Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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Lisnavagh House, Co Carlow

When we were kids, the eyes would follow us around everywhere. The family portraits, always watching. It was kind of creepy. But then we started working out who was who and they weren’t so scary anymore. The elegant lady outside my parents’ room was one of the kindly Bruen sisters from Oak Park in Carlow. The burly man on the stairwell was Tom Bunbury, my fathers’ great-grandfather, who bred giant bulls and took pretty girls ice-skating back in Victorian times. And the long necked man in the Library was Captain McClintock Bunbury, Tom’s father, who built the house back in 1847. The Captain was a mariner, born in 1800. During his 20s and 30s, he sailed the high seas in a three-masted frigate called Samarang, chasing slave-ships around Algeria, taking pot-shots at pirates in the South China Sea and entertaining Charles Darwin to dinner while exploring the coast of Brazil. Decades later, when the Samarang was broken up, Tom Bunbury salvaged some of the oak planks and copper fittings. A skilled carpenter duly converted these into furniture - a glass-fronted bookcase and a cigar cabinet. It’s a curious sensation running your fingers along these smooth timbers today, imagining their role in the Samarang’s voyages across those stormy seas.

The Bunbury family have been in residence at Lisnavagh for over 300 years, or eleven generations. Legend has it that we descend from a Norman baron who fought alongside William the Conqueror. He was given land in the borough of St Boniface in Cheshire. He was thus Lord of Boniface’s Borough which, over time, became shortened to ‘Boni’s Borough’ and then to ‘Bun Bury’. Oscar Wilde liked the name so much he bestowed it upon Algernon’s fictional friend in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’. The first of the family to arrive in Ireland was Benjamin Bunbury, a Royalist on the run from Cromwellian England. His father Sir Harry Bunbury was thrown in gaol for supporting Charles I and the family estate in Cheshire was confiscated.

In the 1840s, Captain Bunbury received a large amount of money from a wealthy uncle and was instructed to build a house with it. The result was Lisnavagh, an epic, sprawling, turreted Gothic Revival mansion that must have been one of the biggest houses in Ireland upon its completion. Its architect was Daniel Robertson, a Scotsman famous for directing landscaping operations at Powerscourt while seated in a wheelbarrow swigging a bottle of sherry. The house was set amid a wonderful garden of nearly 15 acres, comprising vast lawns, yew walks, mixed borders, rhododendrons galore, a walled garden, a lime walk and miscellaneous pleasure grounds. A good deal of this was rediscovered and restored by my mother during the latter decades of the 20th century. She also substantially extended the gardens in what my father described as ‘empire building’.

By the late 1940s, the family fortune had taken something of a beating. My grandparents tried to sell the house. The principal structure was in poor condition. Evelyn Waugh toyed with the idea of buying it but backed out. Nobody else came forward. Those were bleak days in Ireland. The monumental decision was taken to reduce the size of the house, knocking down the larger rooms where the Captain entertained his guests and where his sons and grandsons hosted hunt balls and lavish galas.

By the close of 1952, the family were living in the former servants quarters and children’s wing. The rest of the house had vanished. My grandmother oversaw the reconstruction and did a remarkable job. It’s still a huge house but it seems to be far more elegant than the original. It’s certainly more manageable. My parents ran it as part of the Hidden Ireland country house group for many years, ensuring the bedrooms and corridors were always kept in good shape. Today my brother William and his wife Emily live in Lisnavagh with their two small daughters, Roseanna and Alice. They run Lisnavagh as an up-market wedding venue and have lately hosted some seriously good nuptial knees-ups with sumptuous banquets, fine wines and an ankle-twirling soundtrack propelling guests around both house and gardens.

Before weddings could happen at Lisnavagh, the house had to be rewired. That enormous task inevitably meant the entire house had to be repainted. And if you’re going to do that, you may do it properly. Enter interior design guru Sue Craigie who has orchestrated the redecoration of almost every room in the house since the autumn of 2006. Her challenge – and considerable achievement – has been to do all that without making the house look remotely new.

A long flagstone corridor rolls through Lisnavagh, bordered by the main rooms. An elaborate Material World curtain by Melanie Reilly frames the tall windows at one end. In the Butler’s Room, a curious hat collection blossoms against a background of Simply Sage walls and lush curtains by Hickeys. Massive mirrors and Georgian prints escort one to the Ante-Hall, painted a rich but subtle Farrow & Ball Old White. A large granite arch is bound on one side by a marvellous ruby velvet curtain, a collaboration between Elaine Keogh, Naas, and Frankie Ward, Limerick.

A discreet doorway leads into the Library, the finest room in the house. Its’ walls are lined with stunning oak-panelled shelves, made by the Strahan brothers of Dublin and stuffed full of leather-bound volumes. Interspersed in these shelves are oil portraits of Bunburys past. One such forebear gloomily stained all the shelves black in a period of mourning; my father’s stepfather painstakingly stripped them back to their original hue in the 1960s. By night this room focuses around a large open fireplace made from the original porch of the Victorian house and surmounted by a lush canvas of Cordoba leather. A sagacious Buddha has presided from the mantelpiece for over sixty years. By day, the spotlight shifts to the bay windows, installed by my grandmother, which open onto a granite patio and behold a view of grassy parklands, buoyant woods and Mount Leinster rising in the distance. The original curtains running around the room were given a fresh edge by Maytrim of Baldoyle, Co Dublin.

