The Leslies

By Seamus McCluskey

In the 2002 ‘Monaghan GAA Yearbook’ we covered a large section of the history of the Shirley family of Carrickmacross and the influence which they exerted on the life of South Monaghan. An even greater influence on Monaghan history was exerted by the Leslie family of Glaslough, and also of Ballybay.

It might truthfully be argued that the Leslies exerted an even greater influence on Co. Monaghan life than any of the other landed gentry that controlled our county from the early seventeenth century onwards.

Unlike most other landlords who were given confiscated lands in Co. Monaghan following the Ulster Plantations of 1607-10 and the Cromwellian Settlement of 1652, the Leslies did not come here as ‘Planters’. The first Leslie to arrive in North Monaghan was Bishop John Leslie, sometimes referred to as ‘The Fighting Bishop’. He had been Bishop of Raphoe Diocese in Co. Donegal but when the diocese of Clogher became vacant he applied for it as it was much more convenient to Dublin and to the ‘centre of political life in Ireland’ at the time. Another branch of the Leslie family had previously purchased estates in the Ballybay area in 1750, but their Glaslough ‘cousins’ were by far the more important branch of the name.

Prior to Bishop Leslie’s arrival, the lands of McKenna and McMahon in the Barony of Truagh (parishes of Donagh and Errigal Truagh) had been declared confiscate in 1610 and given to Thomas Ridgeway, who was then ‘Treasurer at Arms’ to the English throne in Ireland and, as such, was probably one of the most influential and most powerful men in Ireland at the time, exercising control over both army and finances. Being so powerful, Ridgeway (who later became the first Lord Londonderry) could pick and choose what confiscated lands he desired in the country, and it speaks volumes for the quality of the land in North Monaghan, and particularly around the Glaslough area, when it became his first choice.

Ridgeway re-built and extended the old McKenna castle (built in 1591) in Glaslough, but was then given a new tract of land in South Tyrone. Leaving Monaghan, he built a new castle at Favour Royal between Aughnacloy and Clogher, using much timber from ‘McKenna’s Green Woods’ in the construction of same. He sold his Monaghan estates to a lady called the Countess of Carlisle who, in turn, sold them to yet another adventurer. It was at this stage that the See of Clogher became vacant and Bishop John Leslie now requiring an estate of his own, purchased the north Monaghan lands.

Leslie arrived in 1665 and soon extended the existing castle. He also took possession of the old Church at Donagh (founded by St. Patrick in the 5th century) but later abandoned this and built a new church within his walled estate in 1670, a church which still stands and serves as the Church of Ireland church for the local Donagh community. Leslie called it St. Salvator’s, and it figured very prominently only a year ago when it was the venue for the famed ‘Paul McCartney Wedding’.
The Leslies have been here since that time, three and a half centuries ago, and have played an important role in Monaghan history down through the years, particularly in North Monaghan. Charles Powell Leslie, the first of three Leslies with those same first names, became an MP for Monaghan in 1783. He was bitterly ‘anti-Union’ speaking vehemently against the proposal for Union with Britain at the famous Dungannon Convention of 1782, and voting against it again when it first came before the Irish Parliament in College Green.

He was also very much ‘anti-United Irishmen’ and it was during his ‘reign’ that three young Irishmen ... Johnston, Hughes and Carbery ... were publicly hanged at Glaslough in 1797 for being members of the United Irish Society. He also commanded the infamous ‘Monaghan Militia’ at the Battles of Antrim and Ballynahinch during the Rebellion of 1798. He had retained his seat in Parliament in the 1790 and 1797 Elections but was dead by the time the infamous Act of Union came into force on January 1st 1801. He was succeeded by Charles Powell Leslie the 2nd, who also became an MP for Monaghan in 1801.

