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Wednesday 24 September 2014

Have some 'me time' – there's lots to do right on our doorstep

Constance Harris

Published 01/06/2014 | 02:30

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Karol Mullaney-Dignam pictured in Castletown House. Photo: Leon Farrell/Photocall
Dr Karol Mullaney-Dignam pictured in Castletown House . Photo: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland.
Dr Karol Mullaney-Dignam pictured in Castletown House . Photo: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland.
Dr Karol Mullaney-Dignam pictured in Castletown House . Photo: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland.
Dr Karol Mullaney-Dignam pictured in Castletown House . Photo: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland.

If Ireland was a monarchy then the Office of Public Works (OPW) would surely be a jewel in our crown.

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We are so bombarded by all the things that are wrong in our country today we forget about what is still being done right. Such as the preservation of and public access to our abundant and nationwide arts, culture and heritage.

We may be strapped of money and time but there is a wealth of resources in this country to be enjoyed for free, or at the most for a nominal fee, that not only will enrich our minds, but also ease the stress in our chest and lift our hearts a little.

This came home to me last week when I stumbled upon a free, monthly, lecture series in Castletown House, Celbridge, Co Kildare, on clothing and social life in 18th-Century Ireland, inspired by the recent arrival of the Berkeley Costume and Toy collection.

Working in fashion as I do and with a passionate amateur's interest in local history, I emailed the OPW requesting a seat. As I drove to the event I wondered was this a crazy esoteric activity to do at the end of a hard working day and was I going to be bored senseless.

As I entered the Castletown House grounds, I noticed lushly green fields and gorgeous, giant oak trees that I had forgotten existed, so embroiled in urban stress was I. I began to relax.

There were people, young, old, walking, running, chatting, playing with children and dogs, picnicking, enjoying the parklands.

I began to get an inkling that this OPW property was not like similar heritage sites I had visited in the UK and America where one pays one's considerable fee and stands on ceremony throughout the visit. Castletown's grounds were a living, breathing world.

At reception, I was encouraged to look around the house before attending the talk. The staff at Castletown was passionate and thrilled to have the public join with them in learning more.

When I last visited Castletown, years ago, there wasn't the kind of access to rooms that I enjoyed last Tuesday, nor was it in the magnificent state of decoration and furnishing as it stands today, a result of private and public support, the Honorable Desmond Guinness and the State.

The Berkeley Costume and Toy collection, on a 10-year loan to the OPW from Irish artist and costume collector Countess Ann Griffin Bernstorff, was dressed on mannequins arranged in conversation-like clusters in rooms around the house. The rooms, no longer sterile, felt occupied. One wanted to tarry longer, to feel, observe and imagine. The lecture I attended, delivered by Karol Mullaney-Dignam who works for the OPW, on 'Being the Belle of The Ball', the lifelong preparation women of the upper classes were engaged in to earn a husband and their place in society, was gripping for the vitality she brought to her subject.

It was history with colour – Bridget Jones meets Pride and Prejudice. The room of women, of all ages and backgrounds, were enthralled.

The resources that Castletown offers (and other OPW properties) are not just to do with history. There are cafes, markets, free children's workshops, other free lectures. Next Saturday, June 7, from 2pm-5pm is a free Family Fun Day.

The OPW has properties all around Ireland. There are riches to be enjoyed. There are benefits to be reaped, both social and personal. The primary one being, a positive experience.

Sunday Independent

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