Kew Gardens Christmas Trail. Lakeside explosions of The Nutcracker, kaleidoscopic cacophonies of the chattering classes, lower-upper-middle class people in glasshouses, why my Versailles. “Oh,” the Queen was overheard muttering at the recent dinner in her honour at Dublin Castle, “I rather like this clinking of glasses,” as the lively Irish in unison cheered “Sláinte!” To quote another Elizabeth, the Anglo Irish writer Ms Bowen, “I think the main thing, don’t you, is to keep the show on the road.”
Annabel Davis-Goff, one of them, writers in her novel The Dower House, “I was thinking of people. You import a fairly large number of English people into Ireland. The strongest, richest men and the prettiest women tend to get first choice of who they’ll marry. From the strongest, richest, prettiest pool they look for other desirable characteristics: a good seat on a horse, wit, nerves of steel about unpaid bills, the ability to hold large quantities of alcohol, a way with words, good enough circulation to live in large, cold houses, and the ability to eat awful food. Pretty soon you’ve got the Anglo Irish. They’re not exactly not English, but they’re different.”
Altamont House boasts a cosmopolitan doorcase with a half umbrella fanlight worthy of St Stephen’s Green in Britain’s former Second City, Dublin. The joy of the entrance front lies in its eccentric gothic trappings on an otherwise straitlaced 18th century Georgian building. The first case of eclectic postmodernism in Ireland? Curious stepped gables with curiouser traceried blind windows rise from the eaves on either side of the canted entrance bay. The two wings to the right of the main block are topped by more stepped gables. Oddest of all the frippery is another stepped gable to the left cut into to make way for a balustraded balcony. This leftfield naïveté suggests an enthusiastic owner got a bit carried away following a visit to church or read a Pugin tract and thought, hey why not? I’ll give gothic a go! It’s all too delightful for words. Let’s hope The Office of Public Works gets some dosh to do it up. Clothed in Wisteria sinensis, the house is a little frayed round the edges at present.
Green, green, oh so very green fields rolling in front of the house past a pair of 150 year old weeping Ash trees (Fraxinus excelsior) give no clue as to the natural, botanical, cultural and horticultural wonders that lie behind: the Arboretum, Bluebell Wood, Bog Garden, Ice Age Glen, River Slaney Walk and Temple of the Four Winds, much of it inverted in reflections in the lake. The landscape was first developed by Dawson Borrer, son of William Borrer of West Sussex, an early 19th century naturalist, botanist, culture vulture and horticulturalist. This Anglo Irish landlord employed 100 men for three years during the 1840s famine to create pleasure grounds adjacent to an existing walled garden and the late 18th beech avenue called Nuns’ Walk. A wet meadow was dug out to form the 2.5 acre lake. But the present form of the gardens is largely due to its last private owner Corona North who died in 1999. She introduced seas of azalea and scores of rhododendron specimens like augustinii and cinnabarinum. Ever so aptly, Corona was named after her parents’ favourite hybrid rhododendron.
Every view of this multifaceted castle unveils a different vein. The gunpowder grey entrance front: rectilinear massing and rhythmic rows of windows. The steel grey driveway elevation: 12th century abbey ruins and pointy dormers between turrets. The bleached white courtyard: a picturesque jumble of crow stepped gables and battlemented bow windows. The sunburnt terracotta garden front: pillared arches and stygian loggias swinging low under cantilevered boxy glasshouses. Ever since 1826, when Joseph Nicéphore Niépce fixed the image of his family courtyard in Gras on a bitumen glass plate, architecture and photography have been fond bedfellows. This is despite one being about static volumes and the other decisive moments. Yet is even Huntington Castle beyond expression in a hackneyed Hockney Polaroid collage, provenance and ambiance rarely surviving the transition from three dimensions to two? Ancestors of the Durdin Robertsons include Lord Rosse founder of the Hellfire Club, flame haired Grace O’Malley Pirate Queen of Connaught and, a little further back, Noah’s niece Mrs Benson. Notable visitors darkening its doors over the years have included WB Yeats, Mick Jagger, Hugh Grant and Lavender’s Blue. But even more notably, the Durdin Robertsons are still very much in residence.
