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heritage ireland

The doctor who wanted to turn a castle into a mental asylum but blew it up with dynamite

Plus: The castle owner and King’s manin Carlow who married the Pirate Queen’s granddaughter

IN THE LATEST edition of the Hidden Heritage series, archaeologist Neil Jackman has more suggestions for great historical sites to visit around the island of Ireland.

In this edition we have a day out in County Carlow, to explore some of its many wonderful heritage sites.

Huntington Castle

Just off the main street of the charming Carlow village of Clonegall, you can discover Huntington Castle; still the home of the family whose ancestors constructed the castle centuries before.


Huntington Castle was first constructed by Sir Laurence Esmonde in 1625. Sir Laurence was an experienced soldier in the service of Elizabeth I, who later became major-general of King James I’s forces in Ireland, and governor of Duncannon Fort.

He was rewarded for his loyal service with a peerage, becoming Lord Esmonde. He caused quite a family scandal, when he married Ailish O’Flaherty, a devout Catholic and granddaughter of the Pirate Queen Gráinne Mhaol.


Huntington Castle has continually changed and adapted over the centuries. In the 1680s Sir Laurence (grandson of the original builder), began to make the castle a more comfortable and fashionable family home, and began the process of establishing the beautiful formal gardens.

The gardens really are a wonderfully tranquil place, from the striking formality of the lime tree avenue that leads to the castle, to the beautifully haunting line of English yews that drape their branches to create an atmospheric natural tunnel.


The castle was extensively altered in the 1860s by Alexander Durdin, whose uncle had married the Esmonde heiress. His daughter Helen inherited Huntington Castle in turn, and she married Herbert Robertson, giving the current name of the family; Durdin-Robertson.

They further altered the castle, and their son, Manning Durdin-Robertson, an architect, also put his stamp on the building, leaving Huntington with a wonderful mixture of architectural styles and influences.

Inside the castle you can enjoy a wonderfully engaging tour by one of the Durdin-Robertsons. Having a guided tour by a family member really is a truly authentic experience.


On our tour, Harry, the brother of the present owners, gave a well-informed journey through the families history, telling witty and insightful tales of the personalities behind the portraits that are so numerous throughout the house.

The most unusual feature of the Castle is undoubtedly the Temple of Isis in the basement. This eclectic spiritual centre, established in 1976, celebrates the role of the female aspect of divinity. It has become an established world religion, with thousands of devotees all around the world making Huntington its Jerusalem.


Huntington really is a wonderful place, that is full of stories. For opening times and entry fees please visit the website.

Carlow Castle

After leaving Huntington, we took a trip about 30mins north-west to Carlow Town. We first visited the excellent Carlow County Museum.

This award winning museum is free to enter, and it is packed with information about Carlow’s history and heritage. From there we went to see Carlow Castle.



This once mighty fortress was established by William Marshall on the site of an earlier Norman fort. The town of Carlow grew up in the shadow of the castle, and many of the streets reflect the medieval street pattern laid out by Marshall.

The castle stood intact right up until 1814, when it was leased to a physician, Dr Phillip Parry Middleton, who intended to convert it into a mental asylum. He attempted to create more space by opening out the vaulted interior.

Unfortunately he used dynamite to speed up the process and in doing so blasted half the castle to smithereens; leaving the castle in its present precarious condition.

Browneshill Dolmen

We couldn’t go to Carlow Town without paying a visit to the incredible Browneshill Dolmen, located just a 10 minute drive east of Carlow on the R726.


Browneshill is around 5,000 years old. It is Ireland’s largest example of a portal tomb, and the massive capstone measures some 5m x 6m, and is thought to weigh well in excess of 100 tonnes!

Originally the tomb would have been set in an earthen mound or stone cairn, with the burial chamber sheltered under the enormous capstone. The huge size and weight of the capstone must have required the co-operation of a large number of people to place it in position, perhaps they used the partially constructed earthen or stone mound as a ramp to heave the stone up using log rollers to perch it on the stone supports?

In any case, Browneshill is a marvel, and a great place to consider the ingenuity and faith of our Neolithic ancestors who created monuments like this over 5,000 years ago.

Carlow is full of hidden gems, and I highly recommend a day out exploring around the county. There’s so much more to see there, so I’ll certainly be paying Carlow another visit soon. For the next edition I’ll be visiting sites in County Clare, so if anyone has any suggestions for great heritage sites to see please do let me know.


Fancy exploring some of Ireland’s fantastic heritage sites this weekend? Please visit my blog  where I have more suggestions for great places to visit.

You can also download audioguides from my website, where we have 25 guides that tell the story of Irish heritage and the majority are absolutely free to download.

If you’d like to keep up with daily images and information about Ireland’s fantastic heritage sites please consider following Neil’s company Abarta Audioguides on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

More: One of Ireland’s best medieval castles was the scene of a bitter showdown between two brothers

Read: One of Ireland’s best high crosses is 1,200 years old and hidden in a small Kildare village >

Related: Ireland’s largest Norman castle was built by a womaniser who ended up being decapitated >  

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