Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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Berkeley Forest, County Wexford, Ireland - Playing the Dane

Photographs by James Fennell.

It can't have been easy for the charming Danish Count and his young Limerick-born wife. The year was 1957 and they'd just purchased a large white Georgian block in the wilds of County Wexford. Which was crazy, because people simply didn't purchase big houses in Ireland in the 1950s. They knocked them down. They felled them. They converted the bricks and columns into useful road chippings and then cleared the entire site to make way for further acreage of wheat and sheep. At best, the owners might have handed the keys over to a hospice or contemplative order of nuns. But to buy a big house with the intention of living there? You'd have to be insane. Or Danish.

Descended from a long line of adventurous Scandinavian politicians, diplomats and explorers, the late Count Gunnar Bernstorff had been enamoured of Ireland from the beginning. So much so that he married an Irish woman, designer Ann Griffin. The couple sought a house in the countryside and found Berkeley Forest, located on a farm of lush parkland a few miles outside New Ross.

Like most Irish mansions, Berkeley Forest was built in several stages. The first block, a non-fortified tower, was erected during the peace that followed the Williamite Wars of the late 17th century. The owner, a Gloucester born soldier named Berkeley, was a 1st cousin and contemporary of the great George Berkeley, the philosopher, raconteur, church man and all round genius who came up with the bizarre concept of educating Americans. The Americans responded by naming a Californian university after him.

Another contemporary of Berkeley was Andreas Bernstorff, a forbear of Gunnar's, who as Prime Minister of Denmark instigated the accession of George I to the throne of England in 1714. It speaks volumes for the Bernstorff's legendary charm that Andreas was able to convince the people of England to bow to a large German prince who couldn't speak one word of English.

The bulk of the house was built in 1785 as a new home for Colonel John Deane, MP for Stillorgan and Terenure, who inherited the property through his marriage to the Berkeleys. The Deane family lived here until shortly before the Great War when the house was leased out. Forty years of lease-hold occupation and intermittent emptiness meant that Berkeley Forest was not in the best condition when the Bernstorff's arrived. "Everything was broken or run down or cracked or busted and the land itself was pretty trashed too", recalls Ann. "To go about putting the pieces back together again required a sort of bottomless capacity to absorb punishment".

It took the best part of the 1960s and 1970s to get the Berkeley Forest back in order, during which time they raised two sons and a daughter. While Ann advanced with vigour and success into the world of art and fashion, Gunnar gallantly tried his hand at sheep farming. As his widow puts it, his belief that "practical application" produced more results than "awaiting divine intervention" should have given him a head-start over other farmers in the neighbourhood. But, having been raised in efficient, organised, predictable Denmark, he could never quite adjust to the complexities of an Ireland where everything was the exact opposite of what it said it was but you couldn't be sure of that either.

One of the first tasks was repainting the exterior of the house in yellow ochre. Until recently, repainting the house was an annual family event, inspired by the feisty contribution of the local house-martin community. Then somebody invented the power hose and the family ritual has somewhat waned.

Next up was the conversion of the interior. Ann's concept in this regard seems to have been relatively straightforward. Out with the old and the drab and the melancholy and the sturdy mournful black Victorian clutter. In with the flamboyant and the colourful and the modern. In with chequered bedroom floors and peacock blue bedroom walls. In with Celtic motifs and emerald green bedspreads (designed by Ann). Lined with portraits and busts of honourable Danish ancestors, a blue staircase strides upwards to the drawing room, the stairwell itself taking up a colossal amount of the interior but compensating for this with its gift of spatial freedom. Lily Butler painted the blue and white geometric designs on the dining room floor, a calming and elegant concept reinforced by the stark whiteness of the walls. Another dining room is painted in full 60s hippy colours of funky bright orange.
Berkeley Forest is a unique home. It is a successful application of modern ideas and fashions to a structure that has been standing for more than 300 years. The house has lost none of its original charm in the transition but rather provided an inspiring and creative family home. Small wonder that Ann's daughter, Alexis Bernstorff, oversaw the restoration and preservation of those stunning carpets and textiles at Castletown House and Farmleigh.

The Costume & Toy Museum

Ann Bernstorff is a lady who knows her history well. In fact, she can tell you the average neck size of an Irish woman 200 years ago. Why? Because several rooms at Berkeley Forest have been pensioned off to house one of the most impressive collections of antique toys and period costumes in Ireland. Here a dozen mannequins, specially created by Ann, convene in their Georgian and Victorian finery, displaying their ridiculously complicated corsets and bonnets and you-can't-kiss-me crinolines. There is also a fine collection of millinery showing some of modern Ascot's more absurd ancestors such as the Glengarry (1817) and the Green Bibi (1830). It's fun having your house full of Victorian toys and pinewood doll's houses, zebra-sized rocking horses and wicker perambulator.

This article appeared in Irish Tatler in 2002.