Ireland’s Legendary Castle Leslie: A Haven For History Buffs And Hounds

The family castle welcomes dogs and celebs alike

By Si Si Penaloza

Ireland is ripe with fabled tales of grit, gravitas and glory. We ventured to Castle Leslie in County Monaghan, Ireland to unravel the colorful, eccentric history of the Leslie Clan. More specifically, to meet the descendant who has literally “saved the family castle”, dramatically turning its floundering fortune around. With great tenacity and vision, Samantha Leslie set up a charming tea shop in the old conservatory of her childhood home, and nurtured it into a successful multi-million dollar hotel, spa and equestrian club.

Photo: Castle Leslie

Through pillared gates, down a gravel drive and past well-trimmed lawns, Castle Leslie is one of only 30 great Irish castle estates still run by the original family. Samantha “Sammy” Leslie returned home to Ireland to run the estate with her siblings in 1991 at the age of 24. In 2001, she took over the castle’s full ownership and established it as a trust. The booming business portfolio now includes Castle Leslie Real Estate, Castle Leslie Farm and Woodlands and the Castle Leslie Estate, which offers several accommodation and activity options, including the club, hunting lodge, village cottages, equestrian center, organic spa and cookery school. In the on site shop, you’ll find Castle Leslie fine foods and publications devoted to the Leslie family lore. The accommodation aspect has boomed from six bedrooms in 1995 to 124 in 2007.

Photo: Castle Leslie

The Leslie clan play a lively, living role in Irish heritage, an ever-evolving family that has made lasting contributions to local color and conviviality. Guests are drawn to the sheer exclusivity, history and whimsical luxury of it all. The family traces its ancestry back to Attila the Hun. The first Leslie came from Scotland, a Hungarian nobleman known as Bartholomew Leslie. He served as the chamberlain and protector of Margaret Queen of Scotland. The family motto ‘Grip Fast’ originated through one of his many courageous acts. While fleeing enemies on horseback, Queen Margaret clung to Leslie’s back for dear life. When fording a river, the Queen slipped off and Bartholomew quickly threw her the end of his belt and told her to grip fast the buckle. He saved the monarch’s life and from that day onward, she bestowed the meaningful motto onto his clan.

Sir John Leslie, outside his family home, Castle Leslie

Castle Leslie’s fabled history reads like something out of an HBO hit drama, awash with power plays, politics, royalty and victory. The family has lived on the Estate since 1665. The land was purchased with a £2000-reward given to John Leslie, the fighting bishop, by King Charles II. The family’s eccentric ancestors include politicians, social reformers, agricultural innovators, philanthropic wives, pre-Raphaelite painters, and war heroes. They’ve rubbed shoulders with royalty, ambassadors and prime ministers for generations, giving audience to countless foreign émigrés. The Estate was passed to Desmond Leslie in 1964 and subsequently to his daughter Samantha.

Photo: Castle Leslie

The influential family is also related to the likes of Winston Churchill. WB Yeats has slept here in the family castle; Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull even shacked up in the Mauve Room in the Sixties. In June 2002, Castle Leslie Estate hit center stage when it hosted the splashy wedding of Paul McCartney and Heather Mills. Over 800 million people worldwide tuned into the fashionable televised event, resulting in sold out rooms for many following seasons.

Photo: Castle Leslie

Speaking of dress up, does your dachshund love spiffing up in Downton Abbey-era bow ties? Or perhaps your Maltese enjoys snuggling up on the sofa over a sweeping Merchant Ivory flick. Dogs are more sensitive to their environment than we can even imagine. So when making pet-friendly travel recommendations, we endeavor to check out all the specs first hand to ensure a genuinely cool, vibrant place that your dog will thrive in.

Irish wolfhounds at Castle Leslie by KT Merry + Style Serendipity Part II

Nestled within a stately courtyard on the Castle Leslie Estate surrounded by ancient woodlands, the Old Stable Mews is a seamless blend of contemporary chic and Victorian motifs. Many of the Mews are ideal for dogs; the hotel welcomes them with open arms as the Leslie family are renowned dog lovers. This Irish estate feels like a Celtic lifestyle dream fulfilled. For your fur mate, it’s a never ending green blanket of gorgeous smells and fresh territory beyond. Boasting a matrix of sleepy rivers, verdant farmland, forests and stoic mountains, there’s no shortage of sensational walks on this estate. It is the ideal setting for family gatherings complete with dogs, reunions of friends hunting for a hallowed, historic venue “for the Instagram”.

Photo: Castle Leslie

The castle suites present a resplendent refuge where there are no flatscreens, phones or radios – just prim yet friendly service, renowned breakfasts served until noon and pop up picnics by the lake. A grand marble staircase sweeps up to an array opulent bedrooms, each with a distinct decor and theme. The beloved Mauve Room is a symphony of mauve velvet and lilac tone accents. If you opt for the Old Stable Mews, you’ll be lavished with mod cons galore. A spellbinding fifteen minute walk to the iconic Irish Castle hotel, this old coach house has been fully restored and converted to luxury suites and sprawling two-bedroom mews equipped with every modern comfort including zippy complimentary WiFi. The good news is, you can split your time between the two hubs and respective restaurants. In the castle, more formal dinners are served by candlelight in the original dining room, just as it had been in the old days, with pre-dinner drinks served in the Drawing Room or Fountain Garden.

Photo: Castle Leslie

Guests may also choose to play chef at one of the luxury home rentals on the Estate. Leslie Castle takes the stress out of self-catering by supplying provision hampers, or breakfast baskets filled with delicious fresh ingredients for a feast of your own fancy. Indeed, the grand estate is a beau monde bubble but, with all the nearby attractions on your doorstep, one worth bursting out of. We recommend exploring the charming town of Carlingford in County Louth. A virtual outdoor museum of Medieval Ireland, you’ll be drawn into Carlingford’s quaint cobblestone streets offering oysters and craft brews, fresh markets and artsy coffee houses. The surrounding Cooley Peninsula landscape is spellbinding, invoking the lore of Celtic warriors Cú Chulainn and Fionn Mac Cumhaill.

Photo: Castle Leslie

Another great day trip from Castle Leslie is the sacred site of Brú na Bóinne, a UNESCO world heritage site along with the Pyramids of Egypt and Stonehenge. You’ll encounter one of civilization’s most important prehistoric landscapes dating back to the Neolithic period, including the large Megalithic passage graves of Knowth, Newgrange and Dowth. Brú na Bóinne has been the focus of human settlement for at least 6,000 years. Layered traces survive on the landscape, but it is the magnificent tombs of the Late Stone Age which impart a sense of ritual and ceremony.