Castletown House, County Kildare

It may justly be said that Castletown is the largest and most splendid country house in Ireland, but it is also arguably the most important for it introduced sophisticated Palladianism from the continent and brought about a revolution in Irish architecture. The building was begun between 1721 and 1722 for William Conolly (1622-1729), the son of a Donegal innkeeper who, through astute dealings in forfeited estates after the Williamite wars, had become the richest man in Ireland. The house is an obvious manifestation of his wealth, but it also reflects the enormous political power that Conolly achieved following his election as Speaker of the Irish House of Commons in 1715 and his appointment as Lord Justice in 1716. Proud of his Irish identity, he consistently used his power to promote Irish interests. It was Conolly who instigated building the Parliament House on College Green, the first of its kind in Europe. Undoubtedly there were similar patriotic and political motivations underlying the building of his house at Castletown.

The design of the house was entrusted to the Florentine Alessandro Galilei (1691-1737), best known for his work on the Lateran Basilica in Rome. Although Galilei returned to Italy in 1719 having spent only a few months in Ireland, work on the building designs did not materialise until a few years later. Building was evidently well underway in July 1722, but with Galilei in Italy it is not clear who was supervising the operation. In 1724, however, the project was taken over by the twenty-five-year-old Edward Lovett Pearce who had just returned from Italy where he was studying the work of Palladio. Pearce had been in close touch with Galilei in Italy (whom he already knew through Vanbrugh, his cousin) and possibly helped him transmit designs back to Conolly in Ireland. Building operations at Castletown continued after Conolly's death in 1729 but came to a halt in 1733 with the early death of Pearce, by now Surveyor General and the most outstanding architect of his generation.

It is not known precisely how much of Castletown is Galilei's work, but he was certainly responsible for devising the overall scheme of the centre block, which was flanked by colonnades to lower service pavilions in the manner of Palladio's villas in the Veneto - a concept that was completely new in Ireland and later became the prototype and inspiration for numerous houses. The classically correct and regimented main facades of the centre block, both of which are almost identical, have the character of an Italian Renaissance town palazzo and are clearly also Galilei's work; their beauty and serenity are enormously enhanced by the silvery-white limestone which, unlike other Irish lime stones, is free from age-darkening and blackening from the rain. The pavilions, designed by Pearce, are composed of a coarser and less dazzling golden-brown limestone; together with the curved colonnades they have the effect of focussing the eye upon the centre block.

The interior plan of Castletown was probably largely devised by Pearce, although it incorporates some archaic features, such as the arrangement of rooms in an enfilade along the ground-floor garden front. Adhering to the seventeenth-century baroque tradition, these rooms meet in a central saloon and terminate with antechambers at each end. The saloon (now the green drawing-room) opens into the two storey entrance hall, crossed along the inside wall by a corridor running through the central axis of the house. Another corridor directly above this is carried by a balustraded gallery supported by a screen of lonic columns. It is a magnificent entrance hall - almost certainly designed by Pearce and the only large room that has survived intact from the Speaker's day.

Pearce's device of a columnar screen at one end of the hall was later adopted by many Irish houses, such as Castle Ward in County Down. Another novel feature of the plan which subsequently entered the vocabulary of Irish country house architecture was the location of the main staircase in a separate chamber to the side of the hall. However, this chamber evidently remained without its staircase for forty years, as Speaker Conolly's widow preferred to leave the interior unfinished though she continued to live at Castletown in great style until her death in l752. She was, none-the-less, responsible for building work in the demesne, notably the Conolly Folly (1740), the Wonderful Barn (1743) and the Batty Langley Lodge (circa 1745).

Castletown's interior was largely created during the time of Tom Conolly, the Speaker's great nephew, who inherited the property in 1758 when he was twenty four. That same year he married the fifteen-year-old Lady Louisa Lennox, daughter of the second Duke of Richmond, whose older sister Emily had already married James, the Earl of Kildare, and was living nearby at Carton. By all accounts Tom Conolly had a weak, indecisive character, but Louisa was extremely dynamic and immediately set about completing the house.

The staircase hall was Louisa s first objective. She employed the Dutch-ltalian sculptor and stonemason Simon Vierpyl to install the magnificent Portland-stone cantilevered staircase in 1760; the unusual brass balustrade in the form of Doric columns is signed 'A. King Dublin 1760'. As substantial payments were made to the famous Swiss-ltalian stuccodores - the Francini brothers - in l765 it may be assumed that the plasterwork in the staircase hall was applied then, except for the cornice and coffered ceiling which belong to Pearce's time. The Francini brothers first came to Ireland in l739 and are credited with the introduction of human figures into plaster decoration; characteristically, their plasterwork on the staircase incorporates a number of family portraits as well as large canvases, notably 'The Boar Hunt' by Snyders.

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