Castletown is the largest and grandest Palladian country house in Ireland. It was built for William Conolly (1662-1729), the Speaker of the Irish House of Commons. He was a lawyer from Ballyshannon, County Donegal, a native born Irishman of humble origins who made an enormous fortune out of land transactions in the unsettled period after the Williamite wars. By the 1720s he was acknowledged to be the wealthiest man in Ireland and he built Castletown as a symbol of his importance and as a patriotic gesture. Sir John Perceval in a letter to Bishop Berkeley of August 1722 remarked:
I am glad for the honour of my country that Mr. Conolly has undertaken so magnificent a pile of building. ..this house will be the finest Ireland ever saw, and by your description fit for a Prince, I would have it as it were the epitome of the Kingdom and all the natural rarities she afford should have a place there.
Bishop Berkeley was influential in the design and planning of Castletown, he recommended the use of Irish craftsmen and materials in building where possible. He may have suggested the inclusion of a long gallery and the building of the obelisk.
Soon after the project got underway Conolly met Alessandro Galilei (1691-1737), an Italian architect, who had been employed in Ireland by Lord Molesworth in 1718. He designed the façade of the main block in the style of a 16th century Italian town palace. He returned to Italy in 1719 and was not associated with the actual construction of the house which began in 1722. Sir Edward Lovett Pearce (died 1733), a young Irish architect, on his Italian grand tour became acquainted with Galilei in Florence and through this connection he was employed by the Speaker to complete Castletown when he returned to Ireland in 1724. Pearce had first hand knowledge of the work of the Italian architect Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) and his annotated copy of Palladio’s Quattro libri dell’architettura survives. It was Pearce who added the Palladian colonnades and the terminating pavillions. This layout was the first major Palladian scheme in Ireland and soon had many imitators.
Speaker Conolly’s widow continued to live at Castletown after his death in 1729. The house remained unfinished and it was not until after his great- nephew Tom Conolly inherited Castletown and married Lady Louisa Lennox (1743-1821) in 1758 that work on the house was renewed. Lady Louisa, the fifteen year old daughter of the 2nd Duke of Richmond, was brought up at Carton, the neighbouring estate, by her eldest sister Emily, Countess of Kildare (later Duchess of Leinster).
The Castletown papers, estate records and account books, together with Lady Louisa’s diaries and correspondence with her sisters, provide a valuable record of life at Castletown and also of the reorganisation of the house. Lady Louisa’s letters from the 1750s onwards are revealing of the fashions in costume design, fabric patterns and furniture. She played an important part in the alteration and redecoration of Castletown during the 1760s and 1770s. As no single architect was responsible for all of the work carried out, she supervised most of it herself. Much of the redecoration of the house was done to the published designs of the English architect Sir William Chambers (1723-1796) who never came to Ireland himself. Chambers also worked for Lady Louisa’s brother, the 3rd Duke of Richmond, at Goodwood in Sussex. In a letter, written in July 1759, Lady Louisa mentions instructions given by Chambers to his assistant Simon Vierpyl who supervised the work at Castletown.
This impressive two-storeyed room with a black and white chequered floor, was designed by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce. The Ionic order on the lower storey is similar to that of the colonnades outside and at gallery level there are tapering pilasters with baskets of flowers and fruit carved in wood. The coved ceiling has a central moulding comprising a square Greek key patterned frame and central roundel with shell decoration.
Above the black Kilkenny marble chimney-piece there is a wall painting of a view of Leixlip Castle and the salmon leap. It has been attributed to the Irish landscape painter Joseph Tudor (1685?-1759). Leixlip Castle was also the property of the Conolly family. On either side of the chirnney-piece are eighteenth century Irish peat buckets (donated by Mrs Rose Saul Za1les of Washington).
The portrait is of Alessandro Galilei by Giuseppe Berti and in the background may be seen the façade of the church of Saint John Lateran, Rome, which was Galilei’s most famous work. The portrait is signed and dated 1735 (purchased by the Irish Georgian Society in memory of Brian Molloy).