The same cannot be said, it seems, for just about every other country house in Ireland. Heritage is crumbling. No one’s picnicking, foreign or indigenous, in this land. One person who knows all too well is chartered building surveyor and architectural historian Frank Keohane. He’s been tasked with compiling Buildings of Ireland Four Cork, the Irish version of a Pevsner Guide. “I’ve a sneaking suspicion that more books are sold on ruins than intact country houses,” Frank ruminates. “Take the semi derelict Loftus Hall which is really exposed near a cliff on the Wexford coast. The owner does ghost tours – ‘the devil’ comes for dinner, and so on. But you need to be practical, ok? Ruins may photograph well but sooner or later if left they disappear. I hope it’s a section in Loftus Hall’s history and not the final chapter.”
Frank records, “Out of the 545 entries in Vanishing Country Houses of Ireland, 18 have been ‘restored’. But I use the term loosely. Dunboy Castle, immortalised by Daphne du Maurier in Hungry Hill, was to be converted into a six star hotel. Horrific extensions were added though! Lough Eske would have collapsed if it hadn’t been rebuilt and converted into a hotel but it’s a bit trim and prim for me. Kilronan Castle has been loosely restored with an extension in a pseudo style of what I don’t know. The shell of Killeen Castle has been restored but lies empty surrounded by a golf course. Dromore Castle, of international importance, still in ruins. Bellamont Forest, Carriglas, Hazelwood, Whitfield Court, contents of Bantry House… all at risk. At least at Killua Castle the family have started by restoring and moving into the wing.” He highlights that Monkstown Castle has fortunately been saved by Cork County Council.
Huntington Castle is now home to Alexander Durdin Robertson, his artist wife Clare and their sons Herbert, Edmonde and Caspar, following a sojourn near Northcote Road in London. Alex’s mother lives in the coachman’s cottage in the courtyard. Built as a garrison in the 1620s and extended right up to the 1920s, it was converted to a home in 1673 by the first and last Lord Esmonde, passing by marriage into the descendants of the current incumbents. Restored 17th century terraced formal Italian gardens, rectangles of lawn and a circular pond, darkly orchidaceous in the majestic last December, wrap around the castle like ghostly folds of a billowing crinoline dress. A 600 year old silent avenue of tall French lime trees connects the castle to Clonegal. The village guards a pass through the Blackstairs Mountains where Counties Carlow, Wexford and Wicklow collide. “Mandoran,” as Lady Olivia Robertson would say. “County Westcommon,” as Molly Keane would call it. Clonegal is cute as a cupcake – a river runs through it – with pretty Georgian terraces. The only discordant note is a smattering of uPVC framed windows, the plastic scourge of heritage.
Alex’s great grandfather was the last architect to alter the building, making minor changes and erecting concrete framed greenhouses in the kitchen garden. Manning Robertson was not just a mere architect but an influential town planner and writer. He produced plans for Dublin, Dun Laoghaire, Cork and Limerick, introducing the concept of welfare homes, when the profession was in its infancy. The journey from modern to modernism to modernity had begun. Town planning mightn’t be the sexiest of subjects but his seminal 1924 book Everyday Architecture, as well as being aeons ahead of its time, is a riot, full of titillating tips and illuminating ruminations. “Unfortunately uneducated taste is nearly always bad.” Or, “The glazing of a well proportioned window is divided into vertical panes; one horizontal window might be tolerated in a village, just as no village is complete without its idiot, but the whimsical should never usurp the place of the normal.” Unexpected chapter headings shout “Slippery Jane”, “On Lies and Evasions” and “Smoke, Filth, and Fog”.
Manning’s daughter Olivia inherited his talent for writing and published five books. Field of the Stranger, a highly original read, won the London Book Society Choice award in 1948. Another polymath, an explorer of psychic areas, a landed cosmonaut, she illustrated her novel with her own wildly witty black ink drawings. It would take a heart of stone not to laugh out loud at priceless passages such as Olivia’s description of the antics of a fortune teller, “She’s great at it – once she told Margaret how she saw a bright change coming, and Margaret got the job in Dublin in no time after.” Another literary gem worthy of Hunderby is the incident of the wart. “I knew a young chap – he was a footman at Mount Charles – and he had a wart, and he was ashamed to hand round the plates on account of his wart. I was always warning him not to meddle with it, but he cut it, and what happened but he got the jaw-lock and died in a fearful manner, twisted and turned like a shrimp, with his heels touching his head.” Arch humour continues with chat over afternoon tea about the perils of mixing tipples with talent. “’Why,’ declared Miss Pringle, ‘I have lived for many years in Booterstown, Dublin, and everybody knows that Dublin is swarming with writers and artists, most of them geniuses and all drinking themselves to death. I am told one cannot enter a public house without falling over them. Or them falling over you more likely.’” Strangers misbehaving.
