Glenveagh after the local name for the general area, which translates as “glen of the birches”. It was here, in 1861, that he would shroud his name in infamy with what became known as the Derryveagh evictions.

Derryveagh (Forest of Birches) is actually the name given to the mountain range that runs through Donegal, making up most of the county.

Derryveagh (Forest of Birches) is actually the name given to the mountain range that runs through Donegal, making up most of the county.

The exact reasons for why Adair ordered the evictions are somewhat disputed. One story has it that it was simply to “improve the view from his castle” – this is somewhat undermined by the fact that the castle would not be built until ten years later. In fact, at this time Adair’s seat on the estate was Glenveagh Cottage, which would become the residence of the estate’s stewards after the castle was completed. Another story has it that Adair took umbrage with his tenants after they reported him for trespass when he hunted across their lands – while it is possible that they did so, it is definite that relations between the two groups were frosty prior to that. The truth was that Adair had a vision for his estate, and tenants formed no part of it. Instead he saw the future of the estate as being in sheepfarming, and he had two shepherds employed already in this by the name of Rankin and Murray. Neither was popular with the locals, whose farms were substantially reduced by the plans. Murray was a Scot, and frequently argued with the locals, and so when he was discovered murdered in November 1860 it was immediately assumed that one of them was responsible. The police were unable to identify the guilty party, however. Some scurrilous rumours claim that the murder was carried out by Rankin on Adair’s orders, in order to justify what came next, but in truth no such justification was needed. These same rumours claim that Rankin was having an affair with Murray’s wife and that he moved into her bed on Murray’s death – this also seems unlikely, especially since she was pregnant at the time. In fact, after the child was born she returned to Scotland. Regardless, Rankin was placed under police protection, and a series of letters survive where the constables complain of the poor treatment they received from Adair, who was at the time a Justice of the Peace for the area.

One of many woodcuts depicting the evictions. Tenants had few rights in Ireland at the time, and the Derryveagh Evictions were far from unique. Eventually this would lead to the "Land War", a period of civil unrest.

One of many woodcuts depicting the evictions. Tenants had few rights in Ireland at the time, and the Derryveagh Evictions were far from unique. Eventually this would lead to the “Land War”, a period of civil unrest.

Whether it was the murder of Murray which prompted it, or if it had been his plan all along (inspired by similar “clearances” in Scotland), on St Patrick’s Day (17th March) 1861 Adair obtained a writ of Habere facias possessionem. This document in hand, he gathered a group of two hundred and three police officers along with ten “crowbar men”, and sent them off to execute it. The first house they came to belonged to a widow named McAward, and there with the weight of the law behind him, the sheriff executed the writ. By law, the widow and her seven children were evicted from the house, and with them out the crowbar men made short work of demolishing it. The posse went from house to house, forty six in all, and of those 28 were levelled or otherwise made uninhabitable to prevent the tenants from remaining. 244 people were left homeless, including 159 children. In the end, forty two of the residents wound up in the workhouse, the last resort of the poor and penniless, while over half would emigrate to Australia. Their fares were paid by the contributions of a charity organised in Sydney by a Donegal migrant named Michael O’Grady, as was the purchase of land in Australia. They left for this new land of opportunity, leaving behind the scene of one of the most infamous evictions in Irish history. Yet while it is for this that Adair is most remembered in Donegal, it is not what he is most remembered for elsewhere in the world. That was still to come, on the other side of the world, in the plains of Texas.

Cornelia Wadsworth Ritchie Adair

Cornelia Wadsworth Ritchie Adair

It was while she was organising the education of her children in Europe that Cornelia Ritchie first met Jack Adair. She was a mild-mannered widow of 32 with two children from her first marriage, while he was a fiery bachelor of 46. Still, the two hit it off, and in 1867 the two were married. At first the two split their time between Ireland and New York, where Cornelia had family, but Jack disliked the city, and the feeling was apparently mutual. Cornelia’s relatives, having heard stories of the wild American frontier, suggested to her that the two might be happier out west. So it was that Adair set out to establish a brokerage office for his firm in Denver, Colorado. There, he was out int ouch with a man looking for someone to finance his new ranch. He was a former confederate Colonel named Charles Goodnight, who ten years previously had been involved in the famous “gather” of feral cattle that had been living wild across Texas during the civil war, taking the herd north to Colorado along what became known as the Goodnight-Loving trail (Oliver Loving being the other leader of the drive). He had then formed a partnership with cattle baron John Chisum, taking his herds to Colorado to sell to the army. The railway was expanding, however, and Goodnight could clearly see that the days of the great cattle drives were coming to an end. He had founded the first cattle ranch on the southern plains of Texas, and he proposed to Adair that he provide the capital for Goodnight to expand it out into the unclaimed area known as the Texas Panhandle. Adair was wary however, and refused to buy land he had not seen – and so the two men, along with their intrepid wives, a group of cowboys and “ranching supplies” (including several fertile bulls for breeding purposes) set out for Palo Duro Canyon.

