Ballynahinch Castle was built some time between the end of the eighteenth century and the first decade of the following century. It was admired by the Rev. Dr. Beaufort on his tour in Connaught in 1787 but disparagingly so by the writer Maria Edgeworth in 1834 when she criticised the state and the style of the house when guest of the owner. By the time of the famine in 1848, the property was heavily mortgaged with the Law Life Insurance Company of London, who foreclosed on their loans and forced sale of the property through the Encumbered Estates Court. The Company itself bought the entire estate comprising of 195,000 acres of mountain, bog and water with the intention of developing it. A hotel was opened in the house in 1849 but further development did not materialise. The property was eventually sold to Richard Berridge, a wealthy sportsman in 1872 who transformed it by refurbishment and expansion which included an additional story. In the mid-1920’s it was leased to an Indian prince who eventually purchased it. It remained in private hands until 1946 when it re-opened as a luxury country house hotel. Since then it has seen many changes and alterations including large additions.
Ballynahinch Castle itself is the primary source for understanding and appreciating the evolution and architectural significance of the building. But it is only by studying the history of the building, the people who have lived and visited it over the centuries and the primary sources – in some cases contradictory that one can understand and identify the many changes that have taken place to the building and have molded it to how it appears today.
Before falling to the Martins, the Ballynahinch estate had belonged to the O’Flaherty Clan. Donal O’Flaherty, first husband of Grace O’Malley, the pirate queen, built the small castle on Ballnahinch Lake in the 1580’s. The Martin family, one of the tribes of Galway acquired, part by purchase and part by grant O’ Flaherty lands in Connemara in the mid seventeenth century.
The three Martin estates of Ross, Ballynahinch and Tulira comprised a total acreage of over two hundred thousand acres.1 The senior branches of Ross and Tulira, were estates at the end of the 16th cent and a junior house, Ballynahinch was founded by a younger son of the Ross family in the 17th cent. The origins of the family previously outside the town go back to 1586 when the Martin’s made a permanent settlement by purchase from the O’Flaherty’s.
What is known about the origins of Ballynahinch Castle may be had from the journals and diaries of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century travellers which are a rich source of information about its appearance, owners and landscape setting. While these sources can be contradictory in some cases, the one common theme to all is their observations of the building, was its architectural insignificance in relation to the extent of the estate.
One of the earliest travellers through Connemara was the Reverend Daniel Beaufort [1739- 1821], rector of Navan, cartographer, amateur architect and keen observer, who in 1787 toured Connemara. On his way to Connemara he visited Richard Martin, the owner of a vast desolate estate which stretched from Oughterard to the coast and covered nearly196,000 acres. The Martin’s principal residence was at Dangan on the outskirts of Galway city where Beaufort noted the following impressions:
Sept 26, 1787
……Dangan, a tolerable good house, has a fine command of the lake and river of Corrib, which is very full and broad. The lawn pretty with a fine graveled drive around it and pleasing walks, besides some cottages and temples very properly placed.
Sept 27, 1787
We arrived at Ballynahinch in 8 hours fatiguing travel, ……but when we arrived nothing could be got for us to eat but tea and bread and butter ! – However I obtained same rashers and eggs, but they were so greasy and ill dressed that I was glad to recur to Mrs Bodkin’s offer of tea, - for indeed they had neither wine nor strong drink for us – The house is decent, fire plenty, the bed very good, all pretty clean, our landlady a very civil good sort of lady; who keeps an inn only to oblige …..
