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Building of the Month - May 2011

Muckross House, MUCKROSS Td., County Kerry

Muckross House, labelled "Muckross Abbey" on the first edition of the Ordnance Survey (surveyed 1841; published 1846), is said to be the fourth house erected by successive generations of the Herbert family on lands granted (1586) in the Killarney district by Queen Elizabeth (1533-1603; r. 1558-1603).  Writing in 1837 Samuel Lewis commented that 'Muckross House, the seat of H.A. [Henry Arthur] Herbert, Esq., is situated in a demesne of enchanting beauty.  The old mansion has been taken down, and is about to be rebuilt in a style according more with the beauty of the grounds, and the numerous interesting objects in the immediate vicinity: the road through the peninsula of Muckross and across Brickeen bridge to the island of that name, will be so improved as to form a delightful drive through the whole of this romantic demesne' (Lewis 1837 II, 127).

Muckross House 01 - Representative View 

Figure 1: A view of Muckross House.  Erected for Colonel Henry Arthur Herby MP (1815-66) to a design by William Burn (1789-1870) of Edinburgh, the house is regarded as the finest example of the Elizabethan Revival style in County Kerry.  The impressive porte cochère was a later addition completed to a design by William Atkins (1812-87) of Cork.  Photograph from Muckross Research Library reproduced courtesy of the Trustees of Muckross House

The present house was commissioned by Colonel Henry Arthur Herbert MP (1815-66), one-time Chief Secretary for Ireland (fl. 1857-8), using the proceeds of a substantial dowry acquired through his marriage (1837) to Mary Balfour (1817-93), an accomplished amateur artist.  An earlier proposal (1836-7) by Lewis Vulliamy (1791-1871) of London for extensive additions to the existing house having been abandoned, an entirely new house was instead completed in 1843 to a design by William Burn (1789-1870) of Edinburgh: perspective drawings (1839) signed by the architect survive in the collections of the National Monuments Record of Scotland and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

A fine example of the Elizabethan Revival style, the house is characterised by an asymmetrical entrance front giving way to a symmetrical garden front where a series of reception rooms open en suite.  Handsome bay windows define each front and show cut-sandstone mullioned dressings while, overhead, steep gables crowned by spiky finials and elongated grouped chimney stacks embellish the roofline.

Despite the estimated £30,000 outlay, it was originally intended that the house would also include an extensive servants' quarters, a stable block, an orangery and a summer house.  Ultimately the scale of the project was reduced at the behest of Mary who, although largely resident in England, arranged a number of fundraisers to assist tenants on the estate during the Great Famine (1845-9).  The imposing porte cochère, however, was a later "improvement" completed to a design (1857) by William Atkins (1812-87) of Cork who was also responsible for farm buildings, a gateway with accompanying lodge, and the nearby Holy Trinity Church (Muckross) at Cloghereen.

Such improvements clearly illustrate the efforts made by the Herberts to prepare the house and gardens for a royal visit by Queen Victoria (1819-1901; r. 1837-1901) in 1861.  Although the Queen had visited Ireland on two previous occasions, this was the first time that Kerry was included on her itinerary.  Arriving at Killarney on Monday, August 26th, the royal party spent their first night at Killarney House, the seat of the Earl of Kenmare, where the visit was considered a formal State occasion.  However, the Queen's two-night stay at Muckross was regarded as a private affair with the local press reporting that 'her Majesty…had declared her intention of being "very quiet" while at Muckross'.

Arriving at Muckross with Valentine Augustus Browne (1825-1905), fourth Earl of Kenmare, as her escort, The Times reported how the Queen was met by her hosts on the lawns at the door of the house and how a gathering of ladies and gentlemen was also there to greet Her Majesty enthusiastically.

