Killua Castle, Clonmellon, Navan, Co. Meath C15 EWF2, IE
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Killua Castle

Killua Castle, a historic Irish castle in Co. Westmeath

Short Stories from our Past

The Featherstonhaugh’s and Killua

When Lady Caroline Margaret Chapman died in 1919, Killua passed to her cousin, Maj. Gen. R. S. Featherstonhaugh of Gwyder House, Isle of Wight, England. Gen. Featherstonhaugh soon sold the estate to Mr. William Frederick Hackett who converted Killua into a golf club. 

Less well known is the fact that the beneficiary of the will of Sir Montague Chapman (Lady Caroline’s late husband) was Gen. Featherstonhaugh’s eldest son, Lt. Richard Collingwood Featherstonhaugh. Alas, he died during the Great War at the very young age of 22 of injuries suffered in Richebourg in Flanders.

Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence of Arabia And The Irish Connection by Dick Benson Gyles

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Article by writingie © 29 February 2016 Dick Benson Gyles . 

Posted in the Magazine ( · Non-Fiction ).


David Lean has a lot to answer for. I went to see his Oscar-laden film, Lawrence of Arabia, when I was in my twenties, and nothing was ever the same for me again.


Perhaps the film’s intriguing, if superficial, exploration of Lawrence’s complex and baffling psychology had provoked some subliminal response from my fledgling, rather restive mind. But had this unusual (if fissured) hero of the silver screen ever really existed, I wondered? I felt somehow compelled to find out what the real man was like, and thus began my quest for the hidden Lawrence.


I read Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence’s unique book about the war against the Turks in the Middle East in 1916-18, and then I was hooked. This man, I thought, was either a brilliant creation of promotion and self-promotion or, that rare thing, a genius. In 1955 Richard Aldington had delivered what he hoped would be the coup de grâce to the Lawrence legend with his crushingly denigratory biography, but the blow simply glanced off the legend, which subsequently grew greater with every passing year. Lawrence seems to have found a permanent place in the English psyche, perhaps because his person contains precisely that seductive admixture of qualities—strength of character, immense willpower and intellect, charisma, rebelliousness, self-denigration—that the English secretly admire and which encapsulates their idea of quintessential Englishness. But the trouble is, he was Irish.


From my research, I had begun to feel that everything really worth saying about Lawrence had already been said. Then, to my surprise, I found a niche that looked to be almost empty – his lost family background in Ireland. Lawrence’s father was not really Mr Thomas Lawrence but Mr (subsequently Sir) Thomas Chapman, an Irish aristocrat from county Westmeath who had abandoned a wife and four daughters and eloped with their nursemaid-governess, Sarah Lawrence. ‘Mr and Mrs Lawrence’, as they thereafter called themselves, led a fugitive existence, always afraid that they would be exposed, moving on to Wales, Scotland, and France, until in 1896 they finally settled in Oxford for the sake of their sons’ education. By then there were four— Bob, Ned (Lawrence of Arabia), Will and Frank. A fifth, Arnold, would be born in 1900. Thomas’s abandoned and embittered wife, Edith, refused to grant him a divorce, so he and Sarah were condemned for the rest of their lives to masquerade as a model, churchgoing, married couple, all the while living with a shameful secret and an abiding fear of being unmasked. They never disclosed the family secret to their children, or told them of their illegitimacy. The sons all remained in happy ignorance of the truth – all but Ned. He found out when he was just a boy and it shocked him to the core.


Thanks to Aldington’s book, the main facts of Lawrence’s family history were already in the public domain, but, due to a dearth of information, the story had remained skeletal, with no more than a couple of pages devoted to it in any of the more than seventy biographies that have appeared since Lawrence’s death in 1935. Now, my research revealed that Lawrence’s illegitimacy, and his Irish family’s refusal to acknowledge him, damaged him far more deeply than had been thought. Before the war his hurt and anger at the marital mess his parents had gotten themselves into caused him to repress the facts of his true origins; and when in later years his parents returned to Ireland—to Cork, as they did once a year to meet Thomas’s loyal sister, Caroline Chapman—Lawrence reacted with marked disapproval. However, in the 1920s, after his wartime achievements had made him famous, he became increasingly interested in his lost Irish family and forbears, proudly telling friends that he was Irish, privately embracing his Irish ancestry, and saying that he hoped one day to buy land near the Chapman family seat—the grand, neo-baronial Killua Castle in Clonmellon—and perhaps settle there. I found that there had been very strong rumours in Clonmellon, alive to this day, that Lawrence had visited Killua incognito.


I was now an undergraduate at Dublin’s Trinity College and had made friends with a fellow undergraduate, an Anglo-Irish girl called Audrey Naper. With her help, doors in Westmeath opened, and I was given a privileged insight into the life and social world of Lawrence’s Chapman ancestors. This proved the key to understanding Lawrence’s unconventional life and his decision to eschew the chance of high office, reducing himself to the ranks of the Royal Air Force. I believed that he had done so, even if unconsciously, in reaction to the illegitimacy of which he was constantly reminded because of his rejection by his Irish family.


