It’s not very often that you get a backstage pass to a place of which Richard Twiss remarked in 1775: “this I believe is the only house in Ireland to which the term palace can be applied”. It’s fair to say I pretty much bit the hands off my wonderful hosts at Barberstown Castle
when they suggested that I could do just that, by touring Castletown
off season with my own wonderful guide, Claire Hickey, the Manager of the stately home and grounds. She’s also the resident Castletown encyclopaedia, offering just the right blend of history, anecdote, and leaving you to make your own discoveries in the sequence of incredible rooms.
I’m a sucker for the Palladian style and Castletown, amongst many other distinctions it enjoys, was Ireland’s first Palladian house. The Guinness family, so integral to the economy and identity of Ireland, saved the house in 1967, when Desmond Guinness purchased the house and prevented it from being split into flats or even demolished. The house was first built for Wlliam Conolly, Speaker of the Irish House of Commons, and he had some ideas which charm in fascinatingly with twenty-first century ideals. For example, the extraordinary, original chequered flooring in the grand entrance hall, and matching chimney piece, is all Kilkenny limestone, as he had a genuine commitment to local materials wherever possible for the house, which took seven years to construct from 1722 onwards.
The Portland stone spiral staircase, with brass balustrades, evokes in microcosm two of the defining features of Castletown
: innovation and *no* expense spared. You can still see the signature of Anthony King, who installed the balustrades, on three of them today, and if you ask nicely you might also get to see some surviving ancient graffiti on the skirting in other parts of the house.
No great Irish house could be without its own amazing myth, and in the case of Castletown
, it’s the Devil’s Fireplace in the dining room. When you enter the room, your attention is drawn to cracks in the mirror above the fireplace and the hearth. These are, apparently, the result of a set-to between then-owner Thomas Conolly and the Devil. Thomas was a keen rider and huntsman, and whilst out one day, a strange gentleman joined them. Thomas assumed he was part of the hunt and invited him back to the house to eat and crash afterwards. The stranger fell asleep in chair and Thomas decided to remove his boots for him (it’s the eighteenth century, don’t ask). Thomas was shocked to discover cloven hooves instead of feet. Then the Devil woke up and freaked out. A priest who was there threw a book at him, which flew through his body into the mirror, fracturing it. The Devil cracked the floor before disappearing in a puff of flames.
Considering that in 1967, the roof and windows had been badly vandalised and there was not really any Georgian furniture left inside, not only the scale of the restoration is impressive, but also what traces remain behind. In the elegant Crimson drawing room, the silk wallpaper has lasted nearly 200 years, and in one corner you can literally see where the layers of history have been pulled back by restorers seeking to see what backing and adhesive remained behind.
Claire was very excited to show me the print room, and told me that it is the room that sticks in everybody’s mind. She has even had elderly visitors return to Castletown and remark that The Print Room is the one thing they remember from childhood visits. The only one of its kind in Ireland, it’s the result of a woman’s obsession, as many good things are. Lady Louisa, along with her sister Sarah, avidly collected prints and pasted them to the walls. What results is a sort of Baroque Heat magazine. I particularly liked the prints of the contemporary celebrity actors Sarah Cibber and David Garrick.
Once I’d reluctantly exited this beautiful space, I could see that great plans were afoot outside, too, as the restoration of the grounds nears completion for the summer season. There are some wonderfully weird details in the landscape, including a 140 foot obelisk and an amazing grain store built in 1743 to try to ward off the famine. Today it looks a bit like a piece of Toblerone being unwrapped from its foil wrap at a distance.
I should be clear that although Castletown
is closed to most visitors from November to March, the brilliant Courtyard Cafe and West Wing exhibition space remain open at times. Look out for Castletown on the news, too, since it has been selected as one of the venues to host some of the EU Presidency events. Once I'd taken one last look at the grand columns of the façade, I headed back to Barsbertown
for one of their sumptuous Irish feasts.
One spooky thing: I spotted a portrait of a man called French at Castletown who looked the spit of my Grandad French, Georgian-style: