History of Old Connaught House & Gardens and Festina Lente
Old Connaught House, Shankill, Co. Dublin is an eighteenth century house that was embellished during Victorian times with the addition of a single storey portico consisting of four pairs of Ionic columns and a conservatory at one end of the house. It was a property of the Gore family and subsequently the Plunket family. The walls around the Festina Lente garden are the original walls from 1780’s.
Background of the Land of Old Connaught
The medieval castle at Old Connaught was inhabited by the Walsh family, from at least as early as 1460. While the precise location of this castle is uncertain, it lay somewhere in the land which is bordered by the long curve of Ferndale Road between the junction with Ballyman Road/Thornhill Road and the junction with Alleys River Road. It is more than likely that this castle was the building shown opposite the end of Thornhill Road on John Rocque’s map of county Dublin which was published in 1760. Rocque claimed to show every building on his maps, but other features such as field boundaries are conjectural, as, to some extent are the gardens and planting.
In the late 18th century the Walsh property was sold and a mansion house was built, now, in a heavily-extended form, represented by Old Connaught House. This house was not built on the same site as the castle which remained in existence for about twenty years after the house was built.
The gardens were shown clearly on the first edition Ireland Ordnance Survey six-inch sheet, which for Dublin county was published in 1843. An extract from that map is shown below and it can be seen that the location and orientation of the garden address the site of the Walsh castle more closely than they relate to Old Connaught House.
Whether or not the gardens date from the time of the castle, they were certainly used in conjunction with Old Connaught House and the condition of the gardens as shown on the 1843 OS map shows that they were well laid out and maintained.
The Plunket Baron’s
Lord William Conyngham Plunket (1764-1854) was the first Plunket Baron to live in Old Connaught. He was a trained lawyer, in 1803 Plunket was appointed Solicitor-General; and in 1805 he was advanced to be Attorney-General. He was brought into Parliament by Lord Charlemont in 1798, and was one of the most strenuous opponents of the Union. From the first he strenuously supported the claims of the Catholics, and worked with his friend Henry Grattan for their advancement. His speech in favour of Emancipation on 21st February 1821 was declared by Peel to stand “nearly the highest in point of ability of any ever heard in this House; combining the rarest powers of eloquence with the strongest powers of reasoning.” In January 1830 he became Lord-Chancellor of Ireland, and held that position, with a short interval, until 1841.
Lord Plunket then withdrew from public life. He spent some time on the Continent, and on his return to Ireland settled at Old Connaught, near Bray, where he tranquilly passed the rest of his days in the midst of a large circle of family and friends, by whom he was greatly beloved. It was in his time that this first Ordnance Survey map of Ireland was published. He died at Old Connaught, 4th January 1854, aged 89, and was buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery.
He was succeeded in the peerage by Thomas, who was bishop of Tuam from 1839 until his death, and then by his second son John Span Plunket (1793-1871), a lawyer, 3rd Baron Plunket and father of Archbishop Plunket.
The Archbishops’ Residence
In 1871 Archbishop William Conyngham Plunket 11 (1828 – 1897), Fourth Baron Plunket of Newtown, inherited Old Connaught and decided to move into the house and surrounding property as he had spent a lot of time there with his grandfather.
When Archbishop Plunket married Anne Lee Guinness in 1863 he received a considerable settlement of £49,000, which provided the means to extend Old Connaught parkland and house and to transform the Walled Garden. He was well known for having a love of gardening and landscaping.
In 1874 the Archbishop purchased some of the adjacent Walcot property which gave room for the extension of the garden in an Eastwards direction by adding a 3rd enclosure of 0.47 ha (1.13 acres) and the Orchard Garden, which are now privately owned.
Garden features added and changed from 1871 – 1897.
The Kitchen Garden was developed to supply the house’s fruit and vegetables. The long south facing border was ideal for growing fruit. The warm border below and the open aspect of the central vegetable plots would have ensured good crops.
The two rectangular pools installed either side of the main path. Later on, it was thought to be the 1920’s; two of the statues and their pedestals were moved into these pools. Although the statues were removed in the 1940’s their pedestals still remain. A doorway, with projecting brick surround, cornice and surmounted by a statue of a horse, provided an important focal point at the west wall of the terrace and was aligned on the central axis path.
There was also a slip garden built along the outside of the southern old Walcot Gardens where an extensive range of glasshouses were built for fruit, propagation and display. At the west end of the garden a small yard was created where a large gateway facilitated vehicle access from the backyard avenue.
Fifth Baron Plunket
When Archbishop Plunket died in 1897, the title and property was inherited by his eldest son William Lee Plunket (1864 – 1920) as he became the Fifth Baron Plunket.
Shortly after he inherited Old Connaught, he was appointed Private Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland (1900 -1904) and following that Governor and Commander-in-Chief of New Zealand (1904 – 1910) which meant that he didn’t have much time to stay in Old Connaught.
Garden features added and changed from 1897 – 1920.
The Ornamental Garden was altered with the addition of cordylines – which is still a striking feature of the garden.
At the south end of the terrace in the Ornamental Garden a round headed entrance was created giving access to a new small fernery.