The bust of George Washington is a version of the well known one by Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828). It was bought for the house in the 1780s .and indicates the influence of the American War of Independence and the strength of the Whig ‘patriot’ tradition in Ireland among some of the Anglo- Irish.
In the niches are a pair of marble busts of the Earl and Countess of , Dartrey by Lawrence McDonald carved in Rome in 1839. They came from Dartrey in County Monaghan which has been demolished (bequeathed to the Irish Georgian Society by Lady Edith Windham of Dartrey). The eighteenth- century organ was originally in the chapel of Dr. Steevens’ Hospital, Dublin (restored by the Cleveland Chapter of the Irish Georgian Society).
The ceiling is coved and has a central square moulding as in the Hall. The cantilevered Portland stone staircase was built in 1760 under the direction of Simon Vierpyl (c.l725-1811). Three of the brass banisters are signed and dated by their maker, ‘A. King Dublin 1760′. (The staircase was restored by Mr and Mrs Lennox Barrow).
The walls are decorated with plasterwork in the baroque manner typical of the work of the Swiss-ltalian stuccadores the Lafranchini brothers. Shells, cornucopias, chinese dragons and masks, (possibly symbols of the four elements), are included in the decoration, pride of place being given to a bust of Tom Conolly at the foot of the stairs. The four seasons are represented on the piers and on either side of the arch.
‘The Boar Hunt’ by Paul de Vos (1596-1678) is framed by Lafranchini plasterwork. This picture has much in common with the work of Frans Snyders, the artist’s brother in law. Originally there were paintings in the other frames also.
Below the stairs is an eighteenth-century English slab table, (donated by Mrs George F. Baker of New York). The carved mask of Vesta is similar to those over the doors.
This room dates from the 1760s redecoration of Castletown undertaken by Lady Louisa Conolly and reflects the mid-eighteenth century fashion for separate dining rooms. Originally, there were two smaller panelled rooms here. It was reconstructed to designs by Sir William Chambers, with a compartmentalised ceiling similar to one by Inigo Jones in the Queen’s House at Greenwich. The chimney-piece and door cases are in the manner of Chambers. Of the four doors, two are false.
Furniture original to Castletown includes the two eighteenth-century giltwood side tables. Their frieze is decorated with berried laurel foliage similar to the door entablatures in the Red and Green Drawing Rooms. The three elaborate pier glasses are original to the Dining Room. The frames are carved fruiting vines, symbols of Bacchus and festivity. These are probably the work of the Dublin carver Richard Cranfield (1713-1809) who, with the firm of Thomas Jackson of Essex Bridge, Dublin, was paid large sums for carving and gilding throughout the house. The centre glass is cracked and it is said that at the end of a day’s hunting, Tom Conolly brought home a stranger to supper who turned out to be the devil. A priest was called who threw a prayer book at the devil, this rebounded off the mirror and cracked it. The devil disappeared in a puff of smoke through the hearthstone which is also cracked. The twelve dining chairs, with carved vine leaves on the top rail, are copies of the Castletown originals and were made by the firm of James Hicks, the Dublin cabinetmakers.
The portrait, on the west wall, is of William Conolly in his robes as Speaker of the Irish House of Commons by Stephen Catterson Smith the elder (1806-1872) (donated by Mr and Mrs Galen Weston). This posthumous portrait was based on Jervas’s portrait of the Speaker in the Green Drawing Room.
Opposite is a portrait of Speaker Boyle, later Ist Earl of Shannon, by Charles Jervas (c.1675-1739) standing full length in the Speaker’s robes. The picture is inscribed and dated 1736 and has a very finely carved Irish eighteenth-century gilt frame (on loan from the Earl of Shannon).
Over the chimney-piece is a portrait of Owen Wynne of Hazelwood, County Sligo, attributed to John Michael Wright the younger (floruit circa 1690) standing in full length classical dress. This picture originally hung at Rockingham, County Roscommon (on loan from the Hon. Desmond Guinness).
