The ghost of Charleville Castle, Tullamore! Eleanor Ridley (specially contributed)

021 Charleville Castle, front, April 17th 1889

As somebody from an old Tullamore family that lived in County Offaly for almost 150 years I feel I still have a place there in my old country, though I seldom visit now. I prefer the mild climate of Jo’burg and the Cape. My extended family had happy (and some sad) recollections of the old days in Tullamore. We were there from the 1760s as shopkeepers, hoteliers and, latterly, we were a medical family for two or three generations.
Our family owned what was later Hayes’ Hotel and is now, I am told, a Boots Pharmacy. Our old hotel in Tullamore was demolished nearly twenty-years ago. Some of our family lived in Moore Hall in Earl Street, Tullamore before emigrating to South Africa about the time of the Boer War. We left in a sad state as a great granduncle had cut his throat on the morning of the inquest into the death of a political prisoner in Tullamore jail – a man called Mandeville in the late 1880s.
Ireland is still a fine country and I owe much to it. Having sat at the feet of a kindly grandmother I know something of Tullamore and its old families. The story I have to tell  is of a lovely young girl who was killed on the stairwell in Charleville Castle in the 1860s, over 150 years ago. Some say that she still haunts the place.

Charleville Castle before the First World War
Charleville Castle was deserted before the First World War. Lady Emily, the sister of the girl killed on the stairwell, was by then a widow and her husband Charles Howard was dead for almost thirty years. Their surviving child, later Lt. Col. Bury, fought in the Great War and lived until the early 1960s. In his long life he was lucky as many of his forebears were not. Was it a kind of miasma that hit the family? Who knows? Lady Emily lived for only a short time in that great gaunt Gothic house following the death of her husband in 1885. He was an army officer and she had married him in about 1881. They had two children: one of them Marjorie, died young and her brother, later Lt. Col. Howard Bury, closed up Charleville in 1912 preferring Belvedere near Mullingar, also in the centre of Eire. His sister Marjorie died soon after our family left Tullamore and Lady Emily spent most of her long widowhood in Switzerland. And so Charleville was shut up for over fifty years until it was leased to a young Englishman in the 1970s. What attracted him to the old castle I heard was a ghostly funeral advertisement made for an English bank in the 1960s. How macabre. And so I get back to my grandmother and her tale of woe.

The second earl and countess of Charleville – grandparents of Harriet Bury

From riches to relative poverty
Grandma told us of the death of Lady Harriet over 150 years ago and how it was that her death brought more sadness on a family that suffered much in the Famine years in Ireland for want of money and not potatoes. Poverty is relative until you are starving, but in the case of the Burys it was the loss of money due to the gambling disasters of the second earl who literally went mad before his death in 1851. His eldest son came into possession in that year and great things were expected of him by the people of Tullamore. He had already married and indeed had sown some wild oats. That child, grandma told us, was taken into a convent in some fashionable place in Germany or Belgium and never heard of again. The third earl married steady but certainly not for money and went on to have five children. The cold of the castle in winter killed his young wife in 1857 when she was only 30 years old and her husband died in 1859 at the age of 37, leaving his five children without parents and in the care of their uncle Alfred. My grandmother said that at the funeral of the third earl the large assemblage collected in front of the mansion house of Charleville were deeply and painfully affected by the appearance, at one of the windows, of the five young orphan children of the deceased earl. Alfred, the children’s uncle was by all accounts a good man, but I suppose like most men of that time, and some since, spent little time with his charges.

051151 St Catherine exterior 00
St Catherine’s Tullamore, burial place of Harriet Bury and five generations of Burys

The melancholy departure
It was one day two years after the death of the third earl that the young Harriet fell off the stairwell in Charleville Castle and died instantly of a broken neck. Her remains were ‘buried’ in the crypt of the Hophill church in Tullamore called St Catherine’s. My grandmother told us that such was the level of crime in Ireland in those years that guards had to be put on the gates of the great tomb until it could be properly sealed off. Harriet lies there with her parents and her grandparents. One of her brothers died in 1872 of natural causes. Her sister Katherine married in the same few weeks in 1873 as the only surviving brother came of age – the fourth earl. He too was afflicted with the miasma and died in New York at the age of only 22 in 1874. It was the uncle who had ‘taken care’ of the young children who then became the fifth and last earl. For he too died a year later, in 1875, and childless. The last of the girls of the third earl, then unmarried, inherited. She was Lady Emily and the mother of the mountaineer who died in the 1960s. To a few of the Burys long life was given, but for many it was all too short.

080 interior, entrance hall

Thomas Lacy and Charleville
My grandmother was not much of a reader but one book she treasured was the story of Charleville in those sad times of the 1850s and 1860s. The story of the place was told by a returned Irish American who, I suppose, fancied that he too had been born in a castle. The writer was a man called Lacy, who was originally from Wexford, and wrote of Ireland in the 1850s. It was a time when the gloom of the Famine years was beginning to lift. Lacy made his journey to Charleville in 1855 and when reviewing his notes for publication of his book in 1863 added further detail about the death of the young Lady Harriet Bury, aged 8 in 1861, following the accident at Charleville Castle. It was obviously something that affected him deeply. His description of the place then could hardly be bettered today.

