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A millennium later and craftsmanship in Ireland was still internationally famous. Bossi's inlaid marble chimmneypieces are now worth well into six figures - one was sold three years ago for £260,000. The Booker brothers made looking glasses in Dublin's Parliament Street in the early 18th century. Museum pieces, they too have been sold for over £200,000. The Irish rococo stucco work of the Francini brothers and their followers has never been equalled. In the hands of these maestros plaster cherubs seem to float across ceilings, and baskets of lucious fruit spill wantonly down swag encrusted walls.
Architecture in this island outpost of Europe developed a unique version of Paladianism. Sir Edward Lovett Pearce, whose cousin Vanbrugh designed Blenheim and Castle Howard, was one of the great architects of 18th century. The stately mansions designed by his successor Richard Castle, the later gothic castles of Francis Johnston, the elegant classicism of James Gandon and William Morrison, these have given Ireland a fabulous architectural heritage. Add to this the exquisite Casino, designed by Sir William Chambers for Lord Charlemont and considered to be the finest piece of architecture in Europe, and the Swiss Cottage, designed by John Nash, George IV's favourite architect. Within a country the size of Maryland you have the heritage of all Europe.
Irish silver, glass and furniture are all specialist fields to themselves. Waterford Crystal, established by Penrose in the 1780s, is still world famous. Irish furniture, with its vigorous and unrestrained carving, is unmistakable. And Irish silver has long been collected for its rococo splendour and rich decoration. In modern times the painter Jack B. Yeats, brother of the poet W.B. Yeats, has become amongst the most sought after expressionists in the world.
Though the names of Ireland's literary giants - Swift, Goldsmith, Joyce, Shaw and Wilde, echo round the world, Ireland's visual heritage has long been a secret, shrouded in mystery to those outside the circle of cognoscenti. With Country House Tours, the veil is drawn aside. Our contacts can bring you into the best collections, organise interesting and articulate experts to guide you, and reveal the full rainbow of applied and decorative arts that have flourished in Ireland for the last 5,000 years.
Like many others I have been guilty of boasting that I know what I like. Smith points out that what I mean is I like what I know. Become familiar with contemporary art and its meaning and value will become clear. Like the first pint of stout or glass of champagne, appreciation may not be instant. But persevere and it will grow.
As an investment, Irish art has great potential. Twentieth century Irish artists became fashionable in the early 1980s. In recent years the interest has widened to take in living painters. Collectors want "wet canvasses" and it is so chic to be the first patron. Roxie Walshe, who established her reputation in Manchester and recently exhibited at Elizabeth Guinness's gallery in Foxrock, has already made it, having been described as one of the best ten women artists working in Britain. Other established names would include Gerald Dillon, Nick Mulcahy, Gerry Davis and of course Louis le Broquy. But there are new artists emerging like Paul Coleman, Shelley Sutor, Paddy Graham, Eoin Byrne, and the hottest tip of all according to my sources, John Moore.
To spot the potential Picasso is difficult. Experienced collectors can trust their own judgement sufficiently to buy at the NCAD graduation exhibitions - a great place to pick up a bargain by an unknown. However successful, artists need more than technical expertise and fertile imaginations. Business acumen, agents and galleries are essential to establish value - it is that that differentiates the water-colours on the railings artist from the retrospective in the RHA gallery artist. Corporate investment in contemporary art has brought a new dimension, especially with the advantages offered by section 32 of the Finance Act 1984. As with any form of investment, good advice is essential. Most galleries will give a gentle introduction to the subject and guarantee to buy the paintings back. Some also arrange long term payment. Prices range from £300 for a small sketch to £5,000 for a large piece by an artist whose reputation is already established. And by patronising the arts the investor is being both socially and politically correct!
Circa is a quarterly magazine about the arts in Ireland published in Belfast. Temple Bar Gallery, 5-9 Temple Bar, Dublin 2, 01 679 9259 Taylor Gallery, 34 Kildare St., Dublin 2, 01 676 6055 Kerlin Gallery, Annes Lane, Dublin 2, 01 677 9652 Solomon Gallery, Powerscourt Town House, Dublin 2, 01 679 4237
Some books are valued not for their content but for the beauty of their bindings. Algarotti's Essay on Paintings has a fine Irish vellum binding of 1766. Always sought after (even that master dilettante Horace Walpole admired Irish vellum bindings), rarity and workmanship make its value £3,000.00. The Cartone Poema di Ossian combines elegance with association - bound for the library at Malmaison with the Empress Josephine's monogram, it was apparently pinched in 1815 by one of the Fosters of County Louth and is far more affordable at £500.00.
Association copies of books have their own particular romance. What did the Earl of Wicklow think of his wedding present from Evelyn Waugh - The Life of Ronald Knox. And what would Waugh think of the fact that his inscription gave it a value of £1,000.00. An autographed edition of Huxley's Brave New World would cost £250.00, but for the same price it might be more exciting to own an original Jack Yeats - Life in The West of Ireland with an original sketch signed by the author. The advantages of a library of first editions of Dickens or Thackeray at £100.00 - £200.00 a volume are questionable, but it is fun to scour bazaars and dusty book shops for contemporary writers, such as Agatha Christie or Nancy Mitford. Generally modern first editions, which must be clean and have a dust jacket, can be picked up for well under £10.00. However there are always the rarities - Graham Greene's The Man Within is worth several thousand pounds. Even Richard Adam's Watership Down is worth over £300.00. You may never find a bargain, but you will enjoy the search. Best of all, even at the height of the summer season, antiquarian book shops remain calm and tranquil havens. And if you must buy a new book, get it from the bargain basement; Fred Hanna of Nassau Street pointed out that he is now buying Cuala Press books, which he sold as remainders for as little as 10 pence, for as much as £60.00, while more recently Ann Crookshank & The Knight of Glin's Painters of Ireland has appreciated by 2,000% over 12 years.
There is good reason for this. One Capitol Hill lobbyist who abandoned Washington for the River Blackwater commented, "When I first saw the castle, its battlements and old stone walls gave me a sense of timelessness. Since moving here I've discovered timelessness is waiting for the plumber." Another immigrant, a top fashion photographer with a house in the West, put it more bluntly: "It was a dream. When you live the dream it becomes a nightmare!" But still the offices of Jackson Stops McCabe and Hamilton Osborne King are regularly approached by household names with a yen for the old sod and there are many regulars to whom Ireland has become not just a second home but their main abode.
Most of the residents are concentrated within the Pale or in the wilds of the South West. An early arrival was John Boorman, who lives in a pretty Georgian house outside Anamoe in Coounty Wicklow. A great host, Boorman regularly brings over super famous guests, and it was he who first brought David Bowie to County Wicklow. Bowie has now become one of the aspirers, and was rumoured to be interested in Humewood Castle before Renata Coleman bought it. Another Irish matchmaker is Desmond Guinness who has been responsible for many of the rock stars that have resided here, introducing them to Irish ways from the comfort of Leixlip Castle. Leixlip is Jerry Hall's "favourite place in the world, together with the Loire Valley and the Grand Canyon". Mick Jagger, who lived his dream in Castle Martin, County Kildare, was a Guinness protegee as is the Stones drummer Ronnie Wood who bought Jonothan Irwins five bedroomed Sandymount House. Sandymount, which was described by the estate agents as an 18th century gentleman's residence, was originally restored by Lord Gowrie after he had decided that Castle Martin, which he sold to Tony O'Reilly, was too much of a barracks (a regular guest at Castle Martin nowadays is Paul Newman). A neighbour of Ron Woods and another habitue of Leixlip is Marianne Faithfull who lived in the enchanting shell cottage at Carton. Brian and Lucy Ferry have long maintained a presence in County Kildare while an old hand, Eric Clapton, has tired of the dream; he sold Barberstown Castle at Straffan a few years ago.
Of course it is not only the pop stars who live in Kildare. The Sheiks of Arabia are well represented and the family of Sheikh Mohammed is probably one of the biggest landowners in the county. The Sheikh himself owns the 500 acre Old Connell stud outside Newbridge and 1,400 acres at Kildangan as well as the 300 acre Ragusa stud, near Ballymore Eustace (which he bought from Lady Clague whose husband was the top paid business man in the world when he ran the Hong Kong and Shanghai bank) while his brother has the more modest Woodpark Stud at Dunboyne. The Sheikh's neighbour at Kildangan was John Hurt who bought the old rectory at Ballintubbert, itself a house that already had famous connection - it was the birthplace of the poet Cecil Day Lewis, grandfather of Daniel Day Lewis, who seeks his seclusion in South Mayo. Elizabeth Arden lived in Kildare for a while in the 1960s, before selling her house, Barretstown Castle, to Galen Weston who presented to the Irish Government and it is now run as a childrens home by Paul Newman's charity. While Elizabeth Burton was in Kildare another famous Elizabeth was in County Carlow - Elizabeth Taylor, who was then married to Mike Todd, was renting the enormous Borris House.
Mike Todd, Jr. still lives just outside Borris in a rather more manageable house, while Borris House, which belongs to the Kavanaghs, has since been rented by, amongst others, The Thompson Twins. Another favourite haunt of The Thompson Twins is Woodstock House (now Druid's Glen Golf Course) in Newtownmountkennedy, which has also been used recently by Mike Oldfield, Rod Stewart to record his last album and Steve Winward. Another tenant of Woodstock was that famous son of Westmeath and 007 heart stopper, Pierce Brosnan. Pop stars are a regular feature of the rental market. According to Mary Geever of Country House Tours, "I find short term homes for about half a dozen top bands every year, and we get enquiries from at least a dozen others."
Kinsale has its own little pack of aficianados - Keith Floyd has a pretty gingerbread cottage overlooking the river (at present for sale), Clement Freud regularly holidays there, Roy Disney has spent a fortune on indoor swimming pools and the like at his Disneyland castle outside Kilbrittain. Angela Lansbury has made Ballycotton her home. Further West, David Putnam is to be found seeking seclusion in Skibereen, avoiding the "Through the Keyhole" cameras of his son in law Loyd Grossman, while the sensually seductive curves of the Cork coast are a regular source of delight to Judge Pickles (he was the British judge whose views on female modesty caused a certain amount of notoriety). Other Corkonians include Hurd Hatfield (remember The Picture of Dorian Gray?) who remains ageless at his haunted house of spells, Ballinterry Castle near Fermoy and Maureen O'Hara whose gardens are washed by the gulf stream in Bantry Bay. Mallow, apart from being home to Seventies super star Donovan, is a favourite of European Royalty. There was a representative of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha at Clonmeen, both the Duc of Bourbon and Prince Michel of Greece are known to enjoy the area, though Princess Alexandra's daughter Marina Ogilvy, chose to stay at the delightful Gurthalougha House on Lough Derg when waging her campaign against her parents.
Further west, the film Far & Away has brought renewed interest in Dingle, first sparked during the making of Ryan's Daughter. Julia Roberts' flight to Benners Hotel from the altar steps is now a media legend, but Dingle is also a favourite of both Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Kevin Costner, having been introduced to the charms of the West by Eoghan Harris, is now as familiar a sight between Kenmare, Durrus and the Blackwater Valley as the flocks of sheep that graze the mountain, while the identity of the various helicopter passengers seen hovering into the Primat's mansion outside Sneem, where Queen Beatrix of Holland was a guest in the 1980s, is a secret yet to be discovered. Primat's other Irish mansion, Luttrelstown Castle in Clonsilla, is another famously discrete venue for visiting heads of state.
In the rather bleaker landscape of Connemara one might find U.S. presidential candidates and ex-Presidents. Gary Hart hid from the press and low cut bimbos in Ballynahinch Castle where Gerald Ford is also a familiar sight, as is the Prince of Denmark. Although only John Huston's spirit now visits St. Clierans in Craughwell, Kevin McClory is not unknown in the area. One place to which he is unlikely to return is the K Club. He was one of those, like Patrick Gallagher, to whom Straffan House brought no luck.
Sligo and North Mayo have been comparatively untouched by the internationals till recently. The Grimaldis have the old Kelly homestead near Newport, and Princess Grace's regular visits thrilled the entire population. Harrisson Ford, having been introduced to Ireland by Alison Doody, has been spotted prowling the bohereens of Sligo in search of his idyll, but if there are other glitterati in the area they are keeping very low profiles.
Many of the writers and artists who came to Ireland in its first flush of tax haven status have now returned whence they came - Frederick Forsythe has left Enniskerry, Evelyn Anthony has gone from Sallins, P.D. James is no more to be found in Dublin's smarter soirees, Sting has abandoned Roundstone. However, new interesting people continue to arrive in search of their nirvana. There is the maestro of interior decoration, Carleton Varney, who has breathed new life into Shannon Grove, a fabulous early 18th century house in Limerick, Polly Devlin has joined the Dublin 4 set in Waterloo Road, Lesley Kenton, the doyenne of health, is searching the country for a walled garden with water. The horse racing set still arrive to inspect their horses at Coolmore, and the staff of the Cashel Palace Hotel are enchanted when Larry Hagman breezes in, having checked out a few dawn runs. The romance of a home in the Green Land will always fascinate those that have everything and while there are cottages or castles to be bought famous immigrants will continue to arrive.
