Secret Room Discovered in Ireland’s Historic Johnstown Castle in Wexford
During restoration and conservation work taking place at historic Johnstown Castle in the city of Wexford, Ireland, a carpenter repairing a window inadvertently broke through a wall behind which was hidden a small secret room. Before this accidental discovery no one had suspected this room existed, as it had apparently been walled off in the 19th century for reasons that remain unknown.
Renovations at the ancient castle turned tourist attraction began five years ago, under the authority of the Irish Heritage Trust, which has been overseeing operations of the Johnstown Castle Estate Museum and Gardens since 2018. The original castle was constructed more than 850 years ago during Ireland’s Norman era, and the 150-acre (961-hectare) estate that included it was owned and occupied by multiple aristocratic families until it was transferred to the Irish state in 1946.
The castle was extensively rebuilt in the 19th century in the Gothic-revival style popular during that time, and most of what stands today—including the turret that contained the hidden room—can be dated to that reconstruction.
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A Tapestry of Histories: The Rich Legacy of Johnstown Castle
Even after Johnstown Castle was opened to the public in 2019, the extensive efforts to conserve it and preserve it continued. This work has focused on restoring what was already there, which is why the discovery of a hidden secret room represents such a revelation.
"It is highly unusual to find additional hidden treasures in heritage properties and this is the second time that this has happened at Johnstown Castle following our discovery of a secret room under the tower at the lake just last year," said Anne O'Donoghue, the CEO of the Irish Heritage Trust, in an interview with RTÉ News.
That secret room was in a tower separate from the main castle bordering a lake, and is only accessible by boat. The newly discovered secret room is also in a tower, but specifically in one of the castle’s turrets, making it the first hidden room of any type to be found inside the castle.
The secret room being revealed in the tower at Johnstown Castle, Ireland. (Irish Heritage Trust)
The room that was sealed for so long inside the turret was circular in shape, and about 10 feet (three meters) in diameter. Based on its modest size and dimensions, Irish Heritage Trust officials think it was most likely a bedroom, possibly one used by a live-in servant.
“This room has been covered up for a very long time,” noted Brenda Comerford, the manager of Johnstown Castle. “There is quite a tragic family history associated with Johnstown Castle, so this room could have been sealed off due to a tragedy, which would have happened in times past, who knows? We will need to investigate this further.”
The Story of Johnstown Castle, a Witness to Irish History
The Johnstown Castle estate has quite an unusual past, one that connects it to major events in Irish history.
The aristocratic Esmonde family built the original tower house that stood on the site in the 1170s. The Esmonde’s were Normans who migrated to the Wexford region following the Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169.
Johnstown Castle. (Mike Searle/CC BY-SA 2.0)
The castle remained in the hands of this influential Catholic family for several centuries. But they were forced to vacate the premises in 1649, as a result of the seizure of Ireland by English Parliamentarian forces led by Oliver Cromwell, the future Lord Protector (head of state) of the British realm. Cromwell himself benefited directly from this action, as he and his Roundhead soldiers used the land surrounding the castle to prepare for the 1649 sacking of Wexford. That violent attack destroyed that city and helped quell Irish rebellions in the nation’s southeastern countryside.
Architectural Revival and Transition to State Ownership
Ownership of Johnstown Castle changed hands in 1692, when it was purchased by Ireland’s wealthy Grogan family. Like the Esmondes before them the Grogans and their castle also had a brush with history, when patriarch Cornelius Grogan was hanged for his involvement in the Irish rebellion of 1798, which aimed to end British occupation and rule. Grogan commanded a military unit for the Society of United Irishmen, an alliance of Protestants and Catholics who were inspired by the success of the American and French Revolutions and launched their own armed rebellion designed to expel the English. Their efforts failed, and the British state assumed ownership of Johnstown Castle as punishment for the Grogan family’s disloyalty.
But this situation was only temporary, as the now more-than-600-year-old monument was returned to the Grogans in 1810. It was then that one John Know Grogan decided to hire the famed architect Daniel Robertson to rebuild the castle in the Gothic-revival style.
The reconstruction of the castle and its estate wasn’t completely finished until 1872, but what was created is what stands on castle grounds today (the grand castle with its soaring towers and turrets and arched Gothic windows, the placid lake in front of the castle with its surrounding walkways, the colorful walled ornamental gardens, the elaborate garden sculptures, and multiple assorted towers built separately from the castle, including the one by the lake that also features a secret room.
The castle is a beautiful example of Gothic-style architecture. (Jo & Steve Turner/CC BY-SA 2.0)
The last person from the Grogan family line to live in Johnstown Castle was the wife of Lord Maurice FitzGerald, Lady Adelaide Jane Francis Forbes (the FitzGerald’s were closely related to the Grogans by marriage). When Lady Adelaide died in 1942, the estate was inherited by her grandson, who decided to dispose of the burdensome castle (it was quite expensive to maintain) by donating it to the Irish government in 1946.
Curiously, the original plan for the historic Norman-era castle, which by this time was nearly 800 years old, was to convert it into an agricultural college. That didn’t happen, but the castle still ended up in the hands of Ireland’s Department of Agriculture (now known as Teagasc), which installed laboratories inside the castle that were used it to analyze soil samples.
Eventually, it occurred to Irish authorities that the ancient castle might be put to better use if it was converted into a tourist attraction. The Irish Heritage Authority finally assumed jurisdiction over the awe-inspiring building and its estate just five years ago, and it has rapidly become one of the Wexford region’s most visited sites.
The Restoration of Johnstown Castle Will Disclose its Secrets
Given how recently the renovation of the huge castle and its surrounding structures began, it is certainly conceivable that there are other secret rooms on estate grounds that have yet to be found. The search for these hidden locations adds a new layer of intrigue to the ongoing work being done at Johnstown Castle, which will continue until every inch of the site has been fully restored to its past glory.
Top image: Johnstown Castle, Murrintown, with refection in its lake, Wexford, Ireland. Source: Mike Searle/CC BY-SA 2.0
By Nathan Falde