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Christmas in the Big House … a child’s memoir of Castletown

Picture the scene – a twenty-foot high Christmas tree in the hall of a big house, children excitedly picking out a present from one of the 200 or so wrapped gifts under the tree, and the aroma of plum pudding wafting up from a basement kitchen. It’s like an image from a period costume drama of the kind which garners huge viewing audiences. But the Christmas scene described here comes not from a scriptwriter’s imagination but from the first hand memories of a woman who experienced childhood and adolescence in the “up-stairs down-stairs” world of the big house. It is just one of many resonant pictures of life in Castletown House, Celbridge to be found in a new book entitled “The Children of Castletown House” by Sarah Connolly-Carew and published by the History Press. 
Sarah is one of the four children of the last family to live in Castletown as a main residence. With an authorial team that includes her brothers Patrick and Gerald, and her sister Diana (one of Ireland’s greatest equestriennes) and a foreword written by the great Georgian, Desmond Guinness of Leixlip Castle, this sparkling book gives an intimate and engaging picture of what it was like to grow up in the twilight years of the “Big House”. For Castletown is as big as they come – not alone in scale but also in terms of architectural repute. It’s perfectly proportioned classical design influenced the architects for Leinster House and the White House (Jackie Kennedy visited to check out the similarities for herself) – while the treasures of art and plasterwork in its interior have given it international status among cognoscenti of great house décor.
Much has been written about Castletown’s architectural splendour and about the lineage of the great Connolly family associated with this Palladian gem.
However Sarah Connolly Carew opens up another vista of Castletown -- a more intimate and earthier one than available in standard histories.  She weaves the wonder of childhood and the excitement of adolescence into the fabric of the house which comes alive as the setting for escapades and adventures. The Christmas memories are typical of the author’s engaging style of writing.  Recalling the tradition of inviting in the children of the farm workers into the house on Christmas morning Sarah recalls: “… there would be a 20ft tree in the hall with presents for every one of the estate children. There would be nearly 200 gifts carefully wrapped up and labelled with each name. There parents were given money, a joint of beef, and extra milk and butter.”
A strength of the memoir is that it avoids sugary nostalgia but always makes reference to the practicalities of life for those living in the big house and those resident on its estates. She recalls the Christmas morning when one of the Leixlip residents of the Castletown estate, a Mrs Farrelly, did not seem to be joining in with the fun as her three children participated in the present giving. Her worry was that the Connolly’s had been bringing 1950s amenities such as electricity and water to the cottages on the estate and she was worried that her rent would go up as a result of the improvements. However Sarah’s father, William Connolly-Carew, reassured a concerned Mrs Farrelly that there would be no rent increase and that she could enjoy Christmas without worry. That gesture of seasonal good-will concealed another reality … that the rents and income from the farm were no longer enough to maintain a big house which was beginning to show its age spanning three centuries. The struggle by the Connolly-Carew’s to keep Castletown viable as a home and farm is an instructive insight into the economics of the big house in the 20th century. It’s near brush with disaster when the family sold Castletown to developers who abandoned the house for a number of years allowing it almost to fall apart is the stuff of thrillers. Enter the white knight Desmond Guinness whose foresight saved Castletown for the nation. All of this roller-coaster drama is chronicled in vivid prose by Sarah Connolly-Carew who in a work of considerable social history names the farm workers, the shop-keepers in Celbridge, and the members of the Kildare hunting and farming fraternity all of whose lives were intertwined with Castletown. And while the Christmas memoirs are only a small part of the Castletown narrative they do provide some of the homeliest and earthiest cameos in the story. Connolly senior (otherwise Lord Carew) was a practical man and when told by his wife to go shopping in Celbridge for the gifts for the estate children he produced a roll of Bronco (toilet) paper and began to write the list. As the author recalls, in the years when even paper was scarce, the loo roll was the only practical way to write a long list of names. She recalls the giggles of the shop assistants in Celbridge who had to suppress their mirth so as not to make fun out of a valued customer!
“The Children of the Big House” by Sarah Connolly-Carew is a great read and a fabulous insight into the behind-the-hall-door realities of “Big House” life and its social circles. Published in a classy presentation with colour and black-and-white photographs “The Children of Castletown” is available from bookshops or by contacting the History Press on 01 244 9470.  

Series no: 310.

Acknowledgement: thank you to Carmel Locke, Clane whose enthusiasm for Castletown is an inspiration.

Liam Kenny reviews Sarah Connolly-Carew's memoir “The Children of Castletown”. Our thanks to Liam

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