Perhaps the greatest individual phenomenon of 18th century Ireland was the rise of Speaker Conolly, an innkeeper’s son from Donegal who the most powerful man of his generation. His magnificent Palladian residence at Castletown House, Celbridge, is one of the Irish nation’s greatest treasures. The Speaker’s eventual heir, “Squire Tom” Conolly was to the forefront of Irish politics in the lead up to the disastrous Rebellion of 1798 and married one of the beautiful Lennox sisters. In one particularly audacious adventure, another Tom Conolly attempted to run the Charlston Blockade in the American Civil War and was home in Donegal in time for an election. The house passed from the Conolly-Carew family in 1966 and is now open to the public.
William Conolly died “of the Apoplexy” (ie: a stroke) at his house on Dublin’s Capel Street on 30th October 1729. Two days later, the Old Dublin Intelligence contained notice of his death. It spoke of a man whose credentials included being a Commissioner of the Irish Revenue, Speaker of the House of Commons, ten times a Lord Justice and “one of His Majesty’s most honourable Privy Council of the Kingdom of Ireland”. His body, it continued, was to be “interred with great Solemnity at Cel-bridge near Castle-Town on Tuesday next, to be attended by the House of Commons and their Speaker in fine Irish Linen Scarves and the Coaches and Servants of all the Nobility and Gentry in the City”.
William “Speaker” Conolly was indeed a most remarkable man. He was born in 1662, the son of Patrick Conolly, a Protestant innkeeper from Ballyshannon, Co. Donegal. It may be assumed Patrick conformed to the Established Church sometime before William’s birth for certainly the names of his brothers and cousins – Patrick, Hugh, Phelim and Thady – indicate a family whose origins were rooted in the Irish Catholic tradition. After the restoration of Charles II in 1661, a new wave of English and Scottish planters began arriving in the Colony of Ulster. In their pursuit of beverage, companionship and accommodation, they often lit upon places like Patrick Conolly’s inn. By the time William came of age, his father had earned enough money to dispatch him to Dublin to study law. In 1685, the 23 year old qualified as an Attorney and became attached to the Court of Common Pleas. In 1692, he secured a position as Agent for Captain James Hamilton, one of Donegal’s leading landowners. William spent the next twenty years practicing as an Attorney on the North West circuit of Ireland, garnering a reputation for shrewdness and ability, culminating with his appointment on May 2nd 1698 to the lucrative post of Collector and Receiver of Revenue for the plantation towns of Londonderry and Coleraine. William of Orange himself signed the appointment.
William’s skill was in renting lands from his neighbours and then purchasing estates forfeited by supporters of James II after the 1690 Rebellion. In 1691, for instance, his position as agent to the “Mayor, Commonalty and Citizens of Londonderry” helped him lease the forfeited estate of the Earl of Antrim from the Commissioners of Revenue in Ireland. In 1703, he increased his landholdings by some 10,000 acres with the purchase of estates forfeited by such families as the Plunketts, Nugents and Itchinghams. The price paid was often less than £1 an acre and in some cases he paid only one third of the purchase money and the rest in debentures. He was also able to acquire estates held by the financially unstable descendents of those early Ulster settlers granted the lands of O’Neill and O’Donnell after 1608. For example, in 1697, he secured the 1000 acre estate of Limavady from Sir Thomas Phillips. He rapidly developed these estates, with the financial backing of Sir Alexander Cairns, a prominent London banker whom Swift regarded as “a shuffling scoundrel”. In 1720 William purchased the Ballyshannon estate from Lord Folliott, gaining him several thousand acres of lush pastureland on the banks of Lough Erne. The salmon fishing rights alone, secured from his neighbour, Sir John Caldwell in 1728, were worth a small fortune. Even in the last year of his life, he was buying land – paying John White £11,883 for the manor town and lands of Leixlip, Newtown and Stacomney. These lands he then leased out to “suitable” Protestant purchasers.
His acceptance into the social hierarchy was much boosted by his marriage in 1694 to Katherine Conyngham, daughter of William III’s General Sir Albert Conyngham and sister of Brigadier Henry Conyngham of Mount Charles, Co. Donegal, and later of Slane Castle, Co. Meath. As well as securing a dowry of £2300, the marriage allied William to some of the most influential Protestant families in the North – the Leslies, Montgomerys, Hamiltons, Gores, Knoxes and McClintocks.
