Finding a future for a big house in the shadow of a glittering past

 

Keeping a house the size of Stradbally Hall in Co Laois is such an expensive business that the Cosby family have adopted a pragmatic approach to the survival of their ancestral home. "We raise sheep so the land will support the house," says owner Adrian Cosby. Farming is important - you wouldn't survive in a big house without a farm. We have 50 sheep lambing this spring."

Grass grows over the long driveway and sheep graze on the lawn, where once tea was served and croquet played. Everyone uses the back door to the kitchen. Over the years, the estate has been "absolutely murdered" by rates, says the family.

"We were able to hand over to our son Thomas, who's basically a farmer. He's been to Teageasc's Gurteen College and is good with machinery as well as the animals. He may marry a girl with a fortune - that's how they got out of all their problems in the old days," Adrian adds, half seriously.

"There's always been close interaction between us and the town. People have the use of the park and the small wood. There's a local agreement not to go too close to the house. Dublin people wouldn't understand it. The Community Games take place on the lawn and I sold a bit of a field to the GAA. Soccer's still played here and horseshoe-throwing. We've run a drama group in the stables for the last 10 years."

Although Cosbys have been in Stradbally since the 16th century, the present house dates from 1772. In 1868, Adrian's grandfather commissioned Charles Lanyon to build an extension in anticipation of a visit from the Prince of Wales. His Highness diverted to Castletown where the shooting was better. However, a visit from his brother, the Duke of Connaught, is recorded in the visitors' book. "The Duke was proposed as King of Ireland and the house was to be a royal residence, but Queen Victoria was against it," says Adrian.

Adrian's wife, Alison Cosby, initially came to Stradbally from Scotland to cook before their relationship started. Her father and grandfather had been Gurkhas - her father himself once took part in an Everest expedition.

Entertaining at Stradbally Hall is inevitably on a grand scale, given the faded magnificence of the surroundings. The beautiful reception rooms came to life last New Year's Eve for an eventful Millennium party.

"We got the boiler going with wood and by evening it was warm throughout the house," says Alison. "The young people were all bringing sleeping bags. We had just got the radiators going when the alarm went off. The Garda arrived because a panic button had been set off, so we were buzzing around looking for it. Then the lights went off and we rang the ESB. Eventually Thomas found a fuse and got the lights going again.

"Then the bath overflowed and the hot tank overflowed and we had to keep the water from coming through the ceiling on to the food! We think there's a leprechaun in the house because every time we have a party, something funny happens . . ."

There is an air of faded gentility about the house. Green baize inner doors which have seen better days open to magnificent rooms crammed with family portraits. Over the years the Cosbys have sold many valuable pictures, so several of the "paintings" here are, on closer inspection, photographed copies on canvas. Only the magnificent original frames have been retained.

Overlooking a rear terrace leading down to formal gardens - which Adrian is in the process of restoring - are the formal reception rooms, which are without the "set-designed" look of country houses open to the public.

The deep-blue painted diningroom has a 20 ft-long mahogany table, which can comfortably seat 20. "This room was painted three times - we had such difficulty getting the right colour," says Adrian. Suspended over the table is a wonderful hand-painted lampshade by Seyr, daughter of Louis Le Brocquy, who attended school near Stradbally.

The saloon, also blue, has elaborate hand-painted ceiling plasterwork. The original 1860s gold-embossed wallpaper is in surprisingly good condition, and, as in the saloon, the ceiling plasterwork is superb. An excellent repair job has been done on part of the ceiling. "My father had a bath and the water leaked down. I found a Dun Laoghaire company who were able to make a mould of the good side and copy it," says Adrian.

The library/ballroom, where the staircase used to be, is in the newer part of the house which was added in 1868. Glass bookcases are filled with interesting old journals and land records, volumes of Irish statutes and Dickens novels. The wallpaper is a 19th century reproduction of an earlier design by artist Lafitte and the ornate radiators were installed in 1870.

At the top of the main staircase, a magnificent gallery is lined with portraits of Cosby ancestors. "We found the plasterer and painters' names behind a sideboard in the diningroom. My father improved the gallery when he painted it gold," says Adrian. "There's a photo of it painted white and it looks very hard."

Adrian makes replacement red-painted window frames with meticulous care in his cellar workshop. He joined the Orthodox Church in 1993 and has built a Byzantinestyle church in the grounds with stone from a couple of ruined gate lodges. It is now his son Thomas's job to farm the 540 or so acres remaining from an original 20,000 when the Cosbys first arrived.

"In the 1920s, children in houses like this grew up thinking their future would be wealthy," Adrian muses. "They were educated and trained for a totally different purpose and it took about two generations to adjust. My son has adjusted much better than I have."