One of Ireland’s most spectacular landed estates, the elegant Castletown House is situated in Celbridge, Kildare, alongside the River Liffey and within easy reach of Dublin. It was the palatial residence of William Conolly. Originally from Ballyshannon in County Donegal, Conolly was the son of a publican, but he had a stratospheric rise through the ranks of Irish society to become one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in Ireland and Britain. He achieved this in the aftermath of the Williamite Wars that had ravaged Ireland in the late-17th century. In the wake of King William’s victory, many Irish Catholic landowners were dispossessed of their lands and estates, which were then granted to King William’s Protestant supporters. This period became known as the Protestant Ascendancy. William Conolly had trained as a lawyer, and specialised in land transfers. Many who had been granted land immediately sought to sell it in order to make a fast profit. Conolly’s shrewdness and legal expertise helped him acquire large tracts of land across Ireland, often at knock-down prices. This later included the Duke of Wharton’s estate at Rathfarnham, where he built his hunting lodge that later became known as the Hellfire Club, (where we carried out our archaeological project in 2016).
Conolly also improved his fortunes with his marriage in 1694 to Katherine Conyngham, the daughter of a prominent Williamite general, which brought with it a substantial dowry of £2,300. Conolly soon owned land in eight Irish counties along with estates in Wales. His properties brought him an annual rental income of £25,000, a massive sum at the time, equivalent to many millions in today’s terms.
Supported by his new wealth and his wife Katherine, William Conolly embarked on a political career, and was duly elected to the Irish Parliament for Donegal in 1692. He became a famous parliamentarian, and achieved the rank of Speaker in the Irish Parliament from 1715–29, a role that became so synonymous with him that he was known as William ‘Speaker’ Conolly.