Having never been to Castletown House in Kildare, we ended up visiting one Sunday morning last year to do a family photo shoot. My friend had mentioned the grounds would be the perfect location for a wander and lots of photo opportunities. She wasn’t wrong. After the shoot, we didn’t feel like leaving so we ended up staying and spending the afternoon exploring Castletown House and parklands!
The parklands are open daily throughout the year and there is no entry fee. It seems to be a popular place for people to come for a run, stroll or to walk their dogs. You can also pay to take a tour of Castletown House, which is well worth exploring if it’s open.
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A Very Brief History of Castletown
William Conolly was a prominent Irish politician and as Speaker of the Irish House of Commons, he was also known as Speaker Conolly. He was said to be the wealthiest man in Ireland at one time. Much of his wealth came from the purchase of confiscated land after the Williamite War in Ireland and subsequent earnings from those estates. His marriage to Katherine Conyngham also played a large part in his fortune. The marriage helped to elevate his social status and Katherine’s dowry provided the funds to purchase their first estates.
The Conolly’s commissioned the building of Castletown House, which started in 1722. It was the first winged Palladian house in Ireland and is the largest of its kind. After William’s death in 1729, Katherine spent time between their home in Dublin city and at Castletown House. She died in Castletown House in 1752, after which the Castletown estate passed to Conolly’s nephew, William James Conolly. It remained in the family until 1965 when developers purchased the house and land.
Unfortunately the new owners auctioned off the contents of the house and left it empty. It was then vandalised and looted and seemed destined for ruin. Thankfully Desmond Guinness saved the day and purchased the house and land in 1967. He had also purchased much of the contents in the earlier auction. Restoration work commenced under the aegis of the Irish Georgian Society, which Desmond and his first wife Mariga Guinness had founded in 1958.
Today, the office of Public Works (OPW) owns and manages the property and estate. Restoration and conservation is ongoing, gradually returning Castletown house and demesne to their previous splendour.
Tours of Castletown House
The house is very impressive, both inside and out. If you have the chance to take a tour inside, it’s definitely worth it. Note that the house is not open all year round though. It usually opens at the start of March but check the website before visiting for up to date information. As the house is managed by the OPW, we used our Heritage Cards to get free entry. Bonus!
We did a self guided tour the day we visited, though guided tours are usually available throughout the week. It meant we could enjoy browsing at our own pace and take time to appreciate the many treasures in the house. Spoiler: there are a lot! Not only is the architecture of the house just beautiful but there is also a large collection of furnishings, paintings and other items to enjoy as you work your way through the two floors. It’s not surprising that Castletown has been described as “an Italian palace set on the banks of the River Liffey”!
Highlights of the ground floor include the Entrance Hall and Staircase Hall. The Entrance Hall reflects the wealth and prosperity of the Conolly family. As you can see from the photos it’s pretty swish!
To the right of the entrance hall is the Staircase Hall, which you need to pass through to purchase tickets for the tour. The stone staircase is one of the largest cantilevered staircases in Ireland and is really beautiful. Elaborate rococo plasterwork adorns the walls, creating a very impressive space. You can’t climb the stairs though unfortunately, so no trying to slip past the rope!
Once you have your ticket, the tour starts back in the Dining Room to the left of the Entrance Hall and leads around to the rooms at the back of the house before heading upstairs. There are two drawing rooms on the ground floor, which are very opulent. Unfortunately the Red Drawing Room was under restoration when we visited. The furnishings had been removed so conservation work could to be done.
Right next door though is the Green Drawing Room, which was the main reception room. Like the Red Drawing Room, the walls of the Green Drawing Room are lined with silk damask, in this case a pale green colour. The room is not exactly dripping in gold but it certainly features heavily, not only on the hanging portraits but the door frames, along the walls and on some of the furnishings.