On either side of the chimney-piece are portraits of Paul and Elizabeth Barry by George Mulvany R.H.A. (1809-1869) (donated by Mrs Annabelle Montague Smith in memory of her husband Patrick).
It is one of a series of State Rooms that form an enfilade and were used on important occasions in the eighteenth century. This room was redesigned in the mid 1760s in the manner of Sir William Chambers. The chimney-piece, ceiling and pier glasses are typical of his designs.
The walls are covered in red damask which is probably French and dates from the 1820s. Lady Shelburne recorded in her journal seeing a four coloured damask, predominently red, in this room. The Aubusson carpet dates from about 1850 and may have been made for the room. Much of the furniture has always been in the house and Lady Louisa Conolly paid 11/2 guineas for each of the Chinese Chippendale armchairs which she considered very expensive. The chairs and settee were made in Dublin and they are displayed in a formal arrangement against the walls as they would have been in the eighteenth century. The bureau was made for Lady Louisa in the 1760s.
The Conollys formally received important visitors to the house in the Green Drawing Room which was the saloon or principal reception room. The room was redecorated in the 1760s and like the other state rooms reflects the neo-classical taste of the architect Sir William Chambers. The Greek key decoration on the ceiling is repeated on the pier glasses and the chimney-piece. Originally these were pier tables with a Greek key frieze and copies of these may be made in the future. The chimney-piece is similar to one designed by Chambers for Lord Charlemont’s Casino at Marino.
The Long Gallery, measuring almost 80 by 23 feet, with its heavy ceiling compartments and frieze dates from the 1720s. Originally there were four doors in the room and the walls were panelled in stucco similar to the entrance Hall. In 1776 the plaster panels and swags were removed but traces of them were found behind the painted canvas panels when they were taken down for cleaning during recent conservation work.
In the mid 1770s the room was redecorated in the Pompeian manner by two English artists, Charles Reuben Riley (c.1752-1798) and Thomas Ryder (1746-1810). Tom and Louisa’s portraits are at either end of the room over the chimney-pieces and the end piers are decorated with cyphers of the initals of their families: The portrait of Lady Louisa is after Reynolds (the original is in the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard) and that of Tom after Anton Raphael Mengs (the original is in the National Gallery of Ireland). The subjects of the wall paintings were mostly taken from engraving in d’Hancarville’s Antiquites Etrusques, Greques, et Romaines (1766-67) and de Montfaucon’s L’antiquite expliquee et representee en figures (1719). The busts of the poets and philosophers are placed on gilded brackets designed by Chambers. In the central niche stands a seventeenth-century statue of Diana. Above is a lunette of Aurora, the godess of the dawn, derived from a ceiling decoration by Guido Reni, the seventeenth century Bolognese painter.
The three glass chandeliers were made for the room in Venice and the four large sheets of mirrored glass came from France. In the 1770s the Long Gallery was used as a living room and was filled with exquisite furniture. Originally in the room, there were a pair of side tables attributed to John Linnell, with marble tops attributed to Bossi, a pair of commodes by Pierre Langlois, that were purchased in London for Lady Louisa by Lady Caroline Fox and a pair of bookcases at either end of the room.
Lady Caroline Dawson wrote of the Long Gallery in 1778: We then went to the house, which is the largest I ever was in, and reckoned the finest in this kingdom. 11 has been done up entirely by Lady Louisa, and with a very good taste. But what struck me most was a gallery, I daresay 150 feet long, furnished in the most delightjiJl manner with fine glasses, books, musical instruments, billiard table -in short, everything you can think of us in that room,. and though so large, is so well fitted, that it is the warmest, most comfortable-looking place I ever saw. They tell me they live in it quite in the winter, for the servants can bring dinner or supper at one end without anybody hearing it at the other; in short I never saw anything so delightful…
In 1989 major conservation work was carried out on the Long Gallery. The wall paintings that had been flaking for many years were conserved. The original eighteenth-century gilding has been cleaned and the chandeliers restored. The project was funded by the American Ireland Fund, the Irish Georgian Society and by private donations.
All text copyright and courtesy of Dr. Paul Caffrey.