The weather continues extremely fine, but not being so bright as yesterday could not ascend the Mt of Letric the highest of the 12 Pins, which hangs over the lake on the N side, as the hills were all crowned in fog. – Took some bearings of Cashel and Un…., to ascertain the situation of Ballynahinch – walked by the river a good way – saw the new church just built here but not finished [in the parish of Myros] Was surprised at the beautiful walks Mrs Martin has made by the lake side; which is admirably indented, and ornamented by a wooded peninsula, in which they are building a cottage – In a pretty glen there is a fine natural cascade and a little thatched hermitage that have a good effect – at the other end is a bathing house, with the necessary buildings, and a boathouse for boats – and in a very small strong island in the middle of lake an old castle which is now repairing and before it grows a very curious elder tree of great antiquity rooted in the place about 12 feet, … and very knotty – We had this day a good dinner but no other beverage than very excellent spring water – the house being out of spirits. Sheep are now very scarce here none being reared in the place and too dear to buy, frequently also stolen. I saw one large herd of handsome goats. Farms of great extent very little and very little inhabited, small spots are cultivated. …. But no continued improvement, no system at all. Mrs Bodkin has above 2000 acres at £60 a year – the famous Popham had taken a perpetuity of 11,000 acres and was to build towns, and cut canals etc., etc. Men being scarce labour is dear. Mr Martin pays 8d a day …… masons and carpenters seem as bad, no wall plumbed, no joint true ……
It appears that Ballynahinch was initially occupied by the Martin family as a rural idyll or sporting retreat as was fashionable at the time or even as a refuge from creditors, as has been written. The house does not seem to have become the permanent residence of the family until the early years of the nineteenth century and so it is unlikely to have been the birthplace of Thomas Barnwall Martin in 1786.3 It is not known if either Mrs Martin’s cottage which was under construction at the time of Beaufort’s visit or if Mrs Bodkin’s Inn evolved into the present Castle. From Beaufort’s description, Mrs Martin’s cottage appears to have been closer to the lake shore than the present house and was possibly the cottage that is illustrated in the watercolour titled A Cottage of Mr Martin’s Ballynahinch, dated 1806. The view point is difficult to identify. Alternatively, Mrs Martin’s cottage is possibly the small building shown on the manuscript Ordnance Survey map dated 1836. Subsequent visitors’ remarks suggest that Mrs Bodkins Inn evolved into the present building, although nothing of the Inn can now be identified in the present structure.
The Chevalier de La Tocnaye, a French emigree nobleman on a tour of Ireland in 1797 visited Ballynahinch and recorded his observations as follows:
‘This is certainly a most extraordinary country, almost entirely uncultivated, and covered with mountains and lakes…..The district is about sixty miles long by forty wide, and belong almost entirely to Col. Martin………I quickly arrived at Ballynahinch, the home of Col. Martin, who for a man of such fortune has chosen a strange retreat in this wild county. The house was built by his father for an inn, …… I have never in my life been in the house of a rich man who appeared to care so little for the things of this world as Col. Martin…..The Col. had commenced to build a superb mansion on the boarders of a pretty lake at foot of this mountain [Leitrig Mt.], but when the foundations had reached the ground level, he saw that it was going to be so costly that he had abandoned the work, for the present at any rate.’
There is no indication of where this abandoned mansion was sited other than possibly near the former stables which are now known as The Old Manor. This would explain why the stables are sited nearly a mile from the present castle, although the stables are dated nearly a decade after La Tocnaye’s visit. On the other hand his host might have alluded to a proposed mansion to explain why the proprietor of such a large estate lived in a former inn !
Spellissy states that in 1813 Richard Martin turned the former farmhouse cum-inn into a gentleman’s residence and went by the prevailing fashion of the day by calling it a castle. Maria Edgeworth [1767-1848] prolific Anglo-Irish writer and commentator, visited Ballynahinch Castle on the 9th April,1834 and recorded her impressions, some highly critical, in her journal. It was the dilapidation of the house which she noticed so trenchantly and which foreshadowed the decline in the family’s fortunes and eventual loss of the property within fifteen years of her visit.
9 April, 1834
… the house we saw was a rambling kind of mansion with great signs of dilapidation – broken panes, wood panes, and slate panes, and in the ceiling and passages terrible splotches and blotches of damp and wet, which we were bound not to see as we passed with Mrs Martin.
… we found Mr Martin in the drawing room …. It was a fine large dining room. The doors of which there were three in this room were magnificently thick well moulded mahogany, three times as thick as the doors in our hall. They gave an air at first sight of grandeur – but not one of them would shut or keep open a single instant: … and desperately cold was the room, as streams of wind came in at our back to feed an enormous fire whose flames went up the chimney. There were no window curtains in the dining room or drawing room ….
The great drawing room into which we went after dinner was to the best of my belief forty feet long, and this room was tolerably well furnished with round table, card tables in piers, and two sofas, but not papered or walls coloured, and the want of window curtains and rattling of window shutters and total lack of bookcases gave the whole an unfinished unbelievable appearance.
… my room was at the back of the house over the drawing room and from my end window I looked down a sudden slope to the only trees that could be seen far or near … from my windows I saw a magnificent but desolate prospect of an immense lake and mountains bare and prodigious height … when I went out at the hall door at which we entered the night before, I was surprised to see neither mountain or lake nor river – all flat as a pancake and a wild boundless sort of common with showers of stones … something like Anglesea – and no avenue or regular approach but a half made road. I walked up the road and turned back to look at Ballynahinch Castle, nothing could look less like a castle. … Ballynahinch is a whitewashed dilapidated mansion with nothing of a castle about it excepting four pepperbox looking towers stuck on at each corner – very badly, and whitewashed; and all that battlemented front which looks so grand in the drawing is mere whitewashed stone or brick or mud, I cannot swear which. But although the house is very low and ruinous looking, - not a ruin of antiquity – but with cow house and pig stye and dung hill adjoining, and a little indescribable in a sunk sort of back yard seen at the end of the mansion.
