Necessity is the mother of invention

Necessity is the