This Autumn I got a chance to visit Johnstown Castle in Wexford. It was a rare day out for me, one where I was childfree and I had a whole Saturday to do pretty much what I liked, in the stunning surrounds of the southeast. Like all good aspiring historical fictionistas I sought out what might be interesting and educational and with the help of google maps and my lovely B&B owner, I was pointed in the direction of Johnstown Castle, gardens and museum. They did not disappoint. Not even a little bit.
It cost €8 to get in and for that you get access to the grounds where the castle is, the gardens and the museum which is located around a courtyard and tucked towards the back of the property. The castle is not currently open to the public, but they are working on it and I hope it will be in the future. The present building, pictured above, dates from the early 19th century, but the grounds have been home to family tower houses as far back as the 15th century. The castle is very impressive and I’d love to have seen it when it operated as a grand estate house, filled with furniture and stately family life.
At the back of the castle – the facade faces out on to a constructed lake. It’s stunningly beautiful and the water takes on a mirror effect. I think about what it would have been like to live in a home where beauty was built around you, so that you could walk and enjoy it – a pleasure garden just for you.
A little duck comes out to greet me a I pass by the lake on the way down to the museum. I’m not quite sure that I’m on the right track but I find the courtyard and enter the square where the buildings are. I’m guessing this is where the old stables and outhouses would have been.
I chat with the guy on reception and tell him about my research and buy a book from the museum shop. I always find great little books in museum shops – related to social history. The museum is laid out in a square – he tells me they are busy all year round with tour groups. Today feels quiet and I set off on my way, excited at getting up close the past. It’s a sanitised version of course- with everything painted and cleaned and framed signposted with nuggets of information to read.
The first room I come into has many types of 19th century transport on display. Previously I would have likely glanced at this and went on my merry way. Now that I need to include exact details in my writing, I study the different traps and carts, learn their names and get an idea of what it would have been like to travel in them. Nowadays – we know the different types of cars. But how are you on your tub trap? Your gig? Your jennet cart? I picture everything, along with the signage for studying later. I’m in my bloody element.
The next section offers rooms of old farm machinery – thrashing machines, separators, ploughs – all of interest to two youngish farmers who walk around examining it and chatting in thick country accents. I don’t stay too long – I’m more concerned about the domestics of 19th century life and the small tools and items people would have used on their farms. I look at the various pails and buckets and vessels – items long gone from our lives that would been part of the daily routine, growing and harvesting food, milking cows, making butter and cheese. All the knowledge, handed down, mostly gone from our psyche now due to modernity.
The museum has a large and dedicated famine museum and I spend longer in here than I expect. I used to read about the famine and felt that I knew quite a lot of information already- but the details here, see me stay for almost an hour in this part alone – they even have the various types of potato from the time on display. The more I read, the more upset I become- accounts from officials of watching the famine unfold and pleas for assistance. I leave feeling deflated and sorry, for the lives lost, for the suffering, for all the stories that we will never know of families curling up together to die from starvation. Can you imagine that end? I think about the luxury we live in today.
I find this picture on the wall and I don’t know why, but she reminds me of me. I’m pretty sure there are pictures of me from my teen years pulling that face. I imagine being dressed like that, making the butter on a hot day, living a simpler, hard graft life.
I run out of time and have to fly through the last parts of the museum which feature a display on the families who lived at the castle, including wedding pictures and a small room filled with saddlery and horsewear they would have used.
I run through a collection of small workshops of a replica town and a floor filled with 19th century furniture, from settle beds to cradles to ornate and plain dressers. The first floor features three replica kitchens and how they would have looked – from the 1800s, the 1900s and the 1950s. Everything is labelled and explained and it’s all I can do to snap some images to look back on later.
I meet a writer friend for lunch, abuzz with everything I have seen, delighted that I can savour the experience over a cup of tea and home made apple tart.
I’m still digesting what I took in at the museum that day and no doubt, what I saw and learned will make it in some form into future writings. How else can we link to the past?
This is one of the best displays of 19th and early 20th century country life I have ever seen. If you like history or reliving the past – then make sure you arrange a visit. Like I said at the start – you won’t be disappointed.
I’m an aspiring historical fiction novelist and enjoy visiting museums as part of my research into how people lived in the past. If you enjoyed this post you might enjoy this related article which takes in some other museum visits across Ireland. Johnstown Castle is open all year round. See here for details.