A conspicuously grand house rising seemingly in the middle of nowhere—actually the western part of County Wicklow—Russborough was an extravagance paid for by the wages of beer. In 1741, a year after inheriting a vast fortune from his brewer father, Joseph Leeson commissioned architect Richard Castle to build him a home of palatial stature, and was rewarded with this slightly over-the-top house, whose monumental 700-foot-long facade one-upped every other great house in Ireland. Today, the house serves as a showcase for the celebrated collection of Old Master paintings of Sir Alfred Beit, a descendant of the De Beers diamond family, who had bought and majestically restored the property in 1952. A 3-D exhibition of his amazing photos from the 1920s and 1930s is a highlight.
The first sight of Russborough draws gasps from visitors: a mile-long, beech-lined avenue leads to a distant embankment. Constructed of silver-gray Wicklow granite, the facade encompasses a seven-bay
central block, from either end of which radiate semicircular loggias connecting the flanking wings—the finest example in Ireland of Palladio's "winged device." The interiors are full of grand period rooms that were elegantly refurbished in the 1950s under the eye of the legendary 20th century decorator, Lady Colefax. The Hall is centered around a massive black Kilkenny marble chimneypiece and has a ceiling modeled after one in the Irish Parliament. Four 18th-century Joseph Vernet marine landscapes grace the glorious stucco moldings created to frame them in the Drawing Room. The grandest room, the Saloon, is famed for its 18th-century stucco ceiling by the Lafranchini brothers; fine Old Masters hang on walls covered in 19th-century Genoese velvet. The views out the windows take in the foothills of the Wicklow Mountains and the famous Poulaphouca Reservoir in front of the house. Kids will love getting lost in the huge hedge maze on the grounds. Additional attractions include a tearoom, gift shop, and sheepdog demonstrations.