Thirty-two years passed between the sale of Fota House by descendents of the Smith Barry family to when the Irish Heritage Trust became the guardians of the east Cork property.
As the grand country house set on the 19th century estate celebrates 200 years this year, the people who now care for the stately home talk about the importance of preserving it and the many ways it is part of the local community.
“A series of enlightened people who recognised the public benefits that Fota could offer, stepped in and saved the house and gardens,” says General Manager of Fota House, Bryan Murphy, who took up his dream job last September.
Home to the Smith Barry family for generations, it was restored and conserved by the Irish Heritage Trust, partnered with the OPW who maintain the property.
“Like me, everyone that comes to Fota House falls in love with it,” says Bryan.
“It has seasonal appeal.”
Visitors can tour the lavish drawing rooms of Ireland’s past aristocrats, inspect their writing desks or examine where they took afternoon tea, as well as the salubrious bedrooms where they took a nap.
“Fota House and Gardens, a unique historical home, shares a slice of the pie of the collective visitor attractions in the region; all of which offer wonderful unique stories they can share with people here and from the UK the USA, and Europe,” Bryan says.
“This amenity, Fota House, Midleton Distillery, Spike Island and Cobh, are all right on our doorstep, 10 miles from Cork city, all accessible by road, and rail.”
He is looking forward to a year of a series of celebrations for the bi-centenary, including outdoor classical music concerts, outdoor movie and theatre nights, exhibitions in the house, exciting family events, culminating with a ‘Night at the Proms’, featuring Cork musicians and singers.
“We are hosting an open day where we welcome the community of The Island to come here and share their stories and connections with Fota House,” says Bryan.
“That will be a big highlight for the locals and for us. Fota House is an MSPI property, (Museum Standards Programme for Ireland), and we want to promote more art tours for visitors focusing on the impressive art collection of landscapes that we have here.”
The highlight for youngsters is the Snakes and Shamrocks Family Trail, Saturday March 14-17.
“It is great to see the children running about out in the grounds in their wellies, full of excitement. says Bryan.
“It is a big adventure for them.”
Fota, with its magnificent grounds, drawing the eye across the lake to the island, laid out in the 19th century provides a fabulous back-drop for outdoor pursuits.
“Our Plant Fair at Easter is always popular,” says Bryan.
“And we are marking National Poetry Day on April 30.”
Everyone is to be included in the 200th year celebrations of the magnificent estate .
“We’re planning a Grandparents’ Day which will be really special,” Bryan adds.
“All the grandparents accompanied by their grandchildren will be our guests for the day.
Today, Fota is open for everyone’s enjoyment, whether it is to tour the house, hear the stories of the people who lived there, have a coffee in the cafe, or take a stroll through the gardens and arboretum.”
Claire Kelleher and Rita Devlin enjoy welcoming guests from home and abroad to Fota House. Like the army of loyal house servants of yesteryear, the ladies, part of a smaller team today, often have to multi-task.
“Yes, says Claire, whose grandparents met at a dinner in Fota House in the late 1920s. “We often double-job!
“When we were hosting our annual Halloween event I was in a coffin for two years!”
“And I was chief mourner,” Rita adds, laughing.
“Most days I meet and greet the visitors and I do the house tours. I help co-ordinate weddings. A lot of civil service ceremonies take place here at Fota House. The wedding photographs taken inside the Great Hall or in the grounds surrounded by fabulous foliage, the exotic flowers and shrubs, are always spectacular.”
Rita takes on another role during the most wonderful time of the year.
“I’m Mrs Claus!”
Both Rita and Claire had family who worked at Fota House in the past.
“It was a place to start domestic service and work your way up,” says Claire.
And lots of longlasting relationships were forged in the grand house.
“Lots of the servants met and married their partners here,” says Rita.
“I recently met a man from Cobh whose grandmother worked here to earn her passage to America,” says Rita.
“She never got there. She met her husband while working here in Fota House and they had 13 children!”
Fota House was always full of life.
“John Smith Barry was a very colourful character,” says Claire.
“He had wild parties in the house. He was illegitimate and had no title so he really didn’t give a damn. When his guests wanted to leave the party; he would lock them in and throw the key of the front door out on the lawn. When all the food and drink was gone; John left the guests out.
The burly footman acted as a bouncer, keeping order when so much alcohol was consumed.”
Claire and Rita say that visitors to Fota House love hearing amusing anecdotes of the ancestral owners.
What room do they like the best?
“They love the opulence of drawing room,” says Rita.
“And the art-work displayed on the walls always attracts attention.”
If these walls could talk?
“You’ll notice that all the portraits are of the person’s face. If more of the body was painted, like the shoulders and arms; the painting would be more expensive. That’s where the term, ‘costing an arm and a leg comes from.”
The house is not the only attraction. Head gardener, Bernard Vaughan, from Glanmire, along with his cohort of dedicated volunteers; keeps the impressive gardens in tip-top condition.
“The big estates of Ireland always had glass-houses since the ‘window tax’ was abolished in 1845,” says Bernard. “There was always a sense of one-upmanship about who had the most impressive glass-houses and the most exotic unusual plants growing in them.
In it’s heyday, the Frameyard at Fota had huge varieties of plants, shrubs and trees.
“The Smith Barrys began an arboretum in the 1840s. Many rare and tender plants were introduced to Fota at this time,” says Bernard.
“Before World War 1, there were 1,000 bedding plants set alone. During the war, labour became scarce and the wages went up.”
The Frameyard became totally derelict and it took two years to restore.
“Today it is a wonderful, fertile space to propagate, grow, and tend to plants that flourish in their surroundings; in the Old Victorian Garden, and in the Frameyard,” says Bernard.
“The Kitchen Garden produces seasonal fruit, vegetables, and flowers which we sell to the public. It is great to see the fruition of all the hard work invested from season to season when everything flourishes.
“Our volunteers enjoy coming here to work here in the gardens, to learn more about plants and shrubs. They like the sociability of it.”
Volunteer Catherine Coakley, from Cork city, agrees with Bernard.
“When I retired; I decided to volunteer in the Old Victorian Garden at Fota House. It is a magical place that has been lovingly restored to its former glory. For us volunteers, Fota House provides continuous professional development for us,” says Catherine. “In a few weeks, we’ll be doing a fruit pruning workshop with Ian Graham, one of the gardeners. Bernard will be doing a workshop with us growing tomatoes, something that he is an expert in. I am particularly interested in the history of the gardens and decided to do some research in that area.”
Up the back stairs near the servants quarters, Martina Madden is nestled in a sunny room where she taking an inventory of the the unique collection of books belonging to the house.
“I maintain, co-ordinate and apply museum standards the house,” says Martina.
Like her colleagues; Claire and Rita, she double-jobs too.
“I look after all the house security systems, and the maintenance, over-seeing electrical installations and repairs. That work is continuous. There is always a list! I allocate rooms in the house for exhibitions, as well as looking after the care of the collections of art and furniture in the house.”
The ‘meeters and greeters’ are always on hand to guide visitors around the magnificent estate and gardens. They always have something to add to the wonderful Fota House experience.
“Look out for the ghost dressed in white above the banisters!”
Fota House, Arboretum & Gardens. Phone:021-4815543 www.fotahouse.com