Vanity of Vanities; All is Vanity

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Some buildings make better ruins than do others. But few look as splendid as Duckett’s Grove in County Carlow. Fantastically towered and turreted and castellated, the remains of this large house rise about the surrounding flat agricultural land, like some 19th century interpretation of a castle in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. Originally at the centre of a 12,000 acre estate the core of the structure is older, probably dating from the early 1700s and taking the form of a regular three-storey over basement, five-bay residence. Precise information about this building does not exist, but one may assume it was built for one of the first Ducketts to settle in this part of the world, perhaps Thomas Duckett who came from Grayrigg in Westmoreland and bought land here in 1695. He had the sense to marry an heiress, as did several of his successors with the result that the family grew ever-more prosperous, with an average annual income of £10,000. This wealth allowed John Dawson Duckett to embark on a transformation of the old house from 1818 onwards.

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For his architect, Duckett picked someone little known outside the immediate area, perhaps because he received so many commissions in County Carlow and its environs that he had no time to take on work further afield. This was Thomas Alfred Cobden, believed to have been born in Chichester in 1794. It is unknown how this young man came to be in Ireland, or how he came to be so much in demand in the Carlow/Wexford area where he designed churches (and even a cathedral) and public buildings as well as private houses, all in a variety of styles. But nothing else quite matches his work at Duckett’s Grove where, presumably at the request of the client, he let rip with almost every decorative motif available. The old house was smothered in a superfluity of turrets, crenellations, arches and niches, oriel windows and quatrefoil decoration before being further embellished with busts and urns and statuary, some of it attached to the building, some free-standing in the immediate grounds. Furthermore the structure was given what has been described as ‘wilful asymmetry’ through the addition of sundry towers, none of which correspond to the others in either shape or height. Further work was undertaken in the 1840s by another relatively obscure architect John Macduff Derick who designed the immense granite entrance gates to the estate as almost a castle in their own right. Given the style of this work, one wonders whether he was also responsible for the more rugged elements of Duckett’s Grove, those parts of the building (likewise in granite) which are Norman rather than High Gothic in inspiration?

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The history of Duckett’s Grove in the 20th century was not a happy one. John Dawson Duckett’s son William inherited the estate on his father’s death and although twice married he had no children. When he in turn died in 1908 he left everything to his second wife, Marie who had a daughter from her own first marriage but likewise no other offspring. By 1916 Marie Duckett had moved out of the house and moved to Dublin where her late husband had bought her a place, and thereafter Duckett’s Grove was looked after by an agent. Because the family had been good landlords, always permitting access to the gardens (until 1902 when they felt their hospitality was being exploited by visitors) and looking after their workforce, Duckett’s Grove suffered no damage during the War of Independence. But already a lot of the estate had been parcelled off for sale to former tenants, and in 1923 Marie Duckett disposed of the contents of Duckett’s Grove in a three-day auction. Even before then she had sold the house and remaining 1,300 acres to a group of local farmers who together took out a £32,000 loan. However, they quarrelled over its division and failed to repay the bank, so eventually the Land Commission assumed responsibility and divided up the land between another 48 small holders. Duckett’s Grove and its immediate 11 acres were acquired by a Carlow businessman in 1931 for £320. He demolished some of the outbuildings (stone from these was used to construct a new Christian Brothers school in Carlow town) but had not yet decided what to do with the house when it was mysteriously gutted by fire in April 1933.

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Marie Duckett does not appear to have been in any way troubled about the destruction of her late husband’s family home, perhaps because by this date she was already enmeshed in the delusions and squabbles that overwhelmed her last years (the story of her will, in which she effectively dispossessed her daughter, and of the court case after her death can easily be found elsewhere). For over seventy years Duckett’s Grove stood open to the elements and largely unprotected. Finally in 2005 Carlow County Council acquired the property and has since restored the old walled gardens, and installed various facilities in part of the old stables.
The main house remains a shell and frankly one wonders if in this instance that is not the best fate for the place. Duckett’s Grove, as overhauled in the 19th century, can never have been an object of much beauty. All that over-ornamentation, all those statues and busts and other decorative flourishes must have been somewhat excessive, redolent of the era’s likewise immoderately decorated interiors with their potted palms and red plush sofas and antimacassars. Stripped of the accretions Duckett’s Grove today possesses a grandeur that probably eluded it when still roofed and occupied. The line of towers on the skyline now has a greater dignity than was ever formerly the case. Duckett’s Grove was made to be a ruin, and as such it is rather splendid.

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7 comments on “Vanity of Vanities; All is Vanity

  1. columnist says:

    I like that expression “wilful asymmetry”; enough to make a neo-classicist foam at the mouth. Better as it is, as you say!

  2. Shay Kinsella says:

    A remarkable place. Beautiful photographs.

  3. Ducketts Grove was used as a ‘safe training HQ by the republican forces during the war of independence.some info and a photo of three cumann na mban prison escapees who hid out there.Linda Kearns, Eithne Coyle, May Burke
    http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~irlcar2/Cumann_na_mBan.htm

  4. Louisa Haughney says:

    A nice little tea room has been opened at weekends and its owner can take bookings for high teas. A tour for a very modest sum can also be booked.

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