Tuesday 17 September 2019

Pól Ó Conghaile: A great Irish castle finally opens its doors to the public

Johnstown Castle, a tantalising Gothic Revival pile, has finally opened to the public, our Travel Editor writes

Johnstown Castle. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
Johnstown Castle. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
The dining room at Johnstown Castle. Photo by Colin Shanahan / digicolphotography.com
A photo of former staff at Johnstown Castle, taken in the restored kitchen. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
Lady Fitzgerald's bedroom. Photo by Colin Shanahan / digicolphotography.com
Johnstown Castle, Co Wexford
A portrait restoration underway. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
Inside Johnstown Castle. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
Lady Fitzgerald's boudoir. Photo by Colin Shanahan / digicolphotography.com
The male boudoir with neo-Gothic trimmings
The inner hall — sadly, the original grand staircase is no longer in existence.
Newly-restored: Johnstown Castle in Wexford. Photo: Fran Veale
The drawing room with Gothic relief ceiling and soaring arched windows
Pól Ó Conghaile

Pól Ó Conghaile

The last time I visted Johnstown Castle, I was blown away by its beautiful grounds. How could this stash of dandy peacocks, reflective lakes and pleasure gardens be hidden away down Wexford backroads?

But I also left disappointed. I could walk right up to the Gothic Revival castle itself, but the building was closed. Access was a no-no, a tease, left tantalisingly out of reach. 

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Well, now it's different (see galleries).

A €7.5m investment involving Fáilte Ireland, the Department of Agriculture and the Irish Heritage Trust, among others, has stepped the 100-acre estate up a serious gear.

Inside Johnstown Castle. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
Inside Johnstown Castle. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile

A spanking new visitor centre, café, shop and terrace overlook the Lower Lake. A fresh 1.5km walk circuits the water's edge. An adventure playground opens later this month. And yes, the castle itself is open to the public. Finally!

Touring the pile with general manager, Brenda Comerford, I passed through a marvellously mirrored drawing room, browsed Lady Fitzgerald's bedroom and boudoir, and slunk down a spooky 86m-long servants' tunnel (there are plans afoot for Halloween, Brenda says).

Period silverware, furniture and paintings have been carefully sourced to fill restored spaces. Aside from occasional, spell-breaking (if necessary) details like a modern staircase and radiators, it genuinely feels like a bit of time travel.

The current castle dates from the 19th century, but the grounds have an even richer history - ranging from Norman times to modern agricultural research. The estate is owned by Teagasc, the Irish Agricultural Museum is on site, and an old students' lab sits intact in the castle.

A photo of former staff at Johnstown Castle, taken in the restored kitchen. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
A photo of former staff at Johnstown Castle, taken in the restored kitchen. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile

At €9 for adults, or €24 for a family, entry is steep (hour-long, guided castle tours cost €4/ €11 extra; johnstowncastle.ie). A garden-only price could be a smart move to keep local goodwill and off-season business.

But that said, this is a sprawling attraction - you could easily spend a half-day or more exploring the lakes and woodland, following trail sheets, or spotting natural wonders like its peacocks, red squirrels or the native black bees protected during restoration.

By comparison, Kylemore Abbey costs €14/€38, while Birr Castle is priced at €9.50/€5 for adults/kids, with castle tours an extra €18pp.

Ireland's sunny southeast is a visitor favourite, but it has taken knocks lately - thanks not least to Brexit and Irish Ferries' decision to remove routes from Rosslare.

Here, however, is a new hope - an estate that could grow in time to become a tourism hub as well-known and widely touted as Kylemore, Birr, Powerscourt or Malahide Castle.

There's a future in bringing the past to life.

Read more:

Sneak preview: The fairy tale Irish castle brought back to life

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