Thomas Edward Lawrence, known as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, became somewhat fascinated with Ireland. His surviving letters contain references expressing a desire to visit his father’s homeland. In one letter Lawrence even remarked that he would like to buy a few acres in Westmeath,’ writes DEREK FANNING
Clonmellon is an attractive village in east Westmeath with a hint of old world charm. I had driven through it many times but never stopped in the village before. But just prior to the lockdown I paid a visit because I had learned of a very interesting connection with a writer that I hold in considerable esteem. This is Thomas Lawrence, more commonly known to the world as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’
Lawrence never visited Clonmellon (officially anyway) and he didn’t learn of his connection with this part of Westmeath until well into his adult life, but his father lived near here and left the place in personal disgrace in the 1880s.
Lawrence’s father was Thomas Chapman. The Chapmans originally came from Leicestershire and they received large grants of land in Ireland during the Elizabethan era. It was thanks to their friend Sir Walter Raleigh that they received these land grants.
During the Cromwellian period, Benjamin Chapman was a cavalry officer in Cromwell’s army and for his services was given the castle and estates of Killua. Killua Castle is a few hundred metres from Clonmellon. Killua Castle remained the seat of the Chapman family for many years.
The 3rd and 4th Baronets were M.P.s for Westmeath in the 1830s and 1840s and the 5th Baronet was High Sheriff of Westmeath. The family motto was ‘Virtue thrives under oppression’, which was a very appropriate motto when applied to Lawrence’s stressful and commendable life.
The Chapman family belonged to the upper tier of the Anglo-Irish landowning class and they owned 9,000 acres in the 18th Century. By 1949 this had reduced to 1,230 acres.
Thomas Chapman didn’t grow up in Killua Castle. He was raised in one of the family’s other properties, a large manor house called South Hill near Delvin (which is near Clonmellon).
Sir Thomas was the eldest son and he married in 1873 and had four daughters. In the late 1870s, a young Scotswoman called Sarah Lawrence was employed as a governess for their daughters. She was popular and known for being hardworking, capable and cheerful.