The room also features a rare musical clock by renowned English clockmaker, Charles Clay. I can’t recall if it plays on the quarter or half hour but listen out for it as it still works. It’s pretty impressive really, as the clock is not far off three hundred years old!
Next to the Green Drawing Room is the Print Room, which is really fascinating. Think old-school Pinterest! It was created by Lady Louisa Conolly during her time at Castletown. Lady Louisa was responsible for a lot of remodelling during the 1760s and 1770s and for finishing the interiors. At the time it was popular to collect prints you liked and paste them onto the wall as a sort of wallpaper. The Print Room at Castletown is the only one in Ireland that survives from that time.
Other rooms on the ground floor include the Butler’s Pantry, the Brown Study, State Bedroom, Healy Room and Map Room.
On the first floor are the main family and guest bedrooms. Lady Louisa’s private apartment consists of a boudoir, bedroom and dressing rooms. A smaller apartment on the other side of the floor includes the Blue Bedroom and two adjoining dressing rooms.
In Lady Kildare’s Bedroom (named after Louisa’s sister Emily) there is a display of 18th century gowns, which would have been worn for formal ceremonies.
The most impressive room on this floor and perhaps in the whole house, is the Long Gallery. Originally a picture gallery it later became a space for informal entertainment and was often used for theatrical or musical performances. The room is elaborately decorated and includes lots of statues, busts and murals.
The Long Gallery also contains a set of three rare 18th century Murano glass chandeliers. I realise they are very unique and valuable but they kind of reminded me of Chupa Chups lollipops, which I can’t get out of my head now. So not to my taste I guess but they work in a lavish setting like this!
You can easily spend an hour or more strolling around the beautiful parklands. At the front of the house, the parkland extends down to the River Liffey. It’s about a ten minute walk down to the river and you can follow the path along the banks of the Liffey. Amongst other things, there’s a lovely lake, a small temple, an ice house and ruins of a bathing house to discover as you wander the grounds.
Every Saturday morning there is a 5km parkrun at Castletown. The event is free to join, all you need to do is register online in advance so you can receive a barcode and get your times. These are great events run by volunteers and everyone is really friendly. There’s usually a catch-up over coffee after the events.
Café and Market
There is a café onsite, the Courtyard Café, which is located in the restored 18th century Kitchen Wing. Before taking the tour of house we enjoyed a lovely lunch in the outdoor seating area. It’s not too often we get the chance to dine outside, though we did still have to wear our jackets!
We also happened to visit on the last Sunday of the month and the Country Market & Craft Fair was taking place. The market is located in the courtyard and stables and theres heaps of yummy food (including possibly the largest donuts I’ve every seen!), hand made crafts, photography and much more.
Frequent events take place at Castletown, including plays and concerts in the Long Gallery and elsewhere. View the Castletown website or Facebook page for information on upcoming events and markets dates.
Batty Langley Lodge
Completed in 1785, the unique two-storey Batty Langley Lodge is at the Dublin Road entrance to the estate. The stunning gothic facade comes into view as you finish the river walk and is really quite impressive.
The one-bedroom lodge can even be rented out. How cool is that? You can spend a couple of nights pretending you are Lord or Lady of Castletown! Sounds like the perfect romantic getaway or just the place to hide away and escape reality for a bit. Interested? If so, you can check availability and pricing here.
The Wonderful Barn and Conolly Folly
The famine of 1740-41 was a very bleak time in Irish history. Between 13 and 20 percent of the population died due to starvation or disease. Many wealthy philanthropists helped to provide some relief to those suffering and Katherine Connolly was one such person.
As well as distributing food and cash during the worst of the famine, Katherine also commissioned the building of the Conolly Folly in 1740 providing much needed work for locals. Later, in 1743 she commissioned The Wonderful Barn providing further employment and a place to store grain in case of future famine.
The Conolly Folly and The Wonderful Barn are just a short drive from Castletown House and demesne and well worth a visit. So do check them out if you have the time.
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