Ol’ Man River

The Blackwater is aptly named. Called in Irish An Abhainn Mhór (The Great River) it is the second longest waterway in Ireland, exceeded only by the Shannon. Rising in County Kerry’s Mullaghareirk Mountains, the Blackwater flows for more than 100 miles to drain into the sea at Youghal, County Cork. Here outside Cappoquin, County Waterford, the river turns abruptly south, grows broad and tidal, and is thereafter largely bordered by ancient woodland.

Felix Phoenix

Claimed as the largest such enclosed city space in Europe, Dublin’s Phoenix Park this year celebrates the 350th anniversary of its creation. The park’s name derives from an anglicisation of ‘fionn uisce’ meaning clear water, referring to a spa once located in the vicinity. In the Middle Ages, the 1,750 acres now surrounded by eleven miles of wall were owned by the Knights Hospitaller and following the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII the lands eventually reverted to the British Crown.
In 1662 Charles II’s representative in Ireland, James Butler, first Duke of Ormonde established a royal hunting ground on the site: descendants of the herd of fallow deer he introduced still roam the park today. One of its most attractive, if unsung, features is the location of the park. On raised ground to the north-west of the city centre, views to the south soar over urban sprawl and offer an unimpeded spectacle of the Dublin Mountains.
Just over a decade after being created by Ormonde the park was almost lost when the Charles II proposed to grant the land to his venal former mistress Barbara Villiers whose compliant husband had been given an Irish peerage; fortunately the country’s then-Viceroy Arthur Capel, Earl of Essex resisted this scheme’s implementation and ensured the Phoenix Park was not lost.

An equal debt is owed to a later Lord Lieutenant, Philip Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield, for allowing public access to the park for the first time; the principal east-west route continues to bear the name Chesterfield Avenue. The worldly Lord Chesterfield is probably best known today for the posthumously published volume of letters to his son which I remember reading with much pleasure over thirty years ago, despite (or perhaps because of) James Boswell’s stricture that they taught ‘the morals of a whore, and the manners of a dancing-master.’ But in Ireland, Lord Chesterfield’s memory should be cherished since during his brief viceregal tenure (from January 1745 to November 1746) he encouraged indigenous industry and ensured peace while Charles Stuart, the Young Pretender, was trying to inspire rebellion in neighbouring Scotland. It is said that on one occasion, an anxious supporter of the regime burst into his bedroom to report ‘the papists in Ireland are all up,’ to which Lord Chesterfield, with characteristic insouciance, responded, ‘I am not surprised at it’ before looking at his watch and adding, ‘why, it is ten o’clock, I should have been up too, had I not overslept myself.’
This was the man who decided the pleasures of the Phoenix Park should not be enjoyed only by the crown’s representative but by all citizens and accordingly opened its gates to the public. He also initiated a policy of tree planting and other landscape works, as well as erecting the fluted corinthinan Phoenix Column at the centre of the park. Its base features a carved inscription recording Chesterfield’s beneficence while the top is crowned with a fancifully rococo interpretation of the mythical phoenix.

Three of the park’s most significant structures are within a short distance of the Phoenix Column: Ashtown Castle, an early 17th century towerhouse, once part of a larger building that served as the Under-Secretary’s Lodge under the British regime and then Papal Nunciature post-Independence and is now a somewhat uninspiring visitors’ centre; Deerfield, the American Ambassador’s residence, originally the Chief Secretary’s Lodge, the core of which dates from the mid-1770s; and Áras an Uachtaráin, now the residence of the President of Ireland. Prior to this, it was the Vice-Regal Lodge, although originally built for himself c.1752-57 by the politician and amateur architect Nathaniel Clements after he had obtained the sinecure of Park Ranger. Five years after Clements’ death in 1777 his son sold the building to the government for use as residence for the Lord Lieutenant. It has been subject to periodic enlargements and improvements ever since, but overall remains an incoherent, unsatisfactory building.
Indeed, aside from the Phoenix Column, the only really sound piece of design in the park is the Wellington Testimonial (pace architectural historian Christine Casey who calls it ‘formidable and rather dreary’). Designed by Sir Robert Smirke and completed in 1820, this monument to the Irish-born Duke of Wellington’s victory over Napoleon is 220 feet high and 120 feet square at the base. The pedestal bas-reliefs were added in the 1860s; one feels the obelisk would be purer – if perhaps even more formidable – without them. There was an attempt made by dissident republicans to blow up the obelisk, in the same way Nelson’s Pillar on O’Connell Street was destroyed by a bomb in 1966, but the structure’s sheer mass defeated their efforts. Ideologues rarely display good aesthetic judgement.
The Phoenix Park is today under the care of the Office of Public Works which does a competent job, with occasional slips: shame on whoever permitted uPVC window frames to be used in the 1830s Castleknock Gate lodge. And credit to Lords Ormonde and Chesterfield for their foresight.

