Avondale House in Co Wicklow will be forever associated with Charles Stewart Parnell, though his family have not owned it for more than 120 years.
The ghost of nationalist politician Parnell, the uncrowned king of Ireland who died at just 46 in 1891, remains ever present in the house.
A silhouette of Parnell can be seen pacing the upstairs balcony as one enters the high-ceilinged hallway, with its beautiful gothic plasterwork. It was here the aspiring young politician would practice the speeches that galvanised a nation.
There was much disappointment locally when Avondale House was closed to visitors in 2018 for what would be five years. The house was purchased by the State in 1904 and used as a forestry school. It had been opened as a visitor attraction in 1991 by then Taoiseach Charles Haughey and a coffee shop was added many years later. Yet, it never attracted sufficient volume of visitors – with an average of 4,000 per year – to be viable, partially because the house itself looked jaded and partially because of its out-of-the-way location.
Coillte, the owners of the Avondale estate, were in a similar dilemma to Parnell himself, who turned to sawmills and mining to try to keep it as a going concern.
In 2018, Coillte embarked upon a €19 million transformational plan for the whole estate – the first part of which was opened last summer. The Beyond the Trees Avondale Treetop Walk and Viewing Tower, which opened in July, has already had 300,000 visitors and celebrates the estate’s other claim to fame – its association with the study of Irish forestry which began with the publication of a book on the subject by the estate’s founder, Samuel Hayes, in 1777.
The second part of the transformation, the refurbishment of Avondale House, cost close to €1 million.* It, like so many construction projects, was delayed because of Covid-19 but eventually got under way in May 2021. The first phase focused on structural works including roof and window repairs, interior electrical works and some interior painting.
The second phase took place between October 2022 and March 2023 and focused on the interior fit out of the house. When the house closed to the public in 2017, much of the interior furniture and artefacts, which had been on loan, were returned to the National Museum. They have since been returned.
Coillte consulted with experts in period furniture and design refurbishment to ensure an experience for visitors that is true to the period. A number of the key pieces of furniture and artefacts on display are fully authentic and original to the house.
These include an original Bossi fireplace and Parnell’s Wooten desk. This desk, so named after its maker, the Wooton Desk Company of Indianapolis, belonged to Parnell’s American grandfather, Commodore Charles Stewart. It was given as a gift to Avondale House in 1994 by its then owner Michael Smurfit.
Two items of Parnell memorabilia stand out. The first is a handwritten letter to the authorities in Wicklow looking for permission to pan for gold in the Avon river. The other is a wedding ring for his great love, Katherine O’Shea, that he planned to fashion from gold he discovered on the estate. Unfortunately, there was no gold rush and Parnell had to augment his meagre lode by including platinum in it. The ring is now in a glass case in Avondale House – a house Katherine O’Shea never got to visit.
The dining room reflects the extravagant tastes of Parnell’s American-born mother, Delia Stewart, who loved to entertain in Avondale. The drawing room is dedicated to Parnell’s illustrious sisters, Anna and Fanny, who were active in the Women’s Land League. The final room in the house is dedicated to the house’s status as the headquarters for Irish forestry for generations
The tour is confined to the ground floor. The upper floor is still vacant. It could be a site for conferences, seminars or corporate away days. “It’s early days. At the moment, we haven’t got a clear picture of where it will land. We only have two months behind us for the house experience,” said Beyond the Trees Avondale sales manager, Gretta Doyle.
Avondale, where Parnell was born in 1846, has been completely renovated and will be officially opened by the Tanáiste Micheál Martin on Friday.
* This article was amended on June 9th. The original article incorrectly stated that the restoration of Avondale House cost €8 million.