The Plunket family has been mentioned here before, not least the Hon Brinsley Plunket who in November 1927 married Aileen Guinness, eldest daughter of Ernest Guinness (see Temps Perdu « The Irish Aesthete). The couple were related: the grandmother of Brinsley (always known as Brinny) Plunket had been a Guinness, sister to Aileen’s grandfather. Another curiosity: the groom’s great-great aunt, the Hon Katherine Plunket, who died in 1932 when a month short of her 112the birthday, is recorded as the longest-living person in Ireland. Brinny Plunket was younger brother of Terence (known as Teddy), sixth Lord Plunket. A talented cartoonist who later turned to painting portraits, in 1922 Teddy had married Dorothé Mabel Lewis, illegitimate daughter of the 7th Marquess of Londonderry and American actress Fannie Ward. Teddy and Dorothé were intimate friends of the Duke of York (later George VI) and his wife Elizabeth; the latter was godmother to the couple’s second son Robin in 1925 while the Duke was godfather to their third child Shaun six years later. Both Teddy and Dorothé would be killed in a plane crash in California in February 1938 while on their way to attend a party at William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon estate. Their close links to the royal family meant the couple’s eldest son Patrick, seventh Baron Plunket, would serve as Equerry to Elizabeth II and Deputy Master of the Royal Household until his death in 1975.
The rise of the Plunkets had begun in the late 18th century with William Conyngham Plunket. The son of a Presbyterian minister, he became a lawyer famous for having been lead prosecutor at Robert Emmet’s trial in 1803. Two years later he was made Attorney-General for Ireland and also became a member of the Irish Privy Council. A supporter of Catholic Emancipation, in 1827 he was created Baron Plunket, became Chief Justice of the Irish Common Pleas and later served as Lord Chancellor of Ireland. Obviously a man of such prominence needed to have a country seat and so in the mid-1780s he took a lease on an estate to the south of Dublin called Old Connaught. Originally there appears to have been a late-medieval tower house on this site, built by a branch of the Walsh family, but this was badly damaged by a fire in 1776 and seven years later the property was leased to an Anglican clergyman, the Rev William Gore, Bishop of Limerick. He embarked on building a new house for himself but died almost as soon as it was finished, and before long the lease was acquired, and then bought out, by William Conyngham Plunket, in whose family it would remain for the next 150 years. As demonstrated by the Hon Katherine, provided they weren’t killed in plane crashes, the Plunkets tended to live long, and the first baron was just six months shy of turning 90 when he died in 1854. His eldest son, the second baron (father of the aforementioned Hon Katherine Plunket), was a clergyman who rose to become Bishop of Tuam but had no sons, so following his death the title, and Old Connaught, passed to a younger brother. On the third baron’s death, he was succeeded by his eldest son William Plunket who was another clergyman (for generations, male members of this family either joined the church or practised as lawyers). Like several forebears, the fourth baron rose through the ranks of the Church of Ireland, eventually becoming Archbishop of Dublin where he was instrumental in establishing a teacher training school in Kildare Place. That building is long gone (replaced by a mediocre office block housing the Dept of Agriculture) but Archbishop Plunket is commemorated by a statue which depicts him pensively observing his surroundings. In 1863 he married Anne Lee Guinness, and her substantial marriage settlement allowed improvements and extensions to be undertaken at Old Connaught, with both house and gardens benefitting, the former not least by the addition of a large conservatory – since lost – to one side of the building. As mentioned, the archbishop was Brinny Plunket’s grandfather while Anne Lee Guinness was great-aunt of Aileen Guinness, hence the link between the later couple. The archbishop’s eldest son, also William, was a diplomat who served as Governor of New Zealand 1904-10.
What has all the above to do with today’s photographs? These show the restored walled gardens of Old Connaught House. Following his parents’ death in California in 1938, the estate was inherited by their eldest son Patrick, but he and his siblings were raised by a paternal aunt in London and had little to do with Ireland. But even before then the family had largely abandoned the place, leasing it in 1935 to the Christian Brothers who used the house as a senior novitiate school under the name Colaiste Ciaran. The surrounding land was run as a farm and the old gardens used for growing fruit and vegetables. Having subsequently bought the estate from the Plunkets, the order remained there until 1972 when it was decided to close the novitiate school and sell or lease sections of the estate. The house itself remained in the hands of the Christian Brothers until 1999 when finally put on the market with just 12 acres; today the building is divided into a series of flats. Meanwhile, the old walled garden, long cultivated first by the Plunkets and then the brothers, was left to fall into ruin. In 1996 the gardens and stableyard were leased to a charity founded eight years earlier to provide a range of programmes for the disabled and disadvantaged. This body is called Festina Lente (Hurry Slowly) taking its name from the Plunket family motto, and reflects the process whereby the old walled gardens, running to some two and a half acres, were gradually resuscitated, one section reflecting the character of the site in the mid-19th century when Archbishop Plunket and his family would have lived at Old Connaught. Another part of the gardens is largely divided into allotments, filled with vegetables, fruit trees and flowers, just as would once have been the case. Incidentally, the wooden platforms seen on the middle garden’s long ponds are for the sake of terrapins who live here. The gardens (which also feature a shop and cafe) are open daily to the public for free, although donations are always welcome. Well worth supporting, so do consider hurrying along there (and not slowly).