Palo Duro Canyon. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Palo Duro Canyon.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The trip took twelve days, and was not without adventure. A local group of outlaws heard of the Adairs and decided to kidnap them to hold for ransom, even going so far as so build a hideout to hold them. Fortunately, Goodnight heard rumours of what they were up to and persuaded a group of US cavalry to act as an escort. Adair’s temperament, meanwhile, rubbed several of the cowboys the wrong way – on one occasion when he demanded a horse be saddled for him, the cowboys took care to give him the meanest horse they had, and were then disgusted when under Adair’s hands it became “the gentlest horse in the world”. In fact, it was only through Goodnight’s intervention that Adair did not get attacked by the cowboys, and he would later comment that he sometimes regretted not fighting Adair himself. Yet if Adair was rubbing people the wrong way, Cornelia was blossoming. She rode the entire distance from Colorado to the ranch, and she was the one who picked out the site for the ranch house. It was her rather than Jack who would in the end be regarded as the true founder of the JA ranch. Still, it was Jack and Goodnight who made the deal – Adair to provide two thirds of the capital and own two thirds of the ranch, and Goodnight to make up and own the remainder. In addition they agreed that Goodnight would manage the ranch with an annual salary of $2,500, and that Adair would lend him the shortfall in what he needed to make up his share of the investment at 10% interest. It was a good deal for Adair – fifteen years later he had made a profit of $512,000 over his original investment. With that settled then, he returned to Ireland to build his castle in the glen.

One of the pair of Balinese statues in the gardens of Glenveagh Castle.

One of the pair of Balinese statues in the gardens of Glenveagh Castle.

Jack Adair did not lack ambition when he built Glenveagh Castle. His reported inspiration was Balmoral Castle, the famed Scottish retreat of the British royal family, and he intended to out-do it. He planted palatial gardens around it, some in Italian style, some in French styles and all with a view of the glen. He decorated it with sculpture both new and old, including sphinxes, figures of Greek gods, busts in the Tunisian style and even two temple guardians taken from distant Bali. The castle itself boasted a grandiose exterior, but a thoroughly modern interior. With the caste complete Jack turned his attention to the estate, but he would never get it to the level of hunting he desired. In 1885, while returning from a visit to the JA Ranch, he died in Missouri. He and Cornelia had no children, and so she inherited the castle. She would spend the next thirty years improving it and hosting visitors there, finally creating the hunting estate her husband had dreamed of. She built a monument to him on the grounds of the estate, though legend has it that it was struck by lightning and crumbled into the lake. (Personally, I would suspect human rather than divine vengeance behind this – there was no shortage of explosives or hatred of “Black Jack Adair” in Donegal.) Unlike her husband, however, Cornelia was popular with the tenants and remained so until her death in 1921.

Arthur Kingsley Porter.

Arthur Kingsley Porter.

After Cornelia’s death, the castle remained untenanted for eight years. During the Irish civil war, both Pro and Anti Treaty forces would occupy it, though this was more a symbolic gesture than anything else. Finally in 1929 it was purchased by Professor Arthur Kingsley Porter, an American art historian who specialised in the spread of styles of statuary throughout Europe in the medieval period. He was one of the founders of the College Art Association of America, and a prize with his name is still given out each year. His stated intention now was to turn his view on Celtic art and Irish archaeology, a subject which the new Irish state was keen to encourage as they tried to establish a national identity. He was friends with George William Russell, the Irish writer and artist famous for publishing his works under the pseudonym “AE”. Some of his paintings still hang in the castle today. Porter also had a home on Inishbofin Island, off the north coast of Donegal. It was an area where the Gaelic language still prevailed, and Porter learned how to speak it. It was from this Inishbofin home that he disappeared in July of 1933. While the prevailing theory was that he had fallen from the cliffs while out walking and been swept out to sea, the lack of any evidence to prove or disprove this led to frenzied speculation in the newspapers, with some claiming that his opening of an 11th century Spanish tomb had left a curse on him, while others wondered if he had faked his own death (and rumours persisted of him being spotted in Europe for years afterwards). What none of the papers dared mention, however, was that Porter was homosexual, and had in fact (with his wife Lucy’s full knowledge) been engaged in a homosexual affair that had ended poorly just eleven days before his disappearance. The inquest held that September was the first in the short history of the state to be held without a body, and officially returned a verdict of death by misadventure, through privately the coroner voiced his opinion that Lucy knew more than she said in court. The disappearance was the subject of a book by Lucy Costigan, who believed that he had faked his death, and a film is currently being made based on it.

