James Leavey's Corner
Looking For Castle Leslie

FORCES - Link to James Leavey's Corner Main Page
by James Leavey, editor, The FOREST Guide to Smoking in London
and The FOREST Guide to Smoking in Scotland

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James Leavey
It was late afternoon when Idrove from Belfast City Airport in search of Castle Leslie in the Kingdom of Oriel. The woman at the smoker-friendly self-drive car hire deskhad looked at the map and confirmed that the Leslie family home for well over 300 years was just across the border, near Armagh.

'But you'll have trouble finding it,' she warned,handing over the car keys and a shamrock for luck.

'How can I miss an estate that covers 1,000 acres around two lakes, one of which, Glaslough, is reputed to be the finest specimen pike lake in Ireland,' I thought.

But I did.For several hours I kept recrossing the border while the army was out looking for mad cows.It was only the warm companionship of my Fox Dominican cigar that kept me sane. Eventually, as if by magic, I found myself driving through the main street of Glaslough towards the gates of the estate.

I arrived at the Castle in time for a glass of reviving hot punch and a splendid, relaxed dinner with the current baronet, Sir John Leslie, his niece, Samantha, and her partner, Ulton, in front of the Drawing Room's 16th century fireplace.Followed by a Havana cigar.

During my stay, Sir John explained how the Leslies can trace their ancestry back to Attila the Hun. 'Our first ancestor to arrive in Scotland was a Hungarian nobleman, Bartholomew, who became chamberlain and protector of Saint Margaret, Queen of Scotland,' he said.'The first Leslie to come to Ireland was John, Bishop to the Isles of Scotland.He was also known as the Fighting Bishop and defeated Cromwell's forces at the battle of Raphoe.

'On the restoration of Charles II, the Bishop, then 90, rode from Chester to London in 24 hours.As a reward for his loyalty the King granted him 2,000 and with that he bought the Castle Leslie estate.Bishop John died at the age of 100 in 1671.

'His grandson, Charles, was a theologian with a fury.Oliver Goldsmith mentions him as an arguer with some wit, and Dr. Samuel Johnson wrote of him: 'He was a reasoner not to be reasoned with.'

'Dean Swift was a regular visitor to the Castle on his way to Armagh and wrote many verses about the family, not all of them complimentary:

'Here I am in Castle Leslie
With rows of books upon the shelves
Written by the Leslies
All about themselves.'

Charles Powell Leslie I took over the estate in 1743.They say the Battle of Waterloo was not won on the playing fields of Eton.More likely it was won at Castle Leslie when Charles Powell decided to pay for the education and military training of his impoverished brother-in-law's son, Arthur Mornington.Had he not done so Arthur would probably never have grown up to become the famous Duke of Wellington and defeat Napoleon at Waterloo.

Charles Powell Leslie II took over the estate but died shortly before the years of the Great Hunger.His widow,Christina, managed to run the estate during the famine, and fed all the local people.

Her son, Charles Powell Leslie III was ambitious on a grand scale, and wanted to build a nine storied gothic tower in the middle of the lake reachable only by Venetian gondolas.Fortunately, for the Leslie family finances, he choked on a fish bone before he could realise his architectural fantasies.

He died in 1871 and the building of a new castle was left to his brother, John, who later became Sir John Leslie 1st Baronet of Glaslough, who was a fine painter of the pre-Raphaelite school.

At the insistence of his wife, Constance, he tore down the old building and built the present crow stepped gabled Castle in 1878, a few hundred yards to the left so they would get a better view of the lake (where a 36 pound pike was caught on a Mepps spoon in February 1972) from their bedroom windows.Their architects, Lanyon and Lynne, also built the magnificent Culloden Hotel on the wooden slopes of the Holywood Hills overlooking Belfast Lough.

Sir John Leslie 2nd Baronet married the delightful Leonie Jerome, whose stunning elder sister, Jenny, married Lord Randolph Churchill.There are many of the Churchill's 'hand-me-downs' in the Castle, including Winston's baby dress, as the Leslies were considered the poor relations. Winston, who became one of the most famous smokers of all time, never visited the Castle but his mother (a noted cigarette smoker) did, and felt very much at home.

Sir John was succeeded by Sir Shane Leslie 3rd Baronet,the noted Irish speaker, author, poet and ardent nationalist who became a Catholic and stood as Nationalist candidate for Derry in the 1910 election, losing by a mere 59 votes to the Duke of Abercorn.

Sir Shane transferred the property to his eldest son, John Normington Leslie, who became the 4th Baronet.Owing to ill health from five years in a prisoner of war camp he made the estate over to his sister Anita, and lived the next 40 years in Rome until his return to Castle Leslie in 1994.

Anita Leslie-King, the biographer, had a distinguished war career and was awarded two Crouix de Guerre by General de Gaulle.In the 1960s she moved to Galway and made over Glaslough to her younger brother, Desmond, one of the few surviving wartime Spitfire pilots,a composer of electronic music and co-author (in the 1950s with George Adamski) of the first book on UFOs.

In 1991 he handed the Castle over to his five children, one of whom, Samantha, runs it today with her partner, Ulton Bannon.

All the Castle bedrooms retain their original Victorian splendour.I slept on fine Irish linen sheets in a 16th century four-poster bed in the Italian room, the entire contents of which came from a medieval castle of Fiana Romano, 40 miles south of Rome, surrounded by antiques, family portraits and dusty volumes.

The thronelike toilet with its self raising bishop's seat in the en suite bathroom, which also houses an enormous, rare earthenware bath, bore the Leslies motto: Grip Fast.

Later I was given a guided tour of some the Castle's 100 or so rooms, including the Main Gallery with its barrel vaulted ceiling and fine Italian stucco plaster work.It's used for conferences and seminars and can seat up to 100 guests, theatre style. The family Dining Room hasn't changed for 100 years and guests dine by candelight on tables that have been used by the Leslie family for generations.

After it had taken me so long to find the Castle, I was reluctant to leave it, having been warmly welcomed by a family which has been described as probably the most eccentric in Ireland.

'Like many other ancestral homes we now take paying guests as it helps to keep the estate going,' said Samantha Leslie.'I suppose we could charge a lot more but we like people who can fit in and enjoy themselves.And we don't mind smokers, as long as they don't set fire to the beds.'

Copyright James Leavey, 1998.All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the Author.


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