Johnstown Castle, in the heart of South County Wexford is somewhere that’s very close to my heart. It’s somewhere I’ve always gone, ever since I was a child. I’m very fortunate that I’ve always lived within 10 or 15 minutes of it. Now, it’s the place I go to unwind, to connect with my creative side and to absorb the sheer beauty of my surroundings. More about that later. First, I want to give you a some background about the castle and the estate.
The History of Johnstown Castle
The first building on the site was Rathlannon Castle. It was built soon after the Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169 by the Esmonde family headed by Geoffrey de Estmont. There is evidence to suggest that Geoffrey’s son Maurice built the tower house on the Rathlannon site before his death in 1225. This is the Rathlannon Castle that still stands to this day. It was Maurice’s son John who built a similar castle on the nearby Johnstown site. This was the first Johnstown Castle!
Following the sack of Wexford by Oliver Cromwell in 1649, the castle and land were confiscated from the Catholic Esmondes. Cromwell gave it to his representative in Wexford, Lt Col Overstreet. After a series of slightly complicated deaths and marriages, the estate came into the ownership of John Grogan in 1691.
One of Grogan’s most notable descendants was Cornelius Grogan. Corneilius took part in the 1798 rebellion in Wexford along with other notable members of the Protestant Gentry such as Bagenal Harvey, Patrick Prendergast and Wolfe Tone. For this, Corneilius was hung, drawn and quartered by the British Forces on Wexford Bridge on 28th June 1798. (To those who may be unfamiliar with the 1798 rebellion, it was the first attempt by the people of Ireland to re-establish the Irish State. It was the spark that lit the fire, which eventually led to the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1922.) To commemorate Corneilius, the family added pike heads (the rebels’ weapon of choice) atop the bars of the main gate.
Johnstown’s Last Family
Anyway, back to Johnstown. The last family to live in Johnstown Castle were the Fitzgeralds. Lord Maurice Fitzgerald and Lady Adelaide Forbes married in 1880 and made Johnstown their home. Lord Maurice died suddenly, aged 48, in 1901. Their only son and heir, Gerald was killed in action in Northern France during World War I in 1914. They had three daughters, Geraldine, Kathleen and Marjorie. Kathleen had two sons, the eldest, Gerald Michael Lakin was killed during World War II in North Africa. His brother, Maurice Victor was wounded but survived the war.
Following the death of Lady Fitzgerald in 1942, the Johnstown Castle estate passed to Major Michael Lakin (Kathleen’s husband) and his surviving son, Maurice Victor. In lieu of death duties, the castle and estate were gifted to the State in 1945. Most immediate members of the Fitzgerald and Lakin families are interred in a quiet part of the estate, near the Upper Lake.
Johnstown Castle’s New Era
Once signed over to the Irish State, the castle and grounds became the Johnstown Castle Agricultural College. This was very much a signal of what was to come. The running of the college and estate fell to the agricultural body, An Fóras Talúntas (now called Teagasc). All parties involved in the handover were in agreement that the ornamental nature of the garden and pleasure grounds on the estate would not be altered. Something that is still as true today when they are being brought back to their full splendor!
An Fóras Talúntas ran not only the college here, but they also conducted important research in the field of soil science. At it’s head was one of the most eminent soil scientists Ireland has ever seen, Dr. Tom Walsh, my grand-uncle. Dr. Tom, known affectionately as “The Doc”, grew up in the nearby village of Piercestown. Through the love and dedication of his older brothers, Paddy and Jim, he studied in UCD where he earned his doctorate. He brought, not only his passion for his field of study, but for the area to Johnstown.
In 1974, he was instrumental in the founding of the Irish Agricultural Museum. It began to welcome visitors in 1979, after being officially opened by Irish President, Patrick Hillary. The museum was, and is still in the old stables and has numerous exhibits on farm machinery, life on the farm and the infamous Potato Famine of the 1840s.
In the 1980s, the soil research facility moved from the castle itself to a purpose built labs on the grounds. Here it was given a new name, the Walsh Laboratory. It was formally dedicated to The Doc on 27th May 1987. Recently, he was honoured by the addition of a plaque honouring him on the wall of Piercestown National School which he attended as a child.
The Castle Interior
Well that’s enough history to be getting on with for the moment. More recently, massive restoration work has been done on the main castle and on the grounds. This work is ongoing, but what they have achieved so far is wonderful! Let’s take a look inside.
I’ve been lucky enough to have had the opportunity to see the inside of the main castle! I can honestly say that the renovations and restorations that have been done to date are amazing! The Johnstown team are slowly working their way through the main rooms of the building. Various sections of three different floors have been completed so far, as well as essential works.
One of the most extensive restorations took place on the servant’s tunnel. This 86 metre long underground tunnel was used to bring servants and supplies into the castle without bringing them through the family’s area. It leads to a separate building that also once contained the cold meat store.
As well as that, the kitchen and servants’ hall have been restored fully with the staircase used to access the lower level. The finishing touches are exquisite and exceptionally detailed. They include some wonderful unique storage tins for Halpin’s Golden Amber Tea and Jacob’s Biscuits to name just two examples. The renovated servant’s hall has a wonderful box on the wall with a bell and indicators. These were used to signal to the servants to go to the appropriate room.
The Ground Floor
On the ground floor, the two main rooms looking out towards the middle lake have been restored. These, along with the spectacular entrance hallway, complete with chandelier and the reception hall have all been brought back to their former glory. The reception hall is known as the “Apostles’ Hall” thanks to the carved wooden figures integrated into the panelling.
