Sunday 24 September 2017

How Donegal refuge of Garbo and Chaplin was left to Ireland

HOLLYWOOD ROYALTY: Greta Garbo stayed at the estate
HOLLYWOOD ROYALTY: Greta Garbo stayed at the estate

Jim Gallagher

The extraordinary story of how an American millionaire bequeathed a magnificent castle and stunning gardens to the nation has been told in a fascinating new documentary.

Henry McIlhenny: Master of Glenveagh reveals that the philanthropist was motivated by a sense of atonement, after hearing of the evictions that took place for the estate to be built a century before.

The former US Navy officer fell in love with Glenveagh Castle - now the centre piece for Glenveagh National Park in the rugged Derryveagh Mountains in west Donegal - while visiting a friend before World War II.

He bought the estate, which became a mecca for artists, photographers and writers, including Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo.

McIlhenny himself spent every summer for 40 years in the castle, while spending the rest of the year in Philadelphia, where he was curator of its acclaimed Museum of Art.

The land that now comprises the National Park was originally consolidated into a single estate in the 19th century by John George Adair, a wealthy land speculator from Co Laois who became notorious for the eviction of families from the area - merely to improve the views from the castle.

Glenveagh National Park. Photo: Getty
Glenveagh National Park. Photo: Getty

Adair built a castle, modelled on Balmoral in Scotland, which was completed in 1873.

In 1929 the estate was bought by an American, Harvard professor Arthur Kingsley Porter, who disappeared mysteriously just four years later. His grieving widow sold it in 1937 for £25,000 to her friend, Henry McIlhenny, a 27-year-old American with Ulster Scots roots.

Henry's grandfather, John, had left Donegal for Philadelphia in 1843, aged 13, with his widowed mother, Mary-Anne McIlhenny, and three siblings. He went on to create great wealth by inventing the gas meter. Less than 100 years later, Henry returned to the land of his ancestors.

He was in Donegal in September 1939 when war broke out and he returned immediately to the US, where he served with distinction in the navy. The documentary contains footage of a kamikaze attack on his ship, the USS Bunker Hill, in May 1945.

After the horrors of war, Glenveagh offered peace and sanctuary.

Around the castle he created gardens that are ranked as some of the finest in Europe.

A combination of the Troubles, the expense of running the estate and old age persuaded Henry to leave Glenveagh in 1983. He gave the castle and gardens to the nation, on the condition that all the people he employed would keep their jobs.

Henry McIlhenny: Master of Glenveagh, RTE One, Thursday 10.15pm

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