In 1691 William purchased Rodanstown outside Kilcock which was his country residence until he came to live in Castletown. In 1707 he acquired a mansion house on Capel Street in Dublin where he lived “in commanding elegance, his brilliant vermilion and gold State coach for fourteen years adding distinction to the neighbourhood”. In his final years, he also oversaw the construction of the new Parliament House in Dublin and his own great Palladian mansion at Castletown. The latter was designed by Alessandro Galilei (1691-1737), an Italian architect, and completed by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce. [3a]
In 1715, it emerged that James II’s son, the Old Pretender James III, was returning to join his followers in Scotland. The anticipated insurrection was easily put down but it is important to note that William’s peers regarded him with sufficient respect to appoint him Speaker of the Irish House of Commons that same year. Two years later he was named one of the three Lord Justices chosen to administer the Government of Ireland in the absence of the Lord Lieutenant. Of course there were those in the Irish “quality and old gentry” who greatly resented the promotion of such a low-born upstart, but William seems to have possessed a charm that won over most of his opponents. He remained Speaker until the final weeks of his life and was sworn in as Lord Justice on nine further occasions. His political career was characterized by his steadfast opposition to the appointment of British officials to posts in the Irish administration. He also surrounded himself with a new elite of Irish-born officials and clerics, including Henry Grattan’s grandfather, which unnerved the British government in London.
When he died in 1729, Speaker Conolly was unquestionably the wealthiest man in Ireland. Swift was not far wrong when he estimated, during the Woods Halfpence controversy of 1724, that Conolly would require 240 horses to bring his half-year’s rent from Dublin to Castletown and two or three great cellars in his house for storage. His life stands testament to the fact that even in the 18th century a man of relatively humble origins could, if he played by the rules, rise through the ranks to become the most influential man in his country. He became a legend in his own lifetime, an inspiration to young middle class Protestants throughout Ireland.
Speaker Conolly had no children but he proved to be a generous benefactor to both his own relations and those of his wife. For instance, he settled the estate of Newtown Limavady on the two sons of his brother-in-law Brigadier Conyngham, who was killed fighting in Spain, and left £5000 to his daughter. His widow, Katherine Conolly, was his principal benefactor, inheriting all his estates in Wales, Kildare, Meath, Westmeath and Roscommon, together with the Capel Street townhouse and the Castletown estate. As to his estates in Donegal, Dublin, Fermanagh, Wexford and Waterford, these were bequeathed to his nephew William Conolly. This young man would go on to inherit all Katherine Conolly’s estates on her death in 1752.
Katherine Conolly survived her husband for 32 years, living between Castletown and Capel Street. She emerges from the past as a lady of kindness and fortitude. The Irish elite continued to value her influence and judgment in the appointment and promotion of new officials. She erected a Charity School in Celbridge, aided by the architect Thomas de Burgh (qv) and in March 1740 she commissioned the erection of the obelisk known today as “Conolly’s Folly”. Local farmers, who had suffered greatly when a brutal frost wiped out their crops earlier in the year, were employed in building the folly, thus generating a much-needed income. She was particularly fond of her nephew and future heir, William Conolly, and his wife, Lady Anne. Indeed she claimed to have “the same love and regard” for both William and Anne as if they were her own children.
William was the son of Speaker Conolly’s only brother Patrick who was involved in the collection of rents on the Conolly estates before he removed to London in 1705. In 1720 Speaker Conolly secured young William a post in the Duke of Bolton’s office during his Lord Lieutenancy. In 1727, William won the parliamentary seat for Ballyshannon which he retained until his death in 1754. Towards the end of 1733 William proposed to Lady Anne Wentworth, daughter of the Earl of Strafford. His wealth and “very good caricktor” appealed to the Wentworths in equal parts. And yet rare indeed was the occasion when an innkeeper’s grandson could marry the daughter of an Earl without sending shockwaves through the community. William and Lady Anne arrived in Ireland in August 1733 and settled at Leixlip Castle where they lived before their eventual move to Castletown. They immediately threw themselves into the party spirit of the “Dublin gaities”, the annual season when the aristocracy and gentry of Ireland gathered in the capital for gala balls, court presentations and such like. A daughter, Katherine, was born on January 31st 1734. Later that year, Lord Strafford, eager to have his daughter back in England, secured William the seat of Aldborough in the English Parliament. On December 5th 1734 a son was born. He was named Thomas after Lord Strafford’s great-uncle, the notorious Earl of Strafford who ruled Ireland on behalf of Charles I and was later executed. Announcing his birth William wrote: “As it came sometime before we expected it, it cannot be a chopping son but it eats and cryes enough to make us believe that it will continue with us”.