The two largest rooms on the ground floor are the dining room and the library. The dining room has the large central table laid, as if for a formal dinner, complete with all the different types of cutlery in the right places! I can only imagine what it would’ve been like to sit and enjoy a dinner here back in the day!
The next room is the library where the family and their guests would’ve retired to after dinner. From the dining room, it’s accessed through a secret door! I absolutely loved this! When closed, you genuinely wouldn’t notice the difference between it and the bookcases along the wall! Well almost… The only indication is the modern fire escape sign hanging above it from the ceiling.
The library itself feels like a haven of peace and tranquility. Somewhere to sit and read without disturbance. The desk, beautifully positioned in the bay window, overlooks the middle lake in all its glory. Just off the library is a beautiful little circular room that, once upon a time, was a writing room.
Above the dining room and library are two similarly large and beautiful rooms. Once they may have been two drawing rooms, but now they have been restored as a beautiful drawing room and a bedroom. The drawing room has some spectacular furniture in it and has some delightful sections, including one around the exquisite fireplace and another overlooking the grounds.
The restored bedroom has some beautiful anti-rooms off it that have been restored to resemble dressing rooms for the Lord and Lady of the house. These little rooms contain some beautiful finishing touches that have the effect of transporting you back a few hundred years!
Across the first floor gallery from the drawing room is something you don’t expect to see in a castle of this nature. It’s a laboratory! This room became a lab after the castle was handed over to the state and it’s a wonderful nod to this period of the castles diverse history. Obviously this room holds personal significance for me, but nonetheless, it provides a fascinating look at he scientific work that took place here. Fun Fact! In the early to mid 1800s, the East Wing (ballroom) housed a science laboratory for Hamilton Knox Grogan-Morgan!
There are large sections of the castle, including the former ballroom/games and billiard rooms to the East of the main castle that are still awaiting restoration. The walkway joining the two sections of the castle was glazed in the 1800s and the two buildings became one. Most notably, the large room that once housed the beautiful grand staircase is still empty. The stairs were removed in the late 1940s because it was full of dry rot. I’d personally love to see some form of reconstruction of the original return in the future.
Rathlannon Castle, (pictured earlier) as I’ve already mentioned, has survived in place, on the estate since it was built in the Middle Ages. Now surrounded by trees and stunning gardens, I think it’s a lovely recognition of estate’s origins and it has remained virtually unchanged since it was built.
The two castle-like buildings and the statue walk between Rathlannon Castle and Johnstown Castle are follies, built to improve the scenic view from Johnstown in the 1800s. The Fisherman’s Tower is the more ornate of the two and seems to emerge directly from the lake. I think that both towers as well as the raised walkways and other constructions along the side of the lake are utterly magnificent. They have a beauty only equalled by the view of the main castle from them! No wonder half of Wexford comes here for their wedding photos!
The estate also plays host to a multitude of buildings, including the offices of the Environmental Protection Agency (the EPA) and the Walsh Laboratory. The other, smaller buildings, similar in style to the main castle served as anything from the meat store, to houses for the staff and their families, to gate lodges. You can see most of them while you wander around the grounds. Alas, at this stage, you can only go inside the two follies on the edge of the Middle Lake.
The Gardens and Grounds
The grounds have been open to the public since 1969 and they boast three main lakes and a few other, slightly more hidden delights too. Let’s take a stroll through them!
The Lower Lake
Until relatively recently, the lower lake was only really visible through the trees. Now, there is a walk the whole way around it, not to mention a large playground! The walk is the perfect place to enjoy the towering trees in all seasons. Being the most recent walk, there isn’t the same ornate decoration that the middle lake boasts. It does however have a gorgeous new bridge with red railings and a wonderful arched walkway.
The Middle Lake
The middle lake is definitely the showcase piece for Johnstown! Not only does it have the two follies I’ve already spoken about, but it also plays host to the statue walk. The statue walk is home to statues (oddly enough!) of classical deities. This is also the most scenic area in the grounds and plays host to many an amateur photographer (myself included) taking photos.
There’s also a stream running into the lake from the upper lake and it adds that relaxing trickling water sound to the amazing surroundings. The middle lake (and around the main castle) is also where you’ll find the majority of the estate’s peacocks. These beautiful creatures also hang out in the courtyard of the Agricultural Museum and around the new Visitor’s Centre.
The Upper Lake
The upper lake is the smallest of the three and it only has a walkway on one side. It has a small island within it and a large area of reeds. These areas are often used by some of the estate’s ducks and swans for their nests. Just off the lake is the final resting place for many of the families that called the castle home as well as the estate apiary.
The Walled Garden
The estate also has a walled garden with many and varied colourful plants and flowers that bloom at different point throughout the year. Mixed with a few different types of trees, it makes for a wonderful place to pass the time. Currently, the upper garden and orchard are not open to the public. Neither is the glass house down one side of the garden. The glass house would’ve been used to grow food for the castle and later for research purposes. I understand there are plans to bring it back to its former glory. The gate into the walled garden is guarded by the head of a gargoyle. The gargoyle’s head lead to the gate becoming known as the Devil’s Gate.
The Ongoing Work at Johnstown
As well as the continued restoration of the interior of the castle, there is extensive and fantastic work taking place on the gardens. There is ongoing landscaping taking place on both the walled garden and the sunken garden. Both are set to look phenomenal, the best they have in many years. Soil research is still taking place in the Walsh Laboratory. Following repeated Covid lockdowns and travel restrictions, the people of Co. Wexford have a whole new appreciation of Johnstown Castle. Personally, I’ve visited Johnstown for as long as I can remember and every time I go, I grow to love it more and more. I hope, some day to bring my children and grandchildren to visit the place I love so much. It is truly, my happy place.
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