On the western edge of the Wicklow Mountains and 3km south of the village of Blessington stands Russborough House, a lavish Palladian country house designed by Richard Castle for Joseph Leeson, later Lord Russborough and the Earl of Milltown, whose family had made their money in the brewing trade. Castle died before the project was completed, leaving Francis Bindon to oversee the fulfilment of his grand design. Completed in 1751, the Wicklow-granite building’s 200-metre frontage, with its curving colonnaded wings, is the longest of its kind in Ireland.
Russborough has gained widespread fame for its art collections, under both the Milltowns and latterly the Beits, who derived their fortune from the De Beers Diamond Mining Company and bought the house in 1952 (both families made substantial donations of artworks to the National Gallery in Dublin). Unfortunately, this fame has attracted the wrong kind of attention: the house has been burgled on no fewer than four occasions, though almost all of the stolen paintings have subsequently been recovered. The first burglary was in 1974, when nineteen paintings were stolen by Englishwoman Rose Dugdale in order to raise funds for the IRA. The house was again broken into in 1986, by “The General”, aka Martin Cahill, one of Dublin’s most notorious criminals (this episode featured prominently in John Boorman’s 1998 film The General). Russborough was burgled again in 2001, possibly by an associate of Cahill’s, when a Gainsborough portrait was stolen for the third time, along with a work by Bellotto. Both were recovered in September 2002, only days before a fourth break-in, which netted five pictures including two by Rubens.
Much of the Beit Collection is now in the National Gallery for safekeeping, but with or without the paintings, the interior of the house is sumptuous, featuring baroque plasterwork ceilings by the Lafranchini brothers, notably in the saloon, depicting the four seasons, and in the music room, where the ingenious geometrical design seems to add height to the room. Further beautiful stuccowork, representing hunting and garlands, adorns the cantilevered main staircase, which was ornately carved out of dark Cuban mahogany by Irish craftsmen in the eighteenth century. Other highlights include the Italian-marble fireplace in the dining room depicting Bacchus and vines, and a series of French clocks dating back as far as the fifteenth century, which are still wound every Tuesday. The house has a pleasant café, while in the grounds are a maze (€3) and a 2km trail through the parkland, which will take you past a walled garden and a bog garden.