While in Tullamore, the tourist should not forego the advantage of paying a visit to the magnificent castle and demesne of the Earl of Charleville, called Charleville Forest, a privilege which is conceded to respectable strangers. The demesne is of considerable extent, comprising an area of 1,500 acres, and possessing natural beauties of the highest order. The Clodagh river winds in a curving sweep through the beautiful grounds, and produces in many parts of them fine cascades, whose rushing sounds, as they descend into the deep glens, become subdued by the thick and overhanging trees, and finally subside into soft and agreeable murmurs. The widely-spreading lawns and rich meadows are studded and surrounded with timber of great age and large growth, while the more youthful plantations afford covert and security to the very large numbers of deer, hares, rabbits, and pheasants, by which they are tenanted; the latter, the beautiful pheasants, are to be seen in great abundance on all parts of the demesne.

Lacy then went on to write of the death of Lady Harriet and spoke of the great beauty of her mother and her five pathetic children. My grandmother told me that the second Lady Charleville was a handsome woman, but died in poor circumstances and was buried in some unmarked grave in Italy. How sad it was for them. Her husband’s estate in Tullamore was his only for life so fortunately for his children he was unable to sell it to raise yet more credit for his extravagances. Lacy recalled his visit in the mid-1850s when he read in the national press of the death of that beautiful ill-fated child.


Death of Lady Harriet Bury
Since I penned my brief notice in reference to it, the earl and his much-lamented countess have paid the great debt of nature, leaving behind them five infant children, the eldest of whom, Lord Tullamore – alas for him too soon – is now Earl of Charleville, Lady Katherine, Lady Harriet, Lady Emily, and the Honourable John William Bury. It was with feelings of deep regret I saw the death of Lady Harriet announced through the public journals, who lost her life by a melancholy accident, she having fallen over the handrail of the staircase of the castle, upon which she was sliding, in the month of April, 1861 [aged 8]. During my visit in 1855, I had an opportunity, while passing down the avenue leading to the castle, of seeing this interesting child, who, together with her highly favoured, noble, and honourable brothers just mentioned, was being drawn in a light vehicle by two of the nursery maids along the fine gravelled walk. A more beautiful group than that formed by this juvenile trio it would be impossible to behold, and I feel now, as I felt then, that painter never employed his pencil on a subject more truly lovely than it presented. Lord Tullamore, who was between three and four years old at this time, and his brother, who had scarcely reached his thirteenth month, were very like their noble mother, who was of Hebrew extraction, with fine black eyes and dark hair, and an uncommonly beautiful cast of countenance; while Lady Harriet was said to be like her father’s relative, the Duke of Argyle. Indeed, when I lately saw the splendid historical picture called “The Sleep of Argyle,” in the corridor leading from the grand lobby of the houses of parliament, to that immediately in front of the entrance to the House of Commons, I at once recognised, in the clear complexion and rich auburn hair of the illustrious sleeper, the unmistakable characteristics which, together with her lovely blue eyes, distinguished the almost angelic deceased Lady Harriet, then in her third year. In the English school of paintings, in the great picture-gallery of the International Exhibition of 1862, I noticed another fine representation of “The Sleep of Argyle,” in which the renowned sleeper appears in a slightly different position, with hair and complexion many shades darker than those represented in the first-mentioned picture.’

So those of you who walk in the demesne of Charleville think of that young child bereft of parents from a young age and two of her siblings also dying so early. The fourth earl being only 22 and of whom, like his father, the people of Tullamore expected much. The other brother John died in 1872. If you pass St. Catherine’s Church on the way to the ‘Sandton City’ of Tullamore (the new out-of-town shopping centre) think a while of that young girl and her sad end. Does she haunt the castle still and that great stairwell? My grandmother did not think so. So innocent and pure what could trouble that child now? And yet I think of the miasma and of her grandfather having to leave in great haste in 1844 to avoid his creditors and of her grandmother in that lonely graveyard in Italy. Her siblings dying so young save Katherine and Emily. Emily was rich but was she happy? She too was a widow at a young age with her only daughter Marjorie dying about the age of 21, perhaps from infected water in the castle. Even the rich were not spared typhoid.

The long winding avenue in Charleville was designed in the ‘Romantic’ age of sturm und drang and seems the perfect setting to meet a ghost. Perhaps we may meet that of the old Bishop Pococke of Meath who took a puke after a feed of mushrooms in Charleville and died next day. Or that of the second earl who went mad with upset over his lost fortune. Or that of the third earl who perhaps killed himself with over indulgence and want of exercise. Plenty of possibilities as we face into the many twists and turns in Charleville and of life. Take care this Hallowe’en and pray for the Souls still in torment in Purgatory and waiting a happy release.

The former Hayes’ Hotel Tullamore at one time owned by the Ridley family and where the third earl was feted when he came to Tullamore in 1851

091 Hayes Hotel

I suppose nobody remembers now us Ridleys in Tullamore and my grandmother told us we were once a great family in your town. Our old hotel in the background. The site now has a Boots Pharmacy. What would old Dr McMichael say.

I should add my thanks to all at the Offaly History Centre for permitting my rambles and I wish them well with their new archive project. When I think of all we Ridleys discarded over the years. It would be a rich vein but now I have nothing but memories.

Probably the stairwell at Charleville where the young child died