This is a brief account of the sort of people that they were, how they enjoyed themselves and what they did. An 18th century relation of mine, Sir Vesey Colclough, was a member of the Irish parliament. A contemporary account describes how he added much to the pleasantry of the House of Commons by forcing on them deep subjects of literature, geography and astronomy of which few of his companions could make either head or tail. Click the back button if I display any hereditary traits.
I bought Cuffesborough 15 years ago. It had then stood empty for two decades. The floors had been removed to build pig styes, the windows were broken and rotted and little of the roof remained. However, it was a remarkably intact building. In over 200 years, the interior had only been redecorated once.
In 1766 the father of the orator and statesman Henry Grattan had died. In 1767 Grattan was admitted to the Middle Temple and in that same year he bought the lands at Cuffesboro, a non-residential farm of 500 acres, as a speculative development - still a common way of money making today. He set to to build a fine house, choosing the highest point of the estate. It was built from cut limestone, the pointing picked out in white putty. It is not know if he had an architect - the style is reminiscent of Francis Bindon, the Limerick architect who finished Russborough and redesigned Carnelly House in County Clare. He, however, had died in 1765. It is more likely that the work was carried out by a jobbing mason who had worked for Bindon. This nameless craftsman may also have built Castle Blunden in County Kilkenny. The style is very common in the midlands of Ireland - great gaunt buildings of three stories over a basement and seven bays wide.
It is fashionable nowadays to sneer at the vulgarity of the self made man who builds an aberration of red brick and hacienda arches with neo-Georgian aluminium windows, a fibreglass Palladian car port and a red concrete tile roof. Consider for a moment the landscape of Laois in 1770. Standing on a bare hill, for the beech trees were mere saplings then, was this ugly monster which owed nothing to the vernacular style of the area. The pointing in its original white must have screamed across the fields. Its enormous height was purely for ostentation - we have made it the building proclaimed. But like the Palmers, there was very little behind the facade. It is but one room deep. On the top floor were two bed chambers and a barrack room, of which more anon. On the second floor were two more bed chambers and a large landing that Palmer probably used as a study. The ground floor had two rooms and a front hall with a fireplace. The hall was probably used as a sitting room, while the other two would have served as a dining room and a drawing room. In all the rooms the doors are hung to open not against the wall but to open into the room, providing a screen for the occupants should they be suddenly startled. In rural Ireland at this time there was still little in the way of definition of a permanent role for rooms - the parlour could be used for dining, sitting, dancing or cards as the occasion demanded. In the basement was a kitchen and larder, two store rooms and two servants bed chambers. Palmer had eight children and an indoor staff of probably three or four including a cook-housekeeper who would have ben paid about £8.00 a year (as opposed to Lord de Vesci's French cook at Abbeyleix who was paid £85.00 a year) and a ladies' maid who probably got about £4.00 a year. In the yard there was further accommodation for another couple of servants while the majority of the workers would have lived with their families in mud cabins on the estate. A contemporary account of a nearby house probably describes Cuffesboro well. "The walls of the hall were decked with fishing rods, fire arms, stags horns, foxes brushes, nets and dog collars. A large parlour on each side of the hall, the only embellishments of which were some old portraits and a multiplicity of hunting, shooting and racing prints with red tape nailed around them by way of frames. Very few looking glasses adorned the houses of the country gentleman - a couple of shaving glasses for the gentlemen and a couple of dressing glasses for the ladies, and tubs of spring water for the maid servants. The rooms were sparsely furnished with everything but dust and cobwebs.
Unlike Sir John Godfrey of Kilcoleman Abbey in Milltown County Kerry who never got up before noon as he "slept very slowly", Joseph Palmer probably got up at around 6 or 7 in the summer time and an hour or two later in the winter time - no point wasting candle and oil when sun light was available. Apart from his own estate of 500 acres, which would have produced about £250.00 a year, a return of 5%, he also probably rented land in the area. He was also an agent for the Lord Castletown, the Earl of Upper Ossory whose principal seat was Granston Castle, about 2 miles away. Palmers total gross income was probably in the region of £1,000 per annum. The average income of the minor landed gentry was about £2,000. Castletown's income would have been in the region of £25,000, 6,000 times the wages of a lady's maid. Within in the area there would have been quite a busy social circuit. There were the grandees to whose houses the Palmers would only have been invited for an occasional ball - Lord Ashbrook at Castle Durrow, Lord de Vesci at Abbeyleix, Sir Charles Coote at Ballyfin and Sir John Staples at Dunmore. These were the families who like Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, found nothing more boring than watching the middle classes amuse themselves. Then there were the cadet branches of the great families who would probably have socialised with the Palmers but been quite clear about their social superiority. In the 18th century, one's social standing was inextricably tied to one's relations - natural in a society where nepotism controlled public appointments and one's chances of a successful career in church, army or politics, the three respectable professions. And finally there were families like his own who had risen from the ranks by their own efforts - by trade, by property speculation, by farming and above all by marriage. Barrington divided the gentry into three classes - half mounted gentry the yeoman class who had small land holdings and were generally clever with horses, Gentlemen every inch of them were of excellent old families whose finances were not in so good order as they might be and Gentlemen to the backbone who were the oldest families and universally respected, even though they too might be a little out at the elbows.
Breakfast, generally served at about 9:00 a.m. would have consisted of toasted spiced bread flavoured with caraway seeds (costing 1d each), a pint of home brewed ale, coffee towards the end of the century, occasionally white wheaten bread (whitened so some suspected with ground bones stolen from charnel houses) and the traditional home made soda farls baked in a pot oven that hung from the crane over the fire. Marmalade and honey were commonly served. The great groaning side boards laden with roast beef, game pie and the like only really appeared for hunting breakfasts which would have been washed down with mulled wine.
Having spent the morning dealing with farming matters, carrying out his role as a grand juror (as such he was responsible for the condition of the roads and bridges in the parish as well as dealing with any other matters of local government) and justice of the peace (sorting out drunken brawls and minor cases of poaching) he might then take nuncheon with his family - some cold meats, a salad and a glass of beer taken at about noon. The children in the meantime would have gone off to the local vicar, the noted antiquarian Dr. Ledwidge, who would teach the boys Greek, Latin and mathematics, while the girls would have been studying music, painting, embroidery and basic accounting. Mrs. Palmer might take an open carriage into Rathdowney to buy provisions or visit friends. Her other tasks included running the household and being Lady Bountiful to the workers families and My Lord Ossory's tenants.
Palmer would spend the afternoon in country pursuits - a near neighbour was Richard "balloon" Crosbie. Palmer was colonel of the Aghaboe Rangers, a volunteer regiment which he raised and for which he designed a most dashing uniform the a red coat had green facings or lapels and a black hat with a white cockade. Being a colonel in the volunteers may not have had much social cachet, but it was better than not being a colonel at all. The unfortunate troops were the tenants and peasant farmers of the area who were regularly drilled. At least they got a decent uniform out of it! He probably drilled them on a flat field behind the house which is still known as the cricket field, for cricket was a favourite 18th century pastime. Palmers nearest neighbour, Mr. White of Aghaboe, who was connected to Lord Ashbrook and the Whites, subsequently Earls of Bantry, also had a volunteer regiment and a cricket team. No doubt the rivalry was fierce.
The main meal of the day started at around 3:00 or 4:00. En famille it would be just potatoes and buttermilk, as Dorothea Herbert records in her diary, the same diet as that of the labourers. However if company were expected Palmer would have retired to his chamber to dress. He probably did not wear a wig but, like his wife, dressed his own hair with Pomatum, an 18th century version of hair lacquer made of a vile mixture of pig fat and crushed apples, dusted with flour. A formal dinner party would last for four or five hours. While Cuffesborough, being a minor house, had no curtains in any rooms, even great houses had curtainless eating parlours so that they would not retain the smell of the food and smoke. On the mahogany table a candelabra would have thrown a kindly light on the pock marked faces of the diners even though wax candles were ferociously taxed and cost nearly £1.00 a dozen. Ladies would sit at one end of the table in order of social precedence, while the men sat at the other end. In 1788 John Trussler in his "Honours of the Table" writes of "a new promiscuous form of seating with a lady and a gentleman sitting alternately". All the dishes for each course would be laid on the table at the same time. Sir John Caldwell describes a County Down dinner party in 1772: "Stewed trout, chine of beef, a tureen of soup in the middle, a little pie at each side, and four trifling things at the corners. The second course of nine dishes made out much the same way with some hashed turkey, a fine neck of roasted pork with apple sauce, a wild duck roasted, fried rabbits, a plumb pudding, some tartlets, etc. The cloth was taken away and then the fruit - a pine apple - not good, peaches, grapes, figs, apples, pears, jellies, creams, ices and the rest." Generally speaking guests helped themselves, though often there would be a footman on hand to pass dishes from one end of the table to the other - seasoned guests knew to bribe the footman before dinner! At the end of the main courses the tablecloth, which had been used by the diners to wipe their mouths, was removed to expose the mahogany and the desert was served. At this point (a couple of hours after sitting down) the company would become more informal and seats would be changed. Eventually, at around 7:00, the hostess would lead the ladies to the withdrawing room for tea and scandal, leaving the gentlemen to two hours of politics, ribaldry and wine. At 9:00 or so the gentlemen would join the ladies and play cards, amateur theatricals, party games or just sit drinking more wine or tea and cakes. At midnight a light supper of cold meats might be served and the guests would leave at around 1:00. No wonder that considerate hosts always gave their parties at a full moon. Guests who had travelled far would stay the night and the young unmarrieds would share the barrack room, modesty being maintained by means of a curtain hanging across the room to segregate the sexes. Dorothea Herbert describes staying at Castle Blunden in 1780. Only the old nanny was there to protect the girls from the waggeries of the gentlemen. Routing them from spying on them en chemise the girls overturned the chamber pot whose whole contents meandered into the men's barrack - "immediately the house rang with their laughter and left us au despair."
Richard Cumberland describes Lord Eyre of Eyrecourt in the 1770s as "dividing the day to give the afternoon much the largest share of it. During which from an early dinner to the hour of rest he never left his chair nor did the claret ever quit the table. His lordship was not very curious. He had no books and not one of the windows of his castle was made to open, but luckily he had no liking for fresh air. For sport he would organise a cock fight in the hall. From supper till morning he would drink rum shrub to keep down the claret."
A near neighbour of the Palmers at Castlewood, on the banks of the Nore was Henry French Barrington, a brother of Jonah Barrington, whose autobiography is full of rich detail. He describes a housewarming bachelor party in 1778 at which the young Palmers were almost certainly present. A hogshead of claret, served cold, mulled or buttered was the beverage, with a prologue of cherry brandy. A fat cow, chickens, bacon and bread were the only viands. A piper provided the entertainment. The next morning Jonah turned up at 10:00 to find the guests insensible with drink asleep around the dining table, while the piper lay on his back apparently dead surrounded by four candles burnt to their sockets and the tablecloth laid over him. On investigating the stables he found four more diners who had got as far as their horses before "being overtaken by Morpheus" in the straw. Two of the slumberers in the dining room had fallen asleep against the newly plastered wall. The plaster had been still damp when they set their heads against it but the heat from the candles and the fire had set it like marble and their hair, stocks and half their heads were thoroughly and irrevocably imbedded in the wall. It took Mr. Kelly, the local wig maker, an hour to excavate the unfortunates, clipping with scissors and digging with an oyster knife. Jonah Barrington, writing of this 50 years later in 1825 wonders what the grandsons of these joyous sportsmen would make of such a feast , mincing their fish and tid-bits at their favourite restaurant; amalgamating their ounce of salad on a silver salver; employing six sauces to coax one appetite and lisping out for a scented waiter - paying him the price of feast for the modicum of a Lilliputian.
A regime of such indulgence inevitably takes its toll on health and to get over gout and heartburn Mr. Palmer and his family would no doubt have regularly resorted to Ballyspellan spa about 15 miles away, which was frequented by the cream of Dublin society. There a diet of magnesium and iron water, served with dry biscuits, would have cleansed the system and given them all the latest news and all the latest fashions. By the end of the century seaside holidays were becoming popular. With the gothic fancy of a fashionable young lady Dorothea Herbert describes how in 1791 they took a cottage at Bunmahon in County Waterford for the sea bathing. They travelled all day through tremendous wilds over bogs and precipices, but she was struck dumb when she arrived. Instead of an elegant cottage covered with roses and jasmine, she found only a set of dirty cabins, newly whitewashed but destitute of elegances - they served in the winter for cow houses and pig styes. "The first night of rain poured dreadfully into our beds." The next morning brought fresh disasters when Dorothea, knocking a nail into the partition of her bedchamber to hang up her wardrobe, heard a dreadful clatter of delft ware and going into the kitchen discovered that the kitchen dresser was her bedroom wall - pity she did not book through Country House Tours! Mind you at that time my ancestors were no better - a French visitor to Tintern Abbey wrote that only when it rained during the night did he understand the reason for the parasol beside his bed. He did not mind sheltering under it (it was still more comfortable than the local Inn) but took exception to the mice who crowded in beside him to avail of the shelter it afforded from the torrents.
