Ireland’s fine arts, antiques and collectables column
Nobody could accuse Tom Conolly of being boring. He inherited Castletown at the age of 25 and became a Conservative MP for Co Donegal in 1849.
He lived an extravagant bachelor life, mainly focused on hunting, but eventually sought greater thrills. In 1964, he embarked on an adventure that his biographer, Suzanne Pegley, describes as: “a risky and questionable enterprise.”
The plan was to finance a boat to run the Yankee blockade off the southern Confederate states during the American Civil War. According to his diaries, he was motivated by “an intense desire for adventure” and “the great Cause of the South”.
Unsurprisingly, that enterprise went awry. Conolly landed in North Carolina and proceeded to wine, dine and womanise his way through the Southern States in the dying days of the Confederacy. His six-month stay was punctuated by many life-threatening episodes but Conolly seemed oblivious to personal danger and recorded his experience in terms of fine dinners, tea parties, buggy rides and walks with “pretty ladies.”
What was remarkable about the adventure, Pegley writes, is that Conolly “seemed effortlessly to be in the right place at the right time, meeting Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, who were both willing to spend quality time with him.” His dubious morals were mitigated by considerable personal charm.
Eventually, he made his way to New York. “Incredibly, his diary in this period is taken up with a commentary on his near stalking of a young woman, Miss Lena Peters … eventually he gave up and flirted his way back to England on the ship Scotia.”
Pegley concludes that the only serious outcome of the adventure for Conolly was financial: “On his return to Ireland, he was forced to sell some of the Castletown lands to avert financial problems.”
Eventually, he settled down at Castletown and married Sarah Eliza Shaw, the Celbridge miller’s daughter. His extravagance continued. On honeymoon in Paris, in 1868, the couple met Emperor Napoleon III.
“In an informal challenge the two men competed in the equipage of their horses and carriages but Conolly came out on top because his horses were shod in silver.”
So Tom Conolly (1823-76) of Castletown House was not a noble character but his portrait and that of his wife, Sarah Eliza Conolly, are today culturally significant works of art. The equestrian portraits, both set in wooded landscapes, show Sarah mounted side saddle on a bay hunter and Tom on a dapple grey.
They were painted by William Osborne (1823-1901), Ireland’s foremost painter of animals in the 19th century, and are highly rated as examples of equine art.
More importantly, they came from Castletown House, the grandest of our Palladian mansions. The house was saved from demolition by Desmond Guinness in 1967 and is now managed by the Office of Public Works (OPW) on behalf of the State.
That means that all Irish citizens have a (very small) stake in Castletown House. Now, we’re all part-owners of the Osborne portraits too. In December 2022, they were purchased by the OPW at Bonhams, London. The portraits are currently working their way through customs and will be reinstalled at Castletown in the spring.
Their purchase was never a foregone conclusion. The contents of Castletown were dispersed at auction in 1966 and recovering them has been part of the restoration process. The Osborne portraits had been in an English collection since 1992. They were for sale as separate lots and could easily have gone in different directions.
Each carried an estimate of €23,000 to €35,000 and were eventually purchased for €26,745 each. “Every repatriation to the house feels like a real win,” says Mary Heffernan, general manager of Castletown. When she saw the paintings on display at Bonhams in Dublin, she was taken aback by the size of them (112cm x 133cm).
“You’re told the dimensions but you need to see them to get an impression of the scale.” Heffernan points out that although the State put up the money, the drive behind the purchase came from the Castletown Foundation, which is run by volunteers.
See Thomas Conolly (1823–76) of Castletown House and the Social Networking of Power by Suzanne Pegley (Four Courts Press, 2022). See also bonhams.com and castletown.ie