Today the visit of George IV to Ireland in 1821 is primarily remembered because it is believed to have led to the road between Dublin and Slane, County Meath being made as straight as possible. But the event was noteworthy for other reasons, not least due to the fact this was the first time a reigning English monarch had arrived in the country without bellicose intentions (as had last been the case when James II and his son-in-law fought here for control of the British throne, with the latter victorious at the Battle of the Boyne in July 1690). The original arrangement would have had George IV land south of the capital at Dunleary, from whence he would set out to make a formal entry into the city. However following the death of his estranged wife Caroline of Brunswick just days before the visit was due to begin, it was felt expedient a more low-key approach be taken to the king’s arrival. Accordingly the royal party landed on August 12th 1821 at Howth harbour where the fifty-nine year old monarch made an immediate impression on the waiting crowd by displaying symptoms of being, to use modern parlance, tired and emotional after the rigours of his passage across the Irish Sea. (Incidentally, his footprints, memorialised by a local stonemason, can still be seen on Howth’s west pier). He flung himself into the throng, shaking hands with anyone within reach before being put into a carriage that set off for the Phoenix Park and the Viceregal Lodge. On arrival there, the king again abandoned protocol by insisting the park gates be thrown open and, in descending from his carriage, making an impromptu speech during which he declared, ‘rank, station and honour are nothing: to feel that I live in the hearts of my Irish subjects, is to me the most exalted happiness.’ No wonder one commentator observed that he was behaving not as a sovereign but ‘like a popular candidate come down upon an electioneering trip.’
Despite national woes due to the economic downturn following the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars, and indeed owing to the consequences of the 1800 Act of Union, George IV’s visit had been keenly anticipated. It helped that he had expressed a wish everyone he met during his time in Ireland should be wearing locally-produced clothing, thereby giving a boost to trade. In addition, he asked that Lord Forbes, son of the Roman Catholic Earl of Granard, be one of his aides-de-camp for the duration of the visit, and he arranged to act as witness for the installation of the Earl of Fingall as the first Catholic member of the Order of St. Patrick. For his own official entry into Dublin – this was after a period of recovery in the Viceregal Lodge – he wore the order’s ribbon over a full military uniform, shamrock on his hat and on his breast a rosette ‘more than twice the size of a military cockade’: no wonder comparisons were made with election candidates. The formal procession of some 200 carriages began by making its way down Sackville (now O’Connell Street) accessed via temporary gates for which keys were handed to the king by the Herald, Athlone Pursuivant. Progress was slow due to the crowds, and this set the tone for subsequent events, all of which attracted enormous and consistently enthusiastic attendance. The welcome he received in Ireland was in striking contrast to his unpopularity in England, and more than once he noted the difference between the ‘triumph of Dublin’ and the ‘horrors of London’ where he was often booed in the streets. Up to the day of departure, on 5th September and from Dunleary which was then renamed Kingstown in his honour, the numbers following his course never diminished and the visit concluded with Daniel O’Connell – Ireland’s so-called Liberator – kneeling before the monarch and proferring a laurel wreath
For members of Ireland’s aristocracy, George IV’s visit was especially significant since it appeared to offer them an opportunity to entertain their monarch. Still today there are a number of State Bedrooms created in 1821 in expectation of a royal guest. The best-known of these is in Castle Coole, County Fermanagh but another can be found in Loughton, County Offaly (in recent years this has been home to Minister for Children and Youth Affairs James Reilly but it is now on the market). Alas the hopes of many prospective hosts were dashed, because while the king did make a few excursions out of Dublin – notably to Powerscourt, County Wicklow where by lingering over luncheon he avoided being swept away by the waterfall, damned in anticipation of his arrival, which burst through its barricades and swept away the viewing platform – outside Dublin he stayed for several nights in one place only: Slane Castle, County Meath. For those unfamiliar with the tale, herein lies the explanation for the fast straight road from the capital: Slane was the home of George IV’s mistress, the Marchioness Conyngham, and her accommodating husband. Neither the king nor his inamorata were in the first flush of youth, and both were equally corpulent. These circumstances however did nothing to dampen their ardour. As was written of them at the time, ‘Tis pleasant at seasons to see how they sit/ First cracking their nuts, and then cracking their wit/ Then quaffing their claret – then mingling their lips/ Or tickling the fat about each other’s hips.’ And according to one contemporary observer, Lady Conyngham ‘lived exclusively with him during the whole time he was in Ireland at the Phoenix Park. When he went to Slane, she received him dressed out as for a drawing-room; he saluted her, and they then retired alone to her apartments.’ Hence those other State Bedrooms going abegging…
One house that did receive a royal visit was Annesbrook, County Meath – presumably because its location was not too off the route to Slane. Annesbrook is a relatively modest country residence which may have begun as a farm house before being extended westwards in either the late 18th or early 19th century. The front of the building is of two storeys and three bays, the emphatic arch of the centre groundfloor entrance echoed in the shallow relieving window arches to either side. Inside, the hall is divided by a screen of Corinthian columns, the stairs snaking upward inside a bow to the north. That might have been the limit of the house had not its owner in 1821, one Henry Smith, decide to improve the property in anticipation of the king coming to call. Thus he aggrandised the facade by the addition of an enormous limestone portico comprising four Ionic-capped columns beneath a pediment that soars above Annesbrook’s shallow hipped roof. Then to the north of the main block he constructed a single storey, four bay extension in which to entertain the king to lunch. While the exterior of this is plain, the interior, accessed via a antechamber off the dining room, is a riot of gothick decoration, a late flowering of the 18th century style prior to the advent of historical accuracy. Whether on the ceiling, walls or even the marble chimneypiece, Annesbrook’s gothick is as much rococo as mediaeval, with an overlay of classical symmetry. The room is a playful frolic, the plasterwork treated like icing sugar ornamentation, an opportunity to demonstrate the unknown stuccodore’s ingenuity and skill. It was always intended as a backdrop for entertainments and that remains the case: the house’s present owner has worked to preserve the room as best as resources allow, and to this end has received assistance from a variety of agencies including the Irish Georgian Society. While sections of the ceiling still require attention, more than sufficient has already been secured for the remaining work to be undertaken once requisite funds become available. Visitors to Annesbrook today can admire Henry Smith’s enterprise, perhaps more than did George IV: seemingly on the day of his visit to the house, the sun shone and the royal guest chose to dine outdoors. Ironically he never even saw the room built to entertain him.