A closer excursion for the Palmers would have been to Mr. Poe's gardens at Heywood where a gothic landscape had been created. There they could have used their Claude glasses - a bronze mirror that was a travelling accessory of every man of sensibility that enabled the tourist to experience the sublime in the obscure reflection it produced. Palmer certainly had a yen for the gothic and had built a rocky grotto beside the sheet of water that he had created at Cuffsboro by damming a stream.
This was the Augustine age of the Irish Country House, but it ended in 1798 with the first great destruction when during the rebellion around 200 houses were attacked. The scene that greeted the Reverend Herbert at Knockgraffon Rectory heralded an end to the age of autocratic prerogative and the first glimmers of egalitarianism. "The Nurse's body was like a riddle with shots. Her neck and arm were broken and other marks of horrid violence. Poor Shortiss seemed to have been killed with a hatchet - he was dragged behind the hall door and there mangled all over. The vicar was away, but the villains pierced his bed in 100 places to show what they would have done had he been there".
In the troubles that surrounded Irish independence in 1920 another 200 or 300 houses went up in smoke. Since then the Land Commission, dry rot and bankruptcy have destroyed at least another 500 or 600 houses. Yet there are still many standing - and this is the commercial break. All around Ireland you can still visit the country houses and actually stay in them. To stay in houses such as these all you need to do is contact Country House Tours.
That was 30 years ago. The intrepid explorer of 18th century beauty will not find that that sort of eccentricity has no place in modern Ireland - the Celtic tiger, where green glass temples of finance are reflected in the sparkling waters of the Liffey, where Gucci and Versace have replaced the frieze coat tied with twine, where Range Rovers and Mercedes have replaced donkeys and pony carts.
There is one caveat. In the early 1800s, Maria Edgeworth wrote Castle Rackrent. She prefaced it with an apologia in which she explained that the events she described could not possibly take place nowadays - she was writing of an Ireland that had passed away with the previous generation. One hundred years later Somerville and Ross described exactly the same eccentric charms of Ireland in their account of the experiences of an Irish RM or Resident Magistrate. They too explained that the Ireland that they described had gone 30 years earlier.
I was talking last week to a certain tweedy major whose ancestors built his exquisite Palladian home 230 years ago. With quadrant wings and pavilions, a double cube room, its original 18th century furnishings ( with a few holes caused by death duties and other robbers) and historical associations galore, it is the perfect place for an 18th century aficionado. "I had a couple staying last week," the major barked, "quite extraordinary people! They came down complaining that they were cold. We gave them a hot water bottle and sent them off to bed again, but damn me they were down five minutes later complaining that they were still cold. So I suggested that they take one of the dogs up with them - animated hot water bottles I call 'em. Do you know, they got most upset. 'Well,' I said, 'I don't know why you are getting upset. When we don't have paying guests the dogs always sleep on your bed!' Do you know it was 11 o'clock at night and they just packed their bags and walked out. Quite mad!"
When I first started organizing tours of Irish country houses 25 years ago, I had a youthful innocence that led me to believe that people would like to visit the Earl of Omnium in Castle Omnium and stay with him as his guest. I well remember the first tour. I picked up the couple from Boston at Shannon Airport and we made our stately way to B--- Castle. As the Bentley turned into the Mall, its elegant Georgian fanlights giving a Dublin like air to the homes of the earl's agents, lawyers and doctors, I sounded the horn. The day trippers on the tour buses scattered and the great gates of the castle swung open. The Earl and Countess welcomed their guests most graciously and the aged retainer staggered upstairs with the weight of the Louis Vuitton cabin cases. The bedroom was enormous and the four poster bed a museum piece. "We'll leave you here to freshen up," said the countess. "Cocktails are in the library at 6:30." Two minutes later we were all running back upstairs as soprano screams shattered the sedate silence of the castle. My charge was in the bathroom, her face white and her larynx vibrating as her quivering finger pointed into the depths of the enormous bath tub; was there a body, or the acid eaten remains of some victim of feudal autocracy? No. But there was a rather large spider. With the instinctive social aplomb inherited from generations of ancestral hostesses, My lady scooped up the hairy creature and cooing happily said to it "Naughty Horace. We wondered where you had got to. You really mustn't go off like that." Smiling at my guests she explained, "He eats the flies in my husbands study." They asked to move on to a hotel next day.
Is it possible then to explore Georgian Ireland without a strong sense of humour and a Livingstone like ability to survive privation? Most emphatically yes.
There are hundreds of delightful Georgian houses that take guests and there are hundreds more that one can visit. The owners of historic houses have little help from the government but there are two pieces of legislation that allow the owners of architecturally important houses to write off the cost of some maintenance against their income before tax. For those that have a taxable income this is a great advantage. For those who do not have a taxable income, a section who make up an alarmingly large proportion of the once landed gentry (the Descendancy as they are now known to distinguish them from their Anglo Irish ancestors the Ascendancy), the $5.00 they get for the tours of the house or the $100.00 a night for letting their innumerable bedrooms, or better still the $10,000 that they get for letting their houses by the week, pay for the necessities of life such as ten year old Jameson or subscriptions to the Royal Dublin Society. We let a wonderful house in County Carlow to a pop group, a few years ago. As the stars laid down their L.P. they were amazed to see a most respectable looking man shaving in a horse trough in the stableyard. It transpired that the owners of the house, descendants of ancient Irish chieftains, had taken up residence in black plastic mushroom tunnels while their mansion was let. The owners of the big house have never been short of ingenuity. An antiquarian bookseller of my acquaintance had tried for years to get into the library of a crumbling stately home in Cork. Eventually the impending marriage of a daughter persuaded the reclusive owner to call in the dealer for advice on capitalizing on his assets. He was shown into a cavernous library, its windows obscured by curtains of ivy. Two large leather-bound volumes awaited him on a desk - the catalogue of the collection. Quivering with anticipation he opened the first volume and scanned the menu of rare delights that awaited him on the shelves. At the bottom of the second page a name leapt out at him and he froze with delight. Calling excitedly for the owner he said "Your troubles are over. You have only to sell this one book and you can restore the house, install central heating, marry off your daughter and cruise the Caribbean. A first edition of Audubon's Birds of America will bring you a fortune. Where on the shelves will I find it? It is a large folio book." "Folio eh," said the recluse, "That's quite big isn't it? About the size of a roofing slate?" "Yes! Yes!" cried the dealer. "Where is it?" A look of infinite despair passed over the owners face. "Up there," he said, pointing to the ceiling. "A slate blew off in a storm a couple of years ago and the book fitted exactly!"
So many tours of Ireland are made memorable by unintended experiences. Mariga Guinness used to tell a tale of bringing a Georgian Society group to a house in the midlands. They arrived at 10:00 and found the door wide open but no one about. Never mind said Mariga we'll start at the top of the house and work down. The cantilevered stone staircase led to a long broad landing. Throwing open one of the bedroom doors she announced, "This is a wonderful room where I slept last time I was here." "Well I'm sleeping here now," came a disgruntled voice from the bed. I had a needle work group from Philadelphia who were being shown a wonderful hanging that had been fixed to the ceiling of a four poster bed. "What a strange place to hang a tapestry," commented one of my charges. "Not really," said our hostess, "I need to have something interesting to look at when I'm in bed with my husband!" I died.
Although there is a vast multitude of places that claim to have hosted Oliver Cromwell or James II, even inveterate 18th century travelers, such as Jonathan Swift or Arthur Young saw only a handful of houses during their peregrinations of the country. The modern traveler can see a multitude more thanks to the generosity of the 20th century owners.
What sort of things can the contemporary visitor to Ireland share with his 18th century counterpart? Firstly of course the Landscape. Despite the agricultural revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries there is much that remains of the Georgian landscape from the parks and gardens of the big houses to the bogs of East Galway and Roscommon, the mountains of Kerry and Wicklow, the small farms of Laois and Clare. That is free for everyone. Equally free are the churches, the pretty parish churches such as Coolbanagher at Emo. There are of course also some wonderful Mausolea, such as that of the great Earls of Barrymore at Castle Lyons. There are the garden follies of houses long since gone such as Belan in South Kildare and The Neale in Ballinrobe. There are bridges such as George Semple's bridge in Inistioge, Graigue and Kilkenny or the many grand jury constructions whose solid madding has a naive charm. Then there are the ruins. Sometimes people with very little wisdom but great optimism (like the author) attempt to restore these ruins.
What do they do with their restored house - they take paying guests, often in considerable splendour. And many of them can be found in the Friendly Homes of Ireland.
Until the restoration of Charles II the rural residences of the gentry had to be fortified against rapacious neighbours. There were no Hardwick Halls or Audley Ends in Ireland. Indeed the only examples of unfortified houses from that period are the Earl of Strafford's Jigginstown House at Naas, which was never completed, and the Marquis of Ormonde's manor house at Carrick on Suir. The rest of the country gentry lived in small castles. One cynical observer has drawn the distinction between the petite Irish castle and the massive fortifications found in England - In England the local lord protected his community from the depredations of neighbouring barons. In Ireland he had only to protect himself from his local community.
Towards the end of the 17th century a period of peace and prosperity prompted a spate of building and two distinct types of housing emerged. In most cases existing castles were extended, with single storey thatched houses being built up against the walls of the bawn, an upmarket version of the vernacular style. But some builders chose to follow English and continental fashions. Classically caroline mansions were built at Eyrecourt in Galway, Kilmacurragh in Wicklow and Beaulieu in Louth. At Clonfert in Co. Offaly and Cratloe in Co. Clare long low houses with massive gable ended chimney stacks were favoured.
The war of the Williamite succession put a damper on further building activity until around 1710 when Sir Thomas Burgh, the surveyor general, built himself a Palladian house in Kildare. A decade later William Conolly, speaker of the Irish House of Commons and the richest man in Ireland, laid Castletown's foundations, the largest of the great Irish Palladian houses. Designed by Alessandro Gallieli and executed by Vanbrugh's cousin Sir Edward Lovett Pearce, it set the fashion for the next sixty years, a period of frantic building across the country. It is interesting to note that Conolly himself as no Anglo Norman or Cromwellian planter, but came of Gaelic stock from Donegal.
The purpose of a country house was threefold. It was primarily somewhere to live. Just as important was its function as a social statement of the owner's position in society and his appreciation of art and beauty. It was also an administrative centre from which the lives of the hundreds of staff and tenants were controlled. The Palladian layout was particularly appealing to Irish folie de grandeur. Symmetrical facades hundreds of feet long could cause awe and amazement, yet behind them would be nothing more than farmyards and stable yards. Russborough, Co. Wicklow, Richard Castle's masterpiece for the Leeson family who had made their fortune as brewers, looks impossibly large but has only half a dozen principal bedrooms. Another favourite trick is exemplified by Cuffesborough, Co. Laois. Standing on top of a hill it is four stories high, dominating the surrounding landscape. It is however only one room deep and has but four bedrooms. No one passing along the highroad a mile away could miss it, and yet the Palmers who lived there were merely farmers of 500 acres, a cabbage patch by 18th century standards, and had no tenants. The house however gave them status; they became magistrates and members of the Grand Jury. They raised a troop of Volunteers in the 1780s and always married well.
In 1800 the Act of Union removed the Parliament from Dublin to Westminster and the landed gentry of Ireland abandoned the Georgian squares and terraces of the city to lawyers and merchants. Farming was, for once, a profitable activity because of the Napoleonic wars. And the gothic revival appealed to the romanticism of a nation which had never warmed to the cold formality of Adam's neoclassicism. Towers, battlements and spires mushroomed across the countryside. Nash, the architect of the Brighton Pavillion, created confections like wedding cakes at Shanbally in Tipperary and Lough Cutra in Clare. Native architects like Daniel Robertson and the Pain brothers flourished. Very soon however all this activity was to end. The famine of 1848 wiped out rental income. So many were the resultant bankruptcies that the government set up an encumbered estates court to deal with the problem. In the Southern counties at any rate there were no dark satanic mills to create industrial millionaires.
With always a natural tendency to eccentric dilapidation the closing years of the 19th century saw the flourishing of the Anglo Irish oddity. A French visitor to Tintern Abbey in Wexford records that there was an umbrella beside his bed. When it rained in the night he discovered why, and as he sheltered under it he was joined by rats and mice, driven from their holes by flood water. When half of Jenkinstown in Kilkenny fell down Lord Bellew took it philosophically, merely renaming the house Ballyshambles.
The nomenclature of Irish houses is a study to itself. Mount Panther, Mount Venus, Mount Misery, Ballyseedy, Ballyruin, Ballydrain or, worst of all, Bastardstown, the country houses of Ireland tend towards the unusual. Their inhabitants are little less eccentric. There was Adolphus Cooke of Cookesborough, Co. Westmeath who redesigned his windows to match his balloon backed dining chairs and, concerned that he might be reincarnated as a fox (for his father, whom he had buried in a beehive, had been reincarnated as a dog) caused massively deep foxholes to be built on his estate. The last Earl of Aldborough devoted his life to constructing the largest balloon in the world. It was destroyed in a fire before it ever flew and the Earl abandoned Stratford House near Baltinglass to spend his remaining years selling patent medicines in Alicante.
