By John Donohoe
Today, like many other country estates in Ireland, Killeen Castle in county Meath is the location of a golf and country club. It has attracted US president Bill Clinton, top Irish golfers such as Rory McIlroy and Padraig Harrington, and movie star Pierce Brosnan, and has hosted the Solheim Cup, the international women’s golfing competition between Europe and the USA. The castle sitting in the centre of this estate, and the families associated with it since it was built in the 12th century, have been central to the feudal, political, military, social, religious and sporting life of Ireland for over 800 years.
Killeen, and its neighbouring Dunsany Castle, near Dunshaughlin village, were built by Geoffrey de Cusack, an Anglo-Norman who came to Ireland with Hugh de Lacy. The new overlords built castles to protect their territories around Dublin and the east coast, a region known as ‘The Pale’. Killeen was built in 1181 beside a tiny ruined church dedicated to St Fanchea.
For the next few centuries, the de Cusacks and their descendants, the de Tuits lived at Killeen, until around 1402, when Sir Christopher Plunkett married into the family, beginning the long association with the Plunkett family and the Killeen and Dunsany estates, where Lord Dunsany still lives at Dunsany Castle. Lucas Plunkett became the first Earl of Fingall in 1628, during the reign of Charles I.
The most high-profile of the Plunkett family was Oliver, the Archbishop of Armagh, who was born in Oldcastle in the north of the county and tutored by his cousin, Bishop Patrick Plunkett, at Killeen. At a time of persecution of Catholics, he was hung, drawn and quartered in London in July 1681. Beautified in 1920, he was canonised in Rome by Pope Paul VI, in 1975.
The fourth Earl of Fingall, Peter, sided with Catholic King James in the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, and was outlawed for his efforts, but this was reversed with the Battle of Aughrim and the Treaty of Limerick in 1697. The eighth earl, Arthur James, a member of the Catholic Committee, was to have a prominent role in one of the biggest battles in Meath in 1798, the Battle of the Hill of Tara, seeing off 10,000 Wexford rebels after a three-day engagement.
Another well known member of the family was Sir Horace Plunkett, founder of the Irish co-operative movement, and with his cousin, Elizbeth, Lady Fingall, was involved in establishing the United Irishwomen, the organisation which is today the Irish Countrywomen’s Association.
Elizabeth, known as Daisy, was a leading light in Irish society in the late 1800s up to her death in 1944. Her husband, the 11th Earl, was State Steward at Dublin Castle. Her son, the last Earl to live at Killeen, was a jockey and later a racehorse owner, whose Roddy Owen won the 1958 Cheltenham Gold Cup. He sold the estate in 1951, and with his second wife, Clair, build a residence on a part of it he had retained. When he died in 1984, he was the last in the line of the Fingalls.
Over the following decades, Killeen was owned by Sir Vistor Sassoon, a prominent bloodstock breeder, whose horses won the English Derby four times in eight years, and then by Daniel Wildenstein, a French art dealer and racehorse owner, who has 10 Group One winners in the 1976 season. Advertising executive Basil Brindley, also a racehorse owner, and huntsman, was the owner of Killeen when the castle was burned by the IRA in 1981. In recent years, new life breathes through Killeen following the development of a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course and country club.
John Donohoe is author of ‘The Killeen Castle Story’, available from firstname.lastname@example.org