Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Weekend

The fairytale castle opening its doors to a world of treasures

The magnificent Johnstown Castle in Wexford opens to the public today for the first time ever. Here, Roslyn Dee reveals the precious discoveries you will find in this architectural gem, from wooden carvings to a secret tunnel

Johnstown Castle in Wexford
Johnstown Castle in Wexford
Curator Matt Wheeler
Eileen Wickham in the dining room
The painting of Hamilton Knox Grogan-Morgan and his wife Sofia
A birds eye view of the main hall
The dining room

By Roslyn Dee

If you close your eyes for a moment you can picture the scene: the carriages pulling up to the castle and the guests being assisted to alight, the ladies adjusting their finery before proceeding into the graciously proportioned rear porch entrance with its period tiled floor and its windows swathed in ruby-red drapes. From there, it's straight through to the Apostles Hall, so named because of the beautiful wooden carvings of the followers of Jesus that still enhance the walls there.

It's interesting, nowadays, to try to identify them - that, you guess, must be 'Doubting Thomas', depicted with a prominent finger because he was the one who insisted on touching the crucifixion wounds to check that they were real. And further along, isn't that Peter who's holding the keys to the gates of heaven?

From the Apostles Hall, where coats and cloaks would be removed in the warmth of the fire burning in the grate, the castle's invited guests would then follow each other through to the Main Hall.

Perhaps they were here to dine, and so the room would be dressed accordingly - all glittering glassware, polished silver, and the finest of porcelain. Or maybe their attendance had been requested for a music recital, and so they'd take their seats here for the evening.

Such were the lives of the great and the good who found themselves, during the 19th century, invited to enjoy the good graces of the owners of Johnstown Castle in Wexford. And now this stunning, Gothic revival castle with its extraordinary history is set to open today, with eight of its magnificent rooms restored and set to be publicly unveiled for the first time.

The Johnstown Castle estate, however, is no new kid on the visitors' block. With its 100-plus acres of glorious garden, its 140 different tree specimens and its profusion of mammal life, from red squirrels and otters to pine martens and soprano pipistrelle bats (the Bee Gees of the bat world with their distinctive high-pitched sound), this is an estate that has long attracted visitors from both home and abroad.

Whether you're a local who likes to walk in the grounds, or a family looking for a day out, the Johnstown estate has much to offer. And now that offering is set to get even better with the opening of the castle itself.

There's also the Irish Agricultural Museum there, of course, an impressive facility located in the old stable yard, and a museum that comes complete with some 19 permanent exhibitions. It's a long-established attraction here and understandably so when you consider that Johnstown is actually owned by Teagasc, the Agricultural and Food Development Authority, who have an ongoing research facility on the site. In fact, the last people to walk the corridors of the castle and actually sleep under its roof were the agricultural students who were based in the late 1940s, 1950s, and beyond.

More recently, and in the light of this conservation project, the Irish Heritage Trust is now partnered with Teagasc to oversee and manage the new facilities.

When I visited recently for a sneak preview in advance of the castle opening, it was my first time to visit the Johnstown estate. I'm not sure what I was expecting but it wasn't what I got; the beauty and the scale of the place simply blew me away.

How could I not have known about these extraordinary grounds, the bevy of peacocks that strut freely about the place, the huge 19th century walled garden (planned for upgrading in the second phase of the redevelopment), the Statue Walk, the once Italian-style Sunken Garden that's flanked by massive redwoods - and the three (yes, three) lakes?

The new Lower Lake Walk is, in fact, one of the attractions of the enhanced visitor offering at Johnstown and will be opening, along with a woodland play area, over the summer. And then there's the castle itself, of course, this turreted fairytale castle that faces out on to a massive lake and that looks like something straight out of a Disney movie.

But this is no fantasy castle, for Johnstown is a fortress with a very real and somewhat tumultuous history that stretches back to when the first castle, occupied by the Esmonde family, existed on this site in medieval times.

