Many people will be familiar with the travails in recent years of Wentworth Woodhouse in Yorkshire, said to be the largest private house in England (and with the longest facade of any house in Europe). However, they are unlikely to know about Coolattin, County Wicklow which, at 65,000 square feet is thought to be the largest private house in Ireland. It is no coincidence that both properties – which suffered such long periods of neglect that their respective futures looked imperilled – were originally built for the same family, the Earls Fitzwilliam. In England and Ireland alike, the Fitzwilliams were very substantial landowners – here they came to have some 90,000 acres – which allowed them to build on a more palatial scale than most other peers. And the rich seams of coal on their Yorkshire property further enhanced their wealth, as was described in Catherine Bailey’s 2007 book Black Diamonds: The Rise and Fall of an English Dynasty. However, their direct link with Ireland only began in 1782 when the fourth earl inherited the estates of his childless maternal uncle, the second Marquess of Rockingham: the latter was a descendant of Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford who had been Charles I’s Irish Lord Deputy in the 1630s and while here embarked on what was then intended to be the country’s largest private house, at Jigginstown, County Kildare (his recall in 1640 left the building unfinished).
In January 1794 the fourth Earl Fitzwilliam arrived in Ireland as the country’s new Lord Lieutenant. At this time, the French Revolution was at its most violent and the British government rightly feared similar insurrection could occur here: Fitzwilliam believed the best way to avoid such a state of affairs was to promote Catholic Emancipation and curb the power of the Protestant Ascendancy. However, rather like Lord Strafford before him he managed to alienate many potential supporters and by March of the following year he was on his way back to England, his Lieutenancy term having been brought to an abrupt end. Nevertheless, he retained an interest in Ireland and decided to build himself a proper residence on his Wicklow estate here at Coolattin. There seems to have been some building, perhaps a hunting lodge on the site already because as early as 1776 suggestions were made for its improvement. However work only began in 1796, to a design by the Yorkshire architect John Carr whose long life and successful career saw his style move from Palladianism to Adamesque classicism. The Fitzwilliams had already employed Carr in England, which explains how he received the commission in this country. He was not an innovator, so the house is conservative and restrained in style, the entrance front being of two storeys and of five bays, with a three-bay breakfront beneath a substantial pediment holding the Fitzwilliam coat of arms. A relatively modest doorcast with fanlight is framed by free-standing Tuscan order columns supporting a wide pediment.The side elevations are distinguished by generous full-height central bows. Even before this was finished, Coolattin was burnt during the 1798 Rising, so much of it had then to be rebuilt in the first years of the 19th century.
As shall be explained in due course, during the 19th century Coolattin underwent considerable expansion and alteration, so that it is not always easy to see what parts today survive from the original Carr building. The entrance front, for example, was moved from south to north, and the wall between hall and drawing room removed in order to create one large reception space. In the 1880s the adjacent library was hung with a Chinese wallpaper, with a room to the rear of the house receiving the same treatment. From here one moves to the dining room which the plans show was intended to be bowed at both ends but it appears this part of Carr’s scheme was never executed as only the east (window) side concludes in a bow. However, its equivalent on the other side of the staircase hall is double-bowed. Unraveling what parts of the interior design date from which period will be an ongoing challenge, not least in the aforementioned staircase hall, its great coved ceiling holding a dome to light the space. The first floor features a gallery, each of its walls containing three large arches, some blind, some giving access to bedrooms, all topped with glazed fanlights.
Given the size of the place, and the persons involved in its rise and near-fatal fall, the story of Coolattin is a long one, but to summarise: the Fitzwilliams remained in possession of the property well into the last century: in 1943 the eighth earl inherited the estate, along with those in England. As is well known, five years later he was killed in a plane crash, as was the woman with whom he was then having an affair, the widowed Marchioness of Hartington, otherwise known as Kathleen Kennedy, sister of future President John F Kennedy. His widow, Olive Plunket lived on at Coolattin until her own death in 1975 after which it was sold by the Fitzwilliams’ only child, Lady Juliet Tadgell (mother-in-law, incidentally, of British Conservative politician Jacob Rees-Mogg). Coolattin then went through an unfortunate period when it changed hands a couple of times, with much of the surrounding land and all the remaining original contents sold off. In 1983 it was acquired, along with 63 acres, by an American couple, the Wardrops, who did much to ensure the place survived. Twelve years later, her husband having died, the widow sold Coolattin to the local golf club which sought to expand its course from nine to 18 holes. For the next quarter century the building stood unoccupied and although some maintenance work was undertaken, it is now in poor shape. Offered for sale last year, Ireland’s biggest house has just been bought by a small group of concerned individuals who have set themselves the task of bringing the place back from the brink of ruin. They face an undertaking as massive as Coolattin itself.