Lock Up Your Wife

The tale of Lady Cathcart and Colonel Hugh Maguire

Castle Rackrent looked out on Allyballycarrickoshaughlin. Sure, it was a bog, but Sir Kit had put a lot of improving thought into landscaping it with trees. And so he was not impressed when his new English bride derided the vista as no more than a black swamp. Further tensions arose when, in defiance of his wife’s Jewish sensibilities, Sir Kit ordered up a pig and insisted on having sausages for breakfast every morning.

In the background to these domestic strains, need you guess, was some unresolved business in the enticing shape of a fortune in jewels. More precisely, it was the fact that Sir Kit’s new lady had declined to offer them up for the needy family kitty. So he locked her up for the next seven years.

Fact being stranger than fiction, Maria Edgeworth, author of the novel Castle Rackrent from which this story comes, took as her inspiration a set of real events that centred on the incumbent of Castle Nugent, not far away from the Edgeworths’ home in Co Longford.

Colonel Hugh Maguire, the real life Sir Kit, had spent some time in the Co Longford property he inherited from his mother, but his Maguire home was Tempo Manor in Co Fermanagh and it was in Fermanagh that the real life imprisonment probably began. The original house of Tempo Manor has been replaced, but visitors there in the late nineteenth century were shown the room – by then a stable block – where Hugh’s hapless bride was imprisoned, not for seven years, as in the novel, but for upwards of 20.

When she married Colonel Hugh Maguire in 1745, Lady Elizabeth Cathcart was not exactly inexperienced in matters matrimonial – a series of matches had brought her a long way from her relatively humble origins as a brewer’s daughter. Marriage number one, Elizabeth later reflected, had been to please her parents, number two had been for fortune, number three for rank. That left love, and it was as a menopausal ma’am of 53 that she finally admitted to tying the knot with stars in her eyes.

The object of her devotion was 35 year old Hugh Maguire, lately returned to England from a term as a soldier of fortune in the Austrian army. Hugh was one of the Fermanagh Maguires, third son of Bryan and joint heir with his brother Robert to the by now heavily mortgaged lands and Manor of Tempo. What Hugh was lacking in collateral, he made up for in roguish charm and it emerges that the dashing emigre had been cultivating Lady Cathcart’s fortune for some time: four years before they married in 1745, records show that she had bought him a lieutenant-colonel’s commission in the British Army.

At the marriage, solemnised on May 18, 1745, Lady Cathcart’s specially commissioned ring bore the spirited legend, ‘If I survive I will have five’. Whatever her aspirations, the match was, by all accounts, a source of some derision in their immediate social circle.

Hugh soon realised that his bride was far more wealthy than he had been given to believe and proceeded to put pressure on her to give him access to her jewels and, at pistol point, to hand over the deeds of her property. When she refused he tricked her into embarking on a journey, abducted her away to Ireland and locked her up. (The story goes that he employed a lookalike for the journey to allay any suspicion.)

But according to Dr Bill Maguire, formerly keeper of local history at the Ulster Museum, one-time resident of Tempo and a scholar with a particular expertise in the history of the Maguires, it is more likely that Lady Cathcart was held in a house in the parish of Galloon, in the townland of Carra, just on the Fermanagh/Monaghan border, near Clones.

Thereafter, concludes Dr Maguire, all the signs are that Hugh transferred his wife to Castle Nugent in Co Longford. Whether it was at Tempo, Carra or Castle Nugent was probably immaterial to the Lady in her plight and the account of her ordeal, published in her lengthy obituary in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1789, is substantially corroborated by other eyewitness accounts.

Details of Lady Cathcart’s incarceration, said to be based on her own description, paint a bleak picture. Finding herself locked in a sparsely furnished attic with only one small window, she fought to keep her sanity and her wits. Apart from her jewels which she had hidden in her hair (probably a wig) and sewn into her petticoats, her possessions consisted of the prayer book she had been carrying on her imprisonment and an old newspaper that had been in the carriage. Denied any means of writing, she recorded her thoughts by pricking the wallpaper with a pin, developing the skill of memorising and reproducing whole conversations by this means.

After one episode when her husband threatened to shoot her if she continued to refuse to hand over her assets, she climbed onto the bed and managed to attract the attention of a poor woman passer-by, bundling her jewels out to her for safekeeping. (She later recovered them and duly rewarded her helper.)

After repeated attempts to weaken his wife’s resolve, Hugh finally got it out of her that the deeds to her property were hidden behind a sliding panel in Tewin Hall. He lost no time in setting off post haste for Hertfordshire. Arriving at Tewin, Hugh located the hiding place with some excitement. Only a rusty lock stood between him and the coveted deeds. Taking a large jack knife to force the lock, he cut his hand badly. Blood poisoning set in and, despite the attentions of a surgeon, he died soon after of lockjaw.

At first, the hapless wife refused to believe that the news of Hugh’s demise was anything but a cruel hoax. In a footnote to the fictional Castle Rackrent story, the ‘editor’ alludes to the real event, claiming to have learned from the gentleman who had rescued her ladyship that ‘she had scarcely clothes sufficient to cover her; she wore a red wig, looked scared and her understanding seemed stupified; she said she scarcely knew one human creature from another; her imprisonment had lasted above twenty years’.

Now 75, Lady Cathcart returned to reside at Tewin. Despite her earlier piece of bravado, she never took husband number five, but did recover both her wits and her strength. At 80, she was still enjoying dancing and was to be seen out riding in her carriage. She died in 1789, aged 97 and was buried with husband number one. Unlike her late fourth husband, whose obituary notice in the Gentleman’s Magazine some 23 years earlier had warranted only a short statement, Lady Cathcart’s colourful and eventful tale was retold at length.

Colonel Hugh went to his eternal rest, according to his wishes, in the family burying ground on Devenish Island. His infamous marriage to Lady Cathcart was to cast a long shadow over the already precarious fortunes of the Tempo Maguires and would eventually result in the sale of the estate and manor, effectively marking the demise of this colourful Gaelic aristocratic family.

By Marion Maxwell

Photograph by Liz Curtis. © Liz Curtis.

Topics