Most castles in Ireland have changed hands several times, over the centuries. Some have been taken by conquest, others have been given to gain favour, or taken in punishment. But one castle is notable for spending nearly its entire life in one family’s hands, from 1185 to 1975 (apart from one brief incident). That castle is Malahide Castle, just north of Dublin, and the family who owned it were the Talbots.
Sir Richard de Talbot was, like most Norman knights of the 12th century, more French than English. He was not an heir to any estate or title, but in 1174 he accompanied King Henry II when the king brought his army over to Ireland. The ostensible purpose of this was to help his subjects in Ireland overcome resistance from the locals to their rule, but the true purpose was to remind them that Ireland was not beyond the king’s reach, and that their oaths of fealty were still binding no matter if they moved past where they thought their border was. Most got the message, but to make sure it stuck Henry gave out gifts of lands to followers of unimpeachable loyalty. Such a one was Sir Richard, and so when the last Danish king of Dublin rebelled and was executed, his lands were given to the young Norman knight. And he did what any Norman who owned land would do. He built a castle on it.
Malahide became an important port, and control of it gave the Talbots a great deal of prestige. In 1372 Thomas Talbot (whose father had fought for England against Robert the Bruce) was summoned to the King’s Parliament, which at the time was not elected but rather appointed based on influence in the surrounding area, as Lord Talbot. This was not an aristocratic title as such, but more a recognition of the family’s power. In 1475, the Talbots were granted the title of “Lord High Admiral of Malahide and the Seas Adjoining”, effectively making them responsible for levying customs charges and enforcing maritime law in the area. The Talbots continued to prosper, until the English Civil War came across the sea and to their doors.
Miles Corbet was a regicide, in the eyes of the English law. His was not the hand that wielded the axe that struck off the head of King Charles I, but his was the hand that signed the death warrant, him and 58 others. It was Oliver Cromwell who signed his name at the top of the list, and it was Corbet who signed his name at the bottom. With that, he was sealed in loyalty to Parliament. This saw him sent to Ireland, where he wound up as one of the commissioners overseeing the implementation of Cromwell’s plan to force the natives of Ireland to move west and give up the fertile midlands to English occupation, immortalised in his declaration that they could go “to Hell or to Connaught”. Among those exiled to the west were Sir John and Lady Talbot, who had been loyal to the Royalist cause, and it was Malahide, the most defensible castle in the region, that Corbet took as his own residence. Legend has it that he set up a brewery in the chapel, and the smoke from the fires under his boiler are said to be visible to this day. He spent eleven years as lord of Malahide, until the Restoration of King Charles II saw him fleeing for his life to the Netherlands. There he was betrayed into English hands and ended his days hung, drawn and quartered before a cheering crowd. Malahide Castle was returned to the Talbots, though they did not regain all their previous holdings, most notably losing control of the port of Malahide. One thing they did, however, was to deliberately weaken and destroy the defences of the castle that had drawn Corbet to it, with Lady Talbot declaring to her son Richard that the castle “should never again serve as a stronghold to invite the residence of an usurper”.
Miles became noted as one of the ghosts that haunted the castle, who was said to appear in military garb, seemingly whole before collapsing into the four parts he had been left in after his execution. Other ghosts include Sir Walter Hussey, who was the rival of one of the Talbots for the affections of Lady Maud Plunkett. On the day of his wedding to her he was killed in battle, and now he haunts the halls of Malahide Castle to show his resentment of how she married the Talbot instead. Lady Maud is also said to haunt the halls, though not as a young woman but rather as an old lady hunting for the ghost of her third husband, a local judge whose name has not been recorded. More tragic is the story of Puck, the Talbot family jester in Tudor times. He fell in love with a female hostage billeted on the family by King Henry VIII and contrived to help her escape, but his plan was thwarted and he was found lying in the winter snow, stabbed in the heart. His spirit refused to rest, however, and stories abounded during the 1970s restoration of the castle of him being seen on the grounds. The most mysterious ghost is that of the White Lady. A painting of an extraordinarily beautiful woman in a white dress was said to have hung in the great hall of the castle, though nobody could name her or the artist who had painted her. The story had it that she would leave her painting and drift through the halls in the dead of night, and though the painting has gone, the stories of sighting her in the castle grounds have not.
The Talbots were not confined to Malahide, of course, and it was another Talbot, Richard the Earl of Tyrconnel, who was responsible for the Irish militia coming to the aid of James II in his war with William of Orange. On the morning of the Battle of the Boyne, it is said that fourteen members of the extended Talbot clan breakfasted together before going to fight for James. By the end of the day, all but one would be dead. Still, the Talbots endured, and somehow even managed to avoid attainder and retain their estate in the aftermath of the wars. The family converted to Protestantism, and sometime around 1765 the current head of the family, Richard Talbot, married an extraordinary woman who would see the family fortunes restored. Her name was Margaret O’Reilly.
