independent

Saturday 17 August 2019

Wexford's finest castle restored to former glory

Johnstown Castle is now open to the public for the first time, writes Maria Pepper

A 1st floor view of the inside of Johnstown Castle
A 1st floor view of the inside of Johnstown Castle
The dining room

A new visitor centre and cafe are due to open over the August bank holiday weekend at restored Johnstown Castle which has been open to the public for guided tours since the beginning of June, following an €8.5 million investment project.

'When you go into the castle, it's a fairy story. I've never seen people react to anything in the way that visitors react when they go inside. It's like something they've never seen before', said General Manager Brenda Comerford.

The rooms, including the dining room, mirrored drawing room, the Flag Hall with its ornate wooden balcony, Lady Fitzgerald's bedroom and boudoir, the downstairs kitchens and the longest intact servants' tunnel in Ireland have been beautifully restored and re-created in the way they would have looked when the castle was occupied, giving an intimate glimpse into privileged lifestyles of the past.

'People love the kitchen. It's a real Downton Abbey thing. We have a lot of the original furniture which the Department of Agriculture acquired when there was an auction at the time Johstown was handed over to the State in 1944', said Brenda.

The interior feels warms and comfortable with heating and lighting upgraded and health and safety features in place such as re-inforced floors and tunnel illumintion.

People from Ireland and abroad have been taking part in guided tours of the splendid interior of the restored Neo-Gothic castle since it opened over a month ago, with an enjoyable introductory day held for the more than 1,000 people who registered as members.

'All age groups of visitors are amazed when they see the rooms. We've had people from the UK, China, the USA, India and Germany etc. It's what they imagine a palace is like', said Brenda.

One of the most striking features is the stunning view of the lake and gardens to be enjoyed from the windows.

More than 50 active volunteers have signed up for duties including tour guiding and gardening and some of them were called on to help the project artist and restoration expert Peter Pearson furnish and 'dress' the rooms in the busy lead-up to opening day.

Encouraging a sense of involvement is part of the Irish Heritage Trust ethos, according to its Chief Executive Anne O' Donoghue who has overseen the project from the start.

'It's not just what we do, it's how we go about doing it. I want people to look at Johnstown and say 'oh my God, I would love to be a part of that. I can't speak highly enough of the volunteers,' she said.

Existing staff of Johnstown, including the Irish Agricultural Museum, are now employed by the Irish Heritage Trust, including the curator Matt Wheeler whose wife Anne is the Volunteer Co-ordinator. Vintage restorers including Peter Miller and his wife Hazel have also come on board.

'The existing team that have always been here, under Matt, are the best team I've ever worked with', said Brenda.

The CEO described the opening of the castle for the first time as 'a big reveal' but said another big showstopper will be the opening of the visitor centre with a 120-seat cafe and shop, leading onto an outdoor terrace of 60-seats overlooking the Lower Lake which has never been publicly accessible before.

A 1.5km walking path has been created around the lake which has a hidden but audible waterfall nearby, providing a soothing sound for people enjoying coffee or lunch outdoors.

Caroline Kavanagh and the staff of the existing Peacock Cafe in the Agricultural Museum will run the new cafe, with the Heritage Trust looking at the possibility of expanding the restaurant service in the future.

The Lower Lake Walk cost €850,000 and was funded under the Rural Regeneration Scheme of the Department of Rural and Community Affairs. The €7.5 million cost of the visitor centre and castle restoration was funded by the Department of Agriculture and Fáilte Ireland.

The restoraton of the glass houses in the Walled Garden, on which work is due to begin soon, is also covered under the Rural Regeneration project, with Teagasc making up a financial shortfall.

A woodland play area for children located near the Lower Lake Walk, will be opening at the end of August.

A new entranceway to the castle has been created, bringing people past the EPA to the impressive new visitor centre and cafe where the reception and ticket desk are situated. Visitors go through an orientation/interpretive area located in what is now the museum foyer, before moving out into the castle grounds.

'There will be so much happening here that people will want to keep visiting. We want to have a special focus on biodiversity,' said Ms. Donoghue.

For Brenda Comerford and Matt Wheeler who share a huge love of wildlife, there is nowhere better to work than Johnstown which has biodiversity in abundance.

The woodland play area had to be moved from its original planned location to protect long-established badger sets which have been there for hundreds of years, with exclusion areas of 50 metres created around them.

Cameras have been set up to track the activities of pine martins and otters.

Johnstown is synonomous with peacocks which the public love. The population currently extends to over 30 peacocks which lead a completely natural life, roaming the grounds and roosting in the trees.

'When people come in here, it's a little world of its own, a natural world. The natural resources here are incredible,' said Brenda.

Johnstown has the largest colony of Soprano Pipistrelle bats in Ireland which has been closely followed and researched by Harm Deenen, a native of Holland living locally, and Matt Wheeler. They roost in the tower near the museum.

The castle is also home to a native Black Bee hive which started off in the battlements. Matt became a beekeeper in order to look after them and more hives were started in the Walled Garden where a study is underway in association with NUI Galway.

The Johnstown bees are the only native population left in Western Europe and may end up re-populating other countries.

The honey is now harvested and sold and is so popular that stocks are sold out as soon as they become available, with a second annual harvest due in September.

There is a swift colony and Matt serves as the south-east swift coordinator.

Education is also part of the new remit and an exciting artistic project is due to take place soon when restoration expert Pearl O'Sullivan will spend five weeks on site restoring a Parras portrait painting of Hamilton Knox Grogan Morgan (the man who built the castle as it now stands) with his wife Sophia and their daughter, while giving talks to the public and hosting workshops for children.

Hamilton Knox Grogan Morgan's laboratory has been re-created and it is hoped that it will inspire schoolchildren to become excited about science. He experimented in Galvinism, what was later called electricity. The Trust are currently looking for donations of old scientific equipment that people might have. Johnstown Castle and gardens were designed by Daniel Robertson who also designed Powerscourt House.

During forthcoming National Heritage Week, people with connections to Johnstown Castle will be invited to tell their stories for an oral history project.

Wexford craftmaker products are sold in the shop along with photo prints of Johnstown by the Wexford photographer Paula Malone Carty.

Gorey Guardian

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