The hilarity of an amateurs’ night out is accurately documented in a calamitous village play scene: “Amidst an excited murmuring, the curtain jerked spasmodically and slid up on the left side; our expectation was increased by a glimpse of a posed female chorus in plumed bonnets, violet velvet capes and white Empire gowns. The curtain fell. There was another jerk, and this time the right hand curtain jumped up coquettishly, only to sag back to its comrade… As if to show that they had only been joking, the curtains suddenly fled dramatically apart…” Her tragicomedy reaches a crescendo when the chorus starts belting out The Charladies’ Ball in “nightmarish counterpoint”. Who will survive?
Olivia fretted in her prizewinning novel about the disappearance of country houses: “I was afraid that Mount Granite might fall a prey to house demolishers, who were exploiting the temporary shortage of materials by buying up eyesores, gaping roofless to the weather. I had seen so many wreckages of architecture, besides rare specimen trees felled and sold for firewood, that I was fearful such a fate might befall the Wilderness.” Three decades later John Cornforth would worry in Country Life, “A policy for historic houses seems to be much harder to work out in Ireland than in England for historical as well as economic reasons, and places of the importance of Castletown, County Kildare, and Malahide Castle, County Dublin, have only survived through lucky last ditch operations, organised in the first case by Mr Desmond Guinness and the Irish Georgian Society, and in the second by Dublin Tourism in conjunction with the National Gallery and Dublin County Council.” As Frank Keohane observes, hotelisation was nearly as great a threat as demolition during the crazy boom years. One word: Carton. Two words: Farnham House. Saved, but at what a cost. Love | Hate. Such Ballyhoo. Wish they were Luton Hoo. Anyhoo. It can be done and undone. Three syllables. Ballyfin.
It’s all about Huntington this wintry weekend. First sight of the castle is a romantic fairy tale come true. A mosaic of yellow squares (in 1888 the house was the first in Ireland to have electricity installed) flickers through a veil beyond the Pale of leafless spidery trees entwined with Celtic mist and mysticism. It’s crowned by jagged toothed battlements (spaces for fairies) silhouetted against the melancholic velvety sky. Country Life, Tatler and Vogue are stacked up in coffee table-demolishing piles. Huntington is so photogenic it could easily be the cover boy of all three. A pair of peacocks, two pigs, two cats (Nutmeg and Spook), two lurchers (Country Life’s “guilty pleasure”) and three dachshunds (but no partridge in a pear tree) greet strangers. There are flowers on the first floor and soldiers in the attic. Only the latter are dead, strangers in the night. “I believe time is spiral,” confides Alex. “It’s linked to quantum mechanics. When apparitions appear they’re like jumbled video clips out of sequence.” He leads ghost tours at Halloween and the house and gardens are open to the public most of the year round. The castle must pay for its keep (pun). “We’ve developed bed and breakfast around this tourism. These houses drink money. It costs €25 an hour to heat Huntington. We’re not suitable for weddings and turning the house into a venue would destroy the fabric.”
Twin gilt mirrors in the drawing room frame back-to-front latticework, crewelwork, fretwork, trestlework, needlework and a piece a’ work. Reflections in the glass; reflections of the past. “The Aubusson tapestries are incredibly all done by hand,” relates Alex. “They’re a real show of wealth, of opulence. The arrow slit window cut into one of the tapestries is a retained feature of the original castle.” It’s Friday night. Time for dinner. Outdoors, the gardens slowly disappear into the tender coming night. Whatsoever things are lovely, think on these things. The dining room is dim with haunted shadow, walls fading through a glass darkly to trompe l’oeil in a mirage of Bedouin tent hangings and a fanfare of fanlights. Centuries of ancestors in oil paintings watch the strangers in the room, forever a room of their own:
Barbara for one has never left Huntington. Dinner by candlelight is served. Winter salad with goat’s cheese and soda bread, beetroot aplenty, for starter. Salmon steak, creamed Wexford potatoes and seasonal vegetables with dill mayonnaise is the main event, a rhapsody to the countryside. “We use eggs from our own hens,” notes Alex. Pudding is elderflower posset (raspberries on top; Florentine to the side) just as good as Culpeper’s in Spitalfields lemon variety. Which is very good indeed. Both times it’s a work of quaffable art.
