Upstairs or downstairs?

A friend of mine asked me for some advice recently. They want to have a big do in Ireland, in a castle and were wondering if I could recommend one. Given that there are some 30 000 castles in the country in various states of (dis)repair, that was a tough one to answer. My castle of choice has always been Cregg Castle in Galway but it’s no longer open for public residence 🙁 The one I’d like to be able to afford to stay in is Drumoland Castle in Co. Clare. And the one I’d buy, if I had the money do it up, is Johnstown Castle in Wexford.

First built by the Esmondes who settled in the area back in the late 1100s, it changed hands a few times after being confiscated during Cromwell’s reign in the 1600s. The Grogan family came by it in the late seventeenth century and stayed put until one of the descendants, Maurice Larkin, gifted it to the nation back in 1945. Upkeep must have been horrendous.

The 1000 acre estate has it all. The castle is jawdroppingly gorgeous, from every angle.






And even if, like me, you’re not usually given to being fascinated by gardens, you can’t help but be carried back in time as you stroll the pathways. There are three lakes, complete with turreted towers and lily pads. There are 140 species of trees, 20 peacocks/peahens (I only saw one), and an extended
family of red squirrels who were in hiding. The grounds are immaculately kept.

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An underground tunnel runs between the meat store and the basement of the castle, lit by glass skylights set in the ground (how novel is that?). This kept the servants out of sight of the family and their guests. (I think Metro 1 in Budapest was built to keep the riffraff out of sight of the hoi polloi on Andrassy – similar thinking?)


But back to the trees. The Italian sunken garden is surrounded by Redwoods, a tree I’ve always associated with San Francisco. And there’s a Monterey Cypress which is a Champion Tree of Ireland. Yep – I had to look that up. Apparently some 10 000 trees in Ireland have been measured and of them, 1200 notable for their height, age, size, and girth have made it on to a registry of Champion Trees. Hugging each one of those would be a bucket list of a kind. The Cypress is by Statue Walk, a series of statues facing Castle Lake, each one more evocative than the next. There are plenty of benches to park yourself and your book and whole families had brought their picnics and their rugs. And still there was acres of space.


The walled garden was set in the mid-1850s and shows signs of wear and tear. It’s still lovely though, beautiful even. And if the glasshouses were restored to their former glory, it would be spectacular.

Today Teagasc, the Agricultural and Food Development Authority, owns the estate, which is home to their research facility. Until a few years ago, the castle was their offices. The EPA and the Department of Agriculture are also in residence. What a place to work. Am not sure what the plans are for it… but if there’s a lotto win in my future, I’d be happy to have a chat with someone.

As usual, time wasn’t on my side. So next trip, I’ll have to see the Irish Agricultural Museum and the family cemetery and the machicoulis on Rathlannon Castle. And maybe bring a picnic.

As is my wont when wandering around such fine estates, I found myself wishing I’d been born into that era. I had little trouble in imagining myself, Austen-style, walking the grounds. But then there’s always that niggling doubt… who’s to say I’d have been part of the upstairs crew? Pinnies simply don’t do it for me.

Open 9 am to 4.30 pm seven days a week. Worth dropping in if you’re in the vicinity.

One Response

  1. For a while, in the 80’s I occasionally looked after a fine House outside Lewes, that too had a tunnel under the main lawn from the Dairy buildings to the basement kitchens and sculleries. Below stairs was definitely that. As would have been, hardly seen, and definitely never heard.
    That house also had separate stair cases connecting the basement to the upper floors and the attic staff accommodation.
    No doubt where my place in that set up would have been.

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