Wednesday 19 December 2018

The romance and the tragedies of a great Irish estate

Myles McWeeney

The death of Dr Michael Slazenger, when the plane he was piloting crashed at Powerscourt in Enniskerry, tragically closed another chapter in the remarkable history of one of our greatest estates.

It is a story of romance, money, unforgettable characters, a terrible fire and families who fashioned an Irish legend in the wilds of Wicklow.

Originally set on 49,000 acres, Powerscourt House was built for Richard Wingfield, the first Viscount Powerscourt, in the mid-1700s by the celebrated Richard Cassels, who was also responsible for Lucan's Carton House and Russborough in Blessington, among many other stately piles.

Richard Wingfield was a descendant of an Elizabethan soldier of the same name, whose family had been in Ireland since the mid-1500s. He was a soldier of outstanding ability and effectively the ruler of the country, having been appointed Marshal of Ireland.

In 1603, the year Queen Elizabeth I died, he was granted "the Manor of Powerscourt, containing one ruinous castle . . . and all lands of Fercullen conteininge in itself five miles in leinth and four in bredth".

Powerscourt's stunning gardens, a huge tourist attraction today, had to wait 100 years after the house was built before they were developed -- and it is almost a miracle that the initial dream came true.

They were designed by the eccentric Irish landscape gardener Daniel Robertson. Work began in 1843, and the then Lord Powerscourt noted that Mr Robertson "was much given to drink . . . and suffered from gout and used to be wheeled out on to the terrace in a wheelbarrow with a bottle of sherry and as long as that lasted he was able to design and direct the workmen".

By the time I first visited the house, it had finally passed out of the hands of the Wingfield/Powerscourt family. It was sold in 1961 by the ninth Viscount Powerscourt to Ralph Chivas Gully Slazenger, the son of the founder of the eponymous sporting goods family, as he feared the cost of upkeep of the great estate would financially cripple his family.

Ralph Slazenger, a scientist and an engineer, was extremely wealthy after selling the family firm to Dunlop and had moved to Durrow Abbey in Co Offaly in 1953.

According to Lady Graina Langrishe, the 10th and current Viscount Powerscourt's sister, Ralph Slazenger bought the by now severely shrunken 14,000-acre estate for the famous Powerscourt waterfall. He apparently wanted to use it to generate electricity.

Thankfully, that never happened, and Ralph Slazenger and his wife Gwen threw all their energies into refurbishing the house and gardens.

By one of those strange quirks of fate, the fortunes of the Wingfield and Slazenger families soon became intertwined when the current 10th Viscount, Mervyn Patrick, met and fell in love with Ralph's daughter, Wendy.

They married and had two children, but they subsequently divorced. The 10th Viscount now lives in Thailand and has little contact with Ireland. However, through Wendy Slazenger's children, Mervyn Wingfield and Julia Wingfield, there remains a strong connection between the two families and the Powerscourt Estate.

As I recall, the interior of the house was quite dark and was decorated in a style that reflected the military background of the family. Suits of armour and small cannon stood in the halls and corridors, passage walls were hung with shields and swords, and everywhere glassy-eyed stuffed trophy stags' heads gazed blindly down on the guests.

The one room that blazed with light was the ballroom on the ground floor, which had huge French windows opening on to the terraces designed by gout-plagued Daniel Robertson. The terraces fell down the hill upon which the house stood to a spectacular water feature and fountain that led the eye to a stunning vista of tree-studded countryside and the imposing cone of the Sugar Loaf mountain in the distance. Views simply don't get better.

Anyone who can get their hands on a copy of Stanley Kubrick's 18th century period film Barry Lyndon, the story of an Irish adventurer played by Ryan O'Neill, will be able to see the splendour of Powerscourt's interiors, as many of the indoor scenes in the film were shot there in natural light.

In November 1974, disaster struck. A bedroom at the top of the house went on fire and the blaze spread rapidly, eventually destroying the roof and the entire central core of the building. Many valuable antiques, paintings and other furnishings were lost.

Many people might have walked away from such a disaster, but the Slazengers were made of sterner stuff. They refurbished the east wing of the house almost immediately, and over the years the roof has been replaced and restoration work on the main house has been completed.

It took a confrontation with an armed gang of criminals intent on stripping out all the art work to make Ralph and Gwen Slazenger reconsider their living in Ireland. The raid was foiled, but the couple moved and relocated to the Isle of Man.

Both are now dead, but their remains are interred in the graveyard in Powerscourt.

Their eldest son, Michael, who was consultant anaesthetist at St Michael's Hospital in Dun Laoghaire until his retirement a few years ago, took over as managing director of the estate.

Together with his brothers John and Peter and sisters Wendy and Joanna, the family continued to restore Powerscourt, if not to its full former glory, at least to a condition that makes once again a stunning example of an Irish country house and a jaw-droppingly attractive tourist attraction.

A keen private pilot who kept a rare Falco monoplane at his private airstrip along the West Course of the Powerscourt Golf Club, of which he was president, Dr Michael Slazenger, 69, died earlier this week of injuries received when his plane crashed attempting to land at Powerscourt after a short sight-seeing flight last Saturday.

He is survived by his wife Noreen, three daughters, Marianne, Sarah and Elizabeth, and by his four siblings.

Irish Independent

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