CARTON HOUSE, standing on over 1,100 acres of parkland is enclosed by a five-mile stone wall.
The mansion might have been acquired by the State in the mid-1990s for a relatively small sum. Instead, it became one of several great Irish demesnes to be developed as a luxury golf resort.
Designed by Richard Cassels (or Castle) in 1739 for the Earl of Kildare, it was landscaped under the supervision of Emily FitzGerald, the first Duchess of Leinster, in the then very fashionable jardin anglais manner popularised by Lancelot “Capability” Brown.
The Palladian-style house remained unaltered until 1815, when the third Duke sold Leinster House in Dublin (also by Cassels) to the RDS and made Carton his principal residence. It was then remodelled and “turned around” by Richard Morrison.
Carton, birthplace of Lord Edward FitzGerald, one of the leaders of the 1798 rebellion, not only had a magnificent house but also probably the most important landscaped parkland in Ireland. It was also one of the few great demesnes to survive intact.
Carton was blessed in having the Rye Water running through it. This allowed a lake to be created as a major feature of the parkland, as depicted by Thomas Roberts, the 18th-century landscape painter.
A more unusual feature, the Shell Cottage overlooking the Rye, was added in the early 19th century. Decorated with an extraordinary variety of sea shells, one of its more recent occupants was singer Marianne Faithfull, who lived there in early 1970s.
Having passed from the FitzGeralds into the ownership of Lord Brocket – to meet a gambling debt – the entire demesne was sold in 1977 to Powerscreen Ltd, a Co Tyrone-based firm manufacturing equipment for stone crushing, screening, washing and recycling.
The house and land, then closed to the public, was later acquired by Lee Mallaghan, one of Powerscreen’s directors, and plans were prepared to turn it into a luxury golf resort – first in partnership with the Gleneagles group, then Sheraton and finally Starwood.
Planning permission for a 140-bedroom hotel, a conference centre, two championship golf courses and 78 houses dotted around the demesne was confirmed by Bord Pleanála in 1992, despite strenuous objections from An Taisce and the Irish Georgian Society.
The Hon Desmond Guinness, who founded the society at Carton with his first wife Mariga in 1958 (they had been renting it for a couple of years after their marriage), said it was a “national scandal” that the demesne would now be “irretrievably lost”.
Mr Guinness added: “Such a national treasure, one of the finest in Europe, should not be left in the hands of commercial developers; it deserves State care and attention of the highest order.”
But successive governments remained blind to Carton’s fate.
Lee Mallaghan’s son Conor, who became accustomed to taking flak from conservationists, defended the proposed development.
“If there was to be a mission statement, it would be to bring Carton back to life again and this is the only way to do so,” he said.
The project, designed by architects Murray O’Laoire, included full restoration of the house, at an estimated cost of €12.5 million, with its ground-floor converted into a hotel lobby and function rooms, and the addition of a separate bedroom block and spa.
Carton has established itself as one of the top golf venues in Ireland, hosting the Irish Open in 2005, and membership is expensive.
The 18-hole parkland course was designed by Mark O’Meara, while a second “inland links” course was designed by Colin Montgomerie.
The first batch of 35 new houses on the estate was sold by tender in 2005 at prices ranging from €650,000 to €1.35 million.
Six years earlier, the Government paid nearly €30 million for Farmleigh House near Castleknock, which never ranked in the same league as Carton.