In late 1744, the Conollys moved to England for close on four years, living between London and Staffordshire, with occasional return visits to London. Old Mrs. Conolly was approaching the end of her remarkable life. She wrote: “I have enjoyed a long share of health and happiness for many years but like all things in this world it has its changes, some black, some white; neither beauty, birth nor grandeur can give us any constancy in this life”. Her peaceful death in 1752 at the age of 90 was greeted with universal loss although Mrs Delaney felt she was somewhat neglectful to “her sister, servant and [the] poor”, an oversight which “Mr. Conolly, a very generous, good man” later amended.
After Mrs Conolly’s death, William and Lady Anne and their seven children moved into Castletown. Two years later, William died. As his only son Thomas was under age, Lady Anne removed the family to Strafford and Castletown was temporarily abandoned although the executors – including Nathaniel Clements – were careful to keep the property in good condition. On 30th December 1758, Tom Conolly married Lady Louisa Lennox, third daughter of the 2nd Duke of Richmond. The story of the Lennox sisters has recently been made popular in Stella Tillyard’s biography “Aristocrats”. Suffice it to say that Louisa’s sister Emily was married to the Earl of Kildare (later Duke of Leinster, qv) and living at Carton. The eldest sister Caroline eloped and married the wily politician Lord Holland and the youngest Sarah, considered one of the greatest beauties of her age, married the Suffolk racing magnate, Sir Charles Bunbury. In October 1759, the Conollys finally bade London farewell and settled in Castletown. Lady Louisa swiftly had the house extended, renovated and redecorated, aided by the English architect Sir William Chambers and his assistant Simon Vierpyl. When Arthur Young visited in June 1776, he maintained it was “the finest house in Ireland and not exceeded by many in England”.
Tom Conolly does not come through as the best of men. Lady Louisa’s sisters regarded him as “a silly tiresome boy”, a toad-eater, an attention-seeking hypochondriac. They did not doubt his generosity or his love for Louisa but nonetheless Caroline wondered how miserable she would have been “to have had such a husband”. Tom was a liberal Whig, representing Malmesbury (1759–68) and Chichester (1768–84) in the English Parliament and Londonderry in the Irish. He initially made no remarkable contribution to either but his wealth was such that, in Ireland, he was sworn in as a Privy Councillor and appointed Lord of the Treasury, Commissioner of Trade and Lieutenant of County Londonderry. His political beliefs were somewhat unique – he preferred the word “independent” – being full of noble ideas and sweeping opinions on reform. Sir Jonah Barrington regarded him as “friendly, sincere, honourable and munificent in disposition; but whimsical, wrongheaded and positive, his ideas of politics were limited and confused … he was bad as a statesman, worse as an orator”. His ill-advised support of the Union between Britain and Ireland and his opposition to the Volunteer gatherings in the 1780s lost him some of his closest friends in the Patriot party. That said, he was adamant in his opposition to the bribery and corruption so rife during the Viceroyalty of the decadent Duke of Rutland (1784–87). His neighbour Dr. Barnard of St. Wolstan’s Abbey in Celbridge claimed “there was none more often on his legs" [in the Irish Parliament] when it came to denouncing Rutland than “our friend Conolly”. When George III lost his mind in 1788, Tom joined forces with Henry Grattan in opposing a government led Tory regime and invited Prince George to become the unrestricted Regent of Ireland. After the king recovered his health, the Irish Tories rounded on Grattan, Conolly and their supporters, forcing them out of public office and so igniting the first sparks of revolt that would flare up in 1798. This has been regarded as proof that, like the Norman settlers of Ireland, “the generosity, levity, impetuosity and recklessness” of Celtic Ireland had now made the descendents of the Cromwellian and Williamite settlers “more Irish than the Irish themselves”.
