Doneraile Castle Court & Park




Doneraile Castle (not to be confused with Doneraile Court) built by the MacWilliam Mór Synan in 1402 at a site within the present-day park near to the Buttevant road. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I it was taken from the Synan family and given to William Spenser, the poet. It was then sold to Sir William St Leger in 1630.

Sir William (1586 –1642) was a grandson of Anthony St Leger and a member of the St Leger family whose family name is carried by one of Britain’s Classic horseraces. Sir William had taken part in "the flight of the Earls" in 1607, when Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, and Rory O'Donnell, 1st Earl of Tyrconnell, together with more than ninety of their family and followers, the chief of the Gaelic and Catholic resistance in Ireland, fled to Europe. Sir William spent several years abroad.

Having received a pardon from King James I and extensive grants of land in Ireland, he was appointed Lord President of Munster by Charles I in 1627. He warmly supported the arbitrary government of Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, actively assisting in raising and drilling the Irish levies destined for the service of the king against the Parliament. He was a member of the Irish House of Commons from 1634, as MP for County Cork.

Having come to Doneraile, Sir William St Leger made his castle the abode of the Presidency Court of Munster. As such it must have been the period when Doneraile was of greatest official note. Around the castle we can see the settlement of officials and artisans expanding, with accommodation perhaps for litigating parties who would have come here with their legal wrangles during that period. There must also have been accommodation for a respectable garrison, and across the road we have the townland name of the Horseclose, which could have its origin in the castle stables. In recent years during tree planting operations large areas of paving stones were encountered north of the castle site between the Beech Walk and the main avenue, as well as some road paving under the soil leading eastwards into the North Park.

When the 1641 rebellion broke out, St Leger took to the field at the head of his army, but ill-health soon ended his career. While he was acknowledged to be a good soldier, he was also very hasty and his indiscriminate hanging of innocent and guilty during this campaign is said to have helped spread the rebellion in Munster. After his death in Doneraile in 1642, his son-in-law Lord Inchiquin took over the government of Munster, but the office of Lord President was allowed to lapse due to the turmoil in England. In 1645 the Irish Confederate army, under Lord Castlehaven, captured Doneraile and burned the castle and part of the town. Meanwhile St Leger's eldest son, another Sir William, was killed in the battle of Newberry in England in 1644 and the estate in Doneraile went to his second son, John St Leger, a captain of the local militia. The castle was rebuilt during the latter 1600's and garrisoned against the threat of a French invasion, and later when the St. Legers had moved to Doneraile Court it was used to garrison a troop of horse. John St. Leger died on 31st. March 1696 and was succeeded by his eldest son, Arthur. On the 23rd June 1703, Arthur St. Leger was created Baron Kilmayden, Co. Waterford, and Viscount Doneraile, Co. Cork. He died on 7th July 1727 when he was succeeded by his son Arthur, the second Viscount. The St Legers were now established in Doneraile Court on the south side of the Awbeg river.

It has not been firmly established when the St. Legers moved house, and information on them during the period 1645 to 1727 is very scanty. The date 1725, on the front of Doneraile Court, has led to the belief that it was built on that date, but this is challenged on two fronts. First we have the story of the Lady Freemason: daughter of the first Viscount who overheard a meeting of a Freemason Lodge being held in Doneraile Court. On being discovered it was considered necessary to induct her into the Freemasons to secure her secrecy. The room in which this event took place is usually pointed out as being on the right hand side of the present entrance hall of Doneraile Court. The Lady Freemason's tombstone records that this event took place in 1712. Secondly, it is the opinion of some people that the architectural feature of the basement area put the building back into the late 17th century at least. The most likely theory then is that the original house on the site of Doneraile Court was the home of some of the St. Legers from the 1690's, and that 1725 is a date of major renovation. Whether John St. Leger reared his family here we do not know, but the first Viscount may have occupied it soon after 1690 when he got married.

Doneraile Park contains four hundred acres within its walls today, and its sweeping landscape echoes the days of landlord grandeur when the Lord of the Manor was the law of the land in the locality, and had power to plan and implement the decoration of his residence on a grand scale. It also reflects a rather bleak era for the Irish people, but today the wheel of fate has turned, and the ordinary people can divert themselves in and enjoy the beauties of the park that former landlords created. From an historical point of view, within the confines of Doneraile Park, can be traced the development of estate landscape over a period of three hundred years. Starting with the seventeenth century walled and terraced garden centred around the old castle. We can trace a gradual process of change to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century layout. This landscaping on a grand scale which was brought to perfection in England by people like "Capability” Brown, is still the dominant feature in Doneraile today. Based on the centrepiece of Doneraile Court, great vistas radiate out over the landscape, using water in the hollows, and uninterrupted grassland reaching off around groves of trees to the perimeter woods. Into this framework less spectacular changes have been introduced as new species of exotic plants became available and to satisfy the particular interest of succeeding occupants.

This eighteenth century landscaping has been particularly enduring in Ireland because it is a very simple concept based on natural native ingredients. It entails making the most spectacular use of water, grass and trees on an undulating countryside. In Doneraile Park the Awbeg river has been ponded with weirs to give large pools of water in the hollow. Likewise the fish ponds or 'canals' are artificial creations. Fences, instead of being built up are sunk into the ground to leave the landscape free of obstacles. Groups and bands of trees have been expertly sited to give the effect that the open grassland areas are clearings in a primeval wood. Here one can enjoy pleasant vistas of its woodlands, open grasslands, canals and lakes, or stroll along its shaded pathways. The estate which was planted in the 18th century 'Informal Manner' has a herd of red deer. Car parking, a children’s playground and picnic facilities are also available. The house itself is being restored by the Irish Georgian Society. It is hoped to have the house open to the public at a future date.