Requiem for a House

Requiem for a house with a musical connection

A ruined, boarded up house sits on a hilly site in the lush countryside of county Wicklow. Bought low by a series of destructive fires, the build – originally comprising two-stories and five bays – was the first to be created in Ireland without a fortress. Dating from the end of the seventeenth century the design of Kilmacurragh House is attributed to the architect William Robinson, the Surveyor General of Ireland at this time, who was also responsible for the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham and Marsh’s Library. The structure was instigated by one Thomas Acton, who would with his wife Elinor, in the 1730’s, become one of the first members of the landowning class to plant trees in any great number, especially exotic varieties from overseas. Initially the surrounding estate covered 5000 acres, but today only fifty-two of these – comprising the house, arboretum, entrance drive and woodlands – are maintained under the auspices of the National Botanic Gardens. A link furthered on account of the importance and rarity of horticultural specimens that can be found in the grounds. The interest in all facets of horticulture was perpetuated through the succeeding generations of Thomas Acton’s descendants, culminating in the 1850’s by another Thomas Acton and his sister Janet who became avid collectors of seeds and plants. They would also be the initiators of the arboretum, which today is known for its collection of Himalayan Rhododendrons. Did the passion for the cultivation of the soil lead to neglect of the house itself?

It is hard to determine, as most written data relates to the estate rather than to the house. Of course, the build was not in the same mode as the “Big House”, much beloved and avidly desired by both the wealthy industrialist and the Aristocracy of England in the first half of the eighteenth century. Instead it took the form of a comfortable country mansion that remained in the same family until World War I in which two of the penultimate members of the Acton family, Charles and Reginald, met their demise. Kilmacurragh House then passed to Charles’ son, another Charles – an infant at the time – who became a Govenor of the Royal Academy of Music and renown and much respected as an Irish music critic. It was during his tenure, that in the 1920’s the house was abandoned and fell in to disrepair. Briefly rescued when rented to a German businessman who ran the house as a hotel – albeit a popular one – it was sold by Charles Acton just before the end of World War II. To date, a member of the Acton family who lives in Australia holds the title of heir. Even if Kilmacurragh looks out at the world through broken, half-shuttered windows and boarded up doors (there appears to be no plans for any form of restoration) the name will not be forgotten. Its requiem will not be of the musical type, but the unique collection of plants and trees that abound throughout the grounds and which are today a magnet for the interested visitor, green fingered or otherwise. Elements that will live beyond the demise of bricks and mortar!

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