It’s all big houses at the moment. Last week I paid a visit to Mount Congreve, a local stately home surrounded by the world-famous gardens of Ambrose Congreve who died childless in 2011 at the age of 104. By the wishes of Ambrose Congreve the estate was to be given in Trust to the State, a windfall for the area as the 80 acre gardens situated along The Suir River are world-famous.
The Office of Public Works(OPW)were due to officially take over the Trust at the beginning of April of this year. Unfortunately there was a hitch at the very last minute in the form of one of their legal team.
This Legal Eagle(or Pedantic Arse if you prefer)was, as far as I can figure out, concerned that the ownership of the Estate would remain with the Trust rather than the OPW for 21 years after Ambroses Death. This would be fair enough if it was something someone had just noticed(which would have also been stupid) however this deal has been on the table since 1979. That’s 34 years folks. 34 years. The deal has gone through various permutations since then but that the ownership would remain with the Trust for 21 years was always part of that deal.
(I have heard locally that the reason for the 21 year delay is that Lord Congreve wanted to provide a home for his Housekeeper until her demise. Please note I have been unable to corroborate this at this time. I have no idea if there is even a Housekeeper.)
None of this was a problem when a deal was finally reached in 2011, at the instigation of Brian Hayes TD, Minister of State with special responsibility for the (OPW). With this deal the OPW gained more land for car parking and a reception area, the house(which the OPW did not want and were at one point going to sell it back to Ambrose Congreve) with five acres and the gardens along with sole control of the Trust which legally own the Estate. And that, as far as I can make out, is what pissed off the legal person:the ownership is with the Trust(which will be totally controlled by the OPW) rather than with the OPW or the State.
There is a very good overview of the the progression of the various negotiations in the last three decades here at the Irish Arts Review
Along side the Mount Congreve Trust is the Congreve Foundation which has control of Ambrose Congreves various properties and is(or was) responsible for the paying of the gardeners wages. Two members of the Foundation sit(or sat) on the board of the Congreve Trust with the OPW. I am not sure if the Foundation is still responsible for the gardeners pay though it seems it would make more sense for the Trust to pay them but of course the Trust is up in the air.
Previous to this upset the local press reported in December 2012 that the gardeners on the estate were concerned that the OPW had not yet taken over the management of the estate. They were told at that time that the OPW had no plans to take any part in the management of the estate gardens in the near future(News & Star 11/12/2012). So it seems that despite the positive and forward moving deal the OPW had made somebody in the OPW was already dragging their feet either looking for a way out or just looking for a delay to maximise some some sort of advantage, financial or otherwise.
In fairness to Brian Hayes the Minister for State he seems responsible for moving on this deal after it got jammed up by the recession and various resignations and deaths. Indeed in 2011, Brian Hayes, Minister of State for the OPW said the gardens at Mount Congreve would “serve as a permanent living memorial to his [Mr Congreve’s] passion for the world-renowned gardens he created, and to his memory”.
I have often praised the OPW for their work. They run many of our historical sites at small entrance fees (Reginalds Tower €3!)and though I know little of them behind the scenes, as a tourist in my own country I have never found anything to criticize them for.
But for now the “permanent living memorial” that has usually been open once a week (Thursdays) from April to September have remained closed since April this year. What this means is that the gardeners may lose their jobs so 12 people and their families will go on the bread line. Bad enough yes but in the longer term I would imagine these “world renowned gardens” will, without tending, quickly sink back into the ground. Even if someone were to step in later on the work they would have to do to rehabilitate the estate may, in my humble and admittedly uneducated opinion, be prohibitive.
The contents of the house were sold off last summer at an auction attended by over 10,000 people over three days garnering €2 million, for whom I am not sure. Presumably it was distributed at the direction of Lord Congreves will but it would be interesting to know if it went to the Trust.
The estimated annual running cost is €400,000, which may seem high but charging people entrance could soon see the Estate as running itself, making a profit even. There’s a beautiful courtyard on the way into the gardens where it has been possible to buy tea, plants and organic produce. I see no reason for this not to be developed, for parts of it to be rented out to small local franchises. I myself would love to have seen a home baking stall when I was there last week (scones!jam!cream!) and I would more than happy to spend money there on a regular basis. The Estate also sells wholesale. Maybe at some point down the line the house could be opened too. It seemed at one point the OPW could see the possibilities. I hope they can get through the bureacracy and to see them again. Quickly.
Hopefully after an attendance numbering around the 1,000 mark at the open day last week-which I believe was organised by the staff, who are I imagine increasingly desperate- the OPW will come to its senses. The people of Waterford have shown a willingness to meet the OPW half way despite all we have gone through. The longer the OPW leaves this issue unresolved the more problems and expense there will be down the line.
So if you want to help, take a minute and email Brian Hayes at
and CC the OPW at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you prefer snail mail(Posting a letter I mean 🙂 )
Brian Hayes, Leinster House, Kildare Street, Dublin 2
OPW Head Office, Jonathan Swift Street, Trim, Co.Meath
Tell them how much you enjoy Mount Congreve. Tell them you want to buy local produce and support local business. Tell them you want to attract people from all over the world so our lives will be better. You don’t even have to write, send them pictures of you and yours surrounded by the beauty Ambrose Congreve created and gave to us. Tell them you want scones!
I have sourced some of this information from the Irish Arts Review, The Waterford News & Star and also from David Hicks blog spot on Irish Country Houses.
If anyone has any more information they think should be shared contact me on this post below.
Mount Congreves website is here.