Wednesday 14 November 2018

Powerful portrait of the 'Big House' and the lords and ladies who loved it so

HOME THOUGHTS: Viscount Powerscourt at the races; Sarah Slazenger, granddaughter of Ralph and Gwen, at her family's house in 1997; artist Lady Grania Langrishe, of the first Powerscourt family, at home in Co Meath. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

GREAT Georgian piles such as Powerscourt House "had passed their sell-by date" when the house was disposed of in 1961, according to the last of the Wingfield family in Ireland.

The Wingfields, who bore the Powerscourt name, had lived outside Enniskerry, Co Wicklow, since Elizabethan times but the 9th Viscount Powerscourt decided to sell the property and 4,000 acres to the Slazenger family because of the burden of keeping up the great estate.

"Basically, my father and mother didn't think my brother was going to have enough money to take it on - this kind of house had passed its sell-by date," Lady Langrishe told the Sunday Independent from her home in Dunsany, Co Meath, last week. Grania Langrishe, widow of Sir Hercules Langrishe, is the last of the Wingfield family living in Ireland to have grown up in Powerscourt before its sale.

Last month the ashes of Ralph Slazenger, who bought the estate from Viscount Powerscourt, were interred during a small ceremony at the family vault on the estate.

By a quirk of fate the Wingfield and Slazenger families became intertwined through marriage after the sale of the house, so the connection of the original Powerscourt family with the estate has been re-established for future generations. The current Viscount Powerscourt, Mervyn Patrick, married Wendy Slazenger and they had a son, Mervyn, and a daughter, Julia. The marriage didn't last, and the 10th Viscount Powerscourt now lives in Thailand and "doesn't have any contact with this country", according to his sister, Grania Langrishe. Her other brother, Guy, born deaf as a result of his mother having rubella, grew up in Bermuda; he was educated in the US and now lives there.

There's more than a whiff of tragedy about the latter-day Viscounts Powerscourt.

The 9th Viscount, Lady Langrishe's father, was acotton planter in the Sudan and spoke the native language. He was captured by the Italians early in the Second World War and after the collapse of Italy was imprisoned in Germany. His family moved to Bermuda and when he was finally set free by the Allies he was "a wrecked man", recalls his daughter.

He came out to Bermuda to recuperate and despite his ordeal he was "mentally very tough". The family returned to Ireland to live at his wife's place, Bellair, near Ballycumber, Co Offaly. They were there just two years when tragedy struck again.

In 1947 the 8th Viscount Powerscourt and his wife contracted typhoid from a local 'carrier' while living on their Wicklow estate. One of them died of the disease and the other died very soon afterwards, very possibly from the after-effects.

The 9th Viscount and his family lived half the year at Ballycumber and spent their summers in Powerscourt. "It was a wonderful place to run around," said Lady Langrishe. "I loved the trees, they were very special. But as you can imagine, Powerscourt wasn't very easy to heat. My father and I bred pedigree Herefords in Ballycumber and I remember coming up for the Bull Show in March and being very cold there.

"My mother, Sheila, did up the house from top to toe and it was open to the public between the wars. In 1956 my father built a cafe. There were so many visitors, and the gardens certainly weren't derelict." She takes out photographs to show the lawns and Victorian-style flower beds that adorned the front of Powerscourt House in its aspect towards the Sugar Loaf mountain.

Grania Langrishe's mother was a poet and writer; she herself is a well-known botanical artist. Her illustrations have graced the best-selling book Irish Trees by Niall Mac Coitir and at present she is putting the finishing touches to a series of illustrations for Irish Plants by the same author.

She has books showing Powerscourt House chock-a-block with all sorts of memorabilia collected over the centuries by her ancestors.

After doing up the house, her mother and father organised for some of the superfluous contents to be sold during a two-week auction, which also helped to raise cash needed for the redecoration.

But it was very difficult "to keep a big house" in those times - nobody wanted them, she says. However, Ralph Slazenger, a scientist and engineer, had a secret desire and his wife saw a way of fulfilling it: "He always wanted to get his hands on a waterfall, he had a great desire to harness one. Gwen [his wife] was reading the paper one day and saw a feature on Powerscourt.

"She said, 'Here is a waterfall for you.' They happened to take on a huge house and thousands of acres and asked themselves, 'Are we mad?', but they were hooked on the waterfall and that's how they came to be in Powerscourt."

When the Wingfield family left Powerscourt they left behind virtually all their possessions, down to the bed linen. It was the way they wanted it.

But as she looks at the "big house" now, Lady Langrishe is filled with admiration for the Slazenger family, with whom she has maintained contact.

"I think what the Slazengers have done is absolutely wonderful - they have managed to get the balance right. Gwen was a very efficient farmer but that didn't keep the place going. It is commercial now."

So many great Irish houses have passed out of the original families but it seems that Powerscourt's destiny will always be caught up with the Wingfields, as well as theSlazengers.

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