17 December 2011

A castle with old-world charm and elegance

Castle Durrow, Co Laois … the venue for last night’s post-auction ball and a piece of old-world charm and elegance

I was in Castle Durrow Hotel in Co Laois last night for the Christ Church Cathedral Post-Auction Ball. The auction at Sheppard’s Irish Auction House in Durrow began at 12, and carried on into the late evening, delaying the dinner and the ball, but with everyone talking about a splendid day at which the attractions included a first painting by the original Riverdance star, Michael Flatley – using his feet.

Michael Flatley made the painting by applying paint to his shoes and then tap-dancing on a canvas. The auctioneer Philip Sheppard told The Irish Times recently: “The transmogrification of a fleeting dance movement into a fixed two-dimensional representation is, of itself, daunting; that it was created by the ‘Lord of the Dance’ makes this Jackson Pollock-esque work truly awesome.”

The auction was held to help raise funds for restoration work at Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin and to help fund urgent repairs to the Tower. All proceeds from the sale go entirely to the conservation of the tower, and Sheppard’s generously offered to waive all fees and commissions for the auction yesterday. As one of Ireland’s leading auction houses, Sheppard’s are specialists in period pieces of high quality furniture, and artworks ranging from early 18th-century portraits to contemporary paintings.

Castle Durrow is about 1½ hours from Dublin, on the N8 Dublin-Cork road, and sits immediately beside the Square in the charming – almost quaint – village of Durrow, on the banks of the River Erkina and on the borders of Co Laois and Co Kilkenny.

Castle Durrow is a unique piece of Irish history with an old-world charm and elegance that gives it the feeling of an age gone by. This is one of the few Irish country houses of importance that still retains much of its original condition. It is one of the last large pre-Palladian houses built in Ireland, and is one of the few 18th century houses for which precise building records survive.

The house was built in the early 18th century (1712-1715) for the Flower family, who held the titles of Baron Castle Durrow and Viscount Ashbrook. After the Cromwellian and Williamite wars, Irish domestic architecture in the first decades of the 18th century was developing an independence of the need for defence and economy that had marked earlier domestic building work, and a new aristocracy was beginning to enjoy the lands they had inherited.

Colonel William Flower (1685-1746) started building Castle Durrow in 1712, and the Flower family moved into the house in 1716. He was an MP for Kilkenny in the Irish House of Commons from 1715 to 1727, and for Portarlington from 1727 until he was made an Irish peer in 1733 with the title of Baron Castle Durrow, in the County of Kilkenny (sic). His son, Captain Henry Flower, 2nd Baron Castle Durrow, became the first Viscount Ashbrook in 1751. The family estates in England included Arley Hall in Cheshire and Beaumont Lodge at Old Windsor in Berkshire.

The Flower family continued to develop and improve the Castle Durrow estate over the next two centuries. Locally, they were regarded as benevolent landlords and they were largest employers in the village of Durrow.

When the banks foreclosed on the Flower family in 1922, they were forced to move out. Later, Castle Durrow was sold to a Mr Maher of Freshford, Co Kilkenny, who was more interested in the rich timber reserves than the house. By 1928, the old hard wood forests of Durrow were scarce.

The Land Commission moved in and divided up the arable portions of the estate, while the Forestry Department took over many of the woods for further plantation. Meanwhile, the great house remained empty for years.

The Bank of Ireland acquired all the property, including houses and shops, in the village, but in 1929 the Roman Catholic Parish of Durrow bought the estate for £1,800. Castle Durrow became a school, Saint Fintan’s College and Convent, and this beautiful building was saved for future generations. Peter and Shelley Stokes bought Castle Durrow in 1998 and they have since transformed it into a luxurious hotel.

Castle Durrow was decorated with Christmas trees and decorations last night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Set amid 30 acres of manicured gardens, woodlands, orchards and paddocks, Castle Durrow is a unique fusion of Queen Anne, Victorian and Georgian styles. Last night, there was a warm welcome in the house, which was decorated with Christmas trees and Christmas decorations. I looked in at the Queen Anne restaurant, with its ornate ceilings and two marble fireplaces, and its splendid views out to the terrace and across the formal gardens.

On the first floor, I was told, the master bedrooms have high ceilings, tall Georgian windows and breath-taking views of the estate. Four-poster or half-poster beds stand on polished floors next to old fireplaces and decorative wallpaper. The bedrooms in the West Wing have sleigh beds and their own fireplaces. Some bedrooms have an Oriental theme, with Oriental style wallpaper and furniture.

As the ball went on, and the dancers stayed on the floor, enjoying the friendship, fun and revelry, it was tempting to stay on in Castle Durrow last night. I left with a spot-prize for a mid-week dinner, bed and breakfast for two. Heading home under the bright, clear light of a silver half-moon, I could see for miles across the frosty, winter landscapes of Co Laois and Co Kildare . I was not back home in south Co Dublin until after 3.30 this morning.

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