WHAT a difference a year makes. This time 12 months ago a weekend visit to east Cork would not have been complete without a tour of Fota House & Gardens — even if it meant a wild scramble for a car-parking space before we got to explore the grounds and house, and enjoy the de rigueur lounge on a picnic blanket prior to pitching up to explore the restaurant menu.
So, what’s life like in a museum hotspot post-lockdown? Well, for starters, there was a spark of good news on the eve of its reopening for Fota House this month, as the Irish Heritage Trust announced Fota House had been awarded full museum re-accreditation in recognition of its high standards in museum management, collections care, education and visitor services. This is awarded by the Heritage Council of Ireland under its Museum Standards Programme for Ireland (MSPI).
It saw Fota House join the distinguished list of sites and historic properties with full museum standards including Farmleigh House, (Dublin); Castletown House (Kildare); Muckross House (Killarney); Chester Beatty Library and the National Gallery of Ireland (Dublin).
The MSPI was established by the Heritage Council of Ireland in 2006 to benchmark and promote professional standards in the care of collections and to recognise the achievement of those standards through the Irish museum sector.
The news was a definite boost for the team, said Anne O’Donoghue, CEO of the Irish Heritage Trust, which owns and cares for the property. “We’ve been working hard behind the scenes to prepare to re-open the house in a safe manner for all to enjoy once again,” she said.
“We are delighted that Fota House will offer a new art tour that will highlight our unique art collection, and showcase new acquisitions and temporary exhibitions.” Since the early opening-up phases in mid-May the gardens and arboretum at Fota have become more popular than ever as all ages travel to enjoy the property, added Bryan Murphy, general manager, Fota House, Arboretum & Gardens.
“We are delighted to have reopened and to be seeing visitors once again explore our glorious gardens and the wonderful house which is now open for tours with all safety protocols in place,” Bryan said.
“With several outdoor events planned such as outdoor movies, archery and music recitals as well as hosting outdoor weddings we are committed to creating quality occasions that respond to our community’s needs.
“We would like to assure our visitors that Fota House & Gardens are a safe and comfortable environment for everyone to enjoy and as part of our commitment to everyone’s safety, our staff have undertaken the training to obtain Fáilte Ireland’s Covid-19 Safety Charter.” Fota has become a hive of activity in recent weeks. With the gradual return to a “new norm”, this month it was time for Fota House itself to reopen its doors to the public after 111 days of closure.
The house now offers three guided tours per day to visitors to walk through this building of national significance which celebrates its 200th anniversary this year.
The main house, dating from 1820, remained in the sole ownership of the Smith-Barry family for 155 years and today is a repository of the compelling story of this family and their household staff.
Visitors will be told the fascinating life stories of the aristocratic Smith-Barry family and the servants who supported their lifestyle.
The tour takes in the grand décor of the downstairs stately rooms with superb neo-classical interiors and upstairs bedrooms, boudoir and charming nursery. Then contrast this grandeur with the service wing, including the beautifully preserved kitchens, where you can see the working conditions of the cooks, butlers, footmen and maids who were central to the workings of the house and the estate which encompassed all of Fota Island and surrounding areas.
The house also boasts one of the finest collections of landscape painting outside the National Gallery of Ireland.
As with similar Munster attractions like Muckross House in Killarney, Fota House appeals to fans of the likes of Downton Abbey — what I love about it is how these properties let us feel like we are tunnelling back in time and exploring history on our doorstep.
Fota’s internationally renowned arboretum and Victorian working gardens offer the chance to better understand how these beautifully maintained areas served the life of the house and its inhabitants.
House tours commence at 12.30pm, 2pm and 3.30pm from Wednesday to Sunday before moving to seven days per week in due course. Pre-booking, though not essential, can be done at www.fotahouse.com where full details can be had.