Ireland is awash with stately country homes, many of which, like The K Club, are now golf courses rather than private residences. Others, like Castletown House, are part of the National Trust. More again, like Castle Leslie, are upmarket hotels. I never tire of them.
The grounds. The outbuildings. The furniture. The art. The approach. The nearby towns and villages (or lack thereof) all speak of times past when the rich were somebodies and the rest knew their place.
I’m not commenting on the rights or wrongs, the merits or the demerits, the good or the bad. I’m simply fascinated by how life used to be lived by those who had the wherewithal to keep not one, but several large houses on the go.
Palmerstown House Estate is one I’d heard tell of but had never visited. And had I not taken the wrong exit off the motorway, it might still be on my list of never-beens.
Billed as a ‘hidden gem in the Kildare landscape’, the 900-acre estate now boasts a championship 18-hole golf course, an impressive clubhouse, and a period manor house with its 20 en suite bedrooms. It also has a walled garden with ‘amphitheatre acoustic values’ and more stables than horses, a nod to its previous life as a stud farm.
The manor house is on my lotto list. I only wish I could have seen inside. It’s had several rebuilds; the current manor house is early twentieth century. You can rent the building and get full use of the kitchen, three drawing rooms, a large reception hall, a full-size snooker room and a golf course in the back garden. And you get a butler who’s on duty 24/7. Poor lad.
The estate has passed through many hands, the most famous pair of historical note belonging to Richard Southwell Bourke, the 6th Earl of Mayo, who was elected as an MP in 1847, what is colloquially known as the year of the hard frost. The famine was rife and Bourke did everything he could to make life a little easier for his tenants and his constituents. By all accounts, he was a good man. So closely did he identify with Ireland the Irish, he was given the job of Chief Secretary for Ireland in 1852 at the young age of 30, earning him the nickname the Boy Secretary. He hung in there for three terms.
The second half of the nineteenth century saw Britain busy with India, too. Richard moved on from the Chief Secretary position to that of Viceroy of India, a job he did for four years until he was assassinated by an Afghan convict on a visit to a penal colony. His body was brought home, supposedly transported in a barrel of rum to preserve it, and he’s buried in the cemetery in Johnstown (note duly made to self). Rumour has it that the skull of the convict, found and convicted, was brought back to Palmerstown house.
As a tribute to him, donations came from far and wide to renovate Palmerstown House – possibly a prelude to modern-day crowdfunding.
Richard was big into horses – breeding, racing, and hunting. He set up a stud at Palmerstown House and, it is said, accompanied the Prince and Princess of Wales to the races at nearby Punchestown.
The titles were passed down and Richard was succeeded by his son, Dermot, another great man for the horses. And for architecture. He, too, was an MP, and when, in 1921, the Irish Free State came into being, he was made a senator. He was on the right side – or at least, the side that got to govern.
The IRA weren’t happy back in those days. Anti-treaty and all for a United Ireland, they chose to vent the rage on what they saw as symbols of British rule. On 29 January in 1923, they burnt down Palmerstown House as payback for the execution of seven men in the Curragh prison in December of 1922.
I read with interest that there are a number of Palmerstowns in Ireland.
The place name Palmerstown is not unusual in Ireland (there are at least 10) but they are mostly to be found on the east coast. They are generally taken to have their origins in grants to, or by, persons who had visited the ‘Holy Lands’ (as evidenced by their bringing back sprigs of palm as a token of their pilgrimage).
When the Bourke’s interest in Palmerstown waned, businessman W.J. ‘Trousers’ Kelly, ‘a gentleman’s outfitter’ bought the house and stud. Another horse fan, he built the stud into something special.
He was followed by Anne Bullitt, of the Philadelphia billionaire Bullitts. Her dad, William, was the first US Ambassador to the USSR. [Warren Beaty played William in the movie Reds; his wife, Louise Bryant, was played by Diane Keaton.]
For her wedding [one of the four she had] she bought herself a 100-carat diamond necklace produced especially in Paris for her by Cartier. It “perfectly matched her society lifestyle” and her elegant designer outfits. When it was sold in December 2007 at auction by Christie’s it went for stg£602,500, more than double the estimated price.
Sadly, when she died in 2007, in a nursing home, she was a ward of the Irish courts. No fairytale ending there.
Anne sold the estate to property mogul Jim Mansfield in 1997 (or 1999, depending on what you read) for IR£10m (€12.7m). And even that sale had its drama – Mansfield thought he was buying some of Anne’s extensive art collection, too. They battled it out in court.
Bourke. Bullitt. Mansfield. Comer. And they’re only the more recent owners. What a saga. What a place. Ireland is big houses with big backstories. Not that you need an excuse to visit.