Castletown House: history, drama & a little rock 'n' roll
Updated: Aug 26, 2019
The beautiful Castletown House can be found just outside Celbridge, Co. Kildare and less than 20kms from Dublin city. The estate really has something for people of all ages so if you're at a loose end some weekend, I couldn't recommend a visit more highly. I've always loved old country houses and they don't come much better than this. The house itself is a magnificent Palladian mansion set within an extensive 18th century designed landscape with river and woodland walks and a wildlife sanctuary. The view of the house from the riverside is pretty spectacular, I'm sure you'll agree. The grounds are picture-postcard pretty and there are a number of different routes you can take for a walk (click here for options) but non-too taxing - more of a pleasant amble. Kids will love it as you'll be accompanied by swans and ducks as you make your way around.
If you do happen to go, you should think about booking a guided tour of the house. It'll be the best €10 you could spend and it's free for kids under 12. I have to give a huge shout out to the amazing Celine who was the most entertaining and knowledgeable guide. Not only did we get a comprehensive overview of the history, architecture & art of the house, she regaled us with stories of the previous residents and the infamous parties of the 60s & 70s when in the hands of the Guinness family. It was the best tour I've ever had & will be shouting about it to anyone who'll listen. I don't want to give too much away but here's a sneak peak of what you can expect.
A tale of three families:
You will be completely enraptured by the stories of the occupants of the house throughout its history from the early 18th century to the heady decades of the 20th. It brought the house alive for me and you could almost feel the presence of those who'd lived there before.
Meet William and Katherine Conolly, the first occupants of Castletown House, the construction of which began in 1722. At this time William was Speaker in the Irish House of Commons. Despite his humble origins in Donegal, he rose through societal ranks upon his wedding to Katherine, (as Celine said "he married up"), and by the time of his death in 1729 was the richest and one of the most powerful men in Ireland. The house was built as their country house for lavish entertainment purposes but also to stand as a symbol of his great taste, his worldliness and his status in society. After spending some time in Italy he engaged the services of Alessandro Gallilei to design Ireland's first Palladian mansion.
Conolly ensured that the architect stuck rigidly to the Palladian principles of symmetry and proportion in its design and while this is wholly admirable it wasn't always practical. We learned that he insisted on the house being built on a north-south axis, as specified by Palladio. However he wasn't taking into account that most Palladian designs at this point were to be found in Italy where it's hot for most of the year. Irish climates favour an east-west axis on such builds for very good reasons and on our tour we could clearly see (and feel) why. While half of the house was pleasantly warm, when we stepped across the threshold to the north-facing side we could feel the temperature plummet.
This is the beautiful entrance hall where your tour begins. It's a perfect double-height cube with a dramatic cantilevered staircase, and the black and white floor is an original feature. We heard a hilarious story about one of the previous occupants of the house in the 20th century who liked to, wait for it, ride her pony up the stairs. Really made me appreciate their innovative engineering as the stairs has no visible supporting structures. The intricate stuccowork on the walls and ceiling is by the world famous Swiss / Italian Lafranchini brothers and include portraits of Tom and Louisa Connolly, as well as representations of the four seasons.
The decoration of most of the main rooms in the house, including the entrance hall above, happened after William Conolly had died and when the house moved to the ownership of his great-nephew, the aforementioned Tom and his wife Louisa. Hard to imagine now but Louisa was a mere 15 years old when she married Tom, who was six years her senior, and they took over the running of this vast house and estate in 1759. It's their stamp that you see on the house to this day.
This is the dining room, setting for many lavish parties with the long hunting table taking predominance. Such tables had to be long as apparently they had a second function: often the Lord and Lady were laid out on it when they died. Not something you want to give much thought to as you make your way through a seven-course feast.
The house is full of art so it could be very easy to miss some of the big hitters as you move through the rooms. The room above is the Red Drawing Room, home to two Rubens paintings and one from the Rubens school. This room was frequented by ladies only who withdrew here after dinner, leaving their menfolk to talk politics and other serious topics while they gossiped and discussed frivolous matters. Or at least that's what history has led us to believe but we know better. Lady Louisa seemed to have been an extremely single-minded and strong-willed woman who knew what she wanted in life. Not only that, she was a business woman who ran a tight ship. There were a series of industries in operation on the estate and all the food they required was produced on site. As Celine said, she was far ahead of her time and nowadays we would call this the 'Food Mile'. Back then it was just common sense to eat locally sourced and produced food. The more I heard about Louisa, the more I admired her.
