Ireland’s Most Eccentric Castle

THE door knocker.jpgWinston Churchill’s baby clothes. A 10-foot-tall toilet. UFO abductions. They’re all part of Ireland’s most eccentric castle.

Sir John Leslie stops halfway up on the main staircase of his childhood home and points to an item hanging on the wall. The keepsake in question, a tattered red cloth within a frame, boasts a faded handwritten provenance: “Bloody shroud which received the head of James, Earl of Derwentwater, on Tower Hill.” It’s dated February 24, 1715.

Sir John describes the textile with the air of an offhand understatement, as if every home quite naturally features such decapitation memorabilia. Apparently, the man was executed for treason at the age of 27.

“I traveled to London a few years ago,” says Sir John, with a hint of a smile, “and saw the ax and chopping block.”

The 90-year-old baronet pauses a moment to let the grisly scenario sink in; then he gestures up the stairs, announces a cheerful “This way!” and adds, with perfect timing, “It’s best if I go first.”

Ireland prides itself on having a penchant for zany, cheeky humor. Its landscape is dotted with ancient historical castles, most of which typically feature some sort of contrived flavor for the tourists: medieval-themed feasts, suits of armor, actors dressed as court jesters. Castle Leslie doesn’t have to bother with props or costumes, though. It’s just naturally odd.
The hallways and rooms are filled with strange mementos, including Ireland’s largest bathtub; a quill pen once used by Pope Pius IX “during his last days”; a bronze bust of the governor general of the Philippine Islands; a 10-foot-high toilet stall, family crest included; and Winston Churchill’s christening dress, displayed in the main sitting room. And somewhere on the property, there’s a landing pad for UFOs.

This 1,000-acre estate has been in the Leslie family since 1665. The current castle was erected in 1878, with 100 rooms, and its guest list has included prominent politicians and diplomats, poets and royalty, and members of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Despite modern amenities like a cooking school, an equestrian center, and an award-winning restaurant, the property retains the family’s peculiar personality. Each of the 14 bedrooms is an eclectic mishmash of Victorian furnishings and unusual plumbing. The restaurant’s wine list is actually organized under categories like Homer Simpson and Ozzy Osbourne.

Although his niece Samantha now manages the day-to-day operations, Sir John Leslie still lives at the castle and conducts tours twice a week. During most of World War II, he was a POW in Germany; then he lived in an Italian monastery without electricity for 35 years. Despite his nonagenarian status, he enjoys hitting local discotheques on the weekends. He also has a rotating mirror ball in his bathroom and — I’m not making this up — before retiring for bed each night, he rings a loud gong in the castle. In comparison with the rest of his family, though, he’s actually kind of normal.

In recent years, the Irish quirkiness that once was embodied so strongly in the national DNA has unfortunately been diminishing in supply. Thanks to globalization, Ireland’s quaint traditions have become increasingly overshadowed by the Celtic Tiger economy. Beginning in the 1990s, unemployment and debt plunged, and consumer spending soared off the charts. Ireland went from being one of Europe’s poorest countries to being one of its richest. Dublin now bristles with high-end retail stores, and roads are filled with gleaming Mercedes and Peugeots.

Castle Leslie provides a welcome respite from such homogenous modernity. It is one of the few estates in Ireland that are still owned and managed by the original family — which, in this case, is a family whose lineage stretches back to Arthur Wellesley, First Duke of Wellington; Winston Churchill; and Attila the Hun.

Visitors to Castle Leslie will find it buried in a labyrinth of roads that meander through County Monaghan, two and a half hours north of Dublin. Adjacent to the tiny village of Glaslough, Leslie estate stretches through ancient woodlands and natural lakes. In addition to the main castle building, there is an equestrian center and an arena, a hunting lodge and a spa, an old church, and the family cemetery.

Although the castle has always entertained visitors, it was previously not a financially viable enterprise, and by 1991, the family considered it a liability. Samantha Leslie then took over the management from her father, Desmond, and was determined to restore the property and refashion the estate into a deluxe destination.

Furniture and books were sold in order to pay for repairs to the roof. The billiard room was refurbished. Dinner was once again served by candlelight in the family dining room. Chef Noel McMeel was brought in to create a gourmet menu and a top-drawer wine list. But the Leslie eccentricity is, thankfully, still intact.