Muckross House 02 - Boudoir 

Figure 2: A view of the boudoir, one of the suite of rooms reserved exclusively for Queen Victoria during her visit in 1861.  Restored by the Office of Public Works between 1990 and 1995 the décor and furnishings were based on photographs of the room taken in 1865.  As was the case with the billiard room, dining room and Queen's bedroom, surviving furniture was restored and supplemented by period furniture of the Victorian era.  Photograph from Muckross Research Library reproduced courtesy of the Trustees of Muckross House

On entering the house, the Queen would have seen the Persian carpets, mirrors and tapestries specially commissioned for the occasion.  The curtains still hanging in the dining room are believed to have been woven in Brussels or Paris while a heraldic sideboard was imported from Italy; new china, linen and silverware were used at mealtime while the servants were dressed in new uniforms.  A suite of rooms commanding panoramic vistas overlooking Lough Leane and Muckross Lake was reserved for exclusive use by the Queen with the local press reporting that 'an entire section of the mansion has been set apart for the royal family, so that all their apartments communicate without the necessity of passing into the corridors to be used by other occupants of the house.  The Queen will live here in privacy, and from the windows of her rooms she can walk into delightful grounds, which will be kept private during her stay at Muckross.  In her sitting room – which, like all others, is a splendid apartment furnished richly and tastefully – there is a series of views of the Lakes of Killarney, painted by Mrs. Herbert.  They are works of the highest artistic excellence' (The Kerry Evening Post August 28th 1861).

The following day the Queen, accompanied in her carriage by Mrs. Herbert, drove around the demesne, visiting Dinish Island, Mangerton Mountain and the Torc Waterfall.  Following lunch, the party then embarked at the boathouse to view a stag hunt upon the lake.  It is also possible that the Queen carried out some ceremonial planting at this time and a copse near the site of the old stable yard is annotated as "Queen's Trees" on the second edition of the Ordnance Survey (surveyed 1895; published 1897).

On the morning of her departure the Queen visited the ruins of the fifteenth-century Muckross Abbey in the grounds.  Eleanor, the eldest Herbert daughter remarked that the Queen 'is to have ivy from the Abbey and ferns from various places sent to Osborne [the royal palace on the Isle of Wight] as recollections of this place'.  Prior to departing, the Queen presented Mrs. Herbert with a bracelet of gold, pearls and diamonds.  In return, Mrs. Herbert presented three of her watercolours, The Upper Lake, The Middle Lake from Copper Mine Bay and The Lower Lake with Fir Island, all of which remain in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle.

It is suggested that the expenditure on the royal visit contributed to the decline in the fortunes of the Herbert family in the later nineteenth century.  The estate was eventually put up for auction by the Standard Life Assurance Company in 1899 and, withdrawn due to a lack of interest, was subsequently sold to Arthur Edward Guinness (1840-1915), first Baron Ardilaun of Ashford Castle, a relation of the Herberts through marriage.  Guinness spent little time at the house, instead renting the property out as a seasonal sporting lodge, including to William Bowers Bourn II (1857-1936), an American entrepreneur.  Bourn later purchased (1910) the estate as a wedding present for his daughter Maud (d. 1929) and son-in-law Senator Arthur Rose Vincent OBE (1876-1956).  Improvements made by the couple costing over £110,000 included the building of the Rock Garden, the Stream Garden, and the Sunken Garden (1915) by Wallace and Company of Colchester.  Following Maud's death from pneumonia in 1929 the estate was gifted to the State under the Bourn Vincent Memorial Park Act, 1932.  Annexing land from the adjoining Kenmare estate the grounds were opened as Ireland's first national park in 1932.  Later land acquisitions have resulted in a magnificent park over 10,000 hectares in extent, since retitled Killarney National Park, including the three Lakes of Killarney together with the surrounding mountains and woodland.

Muckross House 03 - Gardens and Lake 

Figure 3: A view from the Garden Front showing manicured lawns and a glimpse of Muckross Lake with Torc Mountain as a picturesque backdrop.  Photograph from Muckross Research Library reproduced courtesy of the Trustees of Muckross House

Killarney National Park is today administered and managed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service.  Its centrepiece, Muckross House, was opened to the public as a fold museum in 1964 and is managed jointly by the Office of Public Works (OPW) and the Trustees of Muckross House (Killarney) Limited.  Restored in two stages from 1983 to 1995, the second stage including the redecoration of the billiard room, dining room, boudoir and Queen's bedroom and dressing room, the house is open year round to visitors and boasts original fittings and furnishings supplemented by period furniture of the Victorian era.


Bence-Jones, Mark, A Guide to Irish Country Houses (London: Constable second edition 1988), 220-1

Lewis, Samuel, A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland Volume II (London: Samuel Lewis and Company 1837), 127

Office of Public Works, Building for Government (Dublin: Town House and Country House 1999), 226-7

Williams, Jeremy, A Companion Guide to Architecture in Ireland 1837-1921 (Dublin: Irish Academic Press 1994), 225-6

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