The fernery was added to the southwest corner of the Slip Garden.
After William Lee’s death in 1920, the property and title was once again passed on to his eldest son, Terrence Conyngham Plunket (1899 – 1938) as he became the 6th Baron Plunket of Newtown.
The 6th Baron Plunklet of Newton
In 1922 he married Dorothy Mabel, widow of Capt. Jack Barnato, R.A.F., and daughter of Joseph Lewis Mayfair.
The main change that Terrence Coyngham made to the garden was the Summer House in the centre of the Ornamental Garden.
On February 24th 1938, Terrence Plunket and his wife were killed in an air crash in California. The children were then raised by their maternal grandfather Lord Londonderry and grandmother.
Terrence Lee’s eldest son, Patrick Terrence Conyngham Plunket (1923 – 1975), then became the 7th Baron Plunket. Patrick Terrence was to be the last of the Plunket family to own Old Connaught. He was educated at Eton, and then joined that Irish Guards before becoming Equerry to King George VI (1949 – 52), then to Queen Elizabeth (1952 – 54) and subsequently Deputy Master of the Household of the Royal Household 1954 – 1975. As a result of his career, Old Connaught ceased to be a family residence and the gardens were abandoned.
It is thought that perhaps they were leased by Mr Charles Britton until 1946 when the estate was sold.
(The Farmyard at Old Connaught – near where the Festina Lente entrance is now (c1953)
The Christian Brothers at Old Connaught ‘Coláiste Chiaráin’ 1946 – 1972
After the land of Old Connaught was sold, the house then became a Christian Brother senior novitiate school. There is very little recorded information about the Brothers time at Old Connaught House, then called ‘Coláiste Chiaráin’. It was run as a senior cycle secondary school for novitiates or students engaged in a special period of preparation before a candidate is formally admitted to Religious Life.
The Brothers who lived there at the time consisted of the Brothers who taught at the school and the Brothers who worked in the kitchens and the farm, including the kitchen garden. The farm mainly consisted of cattle, chickens, pigs and most of the farm was in tillage. The farm was run as a business at one point, as the Brothers sold carrots, cabbage, potatoes, apples, pears and plums.
In 1972 the Christian Brothers decided to leave Old Connaught, which was then sold off in sections. They sold the Walled Garden and Old Stable Yard to Mr James Carroll, who closed the gates of the property and locked it where it was left idle for over 20 years.
Festina Lente Foundation in Old Connaught Ave (1996 – present day)
Our organisation was founded in 1988 by Mary Rachel Brophy; her aim was (and still is) through social and economic inclusion, to support those most at risk. Our organisation started with Equestrian training and then in 1990 expanded to include Horticulture Training. It was originally called the National Specialised Equestrian Training Centre.
In 1996, Mr James Carroll leased the Walled Gardens and stableyard of Old Connaught House to our non profit foundation. The organisation decided to change its name to adopt the Plunket family motto of ‘Festina Lente’, which means ‘Hasten Slowly’.
EU Horizon funding assisted the project with the objective of piloting two employment projects for people with disabilities, one with equine and one in the gardens.
The Festina Lente Foundation has further plans and intends to continue to develop the Festina Lente Campus & Walled Gardens as part of the full services of the Foundation.
The result of all of the Festina Lente Foundation’s hard work is the wonderful garden and state of the art Equestrian Centre which are available to the public to enjoy whenever they want.
Garden Restoration 1996 – Present Day
After Clearing the Garden
In 2001, with financial assistance of the Heritage Council, a historical survey was commissioned to support the restoration of the Walled Gardens in line with original drawings and plans. There were 122 recommendations made to make the gardens more historically accurate.
Restoring the Ornamental Fountain
Festina Lente has since addressed many of these recommendations, with the exception of the Glasshouse in the Ornamental Garden and the reinstatement of the fernery.
The gardens were officially opened by HRH Princess Anne on the 10th September 2004.
Restoration of the Garden Pools
Structures in the Walled Gardens today
A great deal of the superficial appearance of the gardens today owe much to this intervention by the fourth Lord Plunket and this is most evident in the prominent use of late-19th century brick, particularly the buff-coloured brick used as quoins in walls, piers and buttresses.
The flights of steps, as seen in the photograph opposite, are flanked with yellow brick and probably date from this same period.
Various other features survive from the latter half of the 19th century, including door surrounds in brick and a grotto structure at the south-west corner of the gardens. The perimeter walls are also capped in late-19th century brick. In various places there are pedestals in yellow brick that would have held urns or statuary and these are similar to pedestals which were found in other parts of the grounds of Old Connaught House.
Elsewhere in the gardens may be found a different style of door surround constructed in the same brick as the walls themselves and, in all probability, dating from an earlier period as the brick is of a different colour, texture and size. Brick detailing on door surround. Features such as this add great character to the gardens and demonstrate that this was more than a routine walled garden attached to a big house, but exhibits detailing which is not common.
On the central axis of the gardens, in the western part of the garden, there is a circular fountain.
The perimeter walls themselves are constructed in a good quality brick as a lining on the inner face, while the outer face is built in the local stone, which is mainly quartzite.