Charleville estate is a place apart


It was raining the day we called to see Charleville. Serious rain, cold and drenching, cloud low and visibility poor. It didn't matter too much. Charleville, house and garden, emerged from that sodden day as a place apart. Serenely beautiful and welcoming, it was as far removed from the mercurial moods of an Irish June as any dream could be.

Just a few miles outside Enniskerry, the 18th century house is one of the "Properties of Significant Architectural and Historic Interest' on Bord Failte's list of those open to the public. Charleville has been owned by Ken Rohan, of Rohan Holdings Ltd, for some 16 years now.

Charleville's avenue is wide and winds gently to the house, views of high meadowland, dripping buttercup and distant Wicklow landmarks like the Sugarloaf roll unfettered to either side.

About half-way up a couple of sentinel stone lions leer in friendly enough fashion. We pass on and round a massed bank of multi-coloured rhododendron to a first sighting of Charleville in all its Wicklow granite splendour.

It has a nine-bay front, of which the central three bays are part of an Ionic portico reaching a storey higher than the rest of the house. We park on the gravel front and get out into what is now a quiet drizzle and to the benign gaze of a couple of donkeys just yards away and up to their knees in the grassy meadow. Less reassuringly, the front entrance to Charleville is firmly shut.

It opens and a voice calls hello before we move, before doubts about our welcome set in. We've made the required appointment but you can never be sure about these things. Robin, from Avoca, is charm itself and cordially welcoming. She's worked at Charleville for 11 years and looks after, among other things, the visitors' guided tours and flower arrangements for the house. She does both very well.

`Quite a few people come to view Charleville,' Robin assured us. Groups are limited to 10 as the house is home to the Rohan family and fully lived in. The tour is limited to the outer and inner entrance halls, the morning, drawing and diningrooms. The gardens are also open to the public, acres of them filled with old yew and every other kind of tree, with flowered walks and twisting bowers and an eerily pagan temple-conservatory.

The avenue was once cobbled, Robin informed us, and before the Rohan family became owners, the place was popular for film settings. An American couple called Hawthorne were the previous owners, and filled it in summertime with orphaned children. Before the Hawthornes, it was owned by Donald Davies, famous for his handwoven, fine wool clothes, who had his workshops in the courtyard to the back of the house.

Its earlier and first occupants were the Monck family, who became owners of the estate in 1705. That was the year Charles Monck married Angela Hitchcock, an heiress - a fact which can have hardly been irrelevant when it came to the upkeep of the place. A fire in 1792 destroyed the original Charleville - you can see from a window of today's house right across to the hollow in the trees where that first building stood.

The first Viscount Monck (he got the title when he voted for the Union), a grandson of Charles and Angela, commissioned the present structure and had it designed by Whitmore Davis. Building wasn't completed until 1830, the unduly long time occasioned, according to Robin, by the 1798 rebellion.

There's more historical fact attaching to the wide and wonderful front entrance hall. The Irish oak marquetry floor is not the original covering: that was in a Portland stone which was replaced by the oak when it seemed likely George IV might drop in while staying in nearby Powerscourt in 1821. In the event. He didn't call - but the oak remains to enjoy. The plasterwork in the hall, as everywhere, is dazzlingly detailed. A pair of fluted Ionic columns, to the rear and leading through to the inner hall and cantilevered staircase, have a more serene beauty about them. The staircase and beyond are not part of the tour.

The morningroom, once a music room, is all golden yellow and shades of blue. A barrel-vaulted ceiling shows the plasterwork in which, if you look carefully, you can make out musical instruments. The pictures, objets d'art' and furniture here, as everywhere we, will see, are nearly all Irish, assiduously collected by the owner. Pieces have come from places like Powerscourt and Birr Castle while a pair of period Irish chairs in the diningroom were brought back from the US and restored.

In the drawingroom the dominant colour is the old rose of the elaborately draped curtains and carpet. The silver-grey wallpaper is a copy of the original and the 13-piece Thomas Chippendale suite used to have a home in Lord Zetland's London establishment. A receipt in the Victoria and Albert Museum shows it to have been, in its time, the most expensive suite ever made.

The chandelier here is of Irish crystal and on the wall there are rather severe looking oils of Lady Sackville and of William Ashford (the latter painted in 1766) and a set of nine pastels showing Irish families painted in 1765 by Francis Robert West. By the door, a set of three women's heads were painted by Rosalba.

The diningroom is painted an aqueous green which doesn't altogether work. The lush, dark pink curtains are topped by gilded pelmets which came from Powerscourt and are crowned by that family's crest. The chandelier, along with the sconces to either side of the fireplace, also came from Powerscourt and are of Irish crystal. The Regency table can seat 18 to 20 and the jewel-coloured rug was made in India by prisoners of war during World War I.

And then there are the gardens. The low cloud had fulfilled its threat by the time we came to head into its leafy walks and an ever solicitous Robin offered brollies. Hope springing eternal, we left them where they were by the door of the entrance hall. It was wet and lovely, along the hedged walks and bowers, by the Latinate barbeque terrace where a lime tree was in fruit, in the rose garden, and orchard. Old flowers clustered in bursts of colour - lupins and peony roses, forget-me-not and hydrangea, wisteria covering a wall. In alcoves in high hedging, statuary remained a lot drier then we were.

Charleville is open to the public during May and June from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. For appointments call Monica Daly on 01 662-4455.