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Leinster Leader 30 August 2007

Kildare’s architectural showstopper – the refurbished Castletown House





The Big House has become a well known feature of historical writings and film making about Irish life in bygone eras.  Be it the architectural extravagances, or the glamorous lifestyles of their inhabitants, or the sheer scale of the buildings but there has been a torrential output of books, studies, programmes and films centred around the great mansions which dot the countryside.


But however enjoyable reading about the Big Houses might be, the only way to get the frisson of the lifestyles of their inhabitants is to tread the very stairs and parade the same corridors that were populated by the county aristocracy of a previous generation.  The sterling opportunity to have this experience in Co. Kildare is provided by that multi-faceted State organisation known as the Office of Public Works which maintains Castletown House, outside Celbridge, and just last month opened it following a spectacular restoration which included estate cottages, farm outbuildings and the great Palladian mansion itself.  Any building in Ireland which can stand comparison with the architectural triumphs of Rome is worth a second look and this is literally the case with Castletown as the façade of the main house was designed in the early 1700s by one Alessandro Galilei whose other career achievement was the façade which he added to the old basilica of St. John Lateran in  Rome.


The Italian influence on Castletown was continued under the architectural supervision of Sir Edward Lovett Pearce who, as an apprentice architect, had spent some time in Italy coming under the influence of the great master Galilei.It was under Pearce’s supervision that perhaps Castletown’s most striking features were added– the stunning curved colonnades linking the east and west pavilions to the main body of the house. It was Pearce too who oversaw the building of the two-storied entrance hall, a feature of Castletown unchanged since the building of the house began in the 1720s.  Viewing the grand staircase of Portland stone with its brass balustrades one can easily recreate the grandeur of society occasions with bewigged lords, and ladies in ball gowns, making dramatic ascents to the candle-lit galleries.


The scale and grandeur is maintained within the rooms of the house, enhanced by exquisite decoration which was created by the best ceramicists, glass makers, painters and cabinet makers of the 18th century. The awe factor is most striking when one steps in to the Long Gallery, a room which measures 27 metres by 7.5 metres. It seems as if every surface is covered by decoration: sumptuous wall paintings surmounted by exquisite ceiling work. Looking down from the walls are the portraits of Tom and Louisa Connolly, better known as Lady Louisa, who were the driving forces in developing the luxury of the décor and furnishings after the death of Speaker William Connolly (1662-1729) who commissioned original construction.  It was said to be Lady Louisa’s sense of style which had the dominant influence on the completion of Castletown. She may have been a hard taskmistress for any tradesmen in the Celbridge area at the time. A story is told of how fragile glass chandeliers were made in a glassworks in Venice . When they arrived intact - no doubt due to the hard work of many labourers on the sea voyage and overland routes between Venice and Ireland _ she paid a qualified compliment  noting that the chandeliers had arrived intact but were the wrong shade of blue for the Long Room!


Castletown was built as a statement of status by the elite of the day. Fortunately it is now available to be enjoyed by  all citizens of . For that much credit must go to the Honourable Desmond Guinness of Leixlip Castle , a  name which needs no elaboration in these  parts, and to the Office of Public Works, a state body which is returning great value to the taxpayer by its management of treasures such as Castletown.


Series no. 30

An article on the refurbished Castletown House by Liam Kenny from his regular feature, 'Nothing New Under the Sun,' in the Leinster Leader of 30 August 2007. Our thanks to Liam.

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