Historic Homes: Fota House is singing itself back to life again

Mary Leland revisits the classical country house estate in Cobh as it prepares to unveil its latest impressive upgrades to the public.

At Fota House we never sleep”, says Victoria Tammadge. 

“Even when the house is closed to visitors we’re working at getting it ready for the next season. It’s all small steps, we do as much as we can manage.” 

The success of this insomniac approach will unfold in a procession of pleasures for visitors when Fota House re-opens on March 25 next. 

Here those small steps taken by the Irish Heritage Trust in its management of Fota accumulate in an expression of a unique heritage property, a place where architectural supremacy is softened but not hidden by an atmosphere of liveliness and surprise. 

The house sits among its parkland, gardens and arboretum with the stylised grace typical of a small Regency country mansion built with that fusion of function and beauty inherent in such estates.

Although the 10-year old Irish Heritage Trust now manages both Strokestown Park and Johnstown Castle, Fota is the only property it owns. 

“The Trust itself is a quiet voice, because we feel it’s very important that the properties in our expanding portfolio retain their autonomy”, says Victoria, who was appointed General Manager at the house nearly a year ago. 

“So, we can find it challenging to keep Fota House and Gardens in the public consciousness as the heart of the island. 

Everything on the island stems from this estate. It’s our job to make sure that our message of renewal and vitality is being heard and enjoyed and applauded. As we begin this new season we really want to sing that out!” 

Victoria seems to be the kind of person who could make a coal-scuttle sing. She’s singing now, in the library, in tune with the bass baritone of Stephen Williams, Collection Care Coordinator. 

Despite their harmony I wonder why I am standing on sheeted flooring, gazing at four walls floury with exposed brick and trying to think why a wide window offering one of those views often called a vista is screened to invisibility. 

Looking up I see that the stucco decoration of the ceiling is still gorgeously in place, but all else, painted walls, panelling, curtains, mantelpiece and hearth, paintings, books and shelving, all gone. 

As Stephen Williams explains the intricacies of dry rot, its succubus-like infiltration beneath timber, plaster and stone, its appetite like the invisible worm that flies in the night, I realise that in the stripped-back room we are witnessing yet another recovery at Fota.

As a witness to what is happening here in this house and to the commitment of its curators the work in the library will be part of this season’s visitor experience. 

The rot had progressed to the foyer, but now it’s been eradicated and almost all the old floorboards were saved. All the plasterwork and wainscoting and furnishings will be going back in along with the fireplace. 

“But”, says Victoria, “we will open up this space to let the public see what it takes to restore a property. It’s an example of why we do what we do, and of how it’s done.” 

Describing the library project as a disaster which allows a conversation, Victoria explains the screened window. 

This was not part of the library when work began but in stripping the walls it was uncovered, complete with fittings and shutters and hinges.

Blind from the outside, it balanced the window of the dining room at the other side of the entrance front. 

The mystery is why, and when, it had been blocked off inside, giving as it does that view reminiscent of classical themes linking the house and landscape.

Of course not everyone arriving from the elegance and freshness of the other rooms will want to spend much forensic time in the library, but it’s all of a piece in a house built with such integrity of purpose. 

Interpretation is crucial. 

Here the affinity of style and period with specialist restoration skills allowed by Fáilte Ireland’s financial grant of 2010 results in the charm of places such as the main bedroom with its renewed wallpaper, its portrait of the pensive 16-year old Geraldine Smith-Barry and the colours and stucco decoration of its adjoining boudoir. 

As with all the rooms and areas on view the nurseries are furnished with details indicating empathy as well as expertise. 

The guest suite now displays the flame-patterned modern upholstery of Daphne Daunt and also the portraits of the Earls of Shannon Collection from Romney to HR Graves. 

Richard Wood’s collection of key masterpieces of 18th century Irish landscape painting which was donated to Fota by the McCarthy family and which is now owned by the Irish Heritage Trust hangs under the marvellous ceiling of the curved drawing room.

The long gallery is being refurbished, the shop area is being restocked with an emphasis on quality Irish craft work and patrons will be pleased to learn that Pauline Hoey is in charge of the café kitchen.

There’s another kitchen, restored to its centuries and to its centrality, expressing the intricacies of food preparation and presentation; there’s the adjacent game larder believed to be one of only two left in Ireland. 

The stone-flagged corridors of the service wings reveal the hierarchy of life downstairs and show how many people it took to support the comfort of a very few.

Having joined Fota two years ago as Events and Volunteer Coordinator, Victoria, a graduate of UCC with a background in creative textile education and exhibitions, is strongly aware of how Fota today is supported by the teams of volunteers indoors and out who are the heartbeat of the house.

For it’s all of a piece. The dusty library is an example of what Victoria calls ‘the beauty and cruelty of the whole game’.

The Fota House experience as it is now derives first from the Barrys of Barryscourt in a long line through to Mrs Dorothy Bell, thence to the Fota Trust and on to the Irish Heritage Trust.

In lineage from the early 17th century to the early 21st, as well as in the decisive architecture of Richard and Vitruvius Morrison, the story is an entirety. 

Its historic nature is preconceived and complete, from its domes and columns to the busy and immaculate Frameyard beyond the lawns.

At different times the restorations have been supervised by the architects John Cahill of the OPW and both initially and more recently John O’Connell, (supervising this year’s upgrade with David Higgins of Queenstown Restoration Ltd).

All this work, the OPW’s care of the gardens, the resurrection of the Frameyard and now the regeneration of the orchard means that Fota House presents a living audit of a classical country house estate, singing itself back to life again.

Fota springs events

Following the re-opening of Fota House and Gardens on Saturday March 25 the major Spring events begin with the Easter Trail on April 14th and 15th; adults go free, children €7, booking essential.

  • The annual Plant and Garden Fair opens on April 23 rd next from 11am. to 4pm.

Now recognised as the biggest fair of its kind outside the Dublin area it will feature approximately 80 specialist nurseries as well as retailers offering maintenance and decorative items.

This year the winner of the competition for the most attractive stand will receive the Brian Cross Memorial Prize sponsored by Mrs Rose Cross.

  • Tours of the Victorian Frameyard will also take place during the day.

Volunteers from Fota House and from the Friends of Marymount Hospice will assist with the Fair.

Admission: €8.00. Contact: margaret@irishheritagetrust.ie 021 4815543.

  • Along with its expanding displays of important Irish art Fota now houses the Irish Heritage Trust wallpaper archive which includes examples and research information of 18th, 19th and 20th century wallpapers from Ireland, London and Paris and rare items of Irish-printed Regency papers and hand-painted Chinese imports.

  • As usual visitors will be able to enjoy the walled gardens and arboretum maintained by the OPW staff and also to buy produce from the Frameyard, where a team of volunteers has worked through the year at propagation and potting up.~

  • The regeneration of the orchard began with the planting of new trees last year, using heritage varieties of apple such as Kilkenny Pearmain, Frank’s Seedling, Irish Peach and Cider Celadon.

  • Vital financial and other support for the house and its restoration and educational programmes has come from the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaelteacht Affairs, from private sponsors and patrons and from organisations including the OPW, Cork County Council, SECAD and Great Island Projects Ltd..
  • For all further details, please see www.fotahouse.com 

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