The country is still peopled with characters out of the novels of Maria Edgeworth, Somerville and Ross and Molly Keane. A Brown of Castle Brown still has a certain social standing in the area. Even if he has to go far afield to seek credit and his wine merchant has not been paid for a decade, he will still have his Purdy shotguns and a couple of hunters in the stable. Some of course have given up the struggle and fled to suburbia. John Betjeman describes their fate: "But where is his lordship who once in his phaeton / drove out twixt his lodges and into the the town? / Oh, his tragic misfortunes I will not dilate on./ His impoverished descendant is dwelling in Ealing where his daughters must type for their bed and their board." Caveat Vendor!
Apart from providing an environment ideally suited to the preservation of dry rot and woodworm it can be hard to justify the continued existence of the country house. In purely economic terms they have no future, unless they can produce an income in excess of £40,000 per annum. The average cost of maintenance is £18,500 a year and a country house on a 10 acres or so is rarely worth more than £200,000, the equivalent of about £20,000 a year. Opening to the public will rarely generate more than £8,000 a year, which is inevitably absorbed by increased insurance and staff costs. In the right location taking overnight guests could produce a further £15,000, but might well spark off a nervous breakdown. Most estates are not viable financial entities. They are however cultural and educational assets. Only when one gives these houses an aesthetic and historical value do they have any future at all.
This is something already done by tourists - according to Bord Failte statistics, ten times as many visitors come to Ireland to see historic houses as come to play golf or fish. They are prepared to pay twice the average rate for their bed and breakfast to sleep in an 18th century bedroom (more if it has a ghost). The sixty two members of Irish Heritage Properties have a total of 2,700 employees, though that does include big employers such as Bunratty Castle. On a smaller scale the 140 members of the Friendly Homes provide work for over 300 people in jobs related to their bed and breakfast business. The jobs are spread across the country , thus encouraging rural development and include skilled work such as marketing , cooking and hospitality staff. Many would be prepared to take on more staff during the season, were it not for the punitive PRSI regulations.
In terms of our political history it is enlightening to see such places as Daniel O'Connell's house at Derrynane (or at any rate as much as has been left by the Board of Works restoration), James Fintan Lalor's house, Tinakill at Abbeyleix, Bargy Castle, home of the '98 leader Bagenal Harvey or Charles Stewart Parnell's Avondale. Sadly, despite our literary tradition, many writer's houses have gone - Lady Gregory's Coole Park is nothing but a grassy sward and a car park. Visitors to the site of Elizabeth Bowen's Bowens Court tread warily through the cow pats. Moore Hall, where George Moore was declared president of the Republic of Connaught in 1798 and his literary descendant, another George, is buried, is an inaccessible shell. But all is not lost - Violet Martin's Ross Castle still stands, as does Edith Somerville's Drishane. Sir William Wilde's Moytura House, Lord Dunsany's Dunsany Castle, several of the houses associated with that inveterate country house visitor W.B. Yeats and a host of houses inhabited by contemporary literary giants are all to the good.
Viewed objectively as documents of social history they are invaluable. Some, such as Strokestown Park, have been opened to the public. There, Luke Dodd has done a wonderful job showing how the big house reflects the history of every one associated with an estate - not just its owners, but its tenants, its servants, its builders, its craftsmen and its decorators. Every house whose collections remain reasonably in tact is another storehouse of the history of the day to day activity of the ordinary people of this country.
Purely as art objects the design and craftsmanship of many houses is as important as any painting in the National Gallery. The skills of the architect, stuccodore, mason and carpenter should be objects of national pride. That to some the buildings represent a history of landlordism is irrelevant to their aesthetic value. The Acropolis commemorates a slave owning, racist, despotic oligarchy. The palaces of Russia were built by an aristocracy whose treatment of their peasantry makes even Lord Leitrim look benign. Yet the people of both Greece and Russia preserve their buildings with pride. Turkey, that was subjected to the indignity of Greek domination, realises the importance of the buildings that they left behind. Even Jamaica, which has in many ways a similar history of colonialism to Ireland, maintains its great houses.
So what is the future of the Irish Country House? Bleak, according to Frank Carr of Stokes Kennedy Crowley and Bill Somerville of A & L Goodbody. A survey conducted for the Taoiseach's Heritage Committee gives frightening picture. Sixty six great houses were surveyed. One hundred years ago these houses were supported by a total of 990,000 acres. Now they have only 46,000 acres of which less than 20,000 acres is productive land. Roughly 300 acres will hardly produce the average £18,500 a year to maintain the house as well as an income to live on. How, then, do they exist? Twenty-one of the owners borrow money for essential maintenance, sixteen sell investments, sixteen sell land and ten sell contents. There are tax concessions. However they are not of much actual benefit. The fact that out of the 2,000 or so houses that might qualify for tax concessions, only 200 have applied shows their failure. There is one relief that allows maintenance costs to be deducted out of pre-tax income for houses open to the public for thirty days of the year. This however presumes that the income is sufficient to cover the costs, which is rarely the case. Only owners like Ken Rohan at Charleville, Mark Kavanagh at Ballyorney and Ken O'Reilly-Hyland at Ballyknockane, whose income is generated by outside business interests, reap any great benefit. The other relief exempts buildings from capital acquisitions tax if they are open for 90 days of the year in the three years preceding their inheritance. But the elderly owners of the various crumbling piles that need this to pass on the houses in tact are usually in no fit state to conduct tours around their properties.
There is no reason why a well maintained country house should not last for another 1,000 years (in England there are still several Saxon buildings and many of our own tower houses are already 700 years old). The chances that a building of architectural importance will be of some advantage for a reasonable period during the next millenium are high. If, however, the building is allowed to fall into ruin, then all benefits for posterity are lost.
Though tourism is one answer, for many houses it offers no short term solution. Any grants that are available (and grants are rare) require at least 50% equity from the owners. Most do not have and can not raise that equity. For some location is an insurmountable problem. Despite their beauty, it will be a long time before counties like Leitrim, Cavan and Monaghan are tourist hot spots. For others personality is the fly in the ointment; to succeed in tourism an extrovert character is essential. There are however other uses to which the demesne of a big house can be harnessed. Alternative farming is one. At Cappoquin House the Keanes produce apple juice, to be found in supermarkets around the country. The walled garden of Fountainstown House in Cork has become an ideal snail farm for the Hodders. Springfield Castle is now famous for its venison. Others have followed different paths. Hugh Dawnay's polo school at Whitfield Court is internationally known - it even features in the novels of Jilly Cooper. Huntington Castle has become home to the Baron Strathloch's Fellowship of Isis. By whatever method, the owners of these historic piles will, in the words of Piers O'Conor Nash of Clonalis, continue to "breast feed their dinosaurs" into the next century but the time has come for the other half to take a turn at changing the nappies.
Though once home of wild chieftains, Laois's rich lands, mineral resources and geographical importance meant that from the 16th century colonists had sought land here. The O'Moores, Magiollopadraigs and O'Dunnes were harassed by the seven tribes - Hartepole, Cosby, Bowen, Barrington, Ruish, Hetherington and Hovenden. They were followed a century later by the Piggots, Cootes, Priors, Parnells, Poles and Cuffes. While traditionally the big houses have been identified with English ascendancy it is worth remembering that many who were rich and protestant were actually Irish, like the Fitzpatricks of Granstown and the Dunnes who built the battlemented sandstone mansion Brittas Castle to the design of McCurdie in 1869. Conversely many English and Norman settlers remained Catholic and became "more Irish than the Irish" in the words of one frustrated Viceroy. It also comes as a surprise to many to discover that most of the "Big Houses" were in the eighteenth century considered to be farmhouses, surrounded not by thousands of acres and a multitude of tenants but farming four or five hundred acres - the middle classes of their day. Indeed some of the most remarkable of Laois men came from houses which would be modest even by today's standards - hardly a stone remains of Sir Jonah Barringtons house Cullenagh near Timahoe, but it was certainly no mansion. His birthplace, in 1760, was Knapton House, which was rebuilt in 1770 by Colonel Pigot and apparently inhabited by the Vesey family while their house was under construction. Dr. Bartholomew Mosse's home between Portlaoise and Stradbally is now only marked by a forestry plantation. Patrick and James Fintan Lalor's home, Tinakill near Shanahoe stands in ruins, a modest late 18th century two storey house three bays wide with an attic storey squeezed in under the eaves, similar to the nearby Fruitlawn House which was once the agents house for the Abbeyleix estate.
Few of the unfortified dwellings built before 1720 remain. The ivy clad chimney stacks of Castle Cuffe near Clonaslee show how ill prepared Sir Charles Coote was for the rebels who destroyed it in 1641. Near the Green Cross Roads, north of Ballybrophy stands the empty shell of a mid 17th century house while at Rush Hall on the main road from Mountrath to Roscrea are the ruins of another larger 17th Century house. At Aghaboe a barn building was once a late 17th century residence and had till recently traces of a spiral stone staircase and plaster panelling. To the south of Durrow is Edmonsbury which with it's massive chimney stacks and high pitched roof probably dates from the very early 1700s, a similar date to Raheenduff near Stradbally which is a two storey house with massive chimney stacks in it's gable walls and tall narrow windows. Shrule Castle, on the Carlow borders, which was the principal seat of the Hartepoles and home of the historian William Lecky was demolished in the 1940s. All that remains is the 16th century tower house with a chimney piece dated 1576 and the initials R.H.
The first country house of importance that still stands in close to its original condition is Castle Durrow. Colonel William Flower started the present house around 1712 and it is one of the few 18th century houses for which precise building records survive. In 1714 a slater called Andrew Moore of Ballyragget was engaged in roofing but his work was so bad that in 1722 his work had to be redone. Some things never change! By 1714 the windows were being glazed by Francis Trumbull but work was still under way in 1726 when John Rudd was paid 21 Pounds for 229.5 yards of oak wainscot and 10.25 yards of floor for the dining room and in 1737 Trumbull was still glazing. The mason who provided the pinkish grey cut limestone from which the house is built was Benjamin Demane of Kilkenny. In 1922 the banks foreclosed and the Viscount Ashbrooke went to England. The house had been very well maintained by The Presentation Nuns, but most of the original decoration has long since gone. However a couple of rooms have retained their panelling and the room to the left of the hall still has the 1717 plasterwork of Thomas Lett and John Thompson - geometrical borders, heavy baskets filled with flowers and rosette and shell motifs. It is unfortunate that the delicate exterior limestone was blasted, with the best of intentions, by Dennis English, the owner at the time of writing. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
As a piece of pure architecture Summer Grove is probably one of the finest examples in the Country. John Sabatier, a Huguenot, bought the land in December 1736 and the house was apparently built by 1748, though the interior detailing may not have been finished until a decade later. The facade has all the elements of classical architecture - a Gibbsian doorcase below a Venetian window with, in the pediment, a Diocletian window. While the front of the house is of two stories a triple doored screen in the hall leads down to the kitchens and up to bedrooms on three levels, giving large high ceilinged rooms at the front of the house and cosier chambers at the back. The front of the building is constructed from very small cut stone blocks.
Nearby on the side of the Slieve Blooms is Capard House, overlooking the quaker village of Rosenalis. Capard is an immensely impressive neo-classical house built by John Pigott. Poor Mr. Piggott he started the house with great notions of grandeur. It was to be "one of the most extensive mansions in the kingdom, extending upwards of 220 feet". Built from limestone quarried on the estate, Pigott's intention was to create wealth and employment in the area. His plan was to triple the size of an existing house built in 1742, which itself had replaced Sir John Dowdall's 16th century tower house. However he took the rebellion of 1798 as a personal slight and gave up his ambitious plans when they were only half completed, moving to England for a decade. For all its grandeur there are few large rooms - the servants block to the north, under which runs a mountain stream, is as big as the main house. Painted on the wall of the staircase hall is a family tree of the Pigotts, just in case they should ever forget who they were. In the yard is a sawmill dating from about 1750. It is a charming building in a pure Palladian style.
In similar style, but on a scale that is truly magnificent is Ballyfin, described by Mark Bence Jones in his guide to Irish Country Houses as the grandest and most lavish 19th century house in Ireland. The original house of the Poles is illustrated in Miltons Views of Seats and was the home of the Duke of Wellington's brother but he sold it in 1812, about the time that he leased Woodstock in County Wicklow. The old house of Wellesley-Poles was demolished in 1821 and Sir Charles Coote employed an architect called Dominick Madden to design a new mansion. When the first stage of the house had been completed he called in Sir Richard & William Morrison, the most fashionable architects of the day, to complete the work. The front of the house, built of cut local sandstone, is thirteen bays or windows wide, in the middle of which is a massive Ionic portico. The front hall has been described as an austere room, with a roman mosaic floor, but beyond it is a vast rectangular top lit saloon with screens of composite Ionic columns an inlaid floor and a coved ceiling encrusted with plasterwork more ornate than any wedding cake. There is a green and gilt music room with carved and gilded musical instruments in panels on the walls and a wonderful white marble fireplace, its shelf held up by statues of two muscular Romans. The West end of the house is entirely taken up with a 70 foot long library, with a large bow window half way along, opposite the door. From the library one can go out into Richard Turner's elegant 1850s conservatory. Turner also made the conservatories at Glasnevin and Kew. The grounds are as superb as the house, having been laid out by the distinguished Irish landscape gardener John Sutherland who worked for both the Pole and the Cootes. His coup de grace is the medieval round castle, complete with turrets, moat and drawbridge. In 1929 Sir Ralph Coote sold the house and 600 acres for £10,000 to the Patrician Brothers who use it as a school.
