Kya deLongchamps tours Wexford’s Johnstown Castle, a Gothic fantasy owned by Teagasc, opening to the public in Spring 2019.
In 1850 Thomas Lacy esq. was brought by coach under the porte-cochère of Johnstown Castle, its battlements
finished in fresh Tudor-style knuckles of limestone. He passed into the entrance hall, its antechambers writhing in intricate medieval informed carvings.
Having drunk in the exquisite level of crafted details, and wandered the deer parks, glasshouses and shimmering lakes, he wrote in his memoir — ‘So grand, so gorgeous’ (Home Sketches - 1852).
Johnstown is still Lacy’s beautiful rambling behemoth and more — a mid-19th century appropriation of the past that deliberately indicates ancient genealogy and unquestioned social standing. Home to two prominent Wexford merchant families, the Esmondes (from the 1170s) and the Grogans (1692-1945/married into the lordly Fitzgeralds) Johnstown is Wexford’s supreme surviving country estate.
It was presented to the Irish nation complete with its castellated house by Maurice Victor Lakin in 1945. Lakin stipulated that the estate be used by the State for agricultural and horticultural research — which it still is. Maurice’s ancestor — Hamilton Knox Grogan-Morgan, conducted gentleman’s experiments in a small laboratory leading to the conservatory. It’s a fascinating thread in the fertile mystery of land and the production of food, maintained in Johnstown’s place in pioneering agricultural science today.
‘This house saw the familiar story of death duties and family tragedy’ remarks Jo Tynan of the Irish Heritage Trust. ‘Lady Maurice Fitzgerald (d.1942) was the last grand owner of Johnstown who actually lived here.’ Constructed with landlord wealth around an earlier Georgian House by Thomas Hopper, the castle is described by the Trust as a historic, social and architectural treasure of national importance. Following grant aid managed by the Trust of €7.5m, the house and its exquisite interiors are being restored following best practice conservation work to the structure and its unique architectural detail. A new visitors’ centre, interpretive centre, restaurant and improved access all over Johnstown are also included in the upgrading work.
Eight areas over three floors of this Gothic Revival masterpiece are in focus.
These are being made safe in Phase I of ongoing refurbishment work by Tom O’Brien Construction (Waterford), structural engineer David Kelly and conservation architect Margaret Quinlan (Clonmel). On my visit, there were 30 trades at work. Floors were yawning open, scaffolding ribs surrounded the central stair and many of the finer, vulnerable detail were shrouded in metres of protective plastic.
Curator of the Irish Agriculture Museum Matt Wheeler poked open doors, skipped us over rafters and pointed out the castle’s remarkable state of preservation.
“Teagasc and the department have never allowed it to ruin,” Matt explains.
“However, in 1949, the stewards were forced to take down the 15th century tower house integrated into the original 19th century build and to demolish the double, grand staircase shot with dry rot. They were deemed dangerous.
When we started work in April, heavy walking upstairs would make the chandeliers downstairs bounce wildly.” What we could already enjoy in the hard-hat adventure were the delightfully eccentric asymmetric exterior clapped in turrets, sculpted faces and coats of arms, superb richly carved panels throughout the reception and private family rooms, elaborately plastered relief and timber vaulted ceilings and soaring stone mullion windows. Together with the stately Apostle Room, the height of the Great Hall and possibly one of the most beautiful small ballrooms in Ireland — well, it’s going to be some day out.
There’s a 90m servant’s tunnel — potentially the longest surviving of its type in Ireland. This provided a discreet, subterranean flit for the staff carrying provisions from a little medieval style lodge (The Meat House), below ground and onto the basement kitchens. The tunnel will mark the end of the planned tour. With its rich domestic doings and Edgar Allen Poe shadowing, it’s bound to be a favourite with youngsters and architectural anoraks alike.
Jo Tynan of Irish Heritage Trust describes the theme to be enjoyed by visitors to the Estate as a 3-in-1 attraction themed on – Food, Farming & Family.
This was a house of blue, if not aristocrat blooded Anglo-Irish gentry. Yes, there were the expected hunt meets on the edge of the lake and tightly curated week- end parties. However, there were other possibly more curious members in its human layers. I imagine agriculture students, scientists and masters camped in the fading grandeur of Johnstown in the 50s, 60s & 70s. You can hear booted lads bounding up the back-stairs to Lady Fitzgerald’s former bedroom for their lectures, stooped over microscopes in the analysis laboratory set up for the now defunct Soil Survey of Ireland, and wiping up a full fry across refectory tables in the Grand Hall. It’s the making of a lively Irish novel.
The sense of intimate connectedness between the classes in the Victorian and Edwardian era, and between Johnstown Castle and its local community today is vivid. Johnstown is home to offices of the Department of Agriculture and the EPA and offers visitors some of the most magnificent idealised 19th century landscaped gardens in the country. Daniel Robertson (d.1849) who fashioned gardens at Powerscourt, also set out the house and glorious sylvan avenues, laws, wetlands, woods and follies of Johnstown.
The three man-made ornamental lakes, working farms and castellated walks worthy of Camelot, are a firm favourite with locals and tourists year round. If you haven’t visited the Irish Agriculture Museum (opened in 1976) in the Stable Yard – you are missing out. The Irish Heritage Trust has shown their development and marketing expertise in signature projects in the past at Fota House, the Irish Famine Museum and Strokestown House. With its integrity and beauty, Johnstown 2019 is already marked a winner.
Curator Matt Whelan, Jo Tynan and their teams are hoping to repatriate furnishings and artefacts connected to or suiting the refurbished interiors at Johnstown Castle. If you have pieces of interest from any time of its history, they would love to hear from you. Volunteers will also be needed from the spring of 2019 to help care for the castle and run events, through a Trust Membership Scheme.