ALMOST 500,000 people visit Doneraile Wildlife Park annually — but that number is now expected to soar to 900,000 in the coming years.
Why? Because Doneralie Court House on the 400 acre parkland estate, has been beautifully revived and restored to its former 17th century glory and reopened to the public for the first time in half a century.
The date 1725 on the front of Doneraile Court declares its centuries of history.
“Doneraile House is a classically 17th century Georgian house,” says tour guide, Aileen Spittaire, during our tour.
“The former residence of Sir William St Leger, Lord Deputy of Munster, in 1969, and home to 13 generations of the St Leger family until it was sold to the state, has been closed to the public for half a century.”
It’s easy to imagine the halcyon days when the lords and ladies from upstairs strolled the grounds of Doneraile estate while the local laundry maids and kitchen maids busied and bustled downstairs, keeping everything running like clockwork.
The venue was buzzing on a summer Sunday when I visited. The outdoor tearoom was humming with conversation and curiosity about the 16th century Synans to Sir William St Leger and his descendants.
“Ireland’s great heritage is a gift to us all,” said Josepha Madigan, Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, who officiated at the opening of Doneraile Court House, last month.
“I would encourage everyone to take time to visit this wonderful 17th century country home if you are visiting or living in the north Cork region.”
The OPW acquired the House in 1994, got approval for renovations, and contracted the Costello Company of Tralee at a cost of €1.6 million to complete re-wiring, new heating, fire and security systems, structural reinforcing and repairs to many of the original doors and fittings.
Inside, the ground floor, still with the faint whiff of newly-laid floorboards and coated in natural plastic-free paint, is resplendent with rich wall hangings, tapestries, and abundant European rugs languishing in front of a proud Kilkenny limestone fireplace, installed by the Irish Georgian Society.
“There used to be a billiard table here in the reception room,” says Aileen.
“On top, coats were laid, so that on entry, a visitor to the house could put on a coat, or maybe two! It was so cold.”
Like author, Elizabeth Bowen, who spent much of her time at Doneraile House, people are in love with it.
“Things arrive. The goodwill is incredible,” says Aileen. “People are so in love with the house.”
The contents of the house were stripped in 1969, Architectural historian, Christopher Moore, charged with the fitting out of the ground floor, had to oversee the acquisition of new objects through loans, gifts and purchases. Selected works from the Crawford Art Gallery also lend an ambiance to the reception hall and the dining room.
In the boudoir, a fabulous French rug, recently returned from France, adds lustre to the salubrious surroundings.
“The lady of the house used the boudoir as her private sitting room to entertain,” says Aileen.
“Families travelled here from Fermoy, Glanmire and Macroom. Paintings here depict some of the Boyle family who had close connections to the St Legers.”
Servants, including gamekeepers, gardeners and caretakers, were on stand-by at all times.
“The bell system going through the house alerted the servants to each task,” says Aileen.
“Each bell had a different sound depending on the task that needed doing.”
Fox and hound scenes are prominent, adorning the walls of the dining room, where the hunting table sits in the middle, set with original bone china and cork crystal glasses. The other stately animals, the deer that stalked the estate and who in turn were stalked themselves, feature along the blue corridor, their antlers mounted on the walls of the corridor which leads to the servants’ stairs which were seldom stalked by residents.
The Red deer, introduced in 1895, are still resident in the parkland today.
There is no hulking hound lounging in front of any tall fireplace in hall or room. Looking out the bow windows, though, that indicated the sign of wealth, the odd hare and rabbit frolic in the foliage of the lush grass.
“Follow me through to see the intricate dolls’ house and impressive staircase,” says Aileen.
The spiral staircase is a stairway to heaven. The inner hall displays a cantilevered staircase reaching to the ceiling, which houses an alcove under which the doll’s house resides.
The detail and workmanship on the shoulder high dolls’ house is amazing. Nearby is the inner sanctum where the gentlemen smoked cigars and drank port after dinner.
“Rumour has it that Elizabeth St Leger, daughter of the first Viscount, was eavesdropping here one evening outside the door,” says Aileen.
“A meeting of the Freemasons was in progress. Elizabeth became the first woman inducted into the Freemasons to ensure her secrecy.”
The library beckons, whispering a promise of tales of history, romance and intrigue. But as yet, there is no collection of books on the 18th century bookcase — that is a project for another day.
High tea in the courtyard is on the agenda as Aileen waves her group farewell from the creaking front door.
We all agreed that the refurbished ground floor of the majestic Doneraile Court House was indeed impressive and well worth a visit, giving a glimpse of gentry life.
SUMMER OPENING HOURS
Monday- Friday 8am-5pm
Tours of the house take place every hour.
Adult €8, Child €4.
Family €20, Child under 12 free.