Another house associated with an internationally famous name is Woodbrook near Portarlington. It was built in 1712 by Knightly Chetwoode with the help and advice of his friend Dean Swift. Nothing to do with a sylvan stream, it's name is a combination of Chetwoode and Brooking, his wife's maiden name. Damaged during the rebellion of 1798, a new front was added in 1815 with inlaid oak floors and a vaulted ceiling. The drawing room has superb murals by E. Hayes of various Highland castles, painted to honour the Scottish bride of a mid 19th century Chetwoode. It had until a recent demolition a four storey polygonal tower from which the surrounding countryside could be surveyed and an 18th century galleried kitchen, from which the mistress of the house could observe the cook's labours. The delightful wooded parkland including an avenue of trees planted by Swift and a long canal also planned by the Dean was cleared away in the name of progress.
Not all the important Laois Houses are enormous. Mount Henry at Portarlington, now a Presentation convent, was built in about 1820 for Henry Smyth to the designs of Richard Morrison. It is a square two storey house with a later wing. A porticoed front door is set back between symmetrical bays. The stone floored front hall has a screen of columns and a small circular gallery lets in light from a roof lantern.
On the other hand another Laois House that Morrison worked on was Emo Court, which is massive. Emo, a corruption of the Irish townland name Imoe, replaced Lord Carlow's earlier house, Dawson's Court. In 1790 his son, the Earl of Portarlington commissioned James Gandon, of The Customs House and Four Courts fame, to design the house, but it was not completed until 1860 when the great copper domed rotunda was put on by the Dublin architect William Caldbeck. In the intervening years the English architect Lewis Vuklliamy had completed the garden front giving it the giant portico and a Dublin architect called Williamsom had done up the interiors. In the late 19th century it nearly became the home of Edward VII, then Prince of Wales, who knew Laois well from his friendship with Barney Fitzpatrick, Lord Castletown. However it was not sold until 1930 when it became a Jesuit seminary. It was then that various naked classical statues were dumped in the lake, lest they distract the meditations of the seminarians. In 1969 it was bought by Mr. Cholmeley - Harrison who has since restored it and executed several of the various designers' original intentions that were never carried out, such as Gandon's trompe l'oeils in the entrance hall. Generally decoration is quite restrained throughout the house - the beautifully proportioned drawing room with its bow widow has nothing more exotic than two pairs of marble columns; the dining room has an ornate ceiling, but the central rotunda is the piece de resistance. A circular room with an intricately inlaid wooden floor, marbled pilasters rising the full height of the building to the dome above and and plaster panels on the walls, it is an astonishing space.
Gandon's great rival was Wyatt and it was to Wyatt that Thomas Vesey turned in 1773 to assist with the design a new house. An impressive block of a house it is 7 bays wide and 3 stories over a basement. Inside the cielings and walls are decorated with Wyatt's classical plastework, while the drawing room is hung with a beautiful 19th century blue wall paper. The formal gardens were laid out in 1839 by lady Emma Herbert, and based on her memories of her Russian grandfather's gardens at Alupka, near Yalta in the Crimea, though at Abbeyleix a pond replaces the spread of the sea. Local tradition has it that a Russian relation of hers planted the poplars that line the road to Ballacolla. A disgraceful story told of Abbeyleix is that at a family christening in the 19th century the entire company became very inebriated before the ceremony. Driving the short distance to the church in an open carriage they upended themselves in a ditch. In the ensuing confusion Lady de Vesci's pet terrier was wrapped in the swaddling clothes instead of the baby and duly christened in the church. Another tale of Abbeyleix relates to Arthur McMurrough Kavanagh of Borris who despite being born in the 1800s with no arms or legs managed to live a full life as a explorer, sportsman and politician. Arriving at Abbeyleix station one day for a shoot, the station master as he helped to lift him off the train said "Welcome back to Abbeyleix, Mr. Kavanagh". Later in the day while shooting with one of the guns that he had had specially adapted to strap onto his shoulders Kavanagh commented "Amazing - I have not been here for over 15 years and the station master recognised me!".
Abbeyleix remains as impressive and fine a house as ever. Rathleague House, near Portlaoise the home of the Parnells has not fared so well for in the 18th century it described as being one of the finest mansions in the country whose "well ornamented pleasure grounds boasted a conspicuous temple"; The Parnell responsible for the improvements was a great socialite but was born dumb. His nephew, Charles Stewart Parnell, had no such problems! By the 1840s the house had fallen into considerable disrepair and the present house is but a pale shadow of the mansion that once stood there. It's neighbour Sheffield, a mid 18th century three storey gable ended house of the Cassan family with a door case identical to Roundwood, has completely disappeared.
Stradbally Hall is still the home of the Cosbys, the only one of the Queens County tribes to have survived in their ancestral lands into the 20th century. Described by Brewer in his Antiquities of Ireland in 1826 as a commodious and eligible mansion, the first house was an O'Moore fortified tower which was obtained by the Cosbys during the reign of Queen Mary. This first Cosby fell in battle with the O'Byrnes at the age of 70 in 1580 having built himself a new castle with the stones of a franciscan friary. The house was enlarged in 1714 and a new front was added sometime after 1740, possibly to the designs of John Aheron, but in 1772 everything was demolished. The new house was built under the direction of one Arthur Roberts. This is the building which was enlarged and reclad to the designs of Sir Charles Lanyon in 1866-69. Inside there are some rooms with their original simple late 18th century plasterwork and others, like the top lit gallery at the head of the oak staircase, display the height of Victoriana with pink marble columns and elaborate decorative details. Sir Jonah Barrington has a a delightful account of a dinner party at Stradbally at which a certain half blind Dr. Jenkins was sitting next to his host Admiral Cosby. Mistaking the admirals brown gnarled fist for a bread roll he thrust his fork into it with uproarious consequences.
Just outside Stradbally is Ballyilcavan, the home of the Walsh Kemmis family. It's most famous occupant was actually a member of the staff - William Robinson (1838-1937). He was born in Stradbally and became head gardener at Balykilcavan His book The Wild Garden, published in 1870, was a reaction against the Victorian formal garden and brought about the fashion for the more naturalistic borders of the cottage garden "unadorned nature" was his style. He left Ballykilcavan in 1861 having had a violent row with his employer and on the night he left he extinguished all the heaters in the greenhouses and opened the windows so that the following morning the entire collection of tropical plants were dead. The land was bought from the Hartepoles in 1639 by the Walshs of the Mountain, a Kilkenny clan. The present house incorporates the late 17th century house built by the second Walsh to live there but it was enlarged and modernised both at the beginning and at the end of the 18th century, though the latter improvements were never completed due to the rebellion of 1798.
Gracefield which is also in the east of the country was the seat of the Grace family, whose name was originally Le Gros, the fat. From 1785 to 1814 Gracefield was unoccupied and the early 18th century house fell into severe disrepair. Nash, the prince regents architect was commissioned to design a new house, William Robertson overseeing the work. A contemporary description is still accurate: "It's varied outline, irregular exterior and the gothick labels over the windows give it an animated and picturesque character." It cost £5,000 to build at a time when skilled masons and carpenters were being paid 12.5 p a day, while labourers got 5 pence. Sutherland, who was working at Ballyfin, laid out the gardens.
Heywood at Balinakill still has fabulous gardens. It was built in 1773 by Frederick Trench, the only man, according to Mark Bence Jones, ever to name a house after his mother in law for Heywood was his mother in law's maiden name. Trench was an amateur architect who had worked with Richard Johnston on the Assembly Rooms next to the Rotunda Hospital. There is some suggestion that Gandon may have given him some advice on the design of the house as well. The original four bay three storey house had superb Adamesque decoration in the dining room. It was subsequently enlarged in Victorian railway station style in the 1870s, and in 1879 and 1880 hosted the Empress Elizabeth of Austria who came to Ireland for the hunting. The house has been demolished but the parkland is well maintained. Trench devoted great care and attention to the layout and he transported a window from Aghaboe Abbey to create a gothick folly on the avenue. Heywood passed to the Poe family (cousins of Edgar Allen Poe) and in 1906 William Hutcheson Poe commissioned Sir Edwin Luteyns to design the compartmental gardens . Terraces, pergolas with ionic columns, a yew garden and an elliptical pool with a loggia are all features of the layout, which is the finest early 20th century garden in Ireland. The cost was far in excess of the estimate and although Poe paid up, his influence and comments on Luteyns extravagance nearly lost Luteyns the job of building New Delhi.
Close to Heywood is Blandsfort. The house was built on the ruins of an O'Moore keep in 1715 and some rooms still have bolection moulded panelling from that period. The gardens are by James Fraser, an early 19th century Scottish gardener who was a great influence in breaking away from the Capability Brown type of parkland naturalism. There is also on the demesne an important conifer arboretum. Another Bland family house is Rath House which was the home of the Dease family from Westmeath from 1838. They intermarried with the Grattan and Blands. A classical house of the early 1800s, it has two storeys over a basement, an oval entrance hall and a fine library or drawing room with ornate plasterwork. There is a fine Victorian conservatory and also a small gothick chapel.
Granstown Manor also had a chapel in the 1800s. However much of this late Georgian and Victorian house was destroyed by fire in 1977. It was the home of Barney Fitzpatrick, second and last Lord Castletown, who remodelled it. Lord Castletown was a passionate sportsman and entertained Edward VII to duck shooting here. It was finally sold out of the Fitzpatrick family in 1947. During the War of Independence the I.R.A. came knocking one evening looking for guns. Lord Castletown is reputed to have come to an arrangement with his gamekeeper, who was in the I.R.A. The gamekeeper kept custody of the guns but whenever a days shooting was required they would be available, so the search of the house was fruitless. However he had a long chat with the men, who were not locals, in Irish, much to their surprise, and tried to persuade them to join his family in a rubber of bridge, an invitation they declined on the grounds that their masks might alarm the ladies!
Within sight of Granstown is Cuffesborough, a distinguished but typical example of the homes of the prosperous middle class farmers of the 18th century. It has a drawing room, a dining room, with a concealed cupboard behind the shutters for the chamber pot which was much used after dinner, four bedrooms and a barrack room - a large room where all the extra guests slept in dormitory conditions. The house has pretensions to great grandeur - the front hall was originally decorated in faux stone blocks alternate white and grey oblongs spattered to give them the look of masonry. The basement is built of rubble stone but when the builders got to the ground floor windows they changed to cut stone blocks - presumably a cheap source of cut stone must have been discovered. The 400 acre estate got its name from a 16th century vicar of Abbeyleix, one of the first Cuffes in Ireland. In the 1760s it was bought by the young Henry Grattan as, to use today's terminology " a non residential farm". Like many a modern speculator he built the house and yards and sold it on at a profit. It was bought by the Palmers from whom the show jumper Lucinda Prior Palmer is descended, but when that family moved up to Mayo a Dublin auctioneer called Cuffe acquired it so that he became Mr. Cuffe of Cuffesborough. Sadly when the land commission divided the lands it was allowed to fall into ruin but was rescued at the eleventh hour. During the restoration it was discovered that many of the rooms had been redecorated only once in the last 200 years!
Grattan undertook several such developments in Laois but his closest tie with the county is at Dunrally. Awarded IrP50,000 in the 1780s by the Irish government for his services to the country (in those days politicians were not paid), he bought a considerable portion of the Cosby's estate. On the banks of the Barrow he built a house within an old fort at Dunrally. Judging from the ruins that remain this can never have been more than a cottage for picnics and indeed he called it his hermitage.
Near Cuffesborough is Aghaboe which was once a city of 1,300 dwellings. In the 1770 only one stone house is marked which appears from Taylor & Skinner's maps to have been used as the rectory of Dr. Ledwich, the noted antiquarian. A rectory was built in 1820 and the old house became the home of a branch of the White family whose homes included Coolnagour at Coolrain, Ballybrophy or Court Plunket House, (the present ruin near the railway station is an early 19th century two storey over basement five bay house of rendered rubblestone with cut stone pediments over the ground floor windows and a doorway with a wide fanlight sheltered by a porch supported on two pairs of doric columns) which they rented from the Duke of Chandos and Buckingham, Raheen at Borris and Knocknatrina, the splendid Tudor-gothic ruin above Durrow. Aghaboe was the birthplace of General White, who commanded the 17th lancers in the Crimea and whose ghost is said to walk the Abbey field. Aghaboe has gone through many metamorphoses. The old barn to the North and a section of the present house were originally a pair of 17th century houses with identical plans and window layouts. In the mid 18th century a new front of two storeys over basement was added and then in the mid 19th century the house was turned around to face South and the 18th century dooorcase was moved to the back of the 17th century house. Aghaboe also stood empty for many years, its woodwork vandalised, its Adamesque black marble fireplaces stolen. Fortunately however it too has found a saviour and is in the course of being restored.
