In its heyday, Coolattin House, near the village of Shillelagh, was at the centre of one of the biggest and wealthiest Anglo-Irish estates. The owners, the Earls of Fitzwilliam, owned more than 85,000 acres – one fifth of Co Wicklow – and had thousands of tenants. After the Great Famine and the land clearances, an estimated 2,000 people emigrated from the estate to Canada and tens of thousands of Canadians can today trace their ancestry to Coolattin.
By 1948, more than 20 years after Irish independence, Peter Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, the eighth Earl Fitzwilliam, still owned Coolattin. That summer, he died in an air crash in France, along with Kathleen 'Kick' Kennedy. Fitzwilliam was allegedly trying to divorce his wife in Wicklow and planning to marry the sister of future US President, John F Kennedy.
Kennedy herself had already a separate connection to Ireland – she had married, four years earlier in 1944, William Cavendish, eldest son and heir to the 10th Duke of Devonshire, owner of Lismore Castle. But that marriage lasted just four months. Cavendish was killed while serving with the British Army in Belgium during the second World War, leaving Kennedy widowed and titled Marchioness of Hartington.
Fitzwilliam's widow, Olive, Countess Fitzwilliam (nee Plunket) – a daughter of the Bishop of Meath, lived on in Coolattin until her death in 1975. The Coolattin estate and the contents of the house were subsequently sold.
Today, Coolattin House is owned by Coolattin Golf Club and overlooks the course. Despite being unoccupied for decades, the house is in remarkably good condition. It has been hired by Sheppard's as the venue for a two-day Great Country House Collections auction, starting on Tuesday.
More than 1,300 lots in the sale are on display in Coolattin House and grounds, where three days of viewing begin this morning. The viewing provides a rare opportunity to see inside one of Co Wicklow’s most famous houses.
Entry is by catalogue – published as two volumes and priced at €20 – which admits two people to both the viewing and the auction. There are on-site catering facilities and free parking.
Auctioneer Michael Sheppard said the auction includes "the finest collection of period furniture to come on the Irish market for years". Highlights include Lot 593, a set of 12 18th century Chinese export hardwood elbow chairs, estimated at €30,000-€50,000, and Lot 1249, a set of 10 19th century Irish Chippendale-style dining chairs made by Butler of Dublin (€6,000-€8,000).
A few lots with a Coolattin connection have been consigned to the sale. These include Lot 961, a "sporting shotgun in perfect working order" made by Charles Lancaster in London circa 1855 for a member of the Fitzwilliam family (€4,000-€6,000); and Lot 443, an Irish 18th century mahogany silver table (€3,000-€5,000).
But almost all the lots have no Coolattin connection and the house is simply an opulent stage for a collection of items that once adorned similar grand houses.
There’s a huge price range in the items on offer – from just €40-€60 for Lot 1184, an early 20th century leather-bound silver-plated Campaign Lunch Box by Swaine Adeney, London; to €60,000-€80,000 for Lot 743, a Chinese Qing period vase.
The taxidermy lots include Lot 232, a life-size stuffed and mounted black bear (€1,500-€2,500).
Among a selection of garden furniture and statuary is Lot 883, a spectacular seven-tier, 20ft high, bronze estate fountain – the ultimate water feature – estimated at €20,000-€25,000.