THE iconic Palladian mansion Castletown House, which hosted the first ever Irish one-day event in 1952 and is steeped in equestrian history, has been dragged into an ugly public battle between the Office of Public Works and a private developer.

Outraged members of the public from Celbridge and surrounding areas have also entered the fray, hosting on-site protests about changes to long-standing access routes to the estate.

Kilross Properties acquired 235 acres of land adjacent to Castletown House earlier this year, including lands leading to the M4 entrance gate and car park on the boarder of Celbridge and Leixlip.

The State attempted to buy the land but was unsuccessful.

The purchase forced the OPW, which has been managing Castletown House since 1994, to negotiate with the new owners regarding a licence which allowed public access via this gate since 2007.

“Unfortunately, it was not possible to agree reasonable and feasible terms for access,” said the OPW, who last Friday informed local stakeholders of plans to build a temporary car park near the front entrance to the house as an alternative.

Public protest

Seeing workers and machinery on site, locals questioned the legality, practicality and ecological impact of the temporary car park and the Friends of Castletown and Save Castletown groups mobilised a protest movement with the aim of protecting both the amenity and the centuries-old public access to it.

Celbridge local and member of the Save Castletown group Ross Kelly said there was “huge concern around biodiversity and what would happen to the demesne with new development plans” and that locals would fight for compulsory acquisition of the Kilross land in order to preserve it.

On Thursday, the OPW said it had heard the concerns of the community and halted plans to build the temporary car park. It will instead reopen the original front avenue to allow limited vehicular access and parking.

Rosemary Collier, Assistant Secretary General and Head of Heritage at the OPW said: “We have had very robust and positive engagement with the community and we have listened carefully to their views. We will not proceed with our temporary car park plans.

“Castletown House and Estate will be fully operational and open to the public and the team looks forward to welcoming visitors as normal,” she said.

The OPW confirmed it was seeking advice regarding a compulsory purchase order and “remains fully committed to reuniting the historic demesne by acquiring lands that formed part of the original estate.”

Minister for State Patrick O’Donovan, who is responsible for the OPW, on Tuesday called on the new owners of the land adjoining Castletown House to engage in discussions with the State agency about providing access to the N4 entrance.

A public meeting will be held at 8.30pm on Monday, September 18th, at the Celbridge GAA club to discuss the matter.

Long history

The Castletown estate’s equestrian past is centuries old, with Thomas Connolly, heir of its first owner, Speaker William Connolly, a founding member of the Kildare Hunt. Later, when it was the home of Lord and Lady Conolly-Carew, the aforementioned one-day event was organised on the grounds in order to select an Irish team to compete in the three-day event at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki.

Eventing and hunting continued on the estate well into the 1990s.

Due to the success of the event at Castletown and the good performance of the Irish team at the Olympic Games, the Castletown Olympic Training and Hunter Trial Society Ltd was formed followed by The Irish Olympic Horse Society (IOHS) in 1959. Then, in 1975, the IOHS was redesignated the Irish Horse Trials Society (IHTS) and the sport of eventing was well and truly established in Ireland. In 1998 the IHTS became known as Eventing Ireland.

The Carews went on to create further equestrian history when, at the Dublin Horse Show of 1963, their daughter, the Honourable Diana Conolly-Carew, Baroness Wrangel, rode on the winning Aga Khan Cup team, which was the first mixed military and civilian team to compete for Ireland in the competition. She also represented Ireland on numerous occasions, including the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City.

Diana recently returned to Castletown, which the family sold in 1965, for the opening of an exhibition to celebrate her Aga Khan victory six decades ago. This display will run until the end of September, and is a must for anyone interested in one of the great pairings in Irish show jumping history.