Sixty-five years ago, in July 1957, the Irish Times announced that the gardens of Mount Congreve, County Waterford ‘are to be open to the public for the first time’ on three afternoons each week over the following two months. The unnamed writer declared that few finer gardens of their kind were to be found on either side of the Irish Sea, those at Mount Congreve including a large 18th century conservatory and a walled garden where the quarter-mile of herbaceous borders held some 15,000 plants in hundreds of varieties ‘timed to flower in the coming weeks.’ In addition, there were rare trees and shrubs, and lawns offering attractive views of the adjacent river Suir. The owner of this property, the Irish Times correspondent explained, was Ambrose Congreve, then-Chairman of Humphreys & Glasgow Limited, the London fuel and chemical engineers ‘who are marketing small nuclear power plants.’
Originally from Staffordshire (and collaterally related to the Restoration playwright William Congreve), members of the Congreve family first came to Ireland in the 17th century, one of them, the Rev. John Congreve, settling in County Waterford. His grandson, another John, was responsible for building Mount Congreve c.1760, its design sometimes attributed to local architect John Roberts but this is conjectural. As built, the house was of three storeys and seven bays, with slightly projecting two-storey wings on either side beyond which lay the service yards. Successive generations of the family lived there, alternating the first names John and Ambrose until the last of these, Ambrose Christian Congreve who died in 2011 at the age of 104 leaving no heir. Thanks to his considerable wealth, he was responsible for transforming both the house and surrounding gardens. The former he enlarged in the 1960s, not least by the addition of a substantial bow at the centre of the entrance front, centred on a rather modest Baroque limestone doorcase. Additions were also made to the wings and yards which were given cupolas and more limestone doorcases. Mr Congreve had a plutocrat’s taste: he liked everything large and abundant and almost to the end of his life he was making changes to the building and its contents, both of which might be described as plush. Outdoors, as a young man he was inspired by what he saw Lionel de Rothschild had created in his own garden at Exbury in Hampshire. From the early 1930s onwards Mr Congreve set about emulating this example, not least by planting the same species in large groups. ‘When one plants anything,’ he declared, ‘whether it involves five or fifty plants, they should be planted together and not dotted here and there’: as a result, at Mount Congreve, enormous numbers of one variety of magnolia or azalea can be found in the same location to spectacular effect. Thanks to its size – it runs to some 70 acres – Mount Congreve’s garden holds over 3,000 different trees and shrubs, more than 2,000 Rhododendrons, 600 Camellias, 300 Acer cultivars, 600 conifers, 250 climbers and 1,500 herbaceous plants.
In 1979, recognising that he had no direct heir, Ambrose Congreve transferred ownership of his family house and some 71 surrounding acres to a charitable organisation, the Mount Congreve Trust with the understanding that all of this property would eventually pass to the Irish state. However, part of the arrangement was that 66 acres of gardens would only become national property 21 years after his death, and the house and immediate five acres only in 2059. Thus, when he died in 2011, it appeared that the greater part of the gardens would not be taken under state care until 2032 – and the house and balance of land still not for a further 27 years. Inevitably, dispute followed, with unfortunate consequences, not least that the contents of the house – including a library dating back to the 18th century – were dispersed in a number of auctions, leaving the place empty. Meanwhile, the gardens on which he had lavished so much care and expense also deteriorated – today a very large 18th century greenhouse is in very poor condition – as discussions took place over who should be responsible for their upkeep. Only in 2019 was agreement reached whereby the trust transferred both the house and gardens to the local authority, which subsequently received a grant of €3.7 million from a Department for Rural and Community Development programme targeting regional development to restore and improve Mount Congreve. At the moment, the entire site is closed to the public (the house itself swathed in scaffolding, hence no pictures of it today), while necessary work takes place. It appears a couple of rooms on the ground floor of the main building will be accessible when the project is completed, along with one of the adjacent yards used to welcome visitors. But what will become of the rest of what is a very substantial house, which for more than a decade has sat vacant and shuttered? It remains to be seen if some new purpose is proposed for the place.