Each bedroom is themed after a member of the Leslie family. Anita’s Room, for instance, is named for the rebellious daughter who, during World War II, drove ambulances over enemy lines to collect the wounded. She wrote several books and reportedly subsisted on only smoked salmon and Champagne. Lionel was another free spirit; he traveled on safari, wrote books, and became an expert on the Loch Ness Monster. Norman was killed in World War I, but his ghost supposedly inhabits his bedroom. Seymour was another writer and apparently was the first person in Ireland to use an X-ray machine, testing it in his bedroom on the family’s coachman. Desmond was once married to a female spy for the OSS, and he wrote several movies and books, including the best-selling UFO classic Flying Saucers Have Landed.
Castle Leslie deliberately downplays its promotion and advertising, but after hosting the ill-fated 2002 wedding of Paul McCartney, which was televised live to 800 million people, its existence is no longer a secret. Guests are strongly encouraged to make reservations in advance.

The atmosphere there is that of staying in someone’s private home — which, essentially, you are. Sheet music rests on the piano, war medals are displayed on a table, and a fire crackles in the 600-year-old Italian fireplace. You immediately consider yourself a guest of the family.
Solitude is a key ingredient of the experience. Most people wander the grounds, sip wine in front of the main fireplace, and stroll downstairs for dinner, all at no particular time. In some ways, it’s like being in a Las Vegas casino, because there are no clocks, telephones, TVs, or radios anywhere in the rooms. (According to the castle’s staff, Americans, in particular, are astonished that they can’t check e-mail 24 hours a day.)

During one of these timeless, phoneless, Internet-free afternoons, I end up in the main sitting room, eavesdropping on two American couples discussing how they baby their dogs. The restlessness builds up inside me, and a staff member apparently senses this, for she recommends a hike around the fishing lake that’s adjacent to the castle. It typically takes about an hour, and wellies (rubber Wellington boots) are available for guests at the front door.

I find the wall of rubber boots and quickly realize that I could never be Irish nobility — my feet are too big. The path departs from the entrance and soon turns into a muddy bog, and I’m wearing only trainers. Not that I’ve ever trained in them. The wellies sit in their warm racks back at the Castle.

The estate’s countryside is exactly how one might imagine seeing Ireland for the first time: lush green pastures, ancient trees, a group of horses swishing their tails. I stop to pet one of them, trying to connect with my distant Irish heritage. When the trail comes to a fork (or “ferk,” as the Irish would pronounce), I flip a mental coin and turn right. The wrong choice, as the trail promptly turns into large puddles of slop.

There’s a famous saying by Sir John Pentland Mahaffy that goes something like: “In Ireland the inevitable never happens and the unexpected constantly occurs.” After a few minutes, this quotation comes true, as the sky suddenly turns gray and a light drizzle develops — a drizzle that rapidly grows into a legitimate Irish monsoon.

It won’t last, I lie to myself and keep walking. The wind picks up, and the rain grows heavier. A herd of cows stands underneath some trees to wait it out. It can’t be good when even cows are smarter than you. I’m completely soaked, from hood to sneakers, and I have no idea of where I am or which direction I’m heading. Since turning back is not an option (I can’t remember from which direction I came), I stop and stand under some branches, surrounded by the full force of Irish weather.

Suddenly, voices shout over the howling storm. Just up the road, two ranchers are sitting in a truck, waving and yelling. “Come on in,” they holler. I splash over and climb inside to warm up.

The younger is a hired hand on a nearby ranch; the older fellow is the owner. They’re waiting out the rain so that afterward they can feed the animals. A couple of cows have stuck their heads over the fence in anticipation. I explain that I’m staying at Castle Leslie and was just walking around the lake. They inform me in a jolly tone that I’ve completely wandered off the Leslie property.

I mention that if it weren’t for them, I may well have ended up floating in the lake, and the elder man turns with a toothless grin and exclaims, “Covered in fish bites!”

