Power play: How Powerscourt has a dark history worthy of Game of Thrones
One of the jewels of Wicklow, lush, green Powerscourt is the epitome of gentility… you'd think. Our reporter takes the estate's new tour to discover a dark, epic backstory worthy of Game of Thrones.
With its dappled lawns, ornate fountains and scantily attired statues, Powerscourt is a little bit of Versailles transported to deepest Wicklow. But there turns out to be quite a bit of Game of Thrones in its DNA too. A proper old-school castle once stood on the site of the present-day estate; from here, Anglo-Irish lords would do battle with sword- wielding locals sweeping down from the surrounding hills.
This nugget is imparted to me as I preview a new tour of the complex, which aims to delve beneath Powerscourt's bucolic image and explore its deep, sometimes dark backstory. In a stone-lined antechamber dripping atmosphere, I sit through an eight-minute potted history of the Powerscourt family and its legacy. It is an epic, occasionally bloody tapestry.
"Powerscourt is so familiar to a lot of people," says Sarah Slazenger, managing director of the estate (and scion of the Slazenger sportswear dynasty). "Maybe they were brought here as children. They typically come and enjoy the gardens. But people don't necessarily get under the skin - they don't know about the characters and stories that make Powerscourt what it is."
The video is spritzed up with gorgeous drone footage and recreations of Powerscourt's lively medieval past. This is followed by a self-guided tour of the sun-kissed grounds, with a groundbreaking electronic narrator encased in an iPod-type device (the first of its kind in Ireland) as my companion.
"We wanted to make the visit more memorable - to impart information, without necessarily producing a book," says Sarah. "The idea is to recreate what it would be like if I were to lead you around the garden. With hundreds of thousands of visitors, that isn't practical, obviously. With the guide, we attempt to create a similar experience."
As with all the best histories, Powerscourt's encompasses war, death, romance and top-level horticulture. "Powerscourt goes back to Norman times," explains Slazenger over tea at the on-site Avoca café. "There was a Norman general - Eustace de la Poer, which was anglicised to Power. He gave his name to this area - a strategic place between Dublin and Wicklow. The Byrnes and the O'Tooles [local Gaelic families] would have had possession of it over the centuries."
The present Powerscourt dynasty has its origins in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Richard Wingfield, the first Viscount Powerscourt, was awarded the title in 1609 after leading British forces to victory against Cahir O'Doherty, the last Gaelic Lord of Inishowen. After crushing O'Doherty's army in Donegal, he hastened back to London to deliver the good tidings to his queen. What followed reads like something out of Blackadder.
"Sir Richard Wingfield was, so the story goes, a very courageous general," says Slazenger. "The Queen asked how he should be rewarded for his bravery. His reply was that the scarf around her neck was sufficient. She gave him the scarf - and Powerscourt too."
The Victorian-era gardens that have become the estate's chief attraction were largely the work of Wingfield's descendants, the sixth and seventh viscounts. Their inspirations were the Palace of Versailles, the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, and the Schwetzingen Palace near Stuttgart.
"They had the vision to go and collect plants from around the world," says head gardener Alex Slazenger, who, like his cousin Sarah, was largely raised on the estate. "It was an unselfish vision to create something which they would never see come to fruition because of the timescales involved. They did massive tree collecting - not only in the formal gardens but throughout the estate."
By the 20th century, the lineage of Powerscourt had become rather tangled. The title of Lord Viscount has been handed down through the generations - the present holder is a former graphic designer based in Cardiff. However, ownership of the estate had passed to the Slazenger family, which made millions with the sale of their sportswear business to Dunlop (Slazenger holds the record for the oldest sponsorship deal in sport, as the official supplier of balls to Wimbledon since 1902).
The Wingfields weren't squeezed entirely out of the picture. In a twist worthy of a Richard Curtis romcom, 10th Viscount Mervyn Patrick fell in love with and married Ralph Slazenger's daughter Wendy (Ralph had purchased Powerscourt in part because he believed the estate's waterfall could be harnessed to generate electricity). Thus were the two families and their passion for Powerscourt intertwined.
Disaster struck in 1974, however, as the manor house was ravaged by a fire, leaving only a blackened husk. It was a tragedy compounded by farce. When staff rang Dún Laoghaire fire brigade, they were told Powerscourt was beyond its jurisdiction. By the time the blaze - which broke out accidentally - was finally attended to, untold damage had been done.
"There was quite a strong breeze that night and the fire had taken quite a hold," an eyewitness would later write. "I can vividly recall going into the dining room from the kitchen entrance and watching the ceiling bubbling as a result of the water coming from above through the flames and causing the eventual collapse of the ceiling."
"Always, our visitors would say, 'Such a nice garden, what a shame about the house,'" says Sarah Slazenger. "It is interesting how you almost ignore it when you are living it with all the time. There was the ruin and the garden. We maintained the garden and kept planting it. Eventually, we found an engineer who said, 'I think I can re-roof that house.'
