I was reminded of the Hidden Gems Project recently initiated by the Federation of Local History Societies of Ireland when last Saturday after a meeting of Local History Societies from Kildare County those attending were brought on a tour of two of Kilcullen’s attractions.
The first was the Camphill Community Garden nestling below the bridge of Kilcullen and bordering the River Liffey. The Camphill Community have been based in Kilcullen for about 20 years but it’s only within recent months that the garden, now open to the public, was developed. Our guide for the afternoon was Nessa Dunlea, a Kilcullen native who over the years has done an enormous amount of community work for her beloved town. I was previously unaware of the Camphill Garden and found it to be a very pleasant and peaceful oasis in the middle of Kilcullen which anyone visiting the town should arrange to see. With some additional development it could be easily transformed into a must see venue for visitors and locals alike and deserves inclusion as one of Kilcullen’s hidden gems.
Afterwards, Nessa arranged for us to travel a short distance on the Ballymore Eustace side of Kilcullen to visit Harristown House, the one time home of the La Touche family. It is now home to the Beaumonts and Hubert Beaumont gave his visitors, by prior arrangement, a guided tour of this fine house. The nine bay, three storey over basement house was originally built on a smaller scale in the 1760s for the Eustace family who sold the house and the Harristown Estate to John La Touche in or about 1785. It was John La Touche who had the house extended some years later but before doing so he arranged for the Naas to Dunlavin Road which crossed the estate near to the big house to be diverted. The new road and the new bridge bearing the date 1788, both of which he financed, went by the edge of the Harristown Estate, leaving the previous road bridge crossing the River Liffey as perhaps the finest bridge serving private grounds to be seen anywhere in these islands.
The house was extensively damaged by fire in 1891 and was subsequently restored, only to be sold by the La Touche family in the 1920s. Harristown House and Estate was later purchased by Michael Beaumont, a grandson of Michael Grace, formerly of Gracefield, Co. Laois who with his brother William had emigrated to South America in 1865. Both men made their fortunes there and while William Grace went to live in New York where he was later elected Mayor his brother Michael returned to live in England. Harristown House was completely restored by Michael Beaumont and his wife Doreen and from their home in Wootton, Buckinghamshire, the former home of the Duke of Buckingham, they brought fireplaces, doors, interior fittings, together with fine furniture and portraits which are now to be found in Harristown House. Amongst those is a full length portrait of George Canning, the anti-slavery campaigner and former Prime Minister of Britain whose statue today stands in Parliament Square, London. Canning was an ancestor of the present owner of Harristown House and indeed the British Prime Ministerial connection is again noted with Tony Blair who now lives in what was part of the Wootton home of the Beaumont family.
Doreen Beaumont, grandmother of the present owner of Harristown House, did extensive work on preserving the house prior to her death in November 2000. The Chinese room has wonderful 16th century hand painted silk wallpaper depicting birds in strong vibrant colours. Another fascinating feature was the Elizabethan oak panelling in one of the principal bedrooms which came from a Tudor house in England. The guided tour by its owner Hubert Beaumont was a most comprehensive and enjoyable one and clearly demonstrated that Harristown House is yet another of Kilcullen’s hidden gems. If you ever have the opportunity of visiting Harristown House, and I gather it is open to the public on selected days and times during the year, make sure to include it on your list of places to visit.
Approaching Athy from the Dublin direction travellers now come to the roundabout at Gallowshill, which by its name speaks of a time when the rising ground in that locality was the site of the town’s gallows. The roundabout is now home to an interesting installation piece (if that is the right term) put there by Kildare County Council as the public art element of recent public road works. The lock gates are a readily identifiable element of canal infrastructure and remind us of the time when Athy, the meeting place of the Grand Canal and the River Barrow, was a thriving Canal town. Freight and passengers travelled up and down the Canal long before the railway line was extended to Athy. The Grand Canal brought prosperity to Athy. It brought jobs and it brought a range of fine buildings, many of which still stand today. Athy truly was a Canal town in the past, but even today the Canal remains an important part of the infrastructure of the town awaiting the upsurge of leisure boating on the water corridor which connects us with so many other parts of Ireland. Congratulations to Kildare County Council for what is a delightful and meaningful addition to the public art of Athy.