Glenveagh Castle - Donegal's Camelot
Glenveagh Castle: In a solitary northern setting, a kingdom with an American touch
"Where the mountains arise to the oft-changing skies,
And the Castle stands stately and grey;
Where the calm lake lies still 'neath that wild rugged hill,
In the valley of lovely Glenveagh..."
(Herbert W.K. Sterritt)
By Ces Cassidy
Deep in the Derryveagh mountains, there's a piece of Donegal that
owes its existence largely to America. Glenveagh castle and its exotic
gardens, which rise like an apparition over Lough Veagh, were built in
the 19th century by John George Adair, a man who was born in County
Laois, but who made his fortune in the United States. He had a castle
designed to resemble Balmoral, Queen Victoria's Scottish highland
residence, with a four-story keep and turrets made of thick granite,
and placed it in estate of over 40,000 acres. Two other Americans who
later owned the castle would add to it’s size and grandeur,
creating one of Europe’s most enchanting settings in a place of
Adair, born in 1823, came from a family of minor landed gentry, and
made his fortune by adventurous land speculation. His first sight if
Glenveagh in 1857 bowled him over. He was "enchanted by the
surpassing beauty of the scenery" and purchased several tracts of
land which together formed the new estate. Adair married Cornelia
Wadsworth of Genesco, New York in 1869 (her father had been a Union
general during the Civil War). After Glenveagh castle was completed in
1873, the couple spent more and more time in America, developing new
business interests in Colorado and Texas. In 1885, on the way back to
Ireland from Texas, Adair died suddenly in St.Louis, Missouri.
A Kinder Regime
Upon inheriting Glenveagh, Cornelia added a new wing and round tower to
the building, and brought a kinder style of management to the estate.
She planted shelter-belts of Scots Pine and Rhododenron and laid out "Pleasure Grounds," as gardens in Victorian times were
called, which were distinct from the working kitchen gardens. While her
late husband had caused intolerable misery by driving his tenants off
the land, Cornelia was renowned as a kind landlady and a generous
helper of the poor. During the first World War, she used the castle to
house wounded Belgian soldiers. Cornelia Adair continued to spend time
at the castle until 1916. She died in 1921 at the age of eighty-three.
Studying and Partying
In 1929 the Castle was sold to Arthur Kingsley Porter, a Harvard
professor of Fine Arts from a wealthy banking family. Porter came to
Glenveagh to study Irish archeology and culture, eventually publishing
a volume called "The Crosses and Culture of Ireland." He
and his wife Lucy did repairs on the castle and estate, and entertained
Irish literary and artistic personalities of their day. Unfortunately,
in 1933, while staying on Inishbofin island with his wife, Mr. Kingsley
Porter took a walk on the shore one day and disappeared. He was
The following year, his wife leased Glenveagh for the summer to a Mrs
McIlhenny from Philadelphia and her son Henry. In 1936, Henry returned
and bought the estate. His grandfather, John, had originally come from
Carrigart, north of Glenveagh, emigrated to the USA and amassed a
fortune, largely through his invention of the gas meter. (Another
member of the McIlhenny clan came up with an equally notable invention:
Tabasco sauce!). Henry's father, John, was also a successful
businessman who collected art and served as president of the
Philadelphia Museum of Art. Following in his father's footsteps,
Henry built an impressive art collection of his own.
Henry McIlhenny loved entertaining. Each week, his chauffeurs drove to
Shannon and Belfast airports to collect guests for his house parties.
Greta Garbo, Rosemary Clooney, violin virtuoso Yeheudi Menuin, jazz
king George Melly and English artist Derek Hill were just some of
Glenveagh's guests. Henry brought about a glorious return to the "big house" lifestyle with picnics, deer-hunting parties,
afternoon teas and formal dinners. Guests were graciously looked after
by a staff dressed in Austrian-styled uniforms designed by the host.
Henry himself was, according to one guest, "A fine looking man, well
made and tall, and an affable host." Carmel Brady, Glenveagh's
long-serving Head Guide, agreed: "Mr. McIlhenny was mannerly, jolly, and
very nice to the staff. In those days, there would have been
twelve indoor staff, with eight more men for the gardens. The lifestyle
was lavish, with frequent dinner parties, and lots of daytime
activities for his guests to enjoy: deer-stalking, fishing in the
lough, the heated swimming pool at the lakeside and, of course, the
The surrounding contrast of craggy mountains and rugged bogland makes
Glenveagh's lush gardens even more striking. Henry made the estate the
focus of his life for thirty-six years. Besides restoring the castle
and furnishing it with treasures, he completely re-developed its
gardens. With the help of renowned English nursery man James Russell
and New Jersey garden designer Lanning Roper, he brought in exotic
plants from as far afield as South America, Tasmania and China. He
enhanced the layout first created by Cornelia Adair, adding a formal
Italian garden, another walled garden, and a neo-Gothic conservatory,
among other things. He also created a stairway to a high grassy
platform that offers a breathtaking view of the castle in its lakeside
The castle's interior is entrancing. Each room has its own decor,
to complement its function: A spacious drawing room with George III
furniture and wonderful paintings, an elegant dining-room with
specially-commissioned tableware and magnificent Landseer canvasses, a
music room with an Irish harp dating to the 1800's and the library,
with stunning views of the lake. The bedrooms also have varied
decoration. My own favorite is the American-styled oval Blue room, with
pale oak and satinwood chosen by Cornelia Adair. Access to the interior
is by guided tour only.
The atmosphere of Glenveagh draws you in and leaves a strong impression
in your memory. The lake setting, painterly light and the wonderful
scent of the garden plants are all delightful. But Henry
McIlhenny's way of weaving the threads of Glenveagh's past
together is what makes the overall impression more than the sum of its
parts. As Head Guide Carmel Brady says, "You could really call him a
creator. His vison of how Glenveagh could be was in his mind's eye, and
over the years he created it, like a well-finished work of art."
In 1975 Henry McIlhenny agreed to sell the Glenveagh estate to the
Irish government, allowing for the creation of a National Park, and
then in 1983 gave the castle and gardens to the Irish Nation. He died
in 1986 in Philadelphia. Just a few months later the castle was opened
to the public, and visitors from all over the world began to enjoy his
Address: Churchill, Letterkenny.
Location: 24 kilometers north-west of Letterkenny. Kilmacrennan/Termon to Dunlewey road, or the Churchill to Dunlewey road.
Opening Hours: March to Early November: Daily:10.00-18.30. Last admissions 17.00.
Castle tour: Euro2.75-adults; 2.00- Senior Citizens; 1.25-Students/children.7.00- Family.
Bus to Castle: Euro2.00 Euro per adult. 1.00 concession.
Garden and Parkland access: Free of charge.
Visitors Centre: free exhibitions, information, and a 45 minute audio-visual presentation.
Restaurants: Visitors' Center and Castle Tea-room.
Glenveagh National Park has reintroduced Golden Eagles, originally
native to the area, and has a vast range of breeding birdlife, as well
as red deer, foxes, badgers, otters, goats and mountain sheep. Nature
trails allow visitors explore the area.