"That's where the regeneration began. It was the catalyst. Having been a ruin for over 20 years, the walls were not in a condition to support the weight of the roof. The engineer came up with a design where he built a structure inside the house, in the place where the original columns would have been."
Back in the present day, I'm wandering the Alice in Wonderland-esque estate, which encompasses the famous waterfall (used by generations of film-makers, most famously John Boorman for Excalibur) and the spectacular Italian and Japanese Gardens. On an uncharacteristically balmy spring morning, the effect is stunning. With the house now restored - and home to the aforementioned Avoca tea rooms - to my back and the Sugar Loaf mountain rising above, it's like stepping into a Victorian picture book.
The estate is one of Ireland's leading tourist attractions. More than 200,000 people pass through its gates annually, with visitor numbers up 9pc in 2016. Growth in tourism from the Far East is particularly strong - the number of sightseers from China rose by 47pc last year. In 2014, moreover, Powerscourt Gardens were named third best in the world by National Geographic magazine, behind Versailles and Kew Gardens (the difference being that Versailles and Kew are state-owned and therefore fully government-funded).
"The grounds, waterfalls, parks, garden pavilions and fine tree-lined arbours were suggested by the Italian Renaissance and the great estates and gardens of France and Germany," gushed the magazine. "Cascading terraces and formal landscapes are planned with carefully designed walks that are framed by the gentle beauty of the Wicklow Mountains.
The new audio guide - which will officially be launched at the estate by Tourism Minister Shane Ross this Monday - was created with an €80,000 grant from Fáilte Ireland's initiative 'Ireland's Ancient East' (which seeks to do for the area east of the Shannon what the Wild Atlantic Way has done for the west coast). It's reassuringly low-tech, consisting of a sturdy device which you point at one of the many features and landmarks around the gardens. You are rewarded with charming narration, for both adults and children, from Sarah Slazenger, her cousin Alex and their cousin Anthony Wingfield, the present holder of the Viscount Powerscourt title.
Wingfield moved to the UK with his family aged four and was largely raised in London. Today he works as a counsellor in Cardiff, though he takes every opportunity to return to Powerscourt, where he spent his summers as a child. On the phone he is friendly, if slightly wary. He is proud of Powerscourt yet self-conscious about his relationship with Ireland. Only in his plummy accent does he live up to the Lord Grantham stereotype.
"Growing up with a title… it doesn't make for a close bond in some ways," he says. "Some people might have a view as to what that means and they reject you. I learned to hide anything to do with that."
His guard drops as he recalls family holidays in Wicklow. "It is a magical place. There was a very strong contrast between how we were living back in London and whenever my part of the family came over to Ireland. There was a lot of fun. For those of us who had gone to England, going back to Ireland on our summer holidays, playing around the house, was absolutely fantastic - unreal, really, and dreamlike."
He also credits Powerscourt with helping him through a difficult period. In his adolescence, Wingfield had become something of a tearaway. At Powerscourt, he was taken under the wing of Alex's father, Peter.
"I was all over the place," he recalls. "He said, 'If you come and live with me and stop smoking dope, I will look after you for the summer.' He saved my life twice. He saved me from drowning and he also saved me… spiritually. I owe him everything."
He is comforted by the fact that the Wingfields were a departure from the sniffy Anglo-Irish stereotype. They were fully engaged with the community and treated their tenants with respect. The regard went both ways. When a torch-wielding crowd descended on Powerscourt during the War of Independence, the interlopers were chased away by locals employed by the estate.
"We were doing the last recording [for the audio guide]. Afterwards, in Dublin, I got chatting to a school teacher who was very Republican, very anti the aristocracy and had a huge line on the Anglo-Irish issue. And I was finding myself being quite apologetic about the English ruling," he recalls.
"I was a little bit embarrassed about it… It is a really difficult area. I took a little comfort from the fact that everything I have read [suggests] they were really good landlords. If you hold a different political view, you could pick holes in it. But they were really decent to the staff. There was some group walking down the one-mile drive with a view to burning down the house and it was the staff who protected them."
"The Wingfields were different to other aristocratic families," adds Alex Slazenger. "They were really involved in Co Wicklow. The creators of the garden never got to see the final result of their vision, for instance. They had this unselfish ambition to create something which they knew would work. They are my gardening heroes."
His words ring in my ears as I explore the estate, new audio guide in hand. "The lovely thing about the gardens is that no matter how busy it is, you can always disperse. You'll always find a quiet little area, where you can sit down and read a book or maybe do your email. Even on a busy day, it never feels like you're among a horde of people. Everyone goes out into the gardens and they just vanish."
Photography: by Fran Veale, powerscourt.com