With the Esmondes forced out by Cromwell in the 1650s, it later became the property of the Grogans who set about restoring it to better suit the needs of their family.

It was John Knox Grogan and his son Hamilton Knox Grogan-Morgan who actually established the castle that stands on the site today. They didn't do it without help, of course, and it was the renowned British architect and landscape designer Daniel Robertson (also responsible for Powerscourt), along with local architect, Martin Day, who created the structure that still stands at Johnstown.

All of this information comes my way during my visit courtesy of Matt Wheeler, the museum's curator and the man involved in every detail of the current conservation project. He is a fountain of knowledge and it comes as no surprise, therefore, to learn that yes, he will be one of the guides on hand to steer visitors through the castle when it opens.

Apart from the Apostles Hall, I am fascinated by the library where books are being dusted off and everything is all systems go in terms of recreating this room as it would have existed in its heyday. It is in the dining room, meanwhile, from which there are stunning views of the lake, that you'll find the castle's only surviving painting - a portrait of Hamilton Knox Grogan-Morgan with his wife and child.

The castle's original grand staircase has been long lost to dry rot, so we climb by an alternative staircase (a lift has also been installed in advance of the public opening) to the upper floor and stroll around the Grand Drawing Room, a magnificent space that Matt Wheeler explains would have been chock-a-block with furniture, paintings and artefacts prior to the auction of Johnstown's contents in 1944, two years after the death of its last occupant, Lady Adelaide Fitzgerald, and a year before her grandson donated Johnstown to the State.

The original mirrors that still adorn the drawing room walls were brought from France while, adjacent to this room where, presumably, Lady Fitzgerald largely lived out her days before her death, is the lady's chamber - her bedroom, and with one of her bathing boudoirs just beyond, built into the tower itself.

Much loved by those who worked on the estate because of her generosity and general benevolence, Lady Fitzgerald had experienced great tragedy in her life. Widowed at only 41, she then lost her son Gerald in the First World War and, some years later, her daughter, Kathleen, as the result of a riding accident.

It is somewhat humbling, indeed, to stand in these rooms where she once stood, and to wonder, indeed, if it was in this very bedroom that the kindly Adelaide Fitzgerald breathed her last in 1942. And that, of course, is just one of the great gifts that this painstaking project at Johnstown Castle gives us - it brings history to life.

And nowhere is that sense of the past more up close and personal than when I descend with Matt Wheeler to the 'downstairs' region of the castle and enter the famous tunnel - the 86-metre servants' tunnel that gave the workers their entry and exit route so as not to offend the aristocracy on the upper floors with a glimpse of their presence.

Thankfully, for those who take the new castle tour, what must once have been a long, dark tunnel now comes with the luxury of lighting. Phew!

This first phase of renewal means that Johnstown now offers a '3 in 1' experience - as the Irish Heritage Trust call it. That's museum, gardens, and castle - all available in one visit.

Additionally, the project incorporates a brand new visitor centre, an area that also rehouses the existing Peacock Cafe, this time as a 120-seater, and complete with outdoor terrace. From there you'll be able to look out across the grounds of this magnificent estate, deciding, perhaps, to head over to the castle itself and step back in time for a while on your pre-booked tour.

Or maybe you'll take the kids over to the museum, or, indeed, just take a stroll alongside the Lower Lake and marvel at the beauty of the scenery all around you.

Me? I want to see the Grand Drawing Room again, and the library, and that boudoir in the tower, and the museum's Famine exhibition, and the walled garden, and the turquoise-chested peacocks, and those majestic redwoods...

And I want to peep through the railings into the Fitzgeralds' private burial ground, a lovely tranquil place where gravestones were strewn with pink rhododendron blossoms on the day I visited, and I want to tell Adelaide Fitzgerald that she can rest in peace, that her castle is in good hands.

For more information, visit johnstowncastle.ie and irishheritagetrust.ie

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