Although a very progressive landlord, this Leslie was very anti-Catholic, and voted against the proposals for Catholic Emancipation when they came before the London Parliament. He retained this seat in the elections of 1802, 1806 (twice), 1812, 1818 and 1820 but lost out to Westenra in the famous Election of 1826, when Daniel O’Connell successfully persuaded the clergy of North Monaghan to organise their ‘forty-shilling freeholder’ parishioners to march into Monaghan town and vote for Westenra, who had vowed to support the Catholic Emancipation issue, and against Leslie. That particular 1826 Election served as a water-shed and a shining example to the rest of the country.

CP Leslie died in 1831 and was succeeded by his son, also Charles Powell, who successfully contested the election of 1842 and would hold the seat until his death in 1871. His brother John then became MP for North Monaghan and was made a Baronet in 1876. On the death of the latter, the title ‘Sir’ was passed on to his son, also John, who was very much an anti-Home Rule activist and who became Colonel of the UVF for the entire county of Monaghan. This John also had a son called John, who would inherit the title but was a totally different personality and became an out-and-out Nationalist.

The Leslies had always proved to be extremely kind landlords, particularly during the dreadful period of the Great Famine, 1845-47 and even suspended the payment of rents from ‘hardship’ cases in those years. They also organised ‘relief work’ in the building of an estate wall surrounding their thousand acres at Glaslough, a work that surely saved hundreds of lives, and that particularly wall still stands and is locally called the ‘Famine Wall’ to this day. Nor are there any records of Leslies ever having evicted a tenant in that or any other period of their history.

It was one of the great comic ironies of the Leslies that, during the fight for Home Rule period, when Sir John Leslie was reviewing the Co. Monaghan UVF forces at a major parade within the Leslie estate in Glaslough in 1912, his young son, later known as Sir Shane, was slipping out the back gate to drill with the Nationalist Volunteers committed to winning Home Rule. Shane’s ‘Irish-ness’ did not even end there as he always wore the Irish kilt, asserting that trousers were ‘an English invention’. Shane had also converted to Catholicism, but this stemmed from the fact that his mother was Catholic. She was one of the Jerome sisters from New York, her older sister being the mother of Winston Churchill, thus making Sir Shane Leslie and Sir Winston Churchill first cousins.

Shane Leslie was a very prolific writer, and countless books, letters, documents etc, etc., from his pen are treasurer in the National Library in Dublin. It was he who also handed over the deeds of Lough Derg (St. Patrick’s Purgatory) in Co. Donegal to the Diocese of Clogher and were accepted by the then bishop of the diocese, Dr. Eugene O’Callaghan. Probably Sir Shane’s two best known books were his widely acclaimed ‘History of Ireland for English Readers’ and ‘Long Shadows’, which was really his autobiography. He was also a wonderful collector of folklore and recorded many of the stories and customs of his native Glaslough and surrounding areas.

Shane had two sons, John and Desmond. John, who inherited the baronetcy, found in WW2 but was captured at Dunkirk and spent the last four years of the war as a German Prisioner of War. At one stage Hitler had hoped to exchange him for the captured Nazi, Rudolph Hess, but this failed to materialise. Because of his long incarceration Sir John fell into ill-health and had to live in the warmer climes of Italy following the cessation of hostilities. He returned to Glaslough in the early ‘nineties and celebrated his 85th birthday only last year.

John’s younger brother Desmond, who died just two years ago, had been an RAF pilot during WW2 and was also an acclaimed novelist and film script writer, as well as producing several books on UFOs. Their sister Anita had also several well-known books to her credit, while Sir Shane’s brother Seymour was also a highly regarded writer and historian. In all, a family that has brought great credit to their name and who have established themselves as an integral part of Co. Monaghan history.

They are still very much a part of that history, and Ms. Samantha Leslie, daughter of Desmond, has converted the beautiful ‘Castle Leslie’ in Glaslough into one of Ireland’s superior and leading hotels, which has been the venue for many major international functions in recent years. No wonder that former ‘Beatle’ Paul McCarthy chose the idyllic Castle Leslie as the setting for his much publicised wedding just over a year ago.

Taken from Monaghan's Match
December 2004