Despite being built as a private residence, there’s something distinctly institutional about Muckross House, County Kerry; this impression not helped, obviously by the expanses of bleak gravel in front of the building. Replacing an earlier house, the present Jacobethan-style one dates from 1839-43 when designed by Scottish architect William Burn for Colonel Herbert. It was here that the Herberts famously entertained Queen Victoria in 1861 during her visit to Killarney, and seemingly the cost of the royal stay (for which the house was lavishly redecorated) together with declining income from their estates, led the family to bankruptcy; in 1899 Arthur Guinness, Lord Ardilaun bought Muckross for his wife Olivia whose mother had been a Herbert. Then, the property was sold to an American William Bowers Bourn who in turn presented it to his daughter Maud on the occasion of her marriage to Arthur Vincent. But following her early death, in 1932 Bourn and Vincent decided to present the house and surrounding 11,000 acres to the Irish nation and it has remained in public ownership ever since. Standing on the terrace and looking west towards Muckross Lake, it is easy to understand why the house was built here, even if harder to understand why it was built in quite such an unforgiving style.
‘Probably there is not in the kingdom a demesne so entirely lovely as that of Muckross, the property of W.H. Herbert Esq., one of the members for the county. And now let us visit the renowned “Abbey”; it is in the demesne and close to the old entrance from the main road. It was built for Franciscan monks, according to Archdall, in 1440; but the Annals of the Four Masters give its date a century earlier: both, however, ascribe its foundation to one of the MacCarthys, Princes of Desmond. It was several times repaired, and once subsequently to the Reformation…’
‘…The cloister, which consists of twenty-two arches, ten of them semi-circular, and twelve pointed, is the best preserved portion of the Abbey. In the centre grows a magnificent yew-tree, which covers, as a roof, the whole area; its circumference is thirteen feet and its height in proportion. It is more than probably that this tree is coeval with the Abbey; that it was planted by the hands of the monks who built the sacred edifice three centuries ago…’
‘…The building consists of two principal parts – the convent and the church The church is about one hundred feet in length, and twenty-four in breadth; the steeple, which stands between the nave and the chancel, rests on four high and slender pointed arches. The dormitories, the kitchen, the refectory, the cellars, the infirmary and other chambers are still in a state of comparative preservation; the upper rooms are unroofed.’
A 19th century greenhouse in the gardens of Muckross House, County Kerry. The estate was owned by the Herbert family for several hundred years until indebtedness required its sale in 1899 when bought by Lord Ardilaun (whose wife was related to the former owners). The reason for the Herberts’ financial problems is often said to have been the expense incurred in entertaining Queen Victoria when she stayed with them for a few days in 1861, but this rather seems to be an instance of seeking a scapegoat. Long before Victoria thought of coming to the area, the family had demolished their previous residence and built a large new one, plus spent lavishly on their gardens, including the provision of many greenhouses such as this one, so the suspicion arises that even without a royal visit they would have eventually come a cropper.
After our recent blizzards, a reminder of what Ireland can look like in the summer: Muckross, County Kerry. Here is the east front of the house designed by Scottish architect William Burn and built 1839-43 for Col. Henry Arthur Herbert whose family settled here in the second half of the 16th century. Famously Queen Victoria came to stay with the Herberts for two nights in August 1861: seemingly so much was spent preparing for this visit that the owners’ finances never recovered. In 1899 the estate was sold to Arthur Guinness, Lord Ardilaun whose wife was related to the Herberts. Later it was acquired by Californian mining magnate William Bowers Bourn who together with his son-in-law Arthur Vincent later presented the house and surrounding 11,000 acres to the Irish state. Muckross accordingly became Ireland’s first National Park.