This extravagant item is known as a Clay clock. Charles Clay was one of the most expensive clock makers in the world at the time and was commissioned to produce this one. There are only two of this particular type still in existence so it's quite a prestigious heirloom. I had never heard of Charles Clay until that day so was fascinated to hear how he commissioned none other than Handel to provide music for some of his clocks. As our guide pointed out, back in those days the only way people could access the latest music was by attending concerts. Other than live performances there was no means of listening to your favourite tunes. Unless of course you had a Clay clock though I'm sure that would prove a tad repetitive after a time.
This was my favourite room, the 18th century Print Room, thought to be the last remaining one in Ireland today. As a legacy of the Grand Tours where travelers often returned with fine examples of European paintings, it became fashionable for ladies to collect their favourite prints and then cut them out to paste onto the walls of a chosen room, interspersed with decorative borders. They were fixed with flour and water, according to our guide. We know Louisa had been collecting prints since the early 1760s and artists here include Rembrandt and Guido Reni, among others.
I also loved the Boudoir above where Louisa spent a lot of her time. This room and the two adjoining formed her personal apartment. The writing desk in the corner is original and one where you stand up to write. When you think of the modern movement towards standing desks in the workplace, you realise how little of what we do today is truly original. Those Conollys were far ahead of their time. On either side of the windows you'll see mirrored shutters. Why you ask? Well from a strategic spot which remained out of view of the window from the exterior, Lady Louisa could keep a watchful eye on her estate. More importantly she could observe (spy on) her staff but they could not see her. Ingenious.
Last but not least, the Long Gallery. The mirrors came from France, no doubt giving a nod to some of the lavish examples of similar rooms that can be seen across Europe. It also has possibly the most ostentatious set of chandeliers I've ever seen: three of them, each with twenty four lights, dating from the late 18th century and made from Murano glass. It is thought that Lady Louisa ordered them especially from Venice for this gallery. They are completely unique in Ireland and uncommon even in Italy. They were only wired for electricity in 1997 and we heard how they often became victims of the infamous parties in the late sixties and seventies. Apparently some guests like to point the Champagne bottles directly at them to see how many pieces they could knock off with a popping cork. Philistines.
So this brings me nicely to its most recent history, that is 1967 and the purchase of the house by the Hon. Desmond Guinness, effectively saving it from the crass hands of a developer. To backtrack a little, 1965 saw the end of the reign of the Conolly family in Castletown and the house and its land were sold. It was bought by said developer who proceeded to auction off its historic contents in April 1966 though thankfully many were bought back by Desmond Guinness. The house was left vacant and frequently vandalised - a national tragedy - until the fateful intervention of Mr Guinness and his wife Mariga.
Intensive restoration work was undertaken and Castletown became the first project of the Irish Georgian Society, which had been re-established by the Guinnesses in 1958. When work was complete it became the first house in Leinster to be opened to the public and tours commenced in 1968.
And so began the era of parties. There are some fantastic images of Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithful online, looking fabulously glamourous as they socialised with the Guinness family in these opulent surroundings. Other famous guests included Jackie Kennedy and Thin Lizzy singer Phil Lynott though it was memorable for him for other reasons - he was arrested. We were sorry to hear that there hasn't been a book yet about the goings-on of the 60s and 70s - it seems like a best-seller to me- but maybe everyone was having so much fun that they don't remember the half of it. But don't quote me on that.
Through the trojan efforts of Mr Guinness and the Castletown Foundation who subsequently acquired the house in 1979, the house was restored to its former glory. Castletown was eventually transferred to the ownership of the state in 1994 and it is now managed by the Office of Public Works (OPW). It's a wonderful place to spend an afternoon, particularly if you're interested in old houses or history. The information is relayed in such an interesting and entertaining way with lots of funny anecdotes for good measure so even kids will enjoy it. The grounds are spectacular and there is also a charming café (pictured above) where you can rest your legs and enjoy a bite. Outdoor seating is provided in the gorgeous courtyard setting which I imagine will be very busy in the warmer summer months. I ran out of time so never got to try it out but next time for sure.
I hope you enjoy as much as I did. And remember to book a tour. You won't regret it.