Glenveaugh Castle and gardens, as well as the national park they stand in, are one of Ireland’s great national prizes, but its largely thanks to three Americans that it exists. Much like Glenveaugh’s setting — acres of cultivated gardens surprisingly plunked down in the middle of over 25,000 acres of wild Irish landscape — the story is one of great contrasts: horrific cruelty and great generosity, with murder and mystery thrown in for additional spice.
The story begins, not with an American, however, but with an Irishman: Captain John George Adair. Born in 1823 in County Laois to a family of minor Anglo-Irish gentry, Jack Adair attended Trinity College in Dublin. He trained for the British Diplomatic Corps and held a military officer’s rank, but his personality was singularly unsuited for such endeavors. He was by all accounts, hot tempered, abrasive and self absorbed. Adair ended up gravitating toward the business world, running brokerage businesses in England, Ireland and the United States,. He also made a fortune n land speculation and ranching in the U.S., providing the seed capital for a 1.3-million-acre , 100,000-head cattle ranch in the Texas panhandle, near Amarillo. A now scaled-down JA Ranch still exists.
It was on a hunting trip in 1857 that Adair first glimpsed what was to become the vast Glenveaugh estate — over 25,000 acres incorporating not only huge swathes of bog,
but also the lovely Lough Veaugh and County Donegal’s two highest peaks. Declaring himself enchanted with the beauty of the scenery and intending to build a hunting lodge there, he started shortly after to assemble his domain, buying some land outright and contracting farm-fee rights for other tracts. The farm-fee right entitled him to collect rent from the resident farmers, but did not convey to him either ownership or sporting and shooting rights over the land. And that proved to be too hard for the hotheaded and hard-hearted Adair to endure. According to one account, when he insisting on hunting on farm-fee land, angry tenants who viewed this as a violation of their landlord/tenant agreement responded by spoiling his shoot. They beat the bushes to disturb the game and encircled the hunter. The incensed Adair swore vengeance.
By 1860, he had acquired outright ownership of all the land and was in a position to extract his revenge. Moreover, that year Adair’s land steward, a Scot named James Murray, was murdered, his bloodied body found on a nearby mountainside. The perpetrator was never identified, but Adair was convinced one of his tenants had committed the crime. Whether or not the hunting story or Adair’s suspicions about Murray’s murder are true, it was certainly a fact that Adair was determined to do what he wanted with the land and he didn’t much care what that meant to the tenant
families who lived there, some of them for generations. Adair called on local authorities to carryout his eviction orders, employing a force of over 200 men. Over the course of three days, more than 240 men, women and children — a total of about 45 families — were summarily thrown out of their homes. The first to go was a 60-year-old widow with her six daughters and one son. A crew of “crowbar men” demolished more than half of the homes or rendered them uninhabitable, lest the tenants return. Some of those evicted wound up in the workhouse in nearby Letterkenny, but with the aid of a local relief fund, about half of them — young people aged 16 to 28 — were able to emigrate to New South Wales, Australia. The so-called Derryveaugh evictions earned Adair the biter enmity of his Donegal neighbors.among
In 1869, the first American entered the picture. Cornelia Wadsworth Ritchie was an attractive 34-year-old Civil War widow with two young sons and an impeccable family pedigree. She was soft-spoken and kind, the polar opposite of the 46-year-old Adair. Nevertheless, when they met at a political gathering in New York, the two hit it off and subsequently married. The couple divided their time between Europe and the U.S., spending some months in England, some in Colorado and Texas and some in Ireland, where they worked to achieve Adair’s vision of an Irish estate that would rival Balmoral Castle, Queen Victoria’s summer retreat in Scotland. The result was a solid and picturesque gray granite baronial mansion with a four-story tower, surrounded by lush gardens and overlooking the picturesque Lough Veaugh.
After Adair’s death in 1885, Cornelia spent more time in Ireland, undertaking a series of improvements to both the house and gardens. Among them: the planting of a shelter belt of Scotch Pines, separating the gardens from the wild expanses beyond. A round tower, which softened the lines of the house and expanded the living area. A charming gardener’s cottage adjacent to a traditional walled garden. And a Victorian “pleasure ground”, with a large sweep of grass, a pond, walkways and plantings. More critically, her kindness and generosity to the poor and needy helped repair relations with the local communities. Cornelia died in 1921, and her only living child, a son from her first marriage, inherited the estate..
Eight years later, Glenveaugh was in the hands of another American, sold to Arthur Kingsley Porter, a Harvard professor of fine arts, a Celtic culture and arts scholar, and a member of a wealthy banking family. Porter and his wife Lucy made repairs on the house and gardens and frequently entertained prominent members of the Irish literary and arts world. They were particular friends of renowned Irish writer and painter, AE Russell, and several of his paintings remain at Glenveaugh. The Porters weren’t too enjoy the estate for long, however. In 1933, Porter mysteriously disappeared after going for a walk on Inishbofin Island, where he maintained another home. Did he fall from the cliffs and his body wash out to sea as Lucy maintained? Did he commit suicide?
Officially, the coroner’s report listed the event as death by misadventure, but the truth is far from clear. Certainly, Lucy knew more than she was letting on, including that her husband was, in fact, gay, and that a homosexual love affair, conducted with her knowledge, had ended badly only a short time before his disappearance. That, combined with repeated, though possibly spurious, sightings of Porter in Amsterdam and other European cities over the coming years, fed rumors that he had simply chosen to start a new life, leaving behind his wife, his career and Glenveaugh.
The third American to own Glenveaugh couldn’t have been more different from Adair. In 1939, Henry Plumer McIlhenny acquired the estate from Lucy Porter, whom he knew from his days as a student of her husband’s at Harvard. McIlhenny,’s grandfather had emigrated to America from Milford, a small town near Glenveaugh, and made his fortune with the invention of a popular coin-operated gas meter. McIlhenny himself was a well-respected art collector with a home on Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, and he served successively as curator, trustee and chairman of the board of trustees for the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He loved Glenveaugh and for over 30 years spent summers there, working on improvements, particularly in the gardens. In both Philadelphia and Ireland, he was known as a kind, intelligent, charming and generous man who loved to entertain in grand style. Guests would be picked up by McIlhenny’s car and driver at Shannon Airport and endure a day-long drive up north to spend a week or more at Glenveaugh. Among his notable visitors: Greta Garbo, John Wayne, Ella Fitzgerald, Yehudi Menuhin, Marilyn Monroe, and Clark Gable.
In 1975, McIlhenny sold the bulk of the estate to the Irish government, the Office of Public Works, for the establishment of a national park The price? A princely $1 an acre. In 1983, he donated the castle and gardens to the nation of Ireland.