Sunday 25 August 2019

Liam Collins: 'Family festival heralds new age for 'money-pit' stately home'

Russborough which has hosted the rich and famous is finally finding its groove, writes Liam Collins

Afternoon tea: Visitors included Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull
Afternoon tea: Visitors included Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull

It has been set on fire and its treasures plundered. But what is "arguably the most beautiful house in Ireland" - Russborough House - is moving into a new era: the great stately home is hosting a three-day music festival.

During the United Irishmen rising in 1798, a British garrison dug up the parquet floors for firewood; its art treasures were stolen by the IRA in 1974 and for a second time by Martin 'The General' Cahill in 1986 - and as recently as 2007 "there was a 50/50 chance we'd have to close the doors and shut up shop," says its CEO Eric Blatchford.

"For the last 10 years the house has been suffering from dying pains, now we're suffering from growing pains," says Blatchford, standing in front of the great Palladian mansion outside Blessington, Co Wicklow.

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Later this month, it will be the site of Kaleidoscope, a festival featuring Imelda May, Bell X1, Tom Odell and many other artists.

Between 1741, when the house was built by Joseph Leeson, Earl of Milltown, and the great controversy of four years ago when some of its art treasures were sold to fund renovations, Russborough has seen a procession of international socialites and celebrities pass through its pillared grandeur.

Jackie Kennedy, wife of JFK, was a guest of Sir Alfred and Lady Beit, and Fred Astaire danced with couturier Sybil Connolly on the only parquet floor that remains from the original house.

During their stay, Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull took afternoon tea in the grand salon, hung with Vermeers and other priceless paintings later donated to the National Gallery of Ireland for safekeeping.

Recently, just when it was badly needed, a bit of local folklore was found to be true. A large tunnel with an impressive stone arch, originally built to herd cattle around the estate, was found under the N81, which means that Russborough can eventually be linked to the planned 40km Blessington Lakes 'greenway' without visitors having to cross the busy Dublin to Enniscorthy road.

"Wicklow Co Council has just been allocated €5m for this project - and if other greenways are anything to go by, this will bring in up to 300,000 visitors and revive local villages like Valleymount and Lacken, as well as being a spin-off for us," he says.

In 1902, the widow of the 6th Earl of Milltown presented the majority of her paintings to the National Gallery of Ireland and they are now in a wing named after her.

In 1952, Albert Beit, heir to a South African diamond fortune, bought the house for his collection of paintings, furniture and objects - many of which are now in the Beit wing of the National Gallery.

"It's amazing that two wings of the gallery are named after owners of this house," said Mr Blatchford.

From an upstairs window you can look out on an uninterrupted view of the Blessington Lakes, not a house or bungalow in sight, a view protected by Wicklow Co Council.

Russborough was the centre of controversy in 2015 when the Alfred Beit Foundation, established to preserve the house and contents, decided to sell paintings, including three by Rubens, to raise an estimated €4 to €5m.

In the end, a Rubens' work - Head of a Bearded Man and a painting by David Teniers - were bought by a benefactor and presented to the National Gallery of Ireland.

"We are a standalone charitable trust and have to beg, borrow or steal to survive," said Blatchford. "The Government, Failte Ireland and the Heritage Council have all been good to us but it is still tough to make ends meet."

A chartered accountant by profession, when he first came to Russborough the house had an income of €150,000 - but €650,000 expenses. For 2018 it will, for the first time, record a small surplus, with income and expenses coming in at about €1m each. But it must renovate much of the 300-year old roof, part of which is leaking. Money is also needed to restore the colonnade and original statues to the left of the main entrance.

But now the stately home which "leaks water and drains money" is leaping into the 21st century with the Kaleidoscope Festival - brainchild of local promoter Brian McDermott of Event Fuel.

"We have turned down many offers over the years," said Blatchford, "but Brian is a local, and this is going to be a new family-friendly camping festival in Ireland. It will also promote the arts and music, so we've decided to take the plunge."

He has been to English stately homes such as Chatsworth to see how it is done - and says he is satisfied they can pull it off. The house will be closed during the festival but the estate's other attractions will remain open.

Kaleidoscope is at Russborough House, Wicklow, on June 28-30. Weekend camping for a family of four costs from €155.28

Sunday Independent

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