Bank holiday at the Big House

Without the foresight of Desmond Guinness and his first wife, Mariga, there would be no Big House festival, because Castletown House would not exist as it does today

 Jo Mangan and Tom Swift, organisers of the Big House festival which takes place this weekend at Castletown House, Celbridge. Photograph: Eric Luke

Jo Mangan and Tom Swift, organisers of the Big House festival which takes place this weekend at Castletown House, Celbridge. Photograph: Eric Luke

Sat, Aug 3, 2013, 01:00

The period photographs of a young Desmond Guinness that hang in Castletown House in Co Kildare are black and white and, in all of them, his eyes have the remarkable clarity of lasers. Guinness is 80 now and his eyes, a startling blue, still retain their distinctive piercing gaze.

This August bank holiday, the house and grounds of Castletown will host what organiser the Performance Corporation is calling Ireland’s first site-specific festival. Without the foresight of Desmond Guinness and his first wife, Mariga, there would be no festival, because Castletown House would not exist in its current form.

Now run by the Office of Public Works (OPW), Guinness famously bought the 18th-century Palladian house in 1967 for £93,000. A year previously, its contents had been auctioned and the house was in danger of being vandalised.

Castletown became the key restoration project of the Irish Georgian Society, an organisation established by Guinness and Mariga in 1958 to promote awareness of architectural heritage in Ireland.

For the last few years, the Performance Corporation’s offices have been located in one of the many rooms at Castletown. Directors Jo Mangan and Tom Swift describe their company as one that makes “theatrical adventures in surprising places”.

Their inventive and physical work, located among seaside dunes and in a rowing boat on a lake, among other places, usually takes them far from their base at Castletown. This time, the Big House festival that they are organising will take place within sight of their office windows.

“We realised that our offices were in a fantastic location,” Mangan says, explaining the genesis of the idea for the festival. Part of the OPW’s remit in its care of Castletown is to encourage the public to visit the estate, so it has been very supportive of the festival, although it also involved “a huge logistical conversation”, as Mangan says diplomatically.

“This house is all about expectations,” she says, waving a hand first in the direction of the imposing house itself, and then towards the meadows and ha-ha that extend out for acres in front of it.

The festival, which runs for three days, will have the same programme each day, with the exception of each day’s headline music act. Equal use will be made of both house and garden as locations. In the meadow fronting the house, for instance, a dance piece called Flock with 40 dancers will be performed at random times of the day.

There will be opera on the lawn, a space for picnics, stalls selling artisan food, 80 birds made from found materials secreted in the landscape, a daily “auction” of found items, a camera obscura installation, talks, a ukulele céilí for children, films and several other events.

And if you see a man walking round Castletown that weekend with eyes of cerulean blue, it’s Desmond Guinness, to whom anyone who cares about Irish heritage owes a very large debt.


The Big House Festival runs from today until Monday at Castletown House, Celbridge, Co Kildare, see bighouse.ie

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