DESCENDANTS of former staff who worked at the Johnstown Castle estate in Co. Wexford came together recently to mark the official reopening of the historic former home.
Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Charlie McConalogue, was also there for the launch of the majestic Johnstown Castle Estate, Museum & Gardens.
Johnstown Castle opened its doors to the public for the first time in 2019, exactly 850 years after the arrival of the Anglo-Normans to Wexford.
However, the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic soon after meant that the occasion was not officiated until last month, when Minister McConalogue declared the gothic revival doors of the castle ‘open’.
Situated in 120 acres, the historic property opened pre-pandemic following the completion of a €7.5million investment by Department of Agriculture, Food & the Marine and Fáilte Ireland.
That project was overseen by the owners of the property Teagasc, Ireland’s agriculture & food development authority, in partnership with The Irish Heritage Trust, an independent not-for-profit organisation.
The investment included conservation works in the Castle and enabled the estate to deliver a stunning new destination visitor offering in Ireland’s South-east.
The offering includes Castle tours, the re-opening of the 86-metre servant’s tunnel; the building of a world-class visitor centre and redevelopment works at the Irish Agricultural Museum and Daniel Robertson Ornamental Gardens along with unveiling 4km of stunning lake walks and the addition of a children’s playground.
Joining the official opening celebrations were a number of descendants of the former staff of the Estate who shared their ‘living history’ memories of growing up on the estate, which are now incorporated into the guided tour of the Castle.
The Irish Heritage Trust, which is managing and bringing the property to life, welcomed back 82-year-old May McDonald who grew up on the estate and has many fond memories including her responsibility of turning hatching eggs twice daily underneath a paraffin incubator and delivering the fresh eggs to the Castle’s kitchens via the ‘servants tunnel’ in complete darkness.
“It was my job to deliver the hens’ eggs to the cook, they were wrapped up in newspaper in a rectangular basket,” she said.
“I was always on guard carrying the eggs as I daren’t break any but of course, the coal boys would be waiting at some point along the tunnel to give me a good fright.”
Majella Kehoe’s father was the estate’s driver and her grandfather was the Groomsman for Lady Maurice FitzGerald.
Majella said: “Growing up we had a great life, we had the freedom to roam the estate daily except at 3pm when the lady of the Castle would take her walk.
“It was a little sanctuary really and everyone was treated so well by the FitzGerald family.
“It was the greatest playground ever.”
Since 2019, Johnstown Castle Estate, Museum & Gardens has proven a hugely popular visitor attraction and presently draws over 100,000 visitors per year with some 7,600 Irish Heritage Trust members enjoying the facilities year-round.
Minister McConalogue, speaking at the official ceremony in Johnstown Castle, said: “I am delighted to officially open this national treasure and I congratulate all involved in recent years at Johnstown Castle Estate, Museum & Gardens in offering visitors the opportunity to become immersed in the story of Irish food, farming and family life, while providing a nostalgic journey through Irish farming and social history at the fascinating Irish Agricultural Museum.”
The Irish Agricultural Museum explores rural life in Ireland and houses a fascinating collection of 19 permanent exhibitions.
In the past year, the Museum has launched new exhibitions, including one about Pierce’s Foundry, Wexford’s world-famous industrial giant.
The museum at Johnstown Castle is recognised nationally as holding the preeminent collection of agricultural artefacts.
“Both I and my Department are truly proud to have been able to support this tremendous project which brings together the history of agriculture with the beautiful surrounds of Johnstown Castle,” Minister McConalogue added.
“I commend everyone in my own Department as well as Fáilte Ireland, The Irish Heritage Trust and Teagasc for bringing this exciting venture to fruition.
“I know it will be a mainstay for the Irish tourism sector for years to come,” he continued.
Anne O’Donoghue, CEO of The Irish Heritage Trust, welcomed all the descendants who took part in the launch event.
“We are so delighted to welcome today descendants of the former staff at the Johnstown Castle Estate to celebrate this special occasion, as bringing history to life is what we are passionate about,” she said.
“Our work at The Irish Heritage Trust is guided by the principles of ‘People, Place and Participation’ because we believe that the greater the number of people who build relationships with special places, the stronger those properties will be into the future,” she explained.
“It is these people today who help to bring historic places to life and to capture and re-tell the true ‘living history’ stories of Johnstown Castle.
“We would also like to acknowledge the support of the local community including our wonderful team of 120 plus volunteers who have worked on many parts of the estate since 2019.
“We are also most grateful to our 7,600 plus members who have remained loyal throughout the challenges of the pandemic.”
Membership of The Irish Heritage Trust ensures that Johnstown Castle Estate, Museum & Gardens continues to survive and thrive for future generations to enjoy.
Works and re-investment continue apace at Johnstown Castle Estate, Museum & Gardens, including the redevelopment of the sunken garden and conservation works on the Castle’s ballroom and the Victorian glasshouses.
Orla Carroll, Director of Product Development of Fáilte Ireland, said: “It is wonderful to be in Wexford today to mark the official opening of Johnstown Castle Estate, Museum & Gardens.
“This attraction, supported by Fáilte Ireland in partnership with Teagasc and The Irish Heritage Trust, will provide an additional draw to the South-east of Ireland for domestic and international visitors.
“The investment in and redevelopment of Johnstown Castle amplifies Ireland’s heritage tourism credentials, creates a new must-visit attraction in Wexford and reinforces Ireland’s Ancient East as a world-class destination.”
Chairman of the Teagasc Authority, Liam Herlihy is excited to see Johnstown Castle given a new lease of life in modern Ireland.
“It is wonderful to see this new chapter in the story of Johnstown Castle,” he said.
“For many decades, the castle and grounds have been in the care and stewardship of Teagasc and its predecessor An Foras Taluntais,” he explained.
“The scientific developments initiated here in the 1940s and ’50s were crucial for the agricultural and economic development of the early Irish state.
“The new exhibition in the Castle, in the former research labs, is a timely reminder and celebration of this contribution across the decades.
“The scientific contributions from Johnstown Castle now focus on the environmental sustainability of agriculture and are as important now as ever.
He added: “It is very rewarding to see the success and popularity of Johnstown Castle Estate, Museum & Gardens.
“Teagasc’s strategic decision to develop the Castle Estate, Museum and Gardens with the Irish Heritage Trust, as a leading tourist destination for the South-east, will ensure its upkeep for future generations."
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