And so to bed. Leaving behind the dying embers of the day, the journey, as rambling as this article, takes sighing twists and tiring turns along narrow wainscot lined passages and staircases heavily hung with armoury and taxidermy and history. “That snouty crocodile,” points Alex, “was shot by Great Aunt Nora.” The naming of bedrooms is a rather charming country house tradition. In clockwise order, the principal bedrooms at the recently sold Drenagh, a Sir Charles Lanyon special marooned in the mosses of Limavady, are Orange Room, Monroe Room, Bow Room, Blue Room, Balcony Room, South Room, Green Room, Rose Room, Yew Room, Chinese Room, McQuillan Room, McDonnel Room and Clock Room. At Huntington, in any (very) old order, the principal bedrooms are similarly named after colours and features: Blue Room, Green Room, Yellow Room, White Room, Red Room Mount and Leinster Room. As Ned Lutyens once remarked, “I am most excited about towels.” He’d love the bathrooms here. They’re the first resort, the last word, something to blog home about, fit for the life of Tony O’Reilly. Elizabethan style plasterwork ain’t the norm for an en suite. Yep. It is here. Slumber in a four poster bed comes swiftly. But the solemn blackness of the night is rudely interrupted by bloodcurdling screeching. Yikes! Is it a banshee?
It’s Sunday morning. “That noise you heard the first night is an owl’s mating call,” Alex confirms. Phew. The agony (of leaving Huntington) and the eggs to see (for breakfast). But London’s calling, a city full of strangers. Contemporary Indian architect Charles Correa considers, “Film is very close to architecture. Both are dealing with the way light falls on an object and defines it but the difference is time. A director can create huge shifts in emotion with a jump-cut or an edit but architecture cannot move, so an architect can’t produce those sudden shifts. On the other hand, that stillness is also a magnificent property.” Nowhere is as magnificently still as the otherworldliness of Huntington Castle. Rooms and gardens and gardens in rooms and rooms in gardens have evolved at an imperceptible pace over half a millennium. That wonderfully liveable layering of history inherent in homes such as architectural supremo Fergus Flynn-Rogers’ Omra Park, clinging unselfconsciously to the crooked coastline of Omeath, is apparent upon first entering the house. The unmistakable patina of age, authenticity whatever that is, once lost when the marquee of contents is auctioned and the green neon ‘Fire Exit’ sign flashes above the entrance door, is impossible to replicate. A proper ancestral pile. A gothic pastoral ideal. A place of Arcadian awakening. Not too trim and prim. Frank Keohane would approve. So very Northanger Abbey. So very Castle Rackrent. So very Fern Hill. So very Danielstown. So very Elgin Lodge. So very Huntington Castle. Whisper it. So very.
Clonegal, County Carlow, population 280, isn’t at first glance the most obvious place to come across one of Ireland’s finest restaurants. “You might say we’re in the middle of nowhere,” laughs co-proprietor and host Stephanie Stone. “But we’re close to the borders of Counties Wicklow and Wexford. Towns like Enniscorthy and Gorey aren’t too far away and Dublin is handy enough to get to.” That in part explains why it’s impossible to get a table on Friday or Saturday nights at Sha-Roe Bistro without booking. That, plus great food, atmosphere and craic.
Much of the food, as you’d expect in this green rural location, is locally sourced. Fish is from Seatrade in Dunmore East, County Waterford. Carlow Cheese is another, even more local, source: “Owner Elizabeth Bradley is just up the road from Fenagh!” Stephanie’s husband Henry, originally from Arklow, is head chef and self explanatory as this may sound, actually does cook what’s on your plate, a rarity in this golden age of named chefs. He was chef at Marlfield House near Gorey for seven years. That’s where the couple met. “I love Marlfield!” enthuses Stephanie. “It’s like entering a different world and all your worries flying off your shoulder. We were there last weekend for a family celebration.”
Named after the village where Stephanie was brought up, Sha-Roe occupies the ground floor of an elegant Georgian end of terrace. To the side is the entrance to historic Huntington Castle and opposite flows the River Derry. What’s not to like? Orders are taken in the quiet sitting room on one side of the fanlit entrance hall. The lively restaurant occupies the room on the opposite side of the hall. “We’ve 32 covers and are serving 54 customers this evening,” she confirms. The place is buzzing. A fire roars in the massive inglenook fireplace and conversations sparkle like the wine. Candles and artwork are set in rugged stone niches. Tables are simply laid with stone mustard jars of fresh flowers.