Beyond the Ante-Hall, a series of parlours and pantries were converted into a single dining room in the 1950s. Hunting portraits hang on walls of Devine Saffron. A sturdy masonic chair, reupholstered by Ormolu, Carlow, stands across from the large, gleaming, oak draw-leaf dining table. A side-table clad in pea-green baize conjures the aroma of Sunday roasts. Plates and cups await upon a three tiered oak stand. In the windows, striped cushions of Isis Linen by Swaffer rest upon oakwood window seats built by Bradley Richards and the late Gerry van Soest of the Lisnavagh Timber Project (www.irishwoods.com). The original curtains have been remodelled by Reilly. A foot-warming beige carpet from TC Mathews runs throughout.

Adjacent to the dining room is the School Room where family children were tutored in generations past. This bright and airy space is dominated by a Grand Piano and a glass-fronted cabinet, containing Victorian China with the family crest and motto, ‘Vis Unita Fortior’ (‘United Strength is Stronger’). Along the Devine Reef walls, a prize bull called Anchor stands serenely opposite a portrait of the Captain’s daughters. A black marble fireplace is enlivened by a Caroline Murphy frieze depicting the house in its elevated setting.

The kitchen is a solid old-fashioned combination of tall windows, abundant shelves and worktops and a piping hot Aga. Miscellaneous copperware and an old wooden train vie for space on the top shelf.

From the ante-hall, 22 large blocks of cut-stone granite provide the main stairwell to a floor comprising seven bedrooms and six bathrooms. Maritime and pastoral paintings lead one down corridors of Devine Peanut to the children’s wing. At one side is ‘Sasha’s Room’, named for my sister Sasha Sykes. Her design company Farm 21 (www.farm21.co.uk) provide the signature ‘Red Rosebud’ bedside lamps. The room is further invigorated by Tiger Lilly curtains from Laura Ashley, made by Elaine Keogh, Naas, and silvery-sage walls of Devine Reef. The original wardrobe was delicately repainted. The chequered Jane Churchill bed-head, sourced from Finishing Touches, Naas, is echoed on the window seat cushions and reflected in a tiled mirror. Along the walls hang floral art prints of French chateaux and paintings of yachts in the English Lake District by my grandmother Pamela Drew. In the bathroom next-door, a dozen Garret & Copeland china plates hang above the cast iron bathtub, rising against a backdrop of Churchill ‘Country Garden’ wallpaper.

Across the corridor is the Nursery where my siblings and I once ran an eventful world, including a farm, a zoo, a war zone and a hospital. The room was later deftly converted into a bedroom by my parents. The sea blue walls support various etchings, all maritime - Nelson victoriously prancing up some steps, the Channel Squadron at anchor, the paddle-steamer ‘Mercury’ on the Clyde. The original curtains were refurbished in a now discontinued fabric while the pelmet has been remade by Frankie Ward.

The nearby ‘Coronation Loo’ features Brer Rabbit wallpaper from Finishing Touches, Naas, and an impressive map depicting Nelson’s plan of attack at Trafalgar. The naval theme is continued down the corridor by a series of prints pertaining to the Seven Years War, which lead to the Colonel’s Room, named for Colonel Kane Bunbury, the wealthy bachelor who funded the building of Lisnavagh House. An elaborately decorated four-poster bed is set into this sumptuous classical room. Walls are bedecked with works based on the Hellenistic frescos of Pompeii, such as Zeus’s seduction of Europe. A handsome clock given to Tom Bunbury on the occasion of his marriage to Miss Bruen stands upon the Carrara mantelpiece.

In the nearby Night Nursery, the wallpaper here was re-patched but otherwise the room remains much as it has always been – regimental prints on the walls, books piled high either side of the bed, antique lamps in all corners and a useful sink where I once gave my teddy bears a bath they didn’t need. The bed has been refreshed with a raw silk fabric from Murphy Sheehy in Dublin. The braid sewn onto the original bed curtains was remodelled in the old style by Elaine Keogh.

The naval theme reaches a crescendo in the corridor with a dozen watercolours by William Smyth, the artist and future Admiral who served with the Captain on Samarang. A view of Panama stands one side of the Butterfly Room, named for a glass cabinet that contains 150 butterflies netted by an ancestor. The bed-heads, valances and curtains were all supplied by the Fabric Library in Newbridge, while the butterfly cushions came from Jane Churchill. A dressing room opposite was converted into a spacious bathroom. The bath is set into a beautiful timber surround of wood from Lisnavagh, completed with a mirror by Michael Daly, known as the Daily Mirror, which runs the length of the bath and reflects an LMS Jubilee train painted by Pamela Drew. Sketches of impalas by the English painter Christopher Ironside also make an impression, while one of the Captain’s travel chests provides a useful table. The opulent blue curtains were designed by Sue Craigie and made by Elaine Keogh. In the bathroom nearby, the original wallpaper has been complemented by voile curtains from Shufflebottoms in Cheshire.

The Oak Room boasts perhaps the finest views and has an en suite bathroom with a deep copper bathtub that is the envy of many a Presidential suite. Walls painted glorious Tumbled Marble by Devine and soft curtains from Hickeys of Tralee maintain a sense of restraint, broken only by charming contours of the soft oak bed and the tasselled pelmets along its upper echelons. The latter were probably made by my grandmother; she was always turning curtains into ball-gowns. She also painted a series showing the transition from the Victorian mansion to the present-day house which provide the artwork, alongside an appealing oil depicting shipwrecked survivors rolling barrels of whiskey safely onto the shore.

160 years after its construction, Lisnavagh is looking as good as it ever has. This is the triumph of the different ideas and passions of three generations of ladies who have ran the house since 1952, subtly distilled by Sue Craigie’s clear blue eyes.