LAST summer, I had a hard-hat tour of the restoration being undertaken at Johnstown Castle, County Wexford. A “soft launch” of phase one of the works, showcasing eight of the highly authentic areas of the castellated house, is quietly afoot.
Johnstown is a boldly situated, Gothic Revival building developed from an older house in stages, from 1836-1872. Home to offices of Teagasc, the Department of Agriculture and the EPA, it’s asymmetric, quirky and rests on 800 years of what historians term ‘continuity of settlement’. While not at a palatial scale, in 2015 the house and its surviving estate became a notable treasure in the folio of the Irish Heritage Trust, a very special place in the country and the county.
Until now, the house, with its stern knuckles of limestone, played a Norman revival folly to the characterful gardens, gazing down on the lake, but firmly shuttered in a safe structural holding pattern, awaiting necessary funds for not just restoration, but a full-on beautification. €7.3m from Failte Ireland and the Department of Agriculture has recently been divided across the estate to include vital repairs.
Home to two prominent Wexford merchant families, the Esmondes (from the 1170s) and the Grogans (1692-1945/married into the lordly Fitzgeralds), Johnstown was presented to the Irish nation in 1945 by Maurice Victor Lakin (1919-1995) and his relation Dorothy Jefferies. Maurice was a highly decorated British officer, who fought bravely during the North African campaigns. He inherited Johnstown from his grandmother, Lady Maurice Fitzgerald, in 1942.
Horticultural science had been something of a family hobby, and in the conveyance, three years later, Lakin insisted that the estate be used by the State for agricultural and horticultural research — which, happily, it still is.
Johnstown is home to offices of the Department of Agriculture and the EPA. The courtyards of Johnstown Castle also house the Irish Agricultural Museum, which will winkle interest from the most urbane, groaning teen.
The external character of the house is largely the work of Victorian architect Daniel Robertson. Robertson was also responsible for the idealised landscape of Powerscourt House, in County Wicklow, fashioned on the Villa Butera, in Sicily. Powerscourt was the setting for some scenes of Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 film, Barry Lyndon.
When you reach the house proper, look for a high turret. It shows the position of a 15th-century tower house of the Esmonde family (demolished in 1949). This is where the 18th-century building began under architect Thomas Hopper, finally incorporating the romantic fantasy of the finished mid-19th gentleman’s manor, directed by Robertson for the Grogans.
Johnstown is an architectural chocolate box that perfectly reflects the showy quality of the landed gentry’s “high” Victorian homes. The entrance hall features a groin-vaulted ceiling, with lush carving in the wainscoting. The inner hall is another gasp of quatrefoil-detailed, compartmentalised ceiling, followed by the Apostle Room, with its cast of biblical characters standing guard on every panel, tapped out of native oak by artisan craftsmen.
Moving on, the more alert visitor will notice the absence of what should be a magnificent double staircase. It was riddled with dry rot and taken down in 1949 to make the house safe — there’s every chance, given the conservation skills already thrown into this house, that it may be reintroduced. What Johnstown has retained is essential for any house tramped by the public for a fee — oodles of hair-lifting atmosphere. This has been helped enormously by the superb decoration and set dressing, with period-correct furnishings and fabrics by architectural historian Peter Pearson and his crew.
The artefacts are a mixture of acquired pieces and furnishings specific to the house. At the May 1944 Johnstown Castle auction, by Jackson, Stops & McCabe, the OPW purchased over 100 items of modest furniture and furnishings. The catalogue is a useful inventory of a 19th-century country gentleman’s requirements — from carved oak hall seats, mahogany billiard tables, dressing tables, silver plates, writing tables, and upholstered settees to smaller house furnishings, including fire grates. The imprint of the old agricultural college, on the first floor, can be seen in a 1970s lab’, as used for the infant Soil Survey of Ireland/An Foras Talúntais, set under lofty, Gothic pointed windows. Teagasc scientists and students once camped in the difficult conditions of the whole house (lectures took place in Lady Fitzgerald’s former bedroom). It’s wonderful that the Trust included all the history of the house and its inhabitants, not simply its Downton Abbey-level toffs.
The guides on the first tours agree that the research lab catches visitors by surprise, noting that everyone loves the “upstairs/downstairs” element and the fact that the kitchen leads into an 86m subterranean passageway.
Behind the scenes
Elsewhere, in the drawing-room, library, and sumptuous dining-room, there’s a lively peek inside the everyday grandeur of a great Irish house of the mid-1800s — a stage for weekend parties, glittering balls, “stirrup cups” for hunts on the lawn, births, deaths and everyday estate business.
Rolling events will be a feature of the castle’s new, three-in-one attractions (the castle, the museum, and the gardens). Dr Emma O’Toole, collections and interpretation manager at the Irish Heritage Trust, says: “We have a large portrait of the main family, dating from 1833, hanging in the dining room, of Hamilton Knox Grogan Morgan, his wife, Sophia, and their daughter. During the summer, specialist painting conservator Pearl O’Sullivan will be bringing this painting back to life. Visitors on the tour will get to enjoy conservation in action, as Pearl will be talking to the groups as the work progresses.”
The project has had had the vital support of an enthusiastic group of Johnstown volunteers, working tirelessly to get the castle ready for visitors and providing the new tours. Groups of 20-plus can now contact the castle team and book a fascinating, guided visit through phase one of this remarkable architectural revival.