Lights go out in last 'Big House'


The lights are finally going out in Mount Congreve, Ireland’s last ‘Big House’, and the contents will be sold during a huge two-day auction next week

A POLISHED Rolls Royce is moored, like a cruise liner from another era, in a sea of gravelled driveway. The car’s cream leather and walnut interior is as comfortably sprung as a sedia gestatoria – the ceremonial chair used to carry a pope aloft. The front door to the house is framed by a classical portico. Inside, a liveried Indian servant pads silently across a Persian silk carpet beneath a sparkling crystal chandelier. The distant rustle of a skirt might be Cook scurrying to the kitchen below-stairs to make a Peach Melba with ripe fruit from the walled-garden’s glasshouses. The chauffeur is on stand-by. Waiting for his master’s voice.

A summer morning in an English country house 100 years ago?

No. It’s rural Ireland in 2012.

Didn’t the “Big House” go out with a bang during the War of Independence? Well, not quite. A handful of Anglo-Irish families hung in there and the twilight world of the ascendancy somehow survived into the 21st century.

For more than 250 years, eight generations of the wealthy Congreve family have lived at the eponymous Mount Congreve estate near Kilmeaden village, Co Waterford. The last surviving member, Ambrose Congreve, born in 1907, died, “without issue”, last year at the remarkable age of 104. He was the “end of the line” and Ireland’s last link to the Edwardian era.

During the boom, this 25-bedroom mansion on 70 acres might have fetched €10 million. Maybe much more. But speculation about its value is, thankfully, now academic. Mount Congreve is not for sale. In fact, it has been gifted to the people of Ireland – a rare piece of good news in a country much in need of it.

In a grand philanthropic gesture, Congreve left both the house and the surrounding world-renowned gardens (which he planted) in trust to the State. His generous legacy poignantly fulfils the Congreve family motto: Non moritur cuius fama vivit (He does not die, whose good name lives on).

The Office of Public Works will take over the estate and, while plans for the house have yet to be announced, it is hoped that the gardens – currently open to the public just one day a week – will become a major visitor attraction in the southeast.

However, although the State gets the house, the contents are being sold by joint auctioneers Christie’s and Mealy’s.

Ambrose Congreve also had a town house in London – next door to St James’s Palace – and spent many years in business in Britain where he ran Humphreys Glasgow, gasworks manufacturers and petrochemical engineers. He lived most of his later years in Mount Congreve with his wife, Marjorie, who predeceased him in 1995. He was a multi-millionaire and spent a fortune on his gardens and on assembling one of Ireland’s greatest – and hitherto publicly unseen – collections of fine art and antiques.

Last month in London, bidders spent £3.4 million (€4.2 million) buying 91 items of silver, furniture, porcelain and paintings which had been shipped over for the first auction. But there’s a lot more to come.

Next week’s huge two-day auction at the house will dispose of the rest of the contents. More than 1,100 lots will go under the hammer with estimates ranging from just €20 up to €100,000 (the highest estimate for a Regency-period Carlton House desk).

This is the most important country house auction for a generation and a big crowd is expected to attend.

Three days of viewing begin at noon on Saturday, allowing the Irish public a first – and last – opportunity to glimpse the interior of Mount Congreve with the furniture and decor still in situ. A chance, then, to see inside the “Big House” – which has never been open to the public before – and to glimpse a way of life that has largely vanished.

Walking though the house offers an insight into a world of privileged elegance normally only seen in television period drama.

The household staff are busy discreetly cleaning and packing as they prepare to depart forever.

Many of the rooms have magnificent plaster-work ceilings and ornate marble fireplaces featuring bas-relief putti and panels of green Connemara marble. The furniture, like the rest of the contents, reflects Congreve’s decades of extensive collecting and his eye for items with a good provenance including pieces formerly owned by royalty and aristocrats.

There are hand-woven carpets from various points along the old Silk Route; vases and lacquered screens from imperial China; Meissen porcelain and Georgian silver; gorgeous clocks and imposing oil paintings.

A dining room overlooks a garden where a fountain features Leda and the Swan. Once, 24 guests regularly sat down here for lavish dinner parties, served by uniformed staff from Kerala in India. A far cry from the traditional Waterford “tea” of a floury blaa (bread roll) and a couple of slices of crumbed ham.

A wonderful gentleman’s library, lined with leather-bound volumes collected by the Congreve family during three centuries, is being broken up and the books sold off individually.

A “must-see” is the parquet-floored “Large Drawing Room” papered with stunning 18th-century Chinese hand-painted wallpaper. Anyone moved to recreate this fantasy at home will be delighted to know that four left-over rolls of the rare wallpaper have come to light and will be sold in the auction.

Everything must go – from plate buckets to leather riding boots, silver inkwells to candelabra; garden furniture and the contents of the wine cellar. Even the curtains.

If you’ve been desperately looking for a glove stretch, a boot pull or a “full hide-bound gentleman’s travelling dressing case” by Asprey of London, then this is the moment to grab a paddle and take the plunge.

And, yes, the Rolls Royce is also for sale. But the chauffeur isn’t included.

Go and see Mount Congreve. Because the lights are going out all over what must surely be the last “Big House” in Ireland and, to borrow the infamous quote from Sir Edward Grey, “We shall not see them lit again in our time.”


WHATMount Congreve, the house sale, hosted by Mealy’s in association with Christie’s

WHENViewing Saturday, July 7th and Sunday, July 8th: Noon - 5pm; Monday, July 9th: 10am - 5pm. Auction on Tuesday, July 10th and Wednesday, July 11th from 11am each day. Entry to viewing and auction by catalogue only – €25 admits two

WHEREMount Congreve, Kilmeaden, Co Waterford