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Parks Beyond Borders: "Down-Trod Abbey"—A National Park Estate Shares Secrets In Ireland


The mesmerizing scene from Muckross House. Photo by Randy Johnson.

If you’ve been glued to the telly watching the ins-and-outs of life upstairs and down at Downton Abbey, you’ve no doubt been impressed by the elaborate expectations of life lived on the grand scale.

The costs of maintaining such an estate at the height of the “baronial lifestyle,” much less preserving one now, have long been subplots that fascinate anyone who ever queued up to file through a great house—or tuned-in to Downton Abbey.

Indeed, a very similar story of striving to maintain a great house is told at Ireland’s Muckross House, a prime attraction at Killarney National Park—and a great place to visit when the real Highclere Castle of Downton Abbey, and other better-known estates, are difficult to get into this summer.

No bait and switch intended. It’s bonafide amazing how the history of Ireland’s Muckross House and the imaginary Downton Abbey bear striking parallels—not the least of which was the cost of living up to expectations “back in the day.”

Inspiration From Downton

At the start of Downton’s third season, poor mega-rich guy Sir Robert Crawley, 6th Earl of Grantham (played by Hugh Bonneville) and his American wife, Countess Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), find themselves in financial ruin as WW I ends. No doubt he, and all those dependent on him, will likely come out smelling like rose water, but there are going to be multiple seasons of melodrama before all those viewers swirling brandy before the world’s fireplaces can breathe a sigh of relief.

As fascinating as the BBC yarn is, the story of the actual Highclere Castle is equally fascinating, especially if you delve into how the current owners, the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, strive to keep it up. A recent television special described the amazing million pound expense of just replacing the roof!

The explosively popular drama series is shown in more than 100 countries around the world—and that surely will yield it’s own revenue stream to preserve the stunning structure. If a visit is your goal—get cracking. Summer 2013‘s tickets for estate tours will be released in early February.

Muckross' Saga

Or you could just visit Muckross and appreciate the two estates' commonalities—of which there are a number.

The tumble of events that started Muckross House on its way toward national park ownership in Ireland began in 1855, just 12 years after the inspiring, 65-room Tudor manse was built in 1843 for Henry Arthur Herbert and watercolorist wife Mary Balfour Herbert (whose most famous paintings feature the Muckross area).

Queen Victoria had only visited Ireland twice before when it was learned in 1855 that she would visit Kerry for the first time in 1861. Muckross was on the royal itinerary and the Herberts had six years to tidy up the place.

The Herberts undertook an entire renovation, not just redecorating, but expanding and modifying the house itself. “Tapestries, mirrors, silverware, a complete set of musical instruments, specially commissioned linen, china and servants’ uniforms were all purchased,” reads the mansion guide published by the Irish Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. New paths were built to viewpoints around the estate, along with a new entrance drive.

On the not-to-be-missed house tour at Muckross, you’ll see the curtains (likely woven in Paris for the occasion) still hanging in the dining room.

Victoria’s two-night visit in August, 1861 was an amazing success. The queen stayed at another estate in the area for more public events, so the royal party settled into an entire section of Muckross House for a more private experience.

In reality, the Herberts spent a significant part of their wealth refurbishing the estate—an expense in part embraced in hopes that Victoria’s visit might elevate their place in society and lead to economic opportunity. That prospect dimmed forever when, within four months, Albert took ill and passed away and the queen went into mourning until her own death.

The great expense they bore to improve the estate for Victoria is alluded to in many descriptions of Muckross—but to hear the most factual, fascinating, indeed heartbreaking version of the tale—you need to wander the halls of the estate with the inspiring interpreters who lead the intriguing tours through the public—and even some private—spaces. Why wouldn’t the real story be told in a whisper where servants would have shared their secrets?

Get Downton to It

Henry Arthur Herbert died not long after the Queen’s visit, and eventually the family lost control of the estate. No doubt spending too much of your fortune to host royalty—and then eventually going bankrupt—would drive anyone to drink. Appropriately, an end to this sad tale came when the Herbert family eventually forfeited ownership to the Standard Life Assurance Company in 1898—and a member of the Guinness family stepped in to buy Muckross.

The estate soon was sold to a wealthy American, William Bowers Bourn, who gifted it to his daughter Maud when she married an Irishman, Arthur Rose Vincent, later a politician. The twenty years from 1911 to 1932 saw double the money invested in improvements at the estate than had been spent on the original purchase of it.

That era was the heyday of Muckross—somewhat akin to Downton’s expected emergence from the war years into an anticipated resurgence of wealth and noble privilege. During this time, the beautiful gardens that attract so many to the estate were perfected.

Surprisingly—and also in tune with the emerging post-World War I troubles at TV’s Downton Abbey—Muckross too ended up being a huge expense. After his wife died in 1929, Muckross owner Vincent and his in-laws decided to donate the estate to Ireland.

Their reasons were telling. In a letter to the president of the Executive Council of State, Vincent wrote, “It (Muckross) is now in what one might call perfect condition...” Anticipating the plight of so many great house owners, Vincent continued, “Looking to the future, Mr Bourn and I have arrived at the conclusion that it is going to be too big an undertaking for any private individual under the changing conditions of the world. The Muckross Estate would make a public park such as any country might be proud of...”

The future had caught up with Muckross. Sadly it sat empty and closed to the public till 1964. Today Muckross attracts 100,000 annual visitors and its 10,000 acres of land are the core of one of Ireland’s most popular places, not to mention most iconic national parks.

Stop In

Recently, changes “in management of the building transferred to a group of trustees who have been involved with the property for almost 50 years,” said a late 2012 Irish Times article.

“At the centre of the Killarney National Park, (Muckross) is run by the Office of Public Works, with significant input from a group of trustees who oversee policy,” said the article, but “the new arrangements are likely to see the trustees take complete control of the management of the house ... They will also oversee some €2 million State investment in the house and folk farms that accompany it.”

Improvements at Muckross can only mean good things for travelers heading to the Emerald Isle of Ireland (and the UK) inspired by the success of Downton Abbey to visit the ubiquitous great houses and castles. This “Down-Trod Abbey,” if you'll forgive the "turn of phrase," is definitely neither downtrodden now nor likely to be. Muckross House appears increasingly prepared to weather the vagaries of time and the challenges of increased visitation.

Seasons To Visit

Muckross House & Gardens are open all year (excluding Christmas). The Traditional Farms are fully open May - September inclusive, with limited opening during March, April and October. Entrance to the National Park and Muckross Gardens is free. Special Group Rates apply to the House and Farms and substantial savings can be made by buying a 'joint ticket' for both attractions.


Yep, I'm one of those Downton Abbey fans. Thanks for the background.

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