Powerscourt House and Gardens
While tour guiding with Trafalgar ( see Trafalgar US Homepage ) I have the opportunity to visit many of Ireland’s most beautiful and renowned places including Blarney Castle, Glendalough and The Cliffs of Moher. That certainly includes Powerscourt house and gardens located about an hours drive from Dublin.
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The gardens are magnificent and beautifully laid out. They were ranked third by national geographic as part of there top ten gardens in the world in 2014. They are set on 47 acres and are a mature miracle of design and sensibility featuring an Italian garden, a rose garden and a kitchen garden. They are pleasantly proportioned and expertly maintained on landscaped ground containing a mix of flat and undulating terrain.
They feature both manicured hedges and flower bushes and wilder, more opulent shrubs and trees and are all set off magnificently against some beautiful water features, statues and Powerscourt House itself. There are also some charming ancillary structures such as the faux tower, actually constructed in 1911. Powerscourt house and gardens sit rather incongruously amidst the marshy, Wicklow upland bogs Indeed the sugar loaf mountain sits in the distance and dominates the skyline.
It is a wild enough countryside surrounding and it contrasts dramatically with the Italian inspired design of house and gardens with its exotic shrubs and tended walkways. It could be legitimately criticised as drawing very little inspiration from its natural surroundings. However it works as an ambitious and successfull attempt to create a corner of Italian renaissance splendour amidst the damp Irish mountains. A remarkable achievement.
Powerscourt house is located on the site of an original 13th century castle associated with the Anglo-Norman De Paor (Power) family. As the power of the Anglo Normans receded in medieval times the castle fell under the control of the Gaelic O Tooles. However, as the British asserted their authority over Ireland in the late 16th and early 17th centuries the castle was confiscated from the O’Tooles and was gifted to Richard Wingfield in 1603. It was originally given as a leasehold but eventually transferred in full to the family following Wingfield successful military campaigns in Ulster in the Northern part of Ireland against the Gaelic O Doherty clan. He was also awarded the title Viscount Powerscourt by Elizabeth 1 at the same time.
The original house was constructed around the castle in 1741 by Richard Wingfield, who was also the 1st Viscount Powerscourt. The reason he was also the 1st viscount is that the title lapsed on a few occasions and was reawarded to Richard Wingfield in 1735 and he thus shares the title 1st Viscount of Powerscourt as well as his name with his 17th century ancestor who was the first 1st viscount of Powerscourt. It took me a while to get my head around it too !
Anyway, the house was constructed between 1730 and 1741 under the stewardship of Richard Cassels who aimed to create a great Italian renaissance villa in the heart of the Wicklow hills. Richard Cassels ( also known as Richard Castle) was a true European cosmopolitan. He was from a French family, grew up in Germany and worked for the British authorities in Ireland. He is widely regarded as one of the most important architects of 18th century Ireland. Other important design by him are Leinster house in Dublin (where the Irish parliament now sits) and the Bishops Palace in Waterford ( now the Three museums in the Viking triangle). Many considered Powerscourt house to be his finest work.
A note on the Paladian architecture in Powerscourt House And Gardens.
Powerscourt house, like all of Cassels designs, was in the Paladian style. Paladian style dominated British architecture in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was inspired by the renaissance architecture of Andrea Palladio (1508-1580), a 16th century architect working in Venice. He drew his inspiration from Greek and Roman temples. Most of the beautiful , secular, Georgian buildings in Dublin today owe their origin to this architectural lineage. Palladian architecture gradually gave way to Gothic architecture in the late 19th century, as the inspiration of Palladian design in ancient Greece and Roman temples, came to be seen as too pagan. However, it’s influences can still be seen in modern buildings to this day.
The Original House
The house was built on the site of the old dePaor castle and was designed with castle elements in mind; in particular two circular towers at each side of the house. The ground floor consisted of a large entrance passage way in which family heir looms were displayed and the reception rooms were upstairs. This was an unusual construction as most stately homes constructed in this era would have had reception rooms on the ground floor and it may have been a further nod to castle design and inspiration.
A further storey was completed in 1787 and it was further altered and upgraded in the 19th century.
In truth the house and gardens to sit rather incongruously amidst the boggy Wicklow hills. If we were to apply the standards of the present to the conception of the house we could easily criticise the design for failing to draw any inspiration at all from its surroundings. It is a dream of Europe set amidst the Wicklow hills but it is a dream come alive and still living and thriving today.
New Ownership and Renovation:
The house and grounds were sold to the Slazenger family (of sportswear fame) in 1961. You can read more about the history of their famous brand here. In a remarkable twist of romantic fate, Wendy Slazenger, the daughter of Ralph Slazenger married Mervyn Wingfield the descendant of the Wingfield dynasty and heir to the Viscount title in 1962. It is their children Mervyn Anthony Wingfield and Julia Wingfield who maintain stewardship of the house and gardens to this day.
Sadly the original house sadly burnt down in 1974. You can watch a news report of this event here. The original house was a classic of Georgian architecture
Although the grounds were beautifully maintained in the meantime, it wasn’t until 1995 that the house was renovated and reconstructed. It now consists of mostly shops and cafes on the ground floor. It strikes me as a pleasing, commercial hive of activity and a warm and welcoming atmosphere pervades. It can, however, be quiet busy, particularly in the Avoca coffee shop where most people go for lunch.
For me a particular highlight was the rhododendron garden which were a popular feature for estates this type.
The tower, which really is a faux tower constructed in 1911 , was also a highlight and afforded beautiful views over the grounds.
Overall, I really enjoyed my visit to the grounds. It is a soothing, peaceful place to visit and we were blessed with the weather.
The video presentation in the house gives some nice historical detail also. It is worth noting that the waterfall is not in the grounds and located about 6km away and has a separate admission. House and garden (adult prices) is Euro10.50, waterfall Euro6 with day tours also available from Dublin some of which combine a visit to Glendalough also..
Alan Coakley is a Travel Director with Trafalgar tours based in Ireland. For all the best trafalgar deals to Europe in 2021 see Trafalgar US_Europe 2021 – Book Early and Save up to 10% with Trafalgar US! Book NOW!