Horse-loving baronet of Celtic Catholic stock


Sir John Nugent:SIR JOHN Nugent, seventh baronet of Ballinlough Castle in Co Westmeath, has died at the age of 76. He was educated at Eton College in Berkshire, England, and was in the Irish Guards on a short-term commission before becoming personal assistant to Lord Rootes, the chairman of the Rootes Group. He then joined the board of the family firm, the Lambourn Group, which his father had founded.

He could trace his family tree back to the ancient Milesian sept of O’Reilly, princes of lower Breffny. An ancestor was Brian, fourth Milesian king of Connaught, who had 24 sons, 12 of whom were baptised by St Patrick.

The O’Reillys have remained in possession of Ballinlough, making it one of the few instances of a large estate that has remained in the possession of a Celtic Catholic family. They survived even Cromwell who, it is said, liked the castle so much that he stayed the night, stabling his horse and his cow in the alcoves in the library.

Hugh O’Reilly was made a baronet in 1795, but to access his wife’s considerable dowry, he changed the family name to Nugent, as was specified in her uncle’s will. Since then the family have called themselves Nugent.

During the 19th century, several Nugents served with distinction in the Austrian army, including a direct ancestor who was chamberlain to the emperor of Austria and was made a count of the Holy Roman Empire, a title the family still holds.

Sir John’s great-grandfather was a successful trainer in Lambourn in Berkshire. His horses included Bramble Twig and Tetrachia and he won many races.

Sir John’s father, Sir Hugh Nugent, was also a trainer at Lambourn. But realising that there was a demand for transporting racehorses by road, he approached a man who ran a car-repair workshop in the town and together they bought land to erect a garage.Before long, not only was there a substantial business transporting racehorses, but the company was building its own horseboxes.

It went on to build everything from fire engines to buses, from mobile libraries and tractor cabs. The firm expanded, becoming the largest employer in Lambourn until it was sold in 1990.

Though Sir John’s working life was in England, where he was a justice of the peace and high sheriff of Berkshire, he inherited the title and Ballinlough when his father died in 1983.

The fairytale castle stands on a hill overlooking a lake. Built in the 16th century, it has many features similar to Malahide castle; as the family was related to the Talbots it is likely that they both used the same architect, Thomas Wogan Browne, to enlarge and gothicise their castles in the 18th century.

In 1927, Sir John’s father received a letter informing him that Ballinlough had been compulsorily taken over by the Land Commission and that the castle would be demolished. That night, he caught the boat to Ireland and went immediately to the Land Commission, where he argued the historical significance of the family so persuasively that he was allowed to keep the castle along with the lake and later was able to buy back 320 acres.

The Nugents have remained Catholic and have always been conscious of their Irish identity without being nationalists (the old Irish flag fluttered at half-mast over the castle at the funeral).

At the beginning of the second World War, when there was a threat that England might invade, Sir John’s father had joined the Irish Army, but when the danger receded, he went to England and served in Bomber Command.

Sir John was always hospitable, lending the castle for many charitable events. For years he was chairman of the Ballymacad hunt with whom he had hunted as a boy, and there was an annual lawn meet. He also laid out an event course where he organised the Ballinlough horse trials and hosted the Irish squad training sessions. He was a chairman of the Irish Horse Trials Society.

One of his great interests was the restoration of the garden. Ballinlough was the first place to be taken up by the Great Gardens of Ireland scheme. He and his wife planned the division of the old walled garden with hedges and created a rose garden, a garden with herbaceous borders and a sunken garden with a lily pond.

Three years ago Sir John handed on the castle to his son Nick, who is sales and marketing director at Goffs, and he and Lady Nugent went to live in a small house nearby. He is survived by his wife Penelope, née Hanbury, and by their son and daughter.

Sir John Edwin Lavallin Nugent, seventh Bart: born March 16th, 1933; died October 9th, 2009