Many of Edgeworth’s comments concerning the style and character of the castle can be related to existing features in the building such as the heavy mahogany doors, the forty foot long drawing room and the number of doors in the dining room, while other features can not. The four pepperbox corner towers that she describes no longer exist and are possibly the projections to the building as shown on the draft manuscript ordnance survey may of 1839. On the other hand from their description they were possibly bartizan style turrets, similar to those found at Ardfry or Jenkinstown. Alternatively the author may have been describing the four corner towers on the old stable building which stands at a distance to west of the castle.
Throughout the early decades of the nineteenth century the fortunes of Richard Martin [1754-1834], M.P. for County Galway were in serious decline. To escape his creditors Martin moved to the continent, and died in 1834 at Boulogne. His heir Thomas Barnewall Martin [1786-1847] M.P. inherited an estate which was neglected, crippled by debt and heavily mortgaged, died of ‘famine fever’ in 1847. The heavily encumbered estate was inherited by Mary Letitia Martin, his only child, who continued to spend large sums of money on providing food, clothing and work for hundreds of her tenantry. She compounded her financial difficulties by accepting a loan for £5000 from the Board of Works for improving drainage on the run down estate. Within months a receiver was appointed to deal with the debts on behalf of The London Law Life Assurance Society and the entire estate of 196,540 acres was advertised for sale. The company was an institution founded in London in 1824 and backed by some of the wealthiest lawyers in Victorian England and now forms part of the Phoenix Insurance Co.
The Martin Estate failed to sell at the first attempt and by 1852 was again being advertised for auction but this time in the Encumbered Estates Court with a reduced acreage of 192,000 acres. The company bought out the Martin family debts and purchased the estate out right in order to develop Connemara ‘by vast wealth, good management, business habits, thrift, honesty and energy.’ The company bought the estate for £118,000 and immediately realized £70,000 by the sale of portion of it.
When the Martin Estate initially came into the hands of the Assurance Company in 1848 Thomas Robinson was appointed agent to manage the estate, being the only resident in the district who had sufficient knowledge of the people and energy to manage them. He came to Ballynahinch from Scotland about 20 years before, to fish the Salmon rivers and the Oyster beds in the bay of Kilkerrean. He had a lease of these fisheries, and also of some land from Thomas Martin. He built preserving houses for the salmon and oysters, which were boiled in canisters, hermetically sealed and then sent to Dublin, London and other markets. One of the first things Robinson undertook was to establish a tourist hotel in the castle - almost one hundred years before the Irish Tourist Board did likewise.
The hotel does not appear to have been a lasting success. For the next twenty years, the company tried to development the property by good
management and commissioned several reports on the potential of the estate including one by Thomas Colville Scott dated 1853 and another by J. Denton Bailey dated 1865. In the later report it was recommended that the [old] stables be converted into a hotel. In addition several rentals used for the management of the estate survive, dating from the 1840’s
By the 1860’s very little had been achieved - tilled fields had lapsed into disuse, the land was left un-drained, and the Company and its agent are now remembered as harsh taskmasters who inspired secret society activity in the region. A traveller in 1862 was highly critical of the owners and described them as land speculators rather than landlords.
He also stated that the Company had a rent roll of £10,000 a year of which none was reinvested in the estate. In 1862 The Dublin Builder reported that a new hotel was to be built at Ballynahinch ‘The style is Tudor Gothic and the design handsome. The accommodation comprises on ground floor, coffee, reception, billiard rooms, bar etc., etc., numerous bed, dressing and bath rooms on first floor and extensive culinary offices, etc,.’ Samuel U. Roberts, Galway County Surveyor was the appointed architect, Patterson Kempster, the quantity surveyors and Mr Brady, jun., the contractor. The work was to cost £5000. It is uncertain if the work described in the announcement referred to alterations to the existing Castle, if so, whether the work was executed, or if was intended to be a new building elsewhere on the estate. A common theme of all the early visitors critical comments regarding Ballynahinch was its faux castle style, modesty in size and poor state of repair.