Tom spent the duration of the 1790s warning the government in England that the repressive policies of the Tory administration in Dublin would lead to disaster. The appointment of Lord Fitzwilliam as Viceroy in 1795 bode well for the Irish Whigs and supporters of Catholic emancipation but his dismissal three months later was crippling. Every week, more enraged Irish people stole out from their homesteads and joined the United Irishmen. Tom declared himself opposed to the government but simultaneously assured the Viceroy of his absolute resolve to “uphold the monarchy with life and fortune”. Tom’s position was tricky. His own niece was married to Lord Castlereagh, one of the principal players in the Dublin government. His wife’s nephew Lord Edward Fitzgerald was the most public leader of the United Irishmen. His sister-in-law, Lady Sarah Napier, was also a committed opponent of the government.
When the rebellion broke out in May 1798, Castletown was inevitably dragged into the forefront. As fires and musket shot blazed across north Kildare, so a company of Derry Militia arrived at Castletown to protect the house and its occupants, including the Napiers. Later that month, Lord Edward was apprehended and fatally shot. Tom’s continued loyalty to the government blinded him to the growing rift between himself and his Fitzgerald / Lennox relations. In June 1798 the new Viceroy, Lord Cornwallis, actually secured Tom’s support as one of his principal agents in Ireland, communicating any information he thought might assist the government in suppressing the Rebellion. Two years later, the Act of Union put an end to Tom’s political career and he retired to Castletown where he was plagued by a persistent cough and an onerous depression. As early as March 1799 Lady Sarah was writing: “What vexes me most is the result of all the agitations and schisms on Mr. Conolly’s health. He with £27,000 a year, an angel for a wife, many real friends, very tolerable health, a lovely place, many attached servants, power sufficient to keep the neighbourhood quiet (if he knew how), his own Regiment quartered here to help him, is hourly in a sort of dispair, wishing himself dead, hurting his health, raving of dangers that don’t exist, saying he is harnessed to death because he has not a friend on earth”.
Resentment against Tom’s support of the government escalated to such an extent that, in the summer of 1801, the Conollys left Castletown and moved to London. Tom died aged 69 on the afternoon 27th April 1803. He and Lady Louisa had no children. By his will he left everything to his wife for life, and thence to Edward Pakenham, eldest son of his niece Louisa Pakenham who lived across the Liffey at Rockfield (Donacomper). Lady Louisa continued to live at Castletown until her death, alleviating her loneliness by developing Ireland’s first Industrial School (on the site of her husband’s kennels) where boys were taught carpentry, tailoring, shoe-making and basket weaving. In another building nearby, girls were taught how to knit, sew and cook. As early as 1796 English papers were declaring that the fashion for straw bonnets in England originated with Lady Louisa’s “praiseworthy” school for “the poor of Celbridge”. Even the Queen and the Royal Princesses were known to sport Castletown bonnets! In August 1821 Lady Louisa erected a tent on the lawn facing Castletown, got into it and died. This was her intention, to die looking at the house to which she made such an enormous impact in terms of decoration and character.
Castletown then passed to Colonel Edward Pakenham, a great-nephew of Tom Conolly, who duly assumed the name and arms of Conolly. Two years earlier, Edward married Catherine Ponsonby-Barker. They moved to Castletown in 1821 where they raised six sons and four daughters. One son, Captain Arthur Conolly, was killed at the battle of Inkermann on 5th November 1854. Another, Colonel John Conolly was one of the first recipients of the Victoria Cross in the Crimean War. The youngest, Richard Conolly, was Secretary to the British Legation in Peking. One of Edward and Catherine's daughters was Mary Margaret Conolly who was married, in 1852, to the Rt.Hon. Henry Bruen, MP, PC, of Oak Park, Co. Carlow and Coolbawn, Enniscorthy, Co Wexford. Their son Henry Bruen was MP for Carlow and married Agnes, daughter of Arthur 'The Incredible' MacMorrough Kavanagh, PC, of Borris. Henry and Mary Bruen's eldest daughter was Katherine Anne Bruen who married Thomas Kane McClintock Bunbury, 2nd Baron Rathdonnell.
