IRELAND’S MOST important stately home, Castletown House in Co Kildare, is now facing the “biggest threat” to its setting since it was saved by Desmond and Mariga Guinness 40 years ago, according to the Irish Georgian Society (IGS).
The society’s president, Knight of Glin Desmond FitzGerald, said this “significant new threat” to the setting of Castletown House comes from the proposed redevelopment of Donaghcumper demesne on the opposite bank of the River Liffey, to the south.
Developer Devondale Ltd has sought planning permission from Kildare County Council for a mixed use scheme of offices, shops, restaurants, six-screen cinema and 108 detached houses on the 98-acre site, which is being promoted as a natural extension to Celbridge.
But the IGS “strenuously objects” to the plan, saying the mainly five and six-storey commercial buildings would “dwarf the existing scale of the town” and also “irrevocably compromise” its relationship with the parklands of Donaghcumper demesne.
The proposed development would be visible from the upper floors of Castletown House as well as its avenue of lime trees, it said. Given its central role in safeguarding the building, the society was “gravely concerned” that its setting would be severely compromised.
Mr FitzGerald said that the Devondale scheme at Donaghcumper would “be silhouetted when viewed from much of the Castletown demesne” and this was “the biggest threat to Ireland’s most important country house” since it was saved in 1967.
Dating from the 1720s, Castletown is the earliest Palladian house in Ireland and is of international significance. Appreciation of the house is greatly enhanced by the survival of its parkland setting, one of the finest created landscapes of its type here.
The house was designed for Speaker William Conolly by Edward Lovett Pearce, architect of the old Parliament House (now Bank of Ireland) on College Green. It remained in the hands of the Conolly-Carews until 1965, when it was sold to developers.
Finding Castletown empty, with its doors wide open, Desmond Guinness was so fearful for its future that he purchased the house and 120 acres of parkland and embarked on a rescue programme, aided by his spirited first wife Mariga and numerous volunteers.
The Castletown Foundation, chaired by Prof Kevin B Nowlan, was set up to manage the house and receive charitable donations – including some of its original furniture – and Desmond Guinness eventually handed over the house to the foundation in 1979.
It ran Castletown until the early 1990s, when fears about its condition – particularly the roof – led to ownership of the house being transferred to the State in 1994. A five-year restoration, costing £5 million, was then carried out by the Office of Public Works.
Even though it was still “a work in progress”, according to OPW architect John Cahill, Castletown re-opened to the public in 1999.
Since then further restoration has been supported, most recently by a €1.2 million grant from the Department of the Environment.
Works have included securing the cantilevered Portland stone staircase in the entrance hall. A tender for the renovation of the stables has also been advertised.
Most of the land to the rear of the house is owned by Janus Securities, a consortium formed by the McMullan brothers, who own Maxol Oil, and the Rhatigan brothers, who have been involved in numerous developments, mainly in the Dublin area.
Seven years ago, Janus got approval from Kildare County Council for a major business and technology park on their land, in return for ceding some 130 acres in the immediate vicinity of Castletown to the council. However, this scheme was successfully appealed by An Taisce.
In 2005, Desmond Guinness sold his last remaining interest in the estate – one of its 18th century gate lodges along with 12 acres of riverside land and a modern chalet-style house. The asking price for this property at the time was €1 million-plus.
At its agm last week, the Irish Georgian Society’s director, Donough Cahill, announced that €200,000 had been raised towards the restoration of the Robert Adam rooms at Headfort, Co Meath – a project that will mark its 50th anniversary.
The IGS has also completed works at Kilshannig, Co Cork, Barmeath Castle, Co Louth and Scregg House, Co Roscommon. According to Mr Cahill, “the society’s contribution to important conservation projects was often essential in ensuring their success”.