One of the most famous incidences at Doneraile Court occurred during the time of Arthur St Leger, the first Viscount Doneraile, who was a Freemason. There were no lodges or meeting halls in Ireland in the early years of Freemasonry here so meetings had to be held in secret in the houses of the masons, and meetings were held regularly at Doneraile Court. On one occasion, Arthur’s daughter Elizabeth had dozed off while reading in the library. Her father was unaware of her whereabouts and began the masonic meeting. Elizabeth, upon awakening, heard the proceedings of the meeting. As she tried to escape unnoticed, the lodge guard caught her. Women were (and still are) forbidden from becoming Freemasons, but on this occasion, the rule was overlooked as Elizabeth had already heard so much. The only option was to swear her in as a Freemason. Elizabeth was very proud of her association with Freemasonry. According to her obituary in the Leinster Journal she was ‘The only woman in the world who had the honour of being made a Freemason’, which is seemingly true even to this day.
Elizabeth was one of the foremost members of the family. Her son St Leger Aldworth inherited the estate from his uncle and resurrected the title ‘Viscount Doneraile’ in 1785. The family continued to hold the title and live at Doneraile until the middle of the 20th century. The eighth Viscount, Hugh St Leger, was a solicitor and sheep farmer who lived in New Zealand. He and his wife took up residence at Doneraile Court but when he died in 1956 the title died with him. A claim to the title was made in the 1960s by Richard St Leger, who spent a large sum trying to prove his lineage, as his ancestor was an illegitimate son of a 19th-century Lord Doneraile. Richard’s case was considered tenuous. It was brought before the House of Lords but they ruled against Richard and the title is now in abeyance.
Lady Doneraile, who continued to live in the house after the death of her husband, sold the house to the Irish Land Commission in 1969, and 400 acres of the 600-acre estate to the Forestry Commission, which then set about opening the park to the public. Unfortunately, the house stood derelict for a number of years. Thankfully the Irish Georgian Society intervened and carried out extensive refurbishments. Doneraile Court is now under the care of the OPW, which with the local community and support of Doneraile Development Association, Ballyhoura Development, the Irish Georgian Society and Cork County Council have been working to return the grounds and house to their former glory. The house was opened for a while, though it is closed at present due to ongoing conservation works. It is still well worth a visit to explore the lovely grounds that offer a fine walk. Doneraile Park has free entry for visitors and has charming tea rooms which stock local produce.