Day 9 / Wednesday, 19 September 2012 (part 1)
This was my third visit to Ireland, Alli’s second; Margaret and Jill had never been before. So about three months ago, armed with not much in the way of guidance (Alli wanted to go to Dingle, I’d heard), I’d created an itinerary of places to go and things to see on our walk-about. I wanted to make sure my sister and friend would get to see “one of everything”—a large country house, a monastic settlement, a cathedral, a stone circle, a prehistoric edifice of some sort, an original high cross, beautiful scenery … and on and on. Things Ireland is well known for. I also wanted to revisit certain places myself—and see some things I’d never seen too. I passed this itinerary around, offered choices, updated it. I also arranged for lodging at the places we would stay.
And now the day had arrived: we were going to go, as Dubliners say, down the country. Four gals, four suitcases, and our Ford Mondeo. (I was the driver.)
Our first stop would be Castletown House in Celbridge (Co. Kildare). This Palladian-style mansion was built (between 1722 and 1729) for William Conolly, Speaker of the Irish House of Commons. The house remained in the hands of his descendants until 1965; ownership of the estate is now divided between the government and private concerns. (We would be here all day if I tried to explain the family tree and the various Conolly women who influenced the way the house looks now; you can read about them at the site linked above.)
So we set off. It was about a thirty-minute drive to Celbridge, a town with a population of about 19,000. Castletown House lies within walking distance of town.
I don’t know that I’d ever seen the Palladian style in person. (Well, OK, in Washington DC.) Frankly, I don’t know that I could have defined it, although I can now: it’s an architectural style derived from the designs of the Venetian architect Andrea Palladio (1508–1580), which was based on the temple architecture of the ancient Greeks and Romans. In other words, formal, symmetrical, and large.
Like, really large. Castletown House consists of the main building and two wings (one is the kitchen, one is the stables), which are connected to the central edifice by curving porticos. The car park is near the kitchen wing (which is also the visitor entrance; you see the house by guided tour only), and we walked past it to look at the front of the house.
Jill and Alli decided to get a little fresh air; they walked back to town through the Castletown House grounds. They are lovely.
Meanwhile, Margaret and I took the house tour. It starts in the entrance hall, which is two stories high. (The entrance hall in our house in Tennessee is two stories high, too, but what you see at Castletown is on a different scale altogether!)
Imagine visiting the home in the 1720s. Your carriage would pull up to the wide staircase out front, and you’d ascend the stairs easily, as the rise is very gradual. The door would be opened, and you’d enter this grand hall with its polished limestone floor in a checkered design. It would be virtually empty of furniture, as it is today. This was simply the place to divest yourself of your outerwear and wait while your host was fetched by the servants. He or she would lead you down the hall to greet the rest of the guests.
The staircase hall adjacent to the entrance hall is a testament to the rococo-style ornamental plasterwork for which Ireland is famous. In this case, all created by Philip Lafranchini, who, with his brother, Paul, was renowned, then and now, for his artistry. No, it’s not exactly my personal style—but it’s quite impressive.
This staircase at Castletown, made of Portland stone, is one of the largest in Ireland. The solid brass balustrade is inscribed (in three places) by its manufacturer, Anthony King, who was later Lord Mayor of Dublin.
We went through all the downstairs rooms (which is misleading, really, because there is a floor below the level at which you enter—for servants, I guess): the dining room, the butler’s pantry, the brown study (originally used as a bedroom or perhaps a closet), the red drawing room, the green drawing room, the print room (more about which in a moment), the state bedroom, the map room (originally a closet, one of eighteen in the house). Then we went upstairs to the long gallery, the pastel room (anteroom to the gallery), the boudoir (three rooms), and the blue bedroom (also a three-room apartment).
It was just Margaret and me on the tour, which was fantastic, because we were able to linger and talk with our guide, a young woman who was a delight. We got the sense that it was the end of their season; we may have been the only tourists they saw all day. The house is constantly being refurbished. The green drawing room, for example, has new (silk) wallcovering, while the red drawing room’s wall coverings are a couple centuries old. “Do you like seeing it old, like it was?” our guide asked. “Or do you prefer the green, which has been restored?” Thereafter followed a conversation about refurbishing (fixing up) as opposed to restoring (replacing and making it new, although faithful to the original).
I’d never seen anything like the print room, but Margaret knew what it was immediately. (She is a retired antiques dealer.) “Ladies have always had their crafts projects,” she said, eyes twinkling. “Today women are scrapbooking; in the 1700s, they had print rooms.” Or, as the guidebook says, “It became popular for ladies to collect their favorite prints [of famous works of art, of celebrities, and so on] and arrange and paste them onto the walls of a chosen room, along with decorative borders.” They’d purchase books of prints and borders, or individual prints, cut them out carefully, and a servant would paste them up. Basically—découpage. On the walls. Of course, tastes and fashion change over decades, and there are very few print rooms left in the world. The one at Castletown is the only fully intact eighteenth-century print room in Ireland. I’m so glad it was left alone.
Next we went upstairs to the long gallery. This type of room—a long gallery of paintings, prints, and other art—was in vogue when the house was first designed and built, but by the time the interiors were completely finished in the 1760s and ’70s was old-fashioned. Thus it became a space for informal entertaining. What we saw is unchanged (although refurbished) from that time.
Castletown House was built on a 550-acre demesne, or estate, and the windows along the back of the house look out on what might seem like a grassy wilderness to untrained eyes. But no. This is a formally laid out landscape; every tree, every blade of grass was planned. (That may be an exaggeration; I’m sure trees and grasses were already there.) Vistas were created so that no matter from which window you looked, there was something to see. The woodlands beyond the lawn have meandering paths. Everything orchestrated for a bracing walk. 🙂 Windows in the green drawing room become doors, which allow guests to step directly onto the lawn.
The Conolly Folly was built to provide employment for the tenants, who were suffering in the famine of 1739–40. The Wonderful Barn was similar project. Unfortunately we didn’t see either of these in person, but I’ll have time next May to revisit Castletown House, and will do so then.
After the tour, we met up with Jill and Alli in the café, which is situated in what was originally the kitchen. It was a nice space, bright, and the food was delicious. We each had soup (the day was cool-ish); mine was cream of vegetable. (I am still trying to re-create it in my kitchen at home.) In the center of the room was a display of desserts—various baked goodies—but somehow we all resisted.
And then it was time to get back on the road. One last photo, taken from the car park: it wasn’t mentioned on our tour but I wonder if it is the ruins of the small church built on the estate sometime in the early 1800s. A small school was also built, so perhaps this is that. I don’t know.
And a last note: many of the old country homes are in ruins, sometimes from lack of money at some point, but often because they were torched during one or another of the Irish rebellions aimed at driving out the English. Many more burned during the Irish civil war. But Castletown was not, although republicans had it in their sights in 1922: they were informed the owner was Irish and Irish money had built it, and the house was spared. Thank goodness.
It’s only lunchtime—the day isn’t over! But this post is. I’ll tell you about the rest of our day in the next one.
This Morning’s Image
Everywhere we have been (and everywhere we will go), we see fantastic-looking (and tasting) baked goodies. From the wonderful Irish brown bread to scones to apple tarts, everything looks scrumptious. You can find fancy desserts but I prefer the rustic pastries. The Irish are wonderful bakers.