A Visit to Fota House and Desmesne
Historic Fota House and demesne was the setting for the opening of the Cork Chapter’s 2012 programme of events on Sunday 25th March. A lively group assembled among the scagliola columns in Fota’s magnificent classical hall before settling down to a leisurely lunch in the sun-filled airy long gallery café.
After lunch, Fota’s drawing room, lit by its elegant regency windows, made the perfect setting for author and lecturer Dr. Éibhear Walshe’s presentation Burning Down the House, Bowen, Keane and the Big House Novel. A provocative title indeed, given the location and content of this entertaining and informative afternoon lecture.
Positing the “Big House” as a person, Walshe discussed its fate from the differing perspectives of novelists Elizabeth Bowen and Molly Keane. Walshe, elaborating, suggested that Bowen conceived the “ Big House” historically, as an unloved creature, living as it did in the hostile world of the troubled decades of early 20th century Ireland when so many houses were lost to us. This loss, he referred to as “the death of the Big House.” The irony that we were in a position to appreciate such a topic was not lost by the thoughtful audience. One could almost register the sense of relief experienced by our group, conscious that Fota was indeed lucky to have weathered that particular historical period relatively unscathed. It had been cared for by its owners, the Smith Barry family until 1975. Today, it is in the care of the Irish Heritage Trust and has a positive on-going story to tell us.
After this lively and compelling lecture, the group, enticed by early spring sunshine and led by our guide Geraldine O’Riordan, made their way through the gardens to arrive at the focus of the final part of the day’s programme – the series of early Edwardian glass houses that formed an important part of the “Big House” horticultural operation. After years of neglect and the ravages of Irish weather, the glass houses and adjacent bothy snugly contained within a walled space, are a stunning example of authentic and sensitive refurbishment. The group were impressed by the outstanding quality of workmanship undertaken by specialists Cornerstone Construction under the steady eye of the Irish Heritage Trust. The visit to the glass houses rounded off a perfect afternoon.
Our thanks to the Irish Heritage Trust and volunteer staff in welcoming us to Fota. And a special appreciation is conveyed to Geraldine O’Riordan who organised the event and to all those who contributed to making the occasion such an auspicous start to our 2012 programme.