'Heritage' hope after minister's visit to Castlebridge conservatory

After years of decay there is some optimism about reversing the conservatory's slow decline

Minister Heather Humphreys, Minister Paul Kehoe, local councillors, council officials and committee members in front of the old conservatory at Castlebridge House

This aerial shot reveals how the house, gardens and conservatory looked in 1961

thumbnail: Minister Heather Humphreys, Minister Paul Kehoe, local councillors, council officials and committee members in front of the old conservatory at Castlebridge House
thumbnail: This aerial shot reveals how the house, gardens and conservatory looked in 1961
David TuckerNew Ross Standard

Heather Humphreys has become the first minister from outside the county for many years to visit crumbling Castlebridge House and its rusting conservatory, but offered little more than advice on funding channels to try to save it from further deterioration.

Anyone expecting her to come with pockets bulging with 'heritage' euros was left disappointed.

But the fact that the visit took place at all is significant and she left some conservatory campaigners more optimistic than they were before she and her entourage, including Minister Paul Kehoe, dropped in.

Castlebridge House was one of six locations visited by Minister Humphreys during a four-hour, whistle-stop tour last Thursday that also took in Johnstown Castle, The Forge Craft Shop, at Baldwinstown, Wexford Arts Centre, the Athenaeum in Enniscorthy and Enniscorthy District annual meeting at the Riverside Park Hotel.

The conservatory itself is the rusting jewel in the crown of of the village around €500,000 spent on it out of an estimated €2 million to include the house before things finally reach the point of no return.

That could only be only a couple of years away.

In the meantime, the council is building a 'cover' over it to protect the conservatory from the weather until a permanent solution can be found, although not everyone is convinced that this will work and many in the village think that under shielded from the weather it will continue to rot unless a much more radical and expensive plan comes into being.

Barney Murphy, chairman of the Castlebridge House and Conservatory Restoration Committee, said the fact that the minister came at all was in itself a small victory for those trying to save the conservatory.

'It would have been better if she gave us some of the money she is giving to the Wexford Arts Centre,' he said, commenting on the €1 million handout announced earlier this month to pay for a major extension there.

'But I think it was important that she came and saw the state of the conservatory and realised the beauty that it was and the beauty that it can still be,' Mr Murphy told this newspaper.

'Our main concern is the conservatory, however, the council would be more inclined to think about the whole thing. We're talking about half a million which is not a lot when you think about what is being given to the arts centre,' he said.

Mr Murphy said the minister came without any money in her pockets, but told campaigners where the funding is and to get our applications in, although no promises were made.

He blamed past county managers and councils for the deplorable state the conservatory is in, but was fulsome in his praise of the current chief executive Tom Enright whom he says recognises how important the conservatory and Castlebridge House are acting to try to save both.

The exquisitely crafted, cast-iron conservatory is one of the last examples of its kind in Ireland. Built by Pierce's Foundry, for many years the mainstay of Wexford's economy, the conservatory once housed beautiful chrysanthemums and fushias in a glorious array of colours.

Back in July of 1998, the National Building Agency report said 'the house contained little of architectural or historical value, however, the conservatory attached is an equisite piece of craftsmanship' with the ironwork structure seen to reflect the industrial age in its most advanced form.

Patrick Breen built Castlebridge House between 1810 and 1825. The house was thought to have been extended to include the conservatory at a later date, possibly within the 10-year period after his father's death in 1858.

James Pierce of Wexford was said to have erected the neo-classical conservatory at Castlebridge for the Breens at around this time and it is testament to the Pierce's workmanship that after decades of neglect the conservatory is still standing at all.

Between 1952 and 1974, the house was occupied by the Nunn family. The Breen Nunn union came about through the marriage of Patrick Breen, J.P's daughter, to William Bolton Nunn in the 1870s.

After William's death, his son Joshua took over the malt business and remained at Castlebridge House until his death in 1974.

In 1974, the County Council bought Castlebridge House for £35,000. It had been expected that the house would fetch at least £80,000, but the country was going through a rough period at that time.

For some time after this, the house was used as a Fire Training Centre, the first of its kind in Ireland and during this time, the conservatory fell into further decay.

There are two great things going for the house - the fact that it has the iconic and rare conservatory and its connection to the Guinness Book of Records.

It was in the sitting room of Castlebridge House in 1951, that the first debate on setting up the Guinness Book of Records took place - the historic discussion occurred between the then-Managing Director of Guinness Sir Hugh Beaver, Mr Nunn and members of their shooting party after a day on the North Slob.

The Guinness Book of Records went on to become the best-selling copyrighted series of all time.