The inaugural Big House Festival kicks off tomorrow.
“It’s an entirely different take on the idea of a summer festival,” says Jo Mangan, the festival’s artistic director. “We’re combining two things — the idea of a music festival and an arts festival. With an arts festival, you have to trawl through a brochure and decide what to go and see. You pay your money for each individual element. You plan your few days or couples of weeks accordingly. With a music festival, it’s a one-price entry and you get to see whatever you want.
“We’re taking the idea of the music festival, in terms of paying your entry ticket, which is astonishingly good value at €22.50 for a full day’s entertainment, and you can go wherever you want. We do have a schedule and people can follow it, but we’re saying to people: “just come inside the house, come to the front hall, go up the beautiful stairway, check out Oisín Byrne’s extraordinary projection, The Paper Ball, go see the Irish Film Institute’s The Raj in the Rain, then maybe pop up to the ballroom where you can experience the Big House Parliament, where we’re going to sort out all the troubles of Ireland and multiple other things.” The idea is you wander where you want, and you make your own experience. So you’re not stuck to the schedule.”
The mock parliament, which will be curated by Naoise Nunn and include contributions by Manchán Magan and Fergus Finlay, amongst others, is a nod towards William Conolly, who commissioned the construction of the house in the 1720s. Conolly was an interesting character — the son of an innkeeper in Ballyshannon, Co Donegal, who rose to become Ireland’s de facto prime minister and a man of immense wealth, much of it accrued from dodgy deals, including acts of body snatching and impersonation on the forfeited lands that resulted from the Williamite wars.
Conolly built Castletown House as a country retreat from the smoke and intrigue of Dublin. The mansion enjoyed a reputation for its lavish parties, a tradition that stretched until the 1960s, and one that the Big House Festival is hoping to revive. Some of Castletown House’s more recent guests include Jackie Kennedy, Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull. The house’s heyday as a party venue was in the 18th century, though.
“Castletown would have been full of people at times of entertainment,” says Dr Patrick Walsh, a historian and biographer of William Conolly. “You would have guests arriving from Dublin; which is only 12 miles away. This was quite doable in one day on horseback. People hunted in the mornings. They gathered in the evenings. There would have been a lot of drinking. We have tales of people arguing, possibly coming to blows. ‘In their cups,’ as the phrase would say, discussing politics. This was the way politics was conducted at the time, in a Dublin townhouse or a country house like Castletown. Conviviality is important. Lots of claret is important. That was Conolly’s way of doing business.”
Conolly died in 1729. He paid to have 67 paupers dressed in black at his funeral, one for every year of his life. His wife Katherine carried on throwing parties at Castletown for another 25 years. They were raucous affairs, with carriage races along the avenue, in which she is believed to have partaken, even into her 80s.
Perhaps she would have welcomed the Big House Festival programme, which includes headline gigs by Planxty’s latest incarnation, LAPD — Liam O’Flynn, Andy Irvine, Paddy Glackin and Donal Lunny; Jerry Fish and his Carnivale Show; and Jack Lukeman and ‘The 27 Club’, which plays versions from artists who died aged 27, among them Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Amy Winehouse. The barbershop singing quintet, The Keynotes, will also perform cowboy-infused songs in the stables.
The most exciting element of the festival is the opening up of the house to festival-goers. It’s a stunning piece of architecture, which is flanked by two Ionic colonnades, and includes some remarkable rooms, among them the ballroom, which will host performances by Julie Feeney, and the Print Room, which festival-goers will be able to pass through freely.
“The Print Room is like an 18th-century teenage girl’s bedroom,” says Mangan. “It’s got posters on the wall, but the posters are of the great and the good of the day. People like David Garrick, who was a famous actor-manager from London. The actress Sarah Siddons apparently came to the house, and there was absolute scandal in the locality to have an actress inside in this beautiful place.”
Films will be screened in the house’s dining room, where an interesting guest inveigled his way into a card game one evening late in the 18th century.
“Thomas Conolly dropped a card to the floor when they were gambling,” says Claire Hickey, Head Guide, Castletown House, “and when he bent down to pick it up, he realised the gentleman on the opposite side of the table had removed his boots, and he didn’t have feet, but the black, hairy cloven feet of the devil.
“Thomas apparently asked him to leave, but he wouldn’t go, so he sent one of the servants down to Celbridge to get both the vicar and the Catholic priest, and the priest got here first and he came with the Holy Bible in his pocket.
“He asked him to leave; he wouldn’t go so what did he do? He took the bible out, threw it at the devil, it bounced off the devil’s shoulder, and it cracked the mirror. The devil then ran around the table to the fireplace, where he stomped his cloven hoof, and disappeared in a cloud of blue smoke, back down to the fires of hell. So when the visitors here at the Big House are watching their films, make sure they check out the crack in the mirror and the crack in the hearth of the fireplace. They’re not to be missed.”
THE ballroom at Castletown House, where the theatrical singer-songwriter Julie Feeney will perform, has the most extraordinary set of candy-coloured chandeliers. Its eight windows, which reach up to the ceiling, also look out onto the Big House Festival’s main stage. The lawn at the back of Castletown House is raised up naturally, which provides an ideal setting for Jerry Fish, LAPD and Jack L to strut their stuff. The estate’s demesne will play a key part in proceedings.
“In the grounds,” says festival director, Jo Mangan, “we’ve everything from Opera in the Open’s Tosca in the colonnades to the amazing Eat My Noise from Cork. They’re a music collective who do a kind of acoustic-electric sound and they’re working with the local Lucan gospel choir to make a piece in the forest. That’ll be the end piece at the end of the day.”
Mangan points out the big, white arch at the front of the house. “People can meet there in the evening and be led down to the forest on a trail. Aoife Courtney’s doing an event called Flock with about 20 young dancers from the locality on the lawns.
“You can see Ponydance out the front of the house. You can check out Pillow Talk Theatre Company who are doing a beautiful piece on the lake, Catch of the Day. You go down to the lake and there’s a fisherman there, and you have a little chat with him. He might regale you with tales of large fish he’s caught in the past, and most importantly he can row out on his boat and there’s going to be bottles, floating in the lake, and you can decide if you want a green bottle or a red bottle and he’ll go and fish it out for you and inside there’ll be a poem or haiku or little message for you for the day.”
The Big House Festival commissioned works for its visual arts strand based on submissions that would tie in with the estate. It represented an extraordinary canvas to work on. Mark Linnane’s Wind Garden is a giant sculpture piece, incorporating 500 coloured windmills, on the meadows of Castletown House, while each day the UK pop culture artist Michael Trainor will conduct an Auction of Important Things in the main room off the front hall of the house.
“The ideas run from doing a version of the house’s Print Room by Evan Flynn,” adds Mangan. “This room is full of beautiful filigrade frames with old-fashioned images from the 18th century. He’s taking the framework of all that and is projecting it on the walls of different rooms. Inside each of those frames are going to be his contemporary moving images.
“Oisín Byrne is doing a video installation piece called Paper Ball. Oisín came here with about 100 of Ireland’s beautiful people, which is the only way to describe them. He dressed them all in these astonishing costumes made of paper and he made a film with them and a stunningly white, glistening dog running down the main steps in front of the steps at Castletown House. That film will be projected in an empty frame in the stairwell of the house.”
- The Big House Festival is at Castletown House, Celbridge, Co. Kildare, Saturday, Aug 3-5, www.bighouse.ie