Cappoquin House

‘A hidden treasure’ is how many visitors have described Cappoquin House and Gardens.  It is easy to understand why, since the entrance sits discretely between a break in the line of terrace houses on the main street.  Blink and you may easily miss the the driveway, which flows unceremoniously from the pavement to meander up the hillside towards this beautiful Georgian house; south facing, with a seven-bay ashlar facade, three-bay breakfront and parapet finished with a line of urns.  The high vantage point of Cappoquin House, situated on the prominent site of a medieval Fitzgerald Castle offers stunning views across Cappoquin and beyond to the river Blackwater.

The entrance to Capoquin House is via the yard, where visitors are met by the current owner, Sir Charles Keane whose family have lived here since 1735.  His tour of the house begins through a side door, the threshold of which is marked by a group of small, smooth and white stones.  This arrangement by Charles’ wife, Corinne evokes the simplicity of modernity, which is in vivid contrast to the grandeur of the past.  It is the opening of a dialogue between the past and present that continues in both the interior of the house and gardens. 

Upon emerging through the side door, you find yourself in the grand hall, once the thoroughfare of servants en route to the dining room with food from the kitchen.  Today, the walls are painted a cool grey offset by contemporary lighting, inviting contemplation of the past.  Title deeds hang from the wall along with the hand drawn maps from 1855, when Cappoquin Estate was auctioned as an ‘Encumbered Estate’ and directly bought back by the family.

Corinne, who is from Brussels, contributes her European style in every room and with an excellent eye for design and art maintains a beautiful balance between the traditional and contemporary.  Traces of previous generations accumulate to create layers of lives and interests, to which Charles and Corinne now add their influence, following the relatively recent inheritance of Sir Charles from his father, Sir Richard Keane, who died aged 101 in 2010.

The Keane’s were originally called O’Cahan and came from Londonderry, Ulster where they were displaced during the plantation in the 17th Century.  In the aftermath of the Williamite Wars, the then owner George O’Cahan made the decision to change his name to Keane, convert to Anglicanism and enter government service as a lawyer.  It was his son, John Keane who acquired a 999 year lease on Cappoquin Estate from Richard Boyle, 4th Earl of Cork and Burlington in 1737.

Notable ancestors include John Keane’s grandson, also John who led the British and Indian armies against the Afghan garrison at the Battle of Ghuznee, 1839.  At the time of the Afghan defeat, the commander handed John Keane his sword which now hangs from a wall over the stairs at Cappoquin House.  Keane’s day bed, with which he travelled in Afghanistan, rests in the stability of the upstairs landing.  John Keane was honored with the title of Baron for his bravery.

Other markers of history include a Drinking Table made in Cork.  Semi-circular in shape, the ends were pushed against the wall either side of the fireplace so that men could sit around it in warmth and comfort.  In the centre, brass arms held out various bottles and there was a net to catch the empties.  It was a table with a specific purpose, from which the expression ‘to drink someone under the table’ originates.  The eye catching marble fire place in the drawing room, was one of two from 52, St Stephen’s Green in Dublin.  The one that remains at St Stephen’s green is behind the desk of the Minister of the Office of Public Works. A tapestry from Prince Youssoupoff’s French home decorates the upstairs landing and the family await the return of their Sedan Chair, popular among the titled nobility in Dublin during the 18th Century, from an Irish museum.

In 1923 the house was torched by opponents of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, as part of the ongoing unrest during the Civil War.  Fortunately much of the furniture had been removed to London.  In the ensuing blaze the interiors were destroyed, whilst the South facing exterior, stables and servants’ wing survived.  The Irish Free State agreed to compensate Cappoquin House for the roof and windows whilst interior decoration had to be financed by the family.  Keane, as a successful businessman was in the  rare position to be able to afford this and subsequently Cappoquin House was the only house to be torched, rebuilt and decorated.

The rebuilding begun almost immediately in September 1924.  Initially, the architect, Page Dickinson, was invited to oversee the project since before the war Keane had commissioned him to carry out redecorations at Cappoquin House and the replacement of the adjacent porch.  However, Dickinson had since moved to England so the commission was transferred to his partner Richard Caulfied Orpen.  The rebuilding of the interior remained as far as possible faithful to the original with only one principle change which saw the South Hall, previously used as an entrance, become the drawing room.  Materials were brought from London and G Jackson and Sons were given the task of creating new plasterwork decoration for the main rooms.

Work was carried out swiftly with a deadline for January 1930 when the Keane’s were to hold a dance to celebrate their son, Richard’s, 21st birthday.  The past finally catches up with the present, Richard being the late father of current owner Charles.  The tour of Cappoquin continues through the doors of the drawing room leading into the garden and the sunken garden.  “Whilst my wife takes responsibility for the interior”, he admits happily “it is my decisions along with those of the professional gardener that influence outside.”

The pleasure grounds through which you can stroll at your leisure along the mown paths have plants for all levels of gardening interest.  Together with his gardener Charles has grouped these into islands to create accents of colour and interest.  The garden, open all year round, fluctuates from the vibrancy of mid-summer to the exposed framework and skeletal appearance of winter when spring water is guided by a channel out of the garden, regularly in rushing torrents.  A new rose bed is in development and with Charles keen to continue the legacy left by his mother, there are no gaps in planting between the generations so that the garden evolves down the line of owners, with wonderful trees dating back to the 1850’s.  Beyond the formality of the pleasure grounds lie a commercial orchard stretching out to the horizon and bluebell wood.

No wiser decision could have been made to departmentalise the interior and the exterior between wife and husband respectively, as each show sensitivity and artistry in their domains.  Cappoquin House and Gardens is a unique and beautiful destination with wondrous interiors, beautiful gardens, arresting Georgian architecture and through these elements the past and present flicker in a seamless interchange of thoughts and ideas. 

Emma Penruddock of iamofireland.ie