29 May 2013, Wednesday
One of the biggest blessings I have received from my relationship with Gerry is my entrée into his family. I just adore them all. In particular I have a relationship with Gerry’s youngest niece, Orla, and her slightly older sister, Clare. And on this day—my last full day in Ireland—I was going to indulge myself with a little Clare and Orla fix. 🙂
I got up at 5:30 to finish packing and help carry everything down to the car before Gerry left for work (because we were going to turn in the rental car and move back into Bewley’s Dublin Airport for our last night). Then we went to breakfast, and he left for work … and I went back upstairs and got back into bed for a little while. I’m just not used to getting up immediately and eating. That’s my excuse, anyway. 🙂
When I was ready to check out, I had one more thing I wanted to do. You see, I travel with a CPAP machine (for sleep apnea), which requires distilled water. In the States, you’d pick up a gallon of distilled water at the grocery store for 89¢ … but in Ireland you have to buy it from a pharmacy. It has to be special ordered. And it costs !!!7 euro!!!, which I find absolutely shocking. However, water’s heavy, so I can’t exactly bring it with me from home, even though I would probably only use 50 ounces of this huge, expensive bottle. So … I took it to the front desk. I explained why I had it and that I hated to throw it away (which is what would have happened had I just left it in the room). As it turns out, they were thrilled to have it and put it away in their locked area.
And then I drove out of Dublin, all by myself.
When I was planning this trip, I’d hoped to find a day to spend with “my girls,” and I wanted also to use it to do a little more sightseeing. So I suggested Castletown House, which I’d visited last fall. I’d been sick with pneumonia that day; I’d failed to ask questions about the property, I’d failed to look closely at some things. I wanted to go back. “It’s a part of your Irish heritage,” I’d written to Orla by way of a sales pitch. It’s only thirty minutes from their neighborhood, and, though they are Dublin born and bred, they’d never been. So it was a date.
On my way out of the city center I think I drove past every historic monument in Dublin (St. Patrick’s, the Customs House, Marsh’s Library, Ha’penny Bridge—I was stopped at a traffic light right by that, along the quays) but of course I was driving so I had to focus. It took me forty minutes to get out to Gerry’s—there was lots of traffic, lots of buses. So I was about ten minutes late to meet Clare and Orla, who called me just as I was turning onto the Malahide Road. But once I reached that spot I actually knew where I was and didn’t need Ms. Emily GpS. 🙂
I kinda dig that I’m learning to drive around Dublin. Especially when Orla told me she hadn’t gotten up the courage to drive in downtown Dublin yet. (I should add that the driving culture is completely different in Ireland than it is in the States. Cars are expensive, insurance is prohibitively expensive. Most young people are in their twenties before they learn to drive and get a license.) Me, I had my license at thirteen (long story), so no amount of city driving on the wrong side of the road is gonna scare me off, by God! Ha!
So the girls got into my car and we set out for Celbridge, with Orla navigating to get me to the M50. It was a short trip, but—even though I thought I’d remember the little trick to getting up close to the house (you can park in Celbridge and hike a half-mile across the grounds, but I wasn’t feeling that fit)—we still got momentarily turned around. But only briefly.
It was a gorgeous day, and when we arrived there were quit a few people there. I’d been told last September that people love the café at Castletown House, and they come out for lunch and just to use the grounds as a park, a place to walk kids or dogs or lay in the sun. All of that was going on in County Kildare this day. Glorious!
And that house! Oh! It’s Ireland’s largest and finest Palladian-style country house; it was built (between 1722 and 1729) for William Conolly, Speaker of the Irish House of Commons. It escaped burning by the IRA in 1922 during the Irish Civil War (though Conollys were Protestant, they were Irish, and Irish money had built the house). The house remained in the hands of William Conolly’s descendants until 1965; ownership of the estate is now divided between the government and private concerns.
And this is just the main building. The pavilion to the left (out of the photo) housed the kitchen; the one to the right housed the stables. Both were connected to the house via the colonnade walkway.
I wrote about the house last fall, so I’m using some of that text here. The pictures are all new, though. For a look at different things, do check the older post.
We went into the café to eat (first things first, after all!). Service was very slow for some reason (understaffed, I think), but the food was good and honestly the conversation never lagged. We spent a leisurely hour at that table, and I enjoyed every minute.