The library of Glenveagh Castle in 1973. It remains today in the same state, preserved as McIlhenny left it.

The library of Glenveagh Castle in 1973. It remains today in the same state, preserved as McIlhenny left it.

In 1937 Lucy Porter sold Glenveagh Castle and the surrounding estate to Henry Plumer McIlhenny, a Philadelphia millionaire. His grandfather John McIlhenny had been born in Donegal over a hundred years earlier and had made a fortune first in cotton and then in the manufacture of gas meters and similar appliances. Henry’s passion was art – he was patron and curator of the Philadelphia Art Museum, and artists and actors were his favourite people. Andy Warhol described him as the “only Philadephian with glamour”, and a list of his guests at Glenveagh sounds like a Who’s Who of American celebrity of the mid-20th century. Clark Gable, Great Garbo, Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne – the list goes on. Henry was popular with the locals, who enjoyed the glamour he brought to their county – as well as his local connections, since his grandfather had been born in Milford in Donegal. In 1975 he sold the estate to the Office of Public Works to create a national park, and in 1983 he gave Glenveagh Castle, along with the surrounding gardens and most of its contents, to the nation as a gift. The castle is now a museum, open to the public, as are the surrounding gardens. The castle by the lake has become Donegal’s greatest tourist attraction, and the land that once echoed to the wails of those dispossessed by Black Jack Adair now belongs to the people he despised.


12 thoughts on “Glenveagh Castle – Cruelty, Cowboys and Celebrities

  1. Pingback: Today’s Scribbling: Glenveagh Castle – Cruelty, Cowboys and Celebrities | Daily Scribbling

    1. Uncle John

      Assuming this is you Nuala , I visited Glenveagh in the early 90’s probably around the same time as you were born! It’s a beautiful walk amongst some of the more lifeless areas of Donegal I’ve seen. A remnant no doubt of that cursed Adair
      Monster. I’m sure and hope that 30 years later it’s thriving with more life and beauty than then ! Hope the weather’s
      “Grand” as they say, good luck and love, Uncle John, x.

  2. raymond blair

    Thank you for what is overall a well-written feature on the Adairs. Just two things to note arising from my own detailed research – the date of the marriage was 1867 not 1869 and Adair did not make his money in American in the 1850’s; his American investments were mostly in the 1870’s and early 1880’s, although there is an unsubstantiated report that he open a loan office in New York as early as 1866. R Blair, Vice-President Donegal Historical Society

    1. shinyemptyhead Post author

      Thank you for the information. I’ll update the wedding date. Do you know how he made the money allowing him to purchase Glenveagh if it was not through land speculation?

      1. raymond blair

        Now that is a big question – W E Vaughan discusses the issue in detail in his classic book, “Sin, Sheep and Scotsmen” and attributes a lot of it to Adair’s clever use of mortgages and resales but he admits that was probably not the whole picture. I have pointed out that his father did inherit some money from his brother’s Trinidad sugar plantations but even that was hardly sufficient enough. So it is a matter requiring further elucidation. rb

  3. Renea D

    What a well-written piece! I’m an archivist in the panhandle of Texas and work in a museum that has many of the JA Ranch documents. I’m helping a researcher locate some information on Cornelia and was delighted to learn of this castle, and the back-story. I’m trying to find out where her private papers may have wound up (archive, university, museum, someone’s private office, etc). If anyone has any information on that, I’d be extremely grateful for the lead.

  4. Bill Sawyer

    Hello, perhaps my information is off base, but I was fortunate enough to visit and stay with Henry at Glenveigh. Also in Philadelphia. So, first off I’m intrigued by the photo of the Green Room as Henry left it. I think the Landseer paintings were sent to Philadelphia. Also a small vignette, I remember one of ther first times in the swimming pool Henry told me he sold a Seurat to pay for the pool. This was in the early 1980s. Can you imagine the value of the Seurat today, given the collector interest in old masters ? To me, staying with Henry and Glenveigh, was sort of like 50 years before the revolution. We loved his constant attention to the gardens and details. And he seemed to really thrive on entertaining and his friends. Sadly, he missed some good years as he died on the operating table during a gall bladder operation. Much of Glenveigh went to auction so he never really had a chance to possibly give away momentos outside of his will. We were lucky to acquire at auction a few items including a handsome firescreen from a bedroom. Many precious memories of costume parties and fascinating people, guests, from virtually everywhere. One lady told me one time how relaxing and fun it was… as she said to paraphrase “when we were staying with the Queen Mother, we were always curtseying”….
    Well, enough… it was 50 years before…


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