As the storm roars overhead, we talk about cattle. Why not? The cows are standing right in front of the truck, after all, waiting patiently for their dinner. Apparently, Hereford was a popular breed in Ireland some decades ago, but now the preferred breed is Charolais. They are better suited to the terrain and have more meat than Herefords. I also learn that, unlike in the United States, where most cattle ranches are now owned by large corporations, all the ranches in Ireland remain independently owned and operated.

Remembering that earlier, during my little hike, I had walked past a field with only cows, and that across the road there had been a pasture containing some very curious bulls, I ask the ranchers if it’s currently breeding season. They burst out laughing: “It’s always the season!”
Since the rain isn’t letting up, they offer to drive me toward Castle Leslie. We bounce along the muddy potholes, talking and laughing as the windshield wipers flop back and forth. They let me out at a locked gate, and we say our goodbyes. Just some friendly cow conversation on a rainy Irish afternoon.

I’m hoping to arrange a meeting with Samantha Leslie, but her schedule is incredibly hectic. As luck would have it, though, while prowling around the hallways, I come upon Sir John, sitting on a leather sofa in front of a crackling fire in the library, dressed immaculately in a blue blazer, a necktie, and cuff links. He’s casually signing his name inside some books. I notice they aren’t books that he has written, but he’s just signing them anyway. This subtle yet bizarre twist on the literary ritual of book signing is reminiscent of a famous quote about the Leslie family from Dublin’s own satirist, Jonathan Swift:

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

We chat for a while. Sir John grew up here only half the time, commuting between the castle and another family home in London. After World War II, the castle started accepting paying visitors and even ran small ads in publications. Early guests were primarily cousins and family friends. Sir John’s brother, Desmond, and his sister, Anita, had the idea to go full-time with the business, and the decision was made to retain the castle as an old country house, surrounded by trees and complete with its original furniture and pictures. This has always been the appeal for people, he says.

Like any 90-year-old, Sir John has rich memories. He recalls playing billiards with his grandfather in what is now this room, the library — only back then it was lined with deer horns. In the villages, children once scampered about in bare feet, and there were no cars or bicycles. “You see the same boys driving by in Mercedes today,” he chuckles.

I can’t resist asking him about the UFO history, because I’m pretty sure no other estate in Ireland features a UFO landing pad. It was constructed because Sir John’s brother, Desmond, had collaborated on a book with American George Adamski, who claimed to have been abducted by aliens. Flying Saucers Have Landed was a theosophical hodgepodge of ancient Egyptian history, Indian mythology, the lost city of Atlantis, and aliens from Venus — all of which has since been thoroughly debunked.

Did Desmond ever discuss his passion for UFOs? “Continually,” says Sir John. “He would never stop talking!”

I ask if aliens have ever used the special landing pad. “I rather hoped they would, but they didn’t,” he answers matter-of-factly. “A ship would be only the size of this room. What would they do? What would they eat? It doesn’t make sense.”

So does this Leslie eccentricity come from being Irish or just from being a member of the family?

“Especially the family!” he exclaims. “My father wore a kilt everywhere — in New York, in the subway. He once walked 60 miles at one time without stopping. We took it for granted.”
And then there is Sir John’s ritual of going out to discos each weekend. When he first started doing this, at the age of 83, people told him, “Oh, don’t go — they’re very rough. You’ll come home on a stretcher.” Instead, he has become a familiar and recognized face in dance clubs everywhere from Ireland to London.

“They’re very wild,” he laughs. “The girls are making me dance; the boys are bringing me pints of beer. They are jolly. You can imagine yourself young again … the thumping music, the colored lights. You’re absolutely free.”

We walk down a hallway, and he stops at a painting of his grandmother, mother, and uncle. The interesting thing about this portrait, he says, is that “the painting is right on the wall.” He flicks the wooden frame with a finger, and it swings from side to side. The illusion is brilliant — you naturally assume that it’s a painting on stretched canvas with a frame. And then you wonder why on earth someone would do such a thing. But if he or she were a Leslie, why not?

I leave Sir John Leslie sitting in front of the fire. Around him, guests are sipping cocktails and chatting away, oblivious to the fact that the little old man in the armchair is the patriarch of the castle in which they are currently staying. Thick reading glasses are perched on his nose as he squints at the page of an open book, catching up on a little reading before dinner in Ireland’s most eccentric castle.

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(A version of this appeared in American Way magazine)