It was interesting to note that several things had changed just since my visit eight months previously. To start, they’d moved the ticket office from the kitchen wing to the stables wing, so we had to walk back outside and across the massive yard.
Here we learned the guided tours only happen every couple of hours—but it was 1pm and the next one wasn’t until 3pm. Hmm … however, we could self-guide (that is, walk through the house) at no cost. Free! So that’s what we did. Another totally delightful hour with me trying to be a pretend-guide with the material I remembered from last fall.
Something else that was different during this visit was an art exhibit scattered throughout the house. Called “Prelude Speaker: Contemporary Castletown,” the exhibition “investigates the Palladian mansion that serves as its site through the work of sixteen contemporary artists,” according to a review at Artforum. The guidebook for the exhibit says,
By exhibiting historical artefacts nd contemporary art works together, the exhibition is an attempt to provoke dialogues which challenge traditional exhibition boundaries and to nurture relationships with history. [The Artforum piece notes “Ireland has a troubled relationship with its great houses of colonial rule. Some were burned out in the 1920s, while others sank into neglect.”] The elaborately decorated rooms in Castletown provide an irresistible contrast to the more commonplace white cube galleries where contemporary art often resides. Prelude Speaker: Contemporary Castletown also ponders upon the question as to whether we should let properties like Castletown House speak for themselves or whether we should interact with them and allow them to perpetuate the culturally dynamic role they had in the past.
So with this in our hearts and minds, we entered the house.
We’d had an interesting conversation last fall about the difference between conservation and restoration. It’s easily seen in the red and green drawing rooms, where the former has been conserved while the latter has been restored (that is, replaced with new, though historically accurate, of course). The green drawing room was where the Conollys formally received visitors to the house.
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 this is a formally laid out landscape; every tree, every blade of grass was planned. (This was a popular pursuit in the eighteenth century: man’s intervention with nature in order to “improve” it.) 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.
We wandered from room to room with me dredging up as much information as I could remember from the paid tour I’d had the previous fall. For example—the print room. The guidebook says,
The 18th century saw the rise of print media that was prompted in part by a greater degree of literacy and press freedom in Britain. Prints were stuck on walls from the grandest houses to the humblest hovels; illustrations from stories, vignettes from the Bible or cartoons which savaged the government of the day. … It became popular for ladies to assemble and paste prints on to painted wallpaper, surrounding them with elaborate bows and swags cut from printed sheets.
Today women are scrapbooking; in the 1700s, they had print rooms. 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. Just as we might paint a room or paper it to have a change, so were print rooms lost to history. The one at Castletown is the only fully intact eighteenth-century print room in Ireland. I’m so glad it was left alone.
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 considered old-fashioned. Thus it became a space for informal entertaining. The guidebook calls it Pompeian-style—Pompeii was being excavated during the 1770s so this sort of thing was all the rage. What we saw is unchanged (although refurbished) from that time. There are a few more documentary-style photos in my post from last fall; I was enjoying the house in a different way on this trip.
Then we came downstairs to the massive receiving halls.
The plasterwork! Oh, my! The walls down the stairwell and into the downstairs rooms are 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.
I love the windows in my house—I love observing the light at different times of day, I love watching the changing seasons as marked by the trees and plants outside—so I always take a few photos of windows. Here is the same scene taken looking out from the front of the house, one upstairs, one down.
Oh, we had a good time! It was a completely different experience than the one I had with Margaret last fall (which was also wonderful!). Last fall I’d failed to ask—at the appropriate time—about Conolly’s Folly and an unusual barn called the Wonderful Barn. Both were conceived and built as ways to put a little money in the pockets of the local farmers during bad economic times—and while these structures were once on the estate, now they are not.
So this time we inquired about seeing the Wonderful Barn and the folly (you can see some photos here) but both were being restored, we were told, and we couldn’t really get close. So they discouraged us a little, and it was somewhat complicated to get there (although I have a map now!) so we blew it off and came back to Dublin. (Next time!)
First, though, we had to exit through the stables. The acoustics were marvelous, which Clare and Orla quickly picked up on. 🙂
Don’t forget, you can review my Castletown House visit from last fall here. And don’t forget you can click on a photo to zoom in. Next, a visit to St. Anne’s Park. Stick around!