Roundwood at Mountrath was another house that looked set to sink into ruin before the Irish Georgian Society and the late Brian Molloy undertook it's restoration in 1970. Although once attributed to Francis Bindon, the actual architect of Roundwood is still shrouded in mystery. It is typical of that type of house classed by the architectural historian Maurice Craig as being a classic Irish house of the middle size. As at Cuffesborough and Aghaboe the carved stone doorcase is of a different quality from the rest of the stone work. It is a nice idea that in the 18th century you could go to the local hardware store and select your particular door case from the pattern books. It was built around 1750 for Mr Flood Sharp, a wool merchant, the front in cut stone the sides in rendered rubble stone. It has four rooms on each floor with a grand Chinese Chippendale galleried staircase leading to the first floor while the top floor is served only by the modest back stairs. It has cellars rather than a basement and the kitchens, normally to be found in the basement, were in the range of buildings which remained from the original late 17th/ early 18th century house. Roundwood is now the home of Frank and Rosemarie Kennan who run it as a most excellent country house hotel, despite the odd ghostly child in the bushes or the tombstone in the stables.
Sadly many of the country houses of Laois are either in an advanced state of dereliction or have disappeared for ever. There are places like the Adair's Bellegrove, Ballybrittas a U shaped Regency house which had a an Italianate Romanesque winter garden designed by Sir Thomas Deane the most talented late 19th century architect working in Ireland. The pillars he copied from the basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. J.G. Adair rose to infamy when he evicted all the tenants from his Donegal estate at Glenveigh Castle, though the grandson of one of the tenants having made his fortune in America bought the estate back in 1938. Bellegrove was burnt and then finally demolished in 1970. Ballyshaneduff or The Derries stood next door. It was built in 1810 on the site of an O'Dempsey tower for the Alloway family. Remodelled and rebuilt in the mid 19th century it ended up two hundred feet long with battlements, pointed doors and windows. It must have been an impressive place. Now there are only trees there. Brockley Park at Stradbally was a large three storey house built in 1768 for the Earl of Roden by Davis Ducart, the Sardinian architect who designed some of the finest houses in Munster. It had superb plasterwork but in 1944 it was dismantled and more recently completely destroyed. Coolrain House is in ruins, a mid 18th century cut stone, pedimented two storey gable ended house which had a formal canal and a ha-ha in the grounds. Dunmore House at Durrow was a three storey gable ended house of the 1700s demolished within the last twenty years. Glenmalire House at Ballybrittas stands empty and in need. A fine Regency two storey over basement cut stone house it was built by the Trench family on the site of a Fitzgerald castle.
There was Old Derrig, near Carlow, once home to John Doyle, Bishop of Kildare & Leighlin, a fine three storey house of the 1740s, Thornberry House, Abbeyleix, The Croker's late 18th century five bay house with a wide fanlit doorway in a projecting bow. There was Phillipsborough, a fine three storey house with excellent details and a round panelled frontdoor, a design usually associated with Limerick. It became hard-core in the 1980s. The walls of the servant's attics at Phillipsboro were decorated graffiti libelling the Phillips' and dating back to the 18th century. Farmleigh House "built with great taste and judgement" by William Pigot in the 1790s and Annegrove Abbey have gone and Donore, the home of the Despard family is no more than a romantic shell. Designed by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce, the architect responsible for Castletown House, Celbridge, Knightstown is a very fine two storey house with a cutstone pedimented doorcase, a venetian window and some interesting mid 18th century joinery. Now it serves as a nest for rooks and rats.
From Garrydenny Castle on the Carlow Kilkenny border to the ruinous Landsdowne Park a once elegant elegant and much enlarged home of the Moore family, Earls of Drogheda overlooking the Barrow on the Kildare Offaly border, from Brittas Castle in the Slieve Blooms to Erke Rectory on the Tipperary Kilkenny border in the South, the catalogue of Laois's lost or ruined houses has over 70 entries.
That was nearly twenty years ago. Since then various physics have attempted to purge the place. Priests have said masses there, a medium has planted a special tree there. The last time that I visited it the castle was being restored and much of the evil atmospheres had gone. Only a small windowless room deep underneath the castle still had that slightly sinister feel. Not all ghosts are unpleasant. In County Antrim, I came across a spirit that was positively benign. The castle had been built in the 17th century by Dr. Colville, a Royalist during the Cromwellian period, a Puritan with a taste for the good life and a priest who was also a necromancer. Despite many vicissitudes, his portrait still hangs in the front hall, protecting the house from misfortune. His footsteps beat out a steady tattoo through the night as he does his rounds. Other nights a ghostly light flickers around the park as he searches for his treasure, lost for 300 years. Some ghosts are neutral, carrying on their paranormal activities with no desire to impinge on modern life. At a castle in County Carlow, Lady Esmonde awaits the return of her erring husband, sitting in the shadow of the Spy Bush. Day and night she sits there, a phantom white cat at her feet, patiently looking out for her loved one. And as the sun sets over Mount Leinster you may catch a glimpse of her faint shadow, her long golden tresses blowing in the breeze. Another neutral ghost of the Slaney Valley stands at the ford by Kilcarry Bridge. Tommy Kinsella used to cross that ford every night on his way back from courting one of the Furlong girls. Every night, so he told his cronies in the pub, he saw a white shape standing in the bushes. One night his friends decided to play a trick on him. Mick Hughes dressed up in a white sheet and lay hiding by the ford. As he heard Kinsella approaching he rose up from the undergrowth and let out a dreadful moan. Kinsella glanced across and, with no terror in his voice, commented, "Two of them tonight, by God!" Hughes glanced around and saw, standing right beside him, a huge and shapeless thing. He fled!
Maybe it is our Celtic heritage - a throwback to fey ancestors. Maybe it is the darky and rain evenings of winter that give themselves to story telling. Maybe it is our heritage of ancient buildings, a constant reminder of times gone by. Whatever the reason, Ireland has a rich culture of ghost stories. Our literature is strewn with ghosts. James Joyce recalls the black dog, with eyes like carriage lamps, that patrolled the stairs of the Jesuit College in Kildare that he attended. Oscar Wilde wrote with understanding about the problems of being paranormal in the Canteville Ghost. Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu terrorized his readers with such frightful stories as The House by The Churchyard. But is there any truth to all these stories, or are they merely the products of over active imaginations? Over the last few years I have conducted many tours of Ireland. Some have been on our architecture and great houses, others have concentrated on our antiques and fine art and every year a few have been specifically in search of ghosts. We have sought out the most haunted rooms in the most haunted houses, we have hacked our way through overgrown graveyards where strange lights flicker in the darkness, we have set up infra red cameras and tape recorders, we have scattered the floor with flour (to show up any human or animal interference) and we have sat up all night with nothing but bats for company, watching for anything paranormal. For all this effort there is little to show. And yet...
There was the time when a television crew were trying to capture the spirit of spookiness in a mausoleum in the Midlands. As they shone their bright lights into the darkness the power was drained from the batteries; vampire like, whatever was in there consumed the energy. Filming in that particular mausoleum was abandoned! There was the occasion at a stately mansion in Cork which I was touring with the caretaker and a bouncy labrador. As we entered what was known as the haunted room the dog, having been in the best of spirits, cowered and lay whimpering in the corner. As soon as we left the room his bounce returned. The bizarre case at a house in North Tipperary, where I was called in when the lights went on in a locked room, the windows shook on a windless night and the enormous portrait of the Hell Fire Club fell from the wall, though the hooks remained in the wall and the string was unbroken - all within the space of two hours. Last year I stayed at a house in Meath which had just been exorcised. During the night, there were dreadful groans which could have been nothing more than the plumbing or the wind in the attic. Around midnight there was the noise of the front door banging shut even though it was already securely locked. And in the morning I found that the memory of my lap top computer had been wiped clean. All coincidence? Quite possibly, but on the other hand why go looking for a scientific explanation when there is a perfectly reasonable paranormal one available. It is a question of what lawyers call the balance of probability. Whether ghosts are unhappy spirits, trying to right some wrong or atone for a past misdeed, as some would argue, or whether they are chinks in time - a warp through which we see the actions of the past people, I know not. Some argue that ghosts are like photographs, exposed by a sudden outpouring of strong emotion. Others see in them the ancient gods and immortals of the druids, the spirits of nature that inhabit the woods, rocks and pools of the countryside. Maybe all the explanations are correct, for it often seems to me that if ghosts do exist then there is a wide range of different types. There was the old man that my father met in our local town one market day shortly after we had moved to a house in Laois. "Are you troubled by the ghosts in the house?" inquired the ancient one. "Not noticed any," replied my father. "When I worked for old Mr. Cuffe up there, they used to be terrible. You watch out for them." With that, he cackled and disappeared into the throng of people. It was only later that my father realized that to have worked for Mr. Cuffe, who died in the 1840s, his informant would have to be in the region of 160, or a ghost. Compare that with the tale of the McMahon's Castle in County Clare where a sealed room in the derelict shell contains an evil so great that no one has looked upon it and lived to tell the tale. The last time the stones that seal the chamber were opened was in the late 1920s. The exorcist, who then descended to deal with whatever dreadful creature was there, was found the next morning, lying in the remains of the great hall. His death certificate recorded heart failure as cause of death. But apparently no one who saw the poor creature could ever forget the look of pure terror engraved into his cold features.
Over the years I have recorded several hundred ghost stories. Every year I take dozens of people in search of ghosts. And while I could never take a bible oath that I had seen a spook, no one has yet convinced me that ghosts do not exist.
The area around Loughcrew is one of the unknown delights on the doorstep of Dublin. Though only 0.01% of the Naper's original 180,000 acres still surrounds the house, the immensely formal front gates, with the Doric lodge and long curving railings, give an air of majesty to the demesne. The Loughcrew Hills have thirty two passage graves of the Newgrange type, with strangely decorated stones and dark tunnels in which the ashes of chieftains, dead for 6,000 years, await the rising sun.
The Napers came to Ireland in the 16th century, obtaining their estates from the Plunkett family. However the various fires have destroyed most of the family treasures. In 1982 Charles Naper, with the architect Alfred Cochrane, set about restoring what is now called The Orangery. The rooms that make up the house were in fact originally the palm houses, the azalea houses and the furnace rooms. The main body of the present house was then a windowless single story shed with, at either end, very high rooms with high windows. The two entrance halls, one of which also serves as a dining room, were the palm houses. The shed is now the drawing room, 15 feet wide and nearly 60 feet long - almost two double cubes. Although the double cube is architecturally the perfect shape, it might well be that a double double cube would be too much. However, by inspired decoration and careful positioning of the furniture, the room conveys the air of a grand salon rather than a railway platform! Strangely, the house, though it looks most unusual from outside, works well. At one end are the guest rooms, where reigns the tranquillity that befits the rolling parkland and fine stands of mature trees surrounding the house. At the other end are the children's bedrooms and the yard buildings.
Charles' wife, Emily, has a colourful ancestry. Sir Francis Dashwood founded the original Hell Fire Club at their home, West Wycombe Park in Buckinghamshire. Her grandmother is Lady Dunsany, so for the third time in 400 years a Plunkett connection has come back to Loughcrew. And, best of all, she had studied gilding and decorative painting at the Ecole de Louvre, the City & Guilds in London and under the amazing Vilmo Gibello, who is the most brilliant restorer of gilded furniture.
They have three young children, but with unbounded energy the Napers now provide overnight accommodation as well as running residential gilding and decorative painting courses at Loughcrew. The old laundry has become a studio where Emily restores frames and gilded furniture and manufactures a range of decorative accessories, ranging from piano stools and console tables to cherubs and photograph frames. Despite its vicissitudes, there is no doubt that Loughcrew is still, as my 1830 Post Chaise Companion describes it, one of the finest seats in the county of Meath.
At Ballytrent in the parish of Kilrane is a splendid rath 650 yards in circumference where in the autumn gloaming you may see a phantom coach and horses disappear into the sea. Carne, once a great druidic temple, still preserves a flagstone on which Saint Beoc crossed the Irish Sea and boulders left over from a prehistoric battle between the giants of Ireland and Wales, not to mention a holy well that will cure toothache. Headaches can be cured by lying in a stone sarcophagus in the old churchyard at Bannow. At Ferns you can see the remains of the Bishops Palace first built by Bishop Ram in 1630. Above the door the elderly bishop wrote the inscription:
This house Ram built for his succeeding brothers.
The sheep bear wool not for themselves but others.