When Edward died in 1848, his 25-year-old eldest son Tom Conolly succeeded to Castletown as well as to his the vacant seat of Donegal. He was also Deputy Lieutenant and Justice of the Peace for Donegal and Kildare. The Conolly fortunes were already in decline when Tom succeeded. His fulsome lifestyle did little to halt the downturn. An intimate friend of both Napoleon III and General Robert E Lee, this uncle of Katherine Anne Rathdonnell attempted to run the Charleston blockade during the US Civil War but was foiled when Unionist cruisers sank his ship. Cast adrift on an unknown coast, he managed to hail a passing sailing vessel bound for England, worked as a crewman for the duration of the trip, jumped ship on the coast of Donegal and was in Donegal town in the nick of time to retain his seat in the election. He became a good friend to Prince Louis Napoleon during the time he lived in London. In 1868, he caught the eye of the gorgeous (and wealthy) Miss Sarah Shaw, daughter of a Celbridge millowner from Temple House, Celbridge; they were married in Bray in September, honeymooned in Paris and returned to Ireland the following spring. The "lowly" bride shocked many of his contemporaries, but it was a happy union. Three sons and a daughter followed before Tom’s unexpected death aged 53 in August 1876. The Irish Times mourned him as “genial, kindly, generous to a fault, patriotic in sentiment [and] where the best interests of Ireland were concerned ,one of the very best of our resident landlords”. Several decades later, in his son's obituary in The Otago Witness, they too recalled him as ‘almost the last of the old school of Irish gentlemen – gay, gracious, kindly, brave and chivalrous’.Tom's sisters included Louisa (who m. 1846 the 3rd Baron Langford but accidentally drowned in November 1854, four months after her husbands death), Henrietta (who married in 1880, the Rev Edward Montgomery Moore) and Mary Margaret (who was married on 6 June 1854 to Rt Hon Henry Bruen of Oak Park and died on 13 May 1894; he died 8 March 1912).
Tom’s eldest son Lieutenant Thomas Conolly was born on 1 September 1870. He joined the Scots Greys from the Militia in 1893 and was commissioned as a full lieutenant I December 1894. Four years later the younger Tom was sent to Egypt for employment with the Egyptian army. During the Boer War, he was killed fighting in ‘the affair at Nitrals Nek’ (at Uitval) on 11 July 1900. (The Times, Saturday, Jul 14, 1900; pg. 8; Issue 36194; col C). Reporting on his death, The Otago Witness declared him ‘one of the best-beloved’ of the Scot’s Greys officers.
His brother Major Edward Conolly then succeeded but let Castletown out for the first two decades of the 20th century. When he died in 1956, the property passed to his brother-in-law, Bill Carew, 6th Baron Carew, eldest son of the Major’s only sister Catherine and Gerald Sharpland, 5th Baron Carew. The 6th Baron married Lady Sylvia Maitland, a daughter of the Earl of Lauderdale, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland from 1915 to 1916.
In 1965 Lord Carew sold the house and 500 acre estate to Major Willson for £166,000. Two years later, Desmond Guinness, President of the Irish Georgian Society, purchased the house and 120 acres with a view to opening it to the public. In 1979 the house was given to the Castletown Foundation, a charitable foundation established to own and maintain the house.
The present head of the Conolly family is Patrick Conolly Carew, 7th Baron Carew, who represented Ireland in eventing at the Olympics. In 1962 he married Celia Cubitt, daughter of the Hon. Charles and Rosamond Cubitt. Their daughter Virginia McGrath represented Ireland in the same category at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 and Sydney in 2000. A second daughter Nicola is married to Piers de Montfort, a banker in London. The third Camilla lives in Donadea. The heir apparent, William Conolly Carew, is now living in Kildare with his croquet-savvy wife Jane Anne, their son Patrick and daughters, Poppy and Georgina.
 Debenture: An unsecured long-term note as evidence of a debt.
 His brother-in-law James Bonnell was sometime Comptroller and Accountant General of the Revenue in Ireland.
 “The Conollys of Castletown: A Family History”, Lena Boylan, Irish Georgian Society Bulletin, Vol X!.4, Oct – Dec 1968.
[3a] In 2012, the historian Ann Matthews wrote to me, saying: 'About threes years the OPW discovered a bronze age grave under the lawn at Castletown.House when they were digging a trench to put in utilities. So bronze age man was also aware of the position of prominence of the site looking across the Liffey Valley towards the mountains.'
 Letter from Katherine Conolly to Lord Strafford, 28th February 1733. Quoted in Boylan, p. 15.
 In 1781 her younger sister Sarah, who had divorced Bunbury, came to Ireland with her second husband George Napier and settled at Oakley Park outside Celbridge. See: Maunsell.
 As Master of the Ordnance in Ireland, Louisa’s husband, Admiral Thomas Pakenham, was in charge of rounding up Kildare rebels in the wake of the Emmet Rising of 1803.