Dartrey Castle.

The Demolition of Lady Windham’s Castle

Times Past columnist Jonathan Smyth brings us the story of Lady Windham who lived close to Cootehill. Her Castle was demolished when she could no longer pay the rates in the 1940s...

Dartrey Castle had replaced an earlier edifice known as Dawson Grove, and was situated a couple of miles out the Monaghan road from Cootehill, close to Rockcorry, making it a geographical neighbour of the Bellamont Forest Estate owned by the Coote family. In 1773, the Rev. J. Burrowes described Dawson’s Dartrey Estate as, ‘a thousand acres of lake, three hundred of which flows within a few yards of the house, with hills on each side covered with the most beautiful, delicious woods, bring all fairyland to one’s imagination’.

However, by the mid-20th century, unable to pay spiralling the rates on Dartrey Castle the Dawsons’ fairy-tale came to an abrupt end, and the swinging demolition ball inevitability wrote the final chapter. At the time, buyers were privately sought, but to no avail, and so with deep reluctance the home of Lady Edith Anne Windham (nee Dawson) was appointed a day to come tumbling down.

Prior to the house being taken down, she had to acclimatise to a new way of life, in reduced circumstances, she moved into one of the gate lodges on the estate.

Lady Edith Anne being the last member of the landed Dawsons of Dartrey, and with no male heir to inherit the land when her father Vesey Dawson, the second Earl of Dartrey died in 1920 (his son Richard George died aged four, in 1892), the property went to his daughter. Edith’s first marriage to the Honourable Charles Douglas-Pennant ended tragically when he was killed in the First World War. Then in November 1916, she married her second husband, Captain Charles Ashe Windham MC, from Manitoba.

Through time, the Captain took over his wife’s finances, spending recklessly behind her back until her inheritance dwindled, frivolously frittered away on ‘indiscretions’ and alcohol. Described as a keen fisherman and a first class shot, Captain Windham died on September 9, 1940 in Belfast, his obituary noting a last act whereby he had generously donated a site from the estate for Rockcorry Vocational School.

To survive, Lady Windham sold portions of her estate to Irish Forestry which helped bring in much-needed revenue. Then, the astronomical rates due on Dartrey Castle became too much to bear, necessitating the move with her lady servant into the gate lodge. However, her ancestral home’s fate was sealed in July 1945 after she had held a fundraising ‘Public Ball’ in the castle, to raise funds for the all-Ireland Donkey Protection Association. That evening saw some 400 guests drawn from counties Cavan and Monaghan arrive at the castle. Lady Windham, having previously agreed to leave the castle to avoid rates, was accused by the authorities on the following day of breaking her promise to stay away from the house and a bill for that year’s rates was delivered to her.

In March 1946, a demolition sale was organised that raised some money for Edith. The items on sale included 5,000 slates, mantlepieces, window casings, panels, doors, flag stones, wooden gates, boards and firewood. In the following month, the building was torn down, with only one request from Lady Windham that they leave enough of the walls to show where her home had stood.

The protection of animals and wildlife was Lady Windham’s passion, and the welfare of each creature was of huge importance to her. Some 30 years ago, I spoke to a former butler who worked on the estate and he recalled Lady Windham’s legendary kindness towards the swans on the lake fronting the castle, and how they became her pets as they happily pecked food from her hand. Her ladyship had a particular liking, he said, for terriers and served as president of the ‘Yorkshire Terrier Society’.

The Irish Press, in 1940, noted that she exhibited dogs in many countries and was ‘frequently’ called upon to judge in the Dublin dog shows.

Lady Windham’s pet hate was the abuse of animals, and she never hesitated to call out people caught excessively meting out punishments. One such story which I wrote about in All Saints’ Cootehill, 1819-2019: A history of the church, the parish, and its people, spoke of her encounter with a man beating a donkey with a stick, as it lay stubbornly on the ground along the Beggars’ Rocks leading into Cootehill. Seeing Lady Edith, the man removed his cap as was customary in the presence of local ‘nobility’. The formalities observed, Edith Windham proceeded to give him a right old tongue-lashing, … my word! said she, are you not aware, that our Lord once rode upon this very beast into the city of Jerusalem? … And here you are, beating it!

Older inhabitants from the area recall Lady Edith’s arrival on a Friday to the town in a big old car for the weekly shop, accompanied by her sharply dressed lady servant, who always wore a man’s suit. Listening to the butler, I realised that Lady Windham, although slightly eccentric, had a heart of gold, extending kindness towards the people and animals she loved so much. Sadly, in life her kindness was not always reciprocated, firstly, as can be seen in the demise of her fortune; then secondly, in the claim for full rates on her castle after a one-night charity fund raising event seemed heavy-handed.

After Lady Windham’s death in 1974, the estate stables had better luck than the castle. During the 1970s a group of ‘hippies’ stayed in the area, holding festivals and raising funds to carry out much-required repairs to the old out-buildings. Had Lady Windham lived, I imagine, she would have approved and relished in the thought of such a combined and colourful effort to save a portion of her former estate.

An excellent account on ‘Dartrey, The Rise and Fall of an Irish Estate’, by June Browne, can be read in Clogher Record, 2004.


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