The literary minded can explore the Slaney Valley around Enniscorthy and spot the settings for Mollie Keane's early novels. The antiquarian will find a host of medieval castles and abbeys. Gardeners can rejoice in the splendour of such places as Kilmokea, Johnstown Castle and Berkley Forest or seek out the splendid melancholy of the romantic glen at Eden Vale where once stood a rustic thatched schoolhouse or the Echo Ravine and Moss House near Bunclody, a favourite resort of 18th century tourists who admired its rugged beauty in their Claude Glasses, a tinted mirror that gave a romanticised reflection. Oscar Wilde's mother, the poetess Speranza, was brought up in Wexford's Main Street as were Buffalo Bill Coady's parents and the mother of the poet Thomas Moore. The Reverend Lyte, curate of Taghmon, composed Abide With Me. Admiral Lord Beatty and Commander John Barry, the father of the US Navy were both natives of Wexford. Lola Montez lived for a while in Bunclody before moving on to better things with the mad King Ludwig of Bavaria. Only in County Wexford could you order a stage coach from a coach builder or become a priest of Isis in a 17th century castle whose history inspired Thackeray to write Henry Esmonde.
The sandy beaches of the East coast and the seaside resorts such as Courtown and Rosslare provide everything that a bucket and spade holiday requires. At Curracloe is a six mile crescent of sand. Further round the coast towards Bannow are great empty areas of sand dunes and sea. The North and South Slobs and The Saltee Islands are internationally renowned bird sanctuaries. There are walking routes along the seashore and 1,726 miles of delightful lanes devoid of traffic where you cycle into another slower age, meandering between hedges of wild rose, travellers joy, honeysuckle and hawthorn. Wexford is also the land of the horse. Whether trail riding or hunting riders will find a countryside that is without rival for diversity and excitement. The words of the Elizabethan poet Edmund Spencer, who lived for a while in Enniscorthy Castle, might still tempt contemporary anglers - "The goodly Barrow doth hoord great heapes of salmon in his deep bosom."
Wexford's coasts and river valleys have attracted people for thousands of years. Barley was grown near the coast 5,500 years ago. 6,000 year old Neolithic remains have been found in the county. The Carthaginians are reputed to have set up a trading station in Bannow Bay. The Romans may have had a base on Hook Head. The Vikings certainly took over the main seaport at Wexford. The Normans arrived at Baginbun in 1169 to help McMurrough recapture his Kingdom of Leinster. Later Normans populated the country so thickly that to this day one can hardly drive more than a couple of miles without seeing the crumbling walls of some tower house or castle. In the 18th and 19th centuries great houses were built at the heart of tree studded estates. Many are still private homes. Some have fallen into ruin. But some now offer accommodation - Clohamon House, overlooking the Slaney; Ballinkeele House the neo-classical mansion of the Mahers just South of Enniscorthy; Horetown House at Foulksmills, the splendid home of the Youngs which also has an excellent restaurant and a riding centre; Newbay House just outside Wexford, rebuilt after the rising of 1798 and now the home of Paul and Min Drum; Marlfield House, once the modest dower house of the Earls of Courtown and now a most resplendent hotel run by the Bowe family; Churchtown House the Cody's home at Tagoat; The Parkers at Salville near Enniscorthy. There are also wonderful family hotels such as Kellys of Rosslare and Whites and the Ferrycarrig in Wexford. Nor is Wexford short on restaurants with delightful food to be found in all corners of the country from the Lobster Pot in Carne to The Chantry in Bunclody, from The Galley Cruising Restaurant in New Ross to The Chinese Restaurant in Gorey.
The history of County Wexford is described in a massive six volume work published in the early 1900s. The legends of North Wexford fill three volumes of Padraig Kennedy's works. It is a county with three different but interlocked cultures - a Gaelic Culture, an Anglo Irish Culture and even the remnants of the medieval Norman culture to be found in the Barony of Forth where till early this century a dialect of medieval French called Yola was still a living language. Wexford covers 900 square miles and every one of them is worth exploring.
Around Enniscorthy the quality of the clay in the marl beds has been known since prehistoric times. The oldest pottery in Ireland is at Carley's Bridge which has been in constant production since 1654. Nearby is Hill View Pottery where Paddy Murphy continues a tradition that can be easily traced back to his great great grandfather, 200 years ago. Michael Roche's Kiltrea Bridge pottery can be found in gift shops and garden centres across the country, but of course the best range and the best bargains are at the pottery itself on the banks of the River Urrin below the Blackstairs Mountains. Nearby is the Badger Hill Pottery where Bill Connors throws distinctive stoneware influenced by his travels in Spain and Malaysia.
At Killurin Frank Randall is the third generation of his family to make hurling sticks, carving each one by hand from the boles of ash trees. Further South around Kilmore Quay thatching is still a living art. While it may not be feasible to bring home a thatched cottage, the sugan chairs and bee skips which are also part of the thatchers' repertoire can sometimes be found. Kilmore Quay itself has also "Country Crafts" a craft shop in the village. At The Yola Farmstead, you can see crystal blowing and cutting, a craft that was introduced from England in the late 18th century, but which has been made uniquely Irish by the vivacity and imagination of the local designers. At The Buttersland Craft Centre, just outside New Ross, you will find the product of the wild and woolly sheep that you may have been dodging as you drove through the uplands of the Blackstairs Mountains. It has a good display of crafts and is known for its hand woven tweed jackets that are made on the premises. Also in New Ross is Hugo O'Hanlon's Loft Gallery in Charles Street, where there are regular exhibitions of both craft and art and The Red Door Art Studio on The Quay. In the North of the county the Woodlands Craft Gallery at Killineirin near Gorey has frequent exhibitions while Wexford Town has its own Art Centre in the Cornmarket.
It is best to leave the vexed question of whether food is an art or a craft to the Acadamie Francais. However, it would be a mistake to pass through Wexford without sampling the skills of its food producers. Aged versions of Wexford mussels, Wexford strawberries, and Wexford honey can be found in gourmet stores around the world, but in Paris or London they never zing on the palate as they do in the rolling countryside of their native place. Some fine Irish farm made cheeses come from Wexford and two of the most famous are Croghan, which is a semi hard smoothly mellow goat's cheese from Blackwater and Carrigbyrne, where Paddy Berridge produces Saint Killian, a remarkable camembert from New Ross that eclipses its Norman cousins, and Saint Brendan, a fresh and creamy brie. With oysters and clams from Bannow Bay, and bread from the ovens at Yola, the food of Wexford can be magic.
The best time to explore the crafts of Wexford is during the annual Opera Festival. It was founded in 1951 as a result of a challenge thrown down by Compton Mackenzie. The Festival is held in the intimate surroundings of a late Georgian opera house and is internationally renowned. Rare operas and great singers combine to create a sublime musical feast. And for the duration of the festival the town is en fete. Every showroom becomes an art gallery, every parish hall is transformed into a theatre or concert hall. Shop keepers compete to produce the most imaginative window displays. The medieval passageways of the town centre throng with cosmopolitan crowds, just as they did 500 years ago when Wexford was a busy port.
Crafts of a bygone age can also be found around the county which is rich in wayside bric-a-brac shops and more elegant antique galleries. Drinagh Lodge, just south of Wexford, The Lamberts of Castle Hill in Enniscorthy, Selskar Antiques in Wexford, Breda Murphy at Ramsgrange, New Ross and The Antique Shop in Bunclody are just a few of my favourites that should never be passed without a thorough examination!
Much of Wexford's heritage is as God and time have left it, and the adventurous traveller will have great fun foraging along the narrow twisty lanes in search of reminders of ancient days. The Norman built over 140 castles in the county. The towers of these fortifications are scattered across the countryside. Adamstown, Baldwinstown, Ballyteigue, Butlerstown, Castleboro, Coolhull, Clonmines, Ferrycarrig, Kilcloggan, Lady's Island (which leans more than the Tower of Pisa) Linkstown, Mountgarrett, Rathmacknee, Rathumney, Slade, Taghmon are just a few of the better preserved examples. Some of the towers have been restored and can be visited. Enniscorthy Castle, built by the Prendegasts in the 13th century, was a private home till the late 19th century and now houses the County Museum. Ballyhack Castle and the nearby Duncannon Fort both offer tours. Ferns Castle, one of the largest in the county, has a very chequered history. In the 14th century alone it was owned successively by an Irish family, a bishop and a countess. The Westgate of the town wall of Wexford has beensensitively restored and combines with Selskar Abbey to explain the historical development of Wexford. At Ferrycarrig the Irish National Heritage Park has a recreation of a motte and bailey castle as part of its portrayal of 9,000 years of history from a Mesolithic camp site to fortifications of the Norman period.
The National heritage park is the biggest museum in Wexford but there are many others, catering for an extraordinarily diverse range of interests. At Johnstown Castle is the Irish Agricultural Museum. Near New Ross is Berkley Forest House, the home of the distinguished artist the Countess Bernstorff, which has a collection of 18th and 19th century costumes, dolls and toys. The Yola Farmstead has a display of vernacular life in the Barony of Forth as well as an open farm and the Wexford Genealogy Centre. At Kilmore Quay the "Guillemot", a retired lightship, houses a museum of Wexford's maritime life. The Donovans have a delightful museum of the everyday life of bygone days at Ballymore, Camolin, as well as an ancient church, a holy well and a shell house. Dunmain House, New Ross, is a 17th century house whose history inspired Sir Walter Scott's "Guy Mannering". The house, which has a private oratory and a jail cell, boasts two ghosts!
The serious ghost hunter should also seek out Loftus Hall on the scenic Hooke Drive where the devil himself has been seen, or Horetown House where a ghostly re-enactment of a ghastly battle of 1798 takes place. Even if you were not interested in ghosts, it would be the act of a fool to miss Tintern and its sister Cistercian abbey at Dunbrody. Though Tintern has suffered much from a misguided attempt at restoration by the myopic purists of the Office of Public Works, it is still a magical place of beauty and tranquillity.
The high cross at Ferns, the windmill at Tacumshane, the watermill at Craanford, Pugin's churches in Gorey and Enniscorthy, Sir Ralph Abercromby's Pillar at Carrigbyrne, the prehistoric standing stone at Balloughton. Wexford's heritage is richer than the hidden treasure of Dollar Bay.
Wexford is one of the best of the Irish countries for riding. There is not too much plough, and heavy going is a rarity. Jumps are often stoutly built stone faced banks, easy obstacles for the famed leap of a Wexford hunter. A stirrup cup of hot whiskey or port and brandy will fortify even the most nervous for a day of thrills without, I hope, the spills! The main hunts in Wexford are The Island, The Wexford, The Shillelagh and District and The Bree. Hunting has a long history in the area. Sir Thomas Esmonde had his own pack of hounds in 1603 and hunted the Gorey area. His descendants kept hounds for more than 150 years. One of the family, Sir Lawrence Esmonde, died in 1750 returning from a hunt to his home at Huntington Castle at the age of 90! They were tough men in those days.
There are of course ample facilities for riders of all levels of experience, regardless of age. Trekking and trail riding over farmland, forest and mountain is available as are cross country courses designed to challenge even the most experienced. Some riding schools provide holidays for unaccompanied children. Horetown House is the Youngs' 18th century manor house surrounded by rolling parkland which offers inclusive residential riding holidays. There are expert instructors for riders of all standards and teaching covers dressage, showjumping, polocrosse and cross country. In the evening they Young family offers dinner in their much acclaimed cellar restaurant. Nearby is Ballingale Farm Riding School at Taghmon, which like most riding schools in the county is a member of the A.I.R.E.
Boro Hill at Clonroche is a comfortable Georgian house that specialises in unaccompanied children's residential holidays and hunting holidays. At Duncannon is the Hook Trekking Centre, which organises treks from June to September while at Duncormick is the Blackstone Trekking Centre. At the top of the Hook peninsula is Seaview Farm Pony Trekking just outside the little village of Saltmills and close to the romantic demesne of Tintern Abbey. Close to Wexford Town on the Forth Mountain are Shemalier Riding Stables. In the East of the county is the Laheen Pony Trekking Centre at Gorey. These are amongst the best known riding centres in the county and are amongst the best in Ireland.
Many of the manor house accommodations in the county will provide livery facilities if you choose to travel with your horse, and Wexford is an excellent base from which to ride with the neighbouring hunts in Waterford, Kilkenny and Carlow. Imagine riding with carefree abandon along six miles of golden beach, or hacking across heather covered mountains with a view hat extends from Wales to Limerick. All this and more can be found in Wexford. At the end of the day when you are too stiff to vault into the saddle you could consider instead buying one of the fine coaches made by Breens of Enniscorthy and take your equestrian exercise in a leisurely way from the driving seat.
"O Sweet Adare, Oh Lovely Vale,
O Soft retreat of Sylvan Splendour
Nor summer sun, nor morning gale
E'er hailed a scene so softly tender."
