There are certain images that spring to mind when people say “Irish castle”, and Luttrellstown Castle is the epitome of those images. The owners of it have always been at the top of Irish society, from the legendary Guinness family to the 18th century self-made millionaire Luke White, and it has appeared on film and, most famously in recent years, as the venue for Victoria and David Beckham’s wedding. Not bad for a house built by what was, at one point, the most hated family in Ireland.
Sir Geoffrey de Luterel was a part of the court of King John. John had been made Lord of Ireland by his father Henry II at a young age, and the elder Plantagenet had even tried to have his son made King of Ireland, but the Pope refused to grant permission to separate the kingdom. Still, John held Ireland as a personal possession right up through his kingship. He was not popular in Ireland – he saw no need to humour or honour the Irish chieftains, and he made great efforts to ensure that the directly held English dominion was not permitted to “go native”. In this he was supported by Sir Geoffrey. In 1210, when John brought a large army over to England to crush a local rebellion, he left Sir Geoffrey behind to keep order, granting him lands near Dublin where he established the township of Luttrellstown. Sir Geoffrey would not enjoy his Irish possessions long, however – six years later he was declared mentally incompetent and placed under his brother’s care, where he died two year later. This declaration ties suspiciously well into the end of King John’s reign, but if there was more to it, history has not recorded it.
Luttrellstown remained within the Luttrell family (who dropped the “de” as overly French), and in 1420 the fifth Lord Luttrell, another Geoffrey, built Luttrellstown Castle. The family remained prominent in Dublin life, until in the 17th century the two sons of the Luttrell family, Simon and Henry, became caught up in the Jacobite wars. Both were Colonels, and both were Catholics. Simon, the elder, led the defence of Dublin against the forces of William of Orange, and was declared by King James Lord Lieutenant of the county of Dublin. In this duty he performed admirably, and the worst barbarity that his opponents could accuse him of towards the Protestants of the city was an overzealousness in searching their premises for stocks of weapons. He held the city until the defeat of James at the Battle of the Boyne, at which point he left the city with the Jacobites and retreated to Limerick – reportedly he was the last man to leave his post.
His brother Henry, who had served in France as a young man, led a regiment of horse for the Jacobite forces. He fought at the Battle of Aughrim, which, though the Boyne gets the more fame, was truly the last great battle of the Jacobites and the Williamites. His conduct in the battle led to whispers of disloyalty, and after the Jacobites retreated to Limerick, he was found during the siege of the city to be in correspondence with the enemy forces. He barely escaped with his life, but his treachery bought him credit with the Williamites, such that when his brother fled to France in the exodus of Irish nobility known as the Flight of the Wild Geese, Henry Luttrell was able to have his family estates granted to him rather than taken from the family. He was widely reviled for his actions, however, and twenty five years later, at the age of 62, he was shot in the street while being transported in a sedan chair. A reward to a thousand pounds was offered for his killers, but they were never apprehended. His death did not end the hatred towards his family. Eighty years later, during the 1798 rebellion, his grave was broken into and his skull was smashed.
At around the same time, when his grandson Sir Henry Luttrell (who had been the general of the army in Ireland that suppressed the rebellion) was mistakenly reported dead by the Dublin Post, they printed their retraction under the headline “Public Disappointment”. The Luttrells were in somewhat dire straits at this time – for example, Sir Henry’s sister Elizabeth had only recently poisoned herself, after she had been convicted of pickpocketing in Germany and sentenced to manual labour. She had been left penniless due to gambling debts for which she had previously been imprisoned. Sir Henry himself was both blamed for allowing the rebellion to happen, while simultaneously hated by those who had rebelled. Perhaps it is no surprise then that in 1800 he sold Luttrellstown and left Ireland.
The castle was bought by a self-made man, “to the great offence of all the aristocrats in Ireland”. Luke White started out selling papers and books in the streets of Belfast, before moving to Dublin and becoming an auctioneer’s assistant. Luke was smart and lucky, a winning combination, and soon wound up in business on his own account. He wound up with his own publishing business, as well as running a lottery office as did most booksellers at the time. He speculated on trade as well, and succeeded to the extent that during the United Irishmen’s Revolt of 1798, he made the government a loan of a million pounds. In fact, he was regarded as the most successful man in Irish history when he died, leaving behind a vast fortune. Luttrellstown (which Luke renamed “Woodlands” to dispel the memory of the odious Luttrells) went to his fourth son Henry, and since his father had managed his entry into Dublin society with the same golden touch that he had in business, Henry soon became Baron Annaly. Henry’s son, the second Baron, entertained Queen Victoria at the castle as did the third Baron, who was the one who changed the name back to Luttrellstown Castle. When Ireland became independent, however, the Annalys (who as Irish MPs had divided their time between England and Ireland) quit themselves of Dublin and of Luttrellstown Castle. The fourth baron sold it, to a man who wanted it as a wedding gift.
If you have to ask what sort of man buys a castle as a wedding gift, you need look no further than Arthur Ernest Guinness, of the famous Irish Guinness family. Ernest (as he went by) was a descendant of the famous “Uncle” Arthur Guinness, who had founded the legendary Dublin brewery two hundred years before. His father Edward had steered the family fortunes through the formation of the Irish Free State, partially due to his friendship with WT Cosgrave, the first leader of the state. Ernest’s main claim to fame, prior to buying Luttrellstown, was that while serving in the British Army during World War 1 he had arrested a soldier as a spy, due to a suspicion that the man was too young for his rank and array of medals. The soldier had turned out to be the Prince of Wales. This may explain why Ernest was so keen on Dublin society, and his three daughters, Aileen, Maureen and Oonagh, became known as the “golden Guinness girls”. The title referred as much to their fortune as to their striking golden hair, and the three were very much the “It Girls” of their time. In 1923, Ernest took them around the world on his yacht before launching them onto the London social scene. All three married into the aristocracy, and for Aileen’s wedding her father bought her Luttrellstown Castle.
Marriage did not domesticate Aileen, however, as she infamously installed a nightclub in the basement of the castle, along with remodelling several of the rooms and filling the castle with art and furniture. She gained a reputation as an innovative hostess, and parties at Luttrellstown were as varied as they were frequent – fancy-dress, masked, even one where food was served on the floor and people were forbidden to pick it up. Her father’s death in 1949 curtailed (but did not stop) her entertaining, as his estate was heavily encumbered with death duties. She frequently complained of poverty later in life, although her life was still filled with extravagance. Finally, in 1983, she sold Luttrellstown, along with all of its contents, in an auction held by Christies.
The castle itself was bought by the Primwest Group, a holding company for the famously private French billionaire Didier Primat. They added a golf course to the castle as well as a spa and bar, and rented it out at $7000 a night. In 2006, two years before Primat’s death, the castle was sold to the Irish triumvirate of JP McManus, John Magnier and Aidan Brooks. The three, among the richest men in Ireland, spent twenty million euros renovating the castle and the golf course, and today it has become one of Ireland’s premier venues for weddings, corporate events and even filming – with Gerard Depardieu filming an instalment of the Asterix films on the castle grounds. A far cry from the days of Norman lords, and the very real barbarians lurking beyond the pale. Yet Luttrellstown in many ways represents the hope of modern Ireland – a piece of the past, still useful and vibrant in the present. A better fate by far than to be a ruin on a hill, and a place where, perhaps, fairytales can still come true.