A tourist guide in 1843 notes as follows … Ballynahinch, the seat of T.B. Martin, MP the great proprietor of the district, possess more acres than any other man in the kingdom. The house is a plain structure, situated on the shore of the lake whose name it bears, surrounded by a great extent of partially reclaimed lands, and commands good views of the lakes,… while a later edition dated 1854 describes the Castle as … The modern family mansion is a very plain structure in the center of the demesne, which is more remarkable from its situation, and the association connected with its former possessors than from its intrinsic value as a residence …
In 1871 a consortium headed by a Mr. Jervis approached the Law Life Insurance Co. with the view to purchase the Ballynahinch Estate. After protracted negotiations a sale was agreed and bridging finance was to be provided by Richard Berridge a wealthy brewer and partner in the Meux Brewery, London. At the last moment Berridge renaged on the promised finance and purchased the estate himself, for £230,000. This action resulted in an appeal to the House of Lords by Jervis. The plaintiff outlined his case in detail and accused Berridge of chicanery, trickery and dishonesty, etc. The Lord Chancellor ruled against Jervis and Berridge was declared the rightful purchaser.
Soon after Berridge got possession of the estate in 1873 he commenced a thorough programme of refurbishment of the Castle. These included substantial improvements and additions to the existing building. [Appendix james Hogan] The improvements resulted in the rateable valuation of the house increasing from £40 to £80. The additions included offices, carpenters shop, steward office, tool house, laundry, drying room, coach house, stables and stores. It was probably at this date that the South West bays of the house were also added. These additions amounted to a further substantial rates increase of £30 resulting in a total rateable valuation of £110 for the Castle. Late nineteenth century photographs of the house show it in pristine condition.
In 1894 further work was undertaken at Ballynahinch including building the two gate lodges, the enclosed yard and two story range of farm buildings, all to the design of Thomas Hamilton, architect of Galway. At about the same period Richard Berridge sold a large portion of the estate to the Congested Districts Board.
The last substantial alteration to Ballynahinch Castle took place in 1908 when the entire second story was added and the exterior was re-rendered. This work was designed by the architect Lawrence A. McDonnell, Dublin, the contractor was H. & J. Martin, Dublin and the work cost about £3000. The architectural practice of McDonnell and Dixon of which Lawrence McDonnell was the founding partner is still in practice. Their archive of drawings which contains designs for Ballynahinch Castle are on deposit with the Irish Architectural Archive, Dublin, but are at present unavailable consult. Likewise, the firm of contractors H. & J. Martin founded in 1839 in Belfast is still thriving.
Richard Berridge shortly before 1925 leased Ballynahinch Castle and fisheries to Kumar shri Ranjijsinhji [1872-1933], the Jam Sahib of Nawanagar a renowned cricketer, popularly known as ‘Ranji’. The Maharajah ultimately purchased the Castle, the demesne, several fisheries and lodges for £35,000 and spent £24,000 on improvements to the castle, estate buildings and planted nearly thirty thousand additional trees. The fishery being acknowledged as one of the best salmon and sea trout fisheries in Europe On his death in 1933 his nephew sold the property to Mr Frederick C. McCormick, a Dublin businessman and keen fisherman who held it until his own death in 1946 when it was purchased by The Irish Tourist Board for the purpose of running it as a hotel, but without much success. In 1949 the Board tried to sell the entire property, consisting of Ballynahinch Castle, Inagh Lodge, Glendalough House, the furniture and the lands and property attached, by public auction. The property was withdrawn from sale at £18,000.
The I.T.B. held the Castle until the early nineteen fifties when Mr Noel Huggard took over the running of the Hotel in conjunction with Ashford Castle. In 1957 Ballynahinch was bought by an American investor, Mr Edward Ball. Mr Ball in turn sold shares in the Castle to many friends and business associates. In 1978 he resigned as president of the corporation and nominated Raymond Mason, who along with his wife was to hold a controlling interest in the property until earlier this year. Under their direction, the Castle under went extensive renovations and alterations. The well known architect, Sam. Stephenson was commissioned to drew up a programe of works including providing fitted bathrooms to all bedrooms, utilising the courtyard for additional bedrooms and the provision of a new sunken dining-room, which would not interrupt the views from the then existing dining room. The latter proposal was not realised. In addition, an expensive programe of refurbishment to make the building structurally sound was under taken including re-roofing the Castle, replacing the timber ground floor with a tiled concrete floor, splicing the ends of all first floor, floor joists and re-rendering a large proportion of the internal ground floor plaster work. The budget for this work was in excess of £709,000, excluding fees and VAT.
In 1992 the former stable building dated 1813 which stands at a distance from the Castle, was converted into time-share apartments.
In 1997 the capacity of the hotel was increased very considerably by the building of the two story River Suite wing of nine suites and a further dining room extension. In the following year the adjoining three story Luxury Suite extension of twelve units was erected. At about the same period the service courtyard Staff Accommodation wing was provided.
The history of Ballynahinch Castle over the past two hundred and twenty years records mixed fortunes, the early years were of decline and uncertainty, however for the past forty years it has been a period of enhancement, refurbishment and expansion.