Henry is renowned for taking seasonal country cooking to a whole new level. Sharper, more refined, make that much more refined. Those seven years at Marlfield clearly show. It’s hard not to OD on sourdough balls before starter arrives. Mushroom and parmesan tart, roast parsnip, butternut squash and beetroot (€7.50). Main is bouillabaisse of monkfish, scallops and plaice served in a shellfish sauce (€23.50) with chips (€3). Finally, an Irish cheese board of Wicklow Blue, Bradley’s Sheep Milk and Carlow Tomme with apple chutney and homemade crackers (€7.70). There’s plenty more of course(s) on the menu but choices must be made. Sure enough, Sha-Roe lives up to, and surpasses, all expectations.
“We’ve been here nine and a half years now,” confirms Swiss born Stephanie. “It’s very funny by pure chance we came across the house for sale in an estate agents in Gorey. I love living here!” Henry and Stephanie live upstairs above the restaurant with their three year old child and another is en route, so to speak. Soon the population of Clonegal will be 281.
“In principle, each room is enhanced to stress the domestic or private mansion aspect of the main house. For example interconnecting doors between rooms have been reinstated and indeed in the Study we have introduced an entirely new false door to visually balance the existing doorway on the other side of the fireplace. Our main purpose is to provide an augmented setting for the Collection. It is not about re-creating rooms as they were, no, but rather re-presenting them for today’s visitors and scholars. The colour of the Dining Garden Hall is a quieter silver grey. You can’t have hectic colours all the time!” Listen up! Chief sparkler takes a breath:
“This is the size of a city block, the Great Gallery, so it’s an extraordinary beautiful room and what we’ve done is gone and looked at the archived photograph of the room as it was with this lovely laylight which had to be abolished at a certain moment and now with modern technology we can again have this great laylight. This is where you have studio glazing at the top of the roof and it in turn lets light down onto this magnificent laylight so in other words it has a huge amount of natural light falling into the room.
It’s not wallpaper on the walls. It’s the most wonderful possible fabric, silk, and it’s not just damask, it’s a brocatelle, so it’s got even more silk in it! I think that to, as it were, bring the gallery forward into the modern age, you need to get the best possible conditions: lighting, climate control, security, fire safety compliance, decorative effects, so you can bring all of that into this great space. You could only do that if you go right back and lift the roof off because that’s what happened here. You see, the entire roof was taken off and what we have here is a whole new room within the gallery space because this has the technology almost of a railway terminal, when you see the supporting structure, and yet inside it is so beautiful.
Architectural features must do at least three jobs. The oculi in the latticed cast plasterwork punch through the cove: vertical stop, start, stop, start, all the way round the room. They also let more light into the room and act as the return path for the air conditioning. Reinstating wainscoting has curatorial importance. The paintings come to life against coloured fabric above the dado rail and the light coloured wainscot is appropriate as a backdrop to furniture. The gilt fillet of the wainscot is more pronounced than in the preceding galleries. If it was too small it would look titchy; if it was too over the top it would look bonkers. The wainscot must flow along. The Great Gallery enshrines everything we have learned during our 19 years working at The Collection. Everything bar the floor is new.
“I think first of all The Wallace Collection is so multifaceted, the armour, then of course furniture, particularly Boulle, as an architect we love Boulle furniture, this is what we really want! The great thing is here the parameters are set. You can move everything but you cannot acquire and you cannot dispose which is marvellous, so it’s like a game of chess all the time. Everything is of equal importance. The placement of objects is just so important.” Quite so.
Staggered up a hillside, an architectural beauty parade of picturesque cottages clinging to the gradient, a Georgian house doubling as a petrol station, a boutique hotel boasting a celebrated chef, and an improbably vast château like a granite mirage on the horizon, Borris in County Carlow is a cut above the average Irish village. With a County population of 50,000, one third that of the smallest London Boroughs, driving around Carlow is a breeze.
Borris House is a mostly 1830s Richard and William Vitruvius Morrison confection: neoclassical innards under a Tudoresque skin. The original Georgian box swallowing up an older castle is decorated outside with battlements, finials, cupolas and hood mouldings, some ogee shaped.
On the 650 acre walled estate stands Ireland’s tallest broadleaf tree. It’s a 144 foot high hybrid black American poplar down by the River Barrow. The estate once covered 35,000 acres before being broken up in 1907.
Current owner Morgan MacMurrough Kavanagh says, “A two storey wing with a walkway over the kitchens used to connect the main house to the estate chapel so that the family could enter straight into their first floor gallery seating. My grandmother demolished that wing. Anglican church services are still held in the chapel every other Sunday.”