It was actually the 2nd Lord Dunraven who in 1828 began the beautification of Adare, building the first rows of thatched cottages. Ferocious gout prevented from indulging in field sports and so he turned his attention to building. The oldest thatched house in the town is opposite the courthouse at the West end of the village, originally built about 1740 and it set the style for all the later improvements The Dunraven Arms, by the gates of The Manor, will be 200 years old in 1992, but much of the character of the village is due to the work of Detmar Blow for Lord Dunraven in 1910. A contemporary of Luteyns, who designed New Delhi, Blow was a follower of Ruskin and the Arts and Crafts movement. Very much the society architect he built a shooting lodge for the Duke of Westminster and worked on the Dukes country mansion Eaton Hall. At Adare he built the village hall and most of the houses at that end of the village as well a creating a set of magnificent lanterns for the gallery at The Manor. One of remaining of these lanterns, which were modelled on a Venetian renaissance example in the Victoria & Albert Museum, now hangs in Glin Castle, another at Kilruddery, the Earl of Meath's home in Bray.
Blow, drawing on William Morris's ideas, designed the rustic porches in the village and it was these and 18th century Irish cottage ornees such as the Swiss Cottage at Cahir that inspired the Patrick Bowe's pavilion on the Washing Green. Bowe now has an international practice as a landscape architect but back in the 1970s this was his first commission, though on his Irish garden stand at the New York flower show in 1990 he came back to to the same idea. The Droichidin that runs through the green was used as washing pool and the spittle stones on which the clothes were beaten can still be seen in the river bed.
On one occasion the Maigue itself was used as a laundry. The monks of Adare were accused of being idle and profligate by the monks of Clonmacnoise. They rebutted the accusation, which was in fact quite fair, most angrily so the Clonmacnoise monks challenged the Adare monks to a debate. In some dread the Adare monks accepted the challenge and set to blowing the dust off their library. They soon realized that they would have no chance and so descended to trickery. A group of the most intelligent monks were dressed up as women and sent to do the monastic washing by the Maigue bridge. As the Clonmacnoise monks arrived these "laundry women" launched into a philosophical discussion in Greek. The Clonmacnoise monks listened aghast and decided that if the washerwomen were such fine academics then they would be trounced in the debate. They fled.
Nowadays only the shadow of a brown frocked friar may be seen, flitting through the ruins of the Franciscan monastery on a summer's evening. The village itself, with its ancient castle, its medieval bridge, its multitude of religious remains and it's overall charm is famed not for its learning nor for its battles but as quite simply, Ireland,s loveliest village.
The first to come to Ireland was The Chief's father who wrote to his parents from Limerick "I have arrived in Paradise". This might of course have had something to do with a girl from County Clare, whom he subsequently married. Their son rose rapidly in legal circles and when Lord Newcomen committed suicide after the collapse of The Newcomen Bank on Castle Street, Lefroy took over his lands in Longford.
A formal front hall, where unwanted visitors were left waiting on hard wooden seats, leads into a central chamber dominated by the staircase. The staircase window is the statement of the Chief's success. Under a stained glas coat of arms stands his bust, depicting him as a Roman senator. At the bottom of the stairs a door leads into a suite of state rooms that were designed to impress. Large double doors join the library to the drawing room and the dining room and from the tall windows parkland sweeps away to distant trees.
"When we arrived here a lot of the decoration had not been touched since the house was built." said Tessa Lefroy "I spent weeks cleaning the compartmented drawing room ceiling to reveal the duck egg blue under the layers of grime." The cornice is also the original old rose colour, decorated with unpainted plaster flowers, but the walls she repainted in a melon yellow, picking the colour from the patterned carpet. "It really brings out the lovely gold of satinwood inlay in the furniture." The wing chair, with its red and white William Morris upholstery was always covered by holland sheets, but much of the fabric in the house had rotted away through age. "I scoured the sales of Libertys, Peter Jones and all the London fabric shops. Fortunately when I knew we would be coming here I went round the house with a notebook, writing down what was needed. It was invaluable."
The library had been a peacock blue overpainted with ochre. Jeffrey Lefroy had wanted to redecorate it in the family livery of green with a silver trellis but a specially comissioned wallpaper was prohibitively expensive, so he chose instead this green and yellow trellis on a white ground. With its yellow Sienna marble fireplace and comfortable Victorian tub chairs this is their favourite sitting room.
The Dining room still retains its 1830s decoration. The walls are almost a pewter colour and despite it's massive size it is a warm room, a warmth created by the mellow glow of the mahogany economy table, which seats twenty, the old turkey carpet and the red leather upholstery of the dining chairs. The Victorian chandelier adjusts, on counter balanced weights and can flood the room with light or hang intimately a couple of feet above the table.
For small dinner parties the Lefroys use the tower room, which Tessa has painted in a strong blue "I wanted a colour that would direct attention in on the table." It works very well, insulating the room from the outside world. As it is very small and has three doors they had to be disguised to diminish the corridor feeling. Long before dragging became fashionable Tessa decided to try it out here and has been pleased with the effect.
Upstairs there seem to be endless bedrooms; "I'm not sure that I know exactly how many rooms we have here" admitted Tessa. Her inventiveness as a decorator is very much in evidence. In the yellow bed room she has used a paisley silk shawl to cover the head of the half tester and mixed different fabrics from remnant sales at both Peter Jones and Laura Ashley to end up with very attractive overall theme. In another rome roses predomnate - little rose buds on blue wallpaper, rose coloured curtains and a dose eiderdown. Yet another has a Victorian theme with a loose floral patterned wall paper which is picked up again in the lace hangings of the four poster bed and the Staffordshire his and hers washing sets.
The task of maintaining such a large mansion is terrifying but Tessa approaches it with confidence "It is all done on a shoestring - remnants, discontinued lines, anything cheap!" The Lefroys have managed, by dint of experiment and invention to retain the style of the 1830s yet avoid creating a mausoleum where everything is set in aspic. The house still lives and the decoration will continue to change and develop while Tessa Lefroy still has the energy to face the fighting through the sales!
Of the one hundred and twenty peers who maintained country houses in Ireland at the beginning of this century, barely thirty are left. Most of those who departed went in the 1920s but in recent years there has been a steady flow out of the country. The overseas membership of the Kildare Street and University Club, that bastion of the Anglo Irish, continues to grow. Recent departures include Lord Rossmore whose photographs of houses form an important part of the Irish Architectural Archive and Lord Dunalley who lived till recently in Connemara, his family seat having been bought and rebuilt by Tony Ryan.
Some retain an interest in the affairs of Northern Ireland , like the Earl of Kilmorey who sits in the House of Commons as Richard Needham or the Earl of Arran, whose Irish seat Ravensdale Park, Dundalk was burnt down in the troubles of the 1920s. He was in charge of the health of Northern Ireland in Thatcher's government. The Marquess Conyngham handed over Slane Castle to his son and emigrated to the Isle of Man. However when he inherits the title Henry Mount Charles has made it clear that he will remain at Slane come hell, high water or fire. There are others who have pursued careers in England but still maintained some attachment to Ireland. The Earl of Antrim works at the Tate Gallery but still has Glenarm Castle where his son Randal McDonnell lives. The Earl of Longford is a socialist politician, best known for his work on prison reform but his son, the writer Thomas Pakenham, runs Tullynally.
Many more have almost completely severed their ties. The Earl of Drogheda is better known as the photographer Derry Moore. Living in Notting Hill Gate, his work appears in most glossy magazines. The most obvious testament to his family is to be seen on a street map of Dublin. Henry Street, Moore Street and Earl Place still exist. Of Lane has gone and Drogheda Place is now O'Connell Street. The Marquess of Headfort lives on the Isle of Man while his son the Earl of Bective is an estate agent in London. Headfort, their house near Kells was home to the Canadian businessman Bill Kruger and is now an exclusive prep. school. The Viscount Gormanston, whose castle in Meath was sold around 1950 to the Franciscans, abandoned Dublin 4 for the delights of Chelsea a decade ago and is now not an unfamiliar site in the Chelsea Arts Club. The Viscount de Freyne sold French Park, County Roscommon at around the same time but was remained mostly in Ireland until the 1980s when he moved permanently to London.
When the 8th Earl of Courtown died in the 1975 Marlfield House, Gorey was sold to the hotelier Mary Bowe and the Stopfords concentrated on farming their Worcestershire estates. Another noble hotel is Knocklofty which was sold by the Earl of Donoughmore, head of the Hely Hutchinson family to Paddy and Joyce O'Keefe and by them to Deniis English. The present Earl lives in France. When the Viscount Dillon died ten years ago Rath House at Termofeckin, Co. Louth was sold and most of the family, including his grandson the present Viscount, now live in England. Although still at school the young Viscount's public appointments have already included launching Dillon Gin in Iceland. The Viscount Molesworth, whose stately home was once outside Swords, lives in a flat in Highgate. When I last heard of him his son was about to embark on a career as a landscape gardener. The Marquess of Ormonde, hereditary butler of Ireland, lives in an apartment outside Chicago, his cousin having sold Kilkenny Castle for £50.00 in 1967. There are Anglo Irish peers all over the world. Lord Plunket lives in Zimbabwe, Lady Talbot de Malahide in Tasmania. Lord Ashtown, Christopher Trench, lives in Ontario, Canada where the Marquess of Ely, Charles Tottenham, is headmaster of Trinity College School.
These are the fortunate ones who have found life, success and a career beyond their once well wooded demesnes. There are others whose whereabouts is unknown. Is the last Lord Lucan really dead or is he living high up in the Andes, still fleeing the charge of murdering his children's nanny. There are stories of a beach photographer on the Costa del Sol who has nothing but a crested signet ring to remind him of his ancestral title. Dark rumours filter back from France of a plumbing peer in Normandy. There are tales of an Australian cattle trucker with a coroneted wrench and an ability to drink and gamble so out of the ordinary that none doubt his claim. Let those few remaining peers in Ireland consider the lot that might befall them and turn back with a light heart to the dry rot and Lloyds demands.
I used to say "no problem" to such enquiries, but age has taught me wisdom. There are as many different types of shooting as their are fishing - from fly fishing to netting, from driven pheasant to pigeon. The shooting set is rather like a club and once in members spend their time keeping everyone else out!. While pheasant may be socially the smartest, the pursuit of woodcock, for which the hunter has to tramp for hours through cold and icy moors, is the most admired. There is all the difference in the world between standing comfortably outside a well stocked covert in County Meath waiting for scores of birds to be driven overhead, where the main display of skill is social etiquette and marksmanship, and tramping a bog in Kerry, pitting your wits against Nature. Headfort was probably the smartest shoot in the country. It was run by Lord Holmepatrick for Canadian businessman Kruger, President Hillery was one of the keen shots to blast off there. A little further South weekend canoeists on the River Boyne can expect to run into Henry Mountcharles' shoot at Slane where the peace of the afternoon may be suddenly shattered by birds and pellets falling around them, the waters seething with swimming gun dogs.
Some shoots are leased by the land owners to syndicates who share the cost of running it. Dublin builder Ken Rohan heads a syndicate that shoots over Gareth Browne's Luggala estate. As it costs about IrP100,000 a year to maintain a shoot that will offer about three weeks driven pheasant shooting sportsmen have to be not only a select band but also well heeled. Other shoots are sold by the day. At Lord Rosse's shoot at Birr driven pheasant shooting used to be offered for IrP450 a day.
The best known of the Midland shoots is run by the Williams at Bellevue. However there primacy on Lough Derg is being threatened by Klaus Mahnke who runs the syndicate that bought Illanmore. Apart from the esoteric game, like wild turkey or driven duck, that they have put down, they host the odd head of state - Dr. Scheel, an ex President of West Germany was shooting there a few years ago. In County Longford Major Lefroy has Partridge shooting at Carrigglass, but is very wary about who they let in. One year they advertised a gun. It was taken up by "such a smart man with a huge Mercedes" but before lunch he had committed the two cardinal sins - shot a very low flying bird and shot through the line - that is swung his gun around so that his neighbours life was endangered. He didn't come again. "It is", says Tessa Lefroy, " the difference between real country people who are in for a good days shoot and people who are trying to be smart."
The sport of shooting is to bring down "well presented" birds - high flyers. The highest birds in Ireland are in the Wicklow Mountains, where the Brabazons' shoot at Ballinacor and the Baileys' at Ballyarthur are internationally famous. However the most exclusive of the private shoots is probably Lord Waterord's at Curraghmore. It is so private that even the names of those who are invited to shoot there are closely guarded. In the North there are several smart shoots Clandeboye, Baronscourt and a dozen others. While in the South landed families run their shooting for Titans of Industry, in the North, where taxes have not eroded their wealth, it is even more exclusive; "But we're not really smart," one Northerner protested, "I go over to Gerald Westminster's shoot - that's smart. Thousands of birds, superb food, delightful company."
At the other end of the scale are shoots like the Lysaghts in Doneraile. Described as dog and stick shooting, the success of a day is judged not on how many birds were killed but how much fun was had and invitations to Kilmacoon are as eagerly sought and as hard to come by as invitations to the Duke of Westminsters.
The most original line to get into the set I have ever come across I overheard at a Tweedy cocktail party. The tall blond (I think her name was Caroline) was trying to get an invitation down to a shooting party. "I'm not much of a shot", she said, "but I'm a jolly nifty loader."
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