Women sometimes get short shrift in the pages of history, and Margaret, ala, is no exception. She was the child of James O’Reilly and Barbara Nugent. The Nugents were a noble English family, and her brother Hugh would (on achieving a baronetcy) take the name over the more plebiean O’Reilly. Her younger brother Andrew would also join the aristocracy – as Andreas Graf O’Reilly von Ballinlough. He emigrated to Austria at the age of 14, joined the army ad rose through the ranks fighting against Napoleon. He married into an aristocratic Austrian family and became a Count of the Austrian Empire. With siblings like this, Margaret would need to work hard to stand out – but this she did, becoming a power to be reckoned with. In 1831, at the age of 86, she was created Baroness Talbot of Malahide. It was rare for a woman to receive such an honour in their own right, and it was a sign of the influence Lady Margaret held. In her new role she attended the coronation of William IV, before dying at the age of 89.
The Talbots then became an aristocratic family in the great British tradition – sometimes admirable, often odd, and frequently both. The second Baron was Lady Margaret’s son Richard Wogan Talbot, had been elected to the Irish parliament at the age of 22 (or 24, some stories state), only to be ejected after less than a year when it was pointed out that the minimum age for a member of parliament was 25. He had joined the army and served in the Napoleonic wars, attempted to establish a cotton industry in Malahide and wound up a stalwart back bench MP in the Commons. His brother, James Talbot, joined the diplomatic service, and was engaged in “highly sensitive and covert activities” on the continent. On Richard Wogan’s death, James inherited the estate and the title, but died himself a year later and passed it on to his son.
The fourth baron, also named James, was a noted archaeologist and served as president of the Royal Archaeological Institute for thirty years. He added to his families titles, as he was created as a British peer in addition to the Irish title his family held. (The Irish title is noted as “of Malahide”, while the British is “de Malahide”.) This entitled him to sit in the House of Lords, where he served in the Liberal governments of the day.
The fifth baron, Richard Wogan Talbot, was a noted explorer, who made several expeditions into Africa, H was highly popular with his Irish tenants. When he and his wife returned from their honeymoon, the locals unhitched the horses from his cart and pulled it to the castle themselves, while a local band played “Come Back to Erin”. The fondness seems to have gone both ways, as he allowed the farmers to purchase the freehold of their farms from him, something that meant a great deal both symbolically and literally in the wake of the Land War. His wife was a descendant of James Boswell, the famous companion and biographer of Samuel Johnson.
The sixth baron was named James Boswell Talbot, after his mother’s family. He succeeded to the barony at the age of 47, and three years later married Joyce Gunning Kerr, the eighteen year old daughter of a London actor. Despite the upheavals in Ireland, the Talbot family remained hugely popular and the newlyweds received the same reception as his father had – a remarkable display for 1923! It was his contributions to the literary world that James was most well known for, the most notable of which were the Asloan Manuscript and the Boswell papers. The Asloan Manuscript was a 16th century collection of Scottish writings that had been in the family’s library for centuries. This remains an invaluable source to historians today. The Boswell Papers had come from his mother, and were the personal letters and diaries of James Boswell – as with the Asloan manuscript, this provided a rare unedited glimpse into history and a valuable primary source for historians.
The last Baron de Malahide was Milo, a cousin of James Boswell and grandson of the fourth baron. Milo was, like the third baron, a diplomat, with all the intrigue that title conveys. He studied at Cambridge in the thirties, being tutored by Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt. Both men would later be revealed to be Soviet spies, and Milo’s friendship with them would lead to his early retirement in 1956. Although he was never charged, rumours swirled around him until his death in 1973 at the age of 60. These were given greater credence when his sister Rose, who inherited the estate but not the titles, was seen burning his papers after his death. His death led to the extinction of the de Malahide title, although the Irish “of Malahide” title had looser inheritance rules and passed to an English cousin.
Milo had been in negotiations to sell his castle to the Irish government when he died, and two years later his sister Rose reluctantly completed the sale, unable to otherwise meet the death duties on the estate. There was ill feeling on both sides, as she had separately sold much of the contents of the castle, including several antique works of art and furniture. Both the government and private benefactors wound up repurchasing some of these items and restoring them to the castle, which became a museum and a tourist attraction. So ended the long association of the Talbots and the castle, though their spirit still lingers in the stones they held so long.