Nature Full of Poetry

‘In this sequester’d, wild, romantic dell
Where nature loves in solitude to dwell,
Who would expect ‘midst such a lonely park
The charms of fancy and the plans of art,
Whilst the neat mansion, formed with simple taste,
Amidst a wilderness for comfort plac’d,|
Adorns the scene and hospitably shews
The seat of pleasure and serene repose.’
So in 1807 wrote, Joseph Atkinson, an army officer-turned-playwright, of Luggala, County Wicklow. For more than 200 years, this secluded valley tucked deeo into the Wicklow Mountains has been the subject of many such encomia, generations of visitors captivated by what they have found there.
Yet until the onset of the Romantic era at the end of the 18th century Luggala, along with much of the surrounding region, lay unoccupied, untended and largely unknown. Only following its discovery around 1787 by Peter La Touche, a rich banker in search of seclusion, did Luggala come to public notice. Having remained free from the intervention of man for millennia the site, La Touche wisely realised, demanded nothing other than a dwelling with a character to match the setting. Designed by a now-unknown architect, this is Luggala Lodge, facing Lough Tay at the other end of the valley and terminating a vista that stretches from lake shore to steep ground immediately behind. As James Brewer remarked in 1825 the building ‘is well adapted to the recluse parts of Ireland, where nature reigns in wild and mysterious majesty.’

Three years before Brewer the Rev. George Newenham Wright, a cleric with literary aspirations, published A Guide to the County of Wicklow. Several pages of the book are devoted to Luggala, the author awe-struck that the first view of the site ‘is of a bold, awful and sublime character’ and the sheer mass of mountainside closing the prospect ‘exhibiting a continued mass of naked granite to the very summit, forming the most complete representation of all that is wild, dreary and desolate in nature, and defying all attempts at innovation that the aspiring genius of man has ever dared to undertake.’ Not long afterwards, Prince Herman von Pückler-Muskau, an impoverished German aristocrat travelling through Britain and Ireland in search of a wife wealthy enough to fund his inclination towards extravagance, visited County Wicklow and afterwards reported:, ‘I reached the summit of the mountain above the magnificent valley and lake of Luggelaw, the sun gilded all the country beneath me, though the tops of the hills were yet shrouded in mist. This valley belongs to a wealthy proprietor, who has converted it into a delightful park…It is indeed a lovely spot of earth, lonely and secluded; the wood full of game, the lake full of fish and nature full of poetry.’ When American film director John Huston wrote his memoir An Open Book in 1980 he recalled the first time he had visited Luggala twenty-nine years earlier. Arriving late at night and in the dark, he had seen little. ‘The next morning at dawn I went to the window and looked out upon a scene I have never forgotten. Through pines and yews in the garden I saw, across a running stream, a field of marigolds and beyond the field – surprisingly – a white sandy beach bordering a black lake…Above the lake was a mountain of black rock rising precipitously, and on its crest – like a shawl over a piano – a profusion of purple heather. I was to go back to Luggala many times, but I’ll never forget that first impression. I was Ireland’s own from that moment.’

Luggala Lodge, wrote the Knight of Glin in 1965, is an example of ‘that special brand of eighteenth-century gothick that rejoices in little battlements, crochets, trefoil and quatrefoil windows and ogee mantelpieces: in fact, the gothick of pastrycooks and Rockingham china.’ The building observed Michael Luke some twenty years ago, shines ‘like the discarded crown of a prima ballerina.’ Bulgarian-born author Stephane Groueff who stayed in the house during the 1950s remembered it ‘looking like an illustration from a nursery book of “The Queen of Hearts”.’ And actress Anjelica Huston recalls Luggala from her childhood: ‘It was like going into a fairy tale. Descending into the dell with the ferns and the overhanging trees, the flocks of deer and the pheasants, and then coming on the magical lake with its sand made up of chips of mica.’
Diarist Frances Partridge came to stay in the early 1950s and afterwards recorded, ‘What a magical atmosphere that house had, charmingly furnished and decorated to match its style, dim lights, soft music playing and Irish voices ministering seductively to our needs.’ Sixty years later, author and critic Francis Wyndham remembers Luggala as being ‘the most romantic place I’ve ever known,’ and recalls ‘that sparkling little jewel of a house with the black lake before it.’
And here is the present custodian of Luggala, the Hon. Garech Browne, wonderfully photographed by Neil Gavin in the house’s drawing room. Like each of his predecessors, Garech has ensured the special character of this spot be preserved. Luggala today remains as it was in the time of Joseph Atkinson, ‘the seat of pleasure and serene repose.’

My new book, Luggala Days: The Story of a Guinness House, has now been published.

Moonlight Becomes You

An early 19th century watercolour depicting Luggala, County Wicklow. The artist responsible was Cecilia Margaret Nairn, née Campbell (1791-1857), the daughter and wife of painters; exhibiting from the age of eighteen, she specialised in picturesque landscapes such as this nocturnal scene.
For further information on Luggala, see my article in this coming Saturday’s Irish Times magazine.