An edited version of a talk about the Strokestown Park Ice House, given by one of our lovely tour guides - Aidan McBride.
I would like to share a little of the history of one of the more overlooked features of the Strokestown estate, the ice house.
Anyone who has given a tour of the house or has been on the tour should be aware of the beautiful wooden ice box lined with zinc that rests in the dining room. An item that was used generally to store and keep white wine chilled for the dining guests all year round.
You may also be aware that the ice box (from the dining room) was supplied with ice by the great ice house that exits on the Strokestown estate.
In the middle of winter when the river and fish pond froze, ice was collected by the servants and transferred for safe storage to this Ice House where it could be kept all year round, or even for many years later.
The Ice house as it exists today:
To find the ice house as it exists today we would walk directly north from Strokestown house itself. After passing the old servants’ quarters and the newer houses we would keep going, up through and into the fields, walking beside the fence and still in a line with the old mansion house. After walking a good 300 yards or so, we can find the ice house, even maybe walking right past it. The ice is nearly camouflaged, moulded into the land itself and strangely giving off the appearance of an old hobbit house from Lord of the Rings.
A cast iron door rusted and positioned on its side, blocks the entrance now and a few thick brambles from an old thorn bush help discourage any wandering sheep from falling in. Moving these obstructions aside you find yourself in a small tunnel about 8 feet long. Then you are greeted by the impressively large red brick room in a classic beehive shape that slopes down to something more oval at its base. A drop of about ten feet to the bottom awaits if you’re not careful and there is no ladder to get back up. The floor is covered in old broken wooden boards, brick-a-brac, and what appears to be an unfortunate sheep’s skull.
The ice house, despite its slow slide into disuse and disrepair, is still amazingly well preserved. This building had been built to last and endure. A feat of solid craftsmanship and design for its time.
Who built the ice house and when:
When Maurice Mahon took over the estate after the death of his father Thomas in 1782, he made many changes to it and surrounding townland. Popular among the gentry of Britain and Ireland from around 1760 was the building of ice houses and fish ponds .Among the many changes Maurice made to the estate can be found in the building of a fish pond directly in front the house, and the construction of the ice house itself dates from around 1784, as noted by the academic Ms Susan Hood from the University of Ulster in her thesis “The Landlord Influence in the Development of an Irish Estate Town: Strokestown, County Roscommon”.
Possibly built by the ice House Undertakers Inc., what is known and can be seen from the ordinance survey maps available; is that the ice house is still listed and in use in 1837. A long road goes up through the top field coming close to the ice house itself. This road would have brought a traveller right out to the northern end of the town and would have been called ‘The Ladies Entrance’, possibly set up by Maurice to have his wife’s carriage bypass most of the town.
We don’t know exactly when the ice house stopped being in use but we do know by the 1888 ordinance survey it is listed as disused. By this same survey map, we can see that the fish pond is gone, along with other smaller changes to the estate.
How Ice Houses worked:
By keeping the majority of the building underground, a near constant sustained temperature could be maintained. Taking the ice sheets from the frozen pond was a job known as skimming. It would then be taken by cart along the road and packed in the ice house, alternating layers of ice, straw or sawdust and salt. This would ensure the ice remained mostly frozen even in the height of a hot summer. Any condensation dripping or melting water would be carried down the drainage kernel at the bottom of the building. Fresh water could be brought into a well-stocked ice house and frozen, so that clean ice could be used directly in drinks or food recipes.
Apart from the obvious use of ice to keep drinks cool, food could also be stored in these giant refrigerators to be kept fresh. They could also be used to help prepare ice cream and sorbets.
The ice house, still as it stands today, is a fantastic relic of the estate hopefully with some safety features and a clear pathway in the future it will be enjoyed by the public. It is well worth visiting for its design and craftsmanship alone.