Audrey and I visited the late Barbara Casey (née Fetherstonhaugh) at her Westmeath house, Rockview. Distantly related to Lawrence, she was only too pleased to share her knowledge of the Chapman family, chuckling as she recounted memories of her bizarre cousins. She told us of Lawrence’s uncle, the eccentric Francis Chapman of South Hill near Delvin, who brought the first car to the village and who, with a speech impediment that prevented him pronouncing the letters L and R properly, was always asking Barbara’s mother, ‘Do you think I ought to get mawwied, aunt?’  She would reply, ‘I don’t think anyone would have you now, Francis, you’re too odd!’ to which the dismayed Francis would retort, ‘Oh, aunt, do you think so? I’m not weerwy that odd, just a bit pecuwia’.


For me, the icing on the research cake was the discovery in Westmeath of a complete sequence of original Chapman family photographs going back to 1860, among them, two of Lawrence’s father (the first ever known or seen). These evocative portraits brought the Chapmans even more to life for me, while conversations with local Westmeath people and Killua estate workers of yesteryear helped to paint a fuller, more complete picture of Lawrence’s lost ancestry, and so of Lawrence himself.


The other hidden part of his life that I was keen to decipher was his mysterious dedication to S.A. of Seven Pillars of Wisdom. In many ways, this cryptic accolade was psychologically linked to the secrecy he had had to maintain all his life about his family background. Behind the name ‘Lawrence’ was hidden the name Chapman. And behind the meaning of the letters S.A. also lay a hidden name – a woman’s. When, after adventurous journeys through the Middle East, I finally found her, Lawrence’s dedication (and Lawrence himself) at last made sense to me.


(c) Dick Benson Gyles


About The Boy in the Mask: The Hidden World of Lawrence of Arabia


This groundbreaking work chronicles the author’s quest to uncover previously unexplained areas of the life of T.E. Lawrence, the enigmatic desert fighter, aircraftman and writer.


The result of years of painstaking research, this book contains new material that throws a completely fresh light on Lawrence’s concealed private life. Following an extraordinary journey to find the unknown man behind the many myths, the book’s two halves are woven together by the author’s personal mission to reveal the man behind the mask; the secret Lawrence.


Part One reveals Lawrence’s lost Irish heritage – his father’s real family (the aristocratic, Anglo-Irish Chapmans), his abandoned half-sisters (with evocative interviews), his illegitimacy, and his mother’s obscure forebears. The author shows, for the first time, that his titled and wealthy Irish family’s refusal to acknowledge him affected Lawrence far more deeply than previously thought; and a surprising truth emerges – that he thought of himself not as English but as Irish. The book’s compelling narrative is powerfully supported by a wide range of previously unpublished photographs.These include two of his father, Thomas Chapman, a complete Chapman family sequence and views of Killua Castle and South Hill, the family seats in Westmeath.


The second part, which follows the author’s adventurous travels to the Middle East in search of Lawrence’s lost love, has a surprising denouement – a convincing solution to the mysterious and cryptic dedication to S.A. of his book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The author also presents new evidence to vindicate Lawrence’s account in the Seven Pillars of the brutal sexual assault on him at Deraa during the Arab Revolt of 1916-18, a controversial episode that has often been questioned.


The Boy in the Mask: The Hidden World of Lawrence of Arabia is published by The Lilliput Press and is available from all good bookshops or pick up your copy online here!



The Chapman Baronets of Killua Castle

The Chapman Baronetcy, of Killua Castle (also known as St Lucy's) in the County of Westmeath, was created in the Baronetage of Ireland on 11 March 1782 for Benjamin Chapman, with remainder to his younger brother Thomas] Chapman notably represented Fore and Westmeath in the Irish House of Commons. He was succeeded according to the special remainder by his brother Thomas, the second Baronet. His elder son, the third Baronet, sat as Member of Parliament for County Westmeath. He never married and was succeeded by his younger brother, the fourth Baronet. He also represented County Westmeath in Parliament and served as Lord Lieutenant of County Westmeath. The title became extinct on the death of the seventh Baronet in 1919. The seventh baronet abandoned his wife to live with his daughters' governess, Sarah Junner. The couple did not marry. Sir Thomas and Sarah had five illegitimate sons, of whom Thomas Edward Lawrence, best known as Lawrence of Arabia, was the second-eldest.

William Frederick Hackett

Mr. Hackett bought the Killua Estate from Maj. Gen. Featherstonhaugh and turned it into a golf course. The contents of the house were auctioned off and the premises rented to the Sherlock sisters. William F. Hackett died in 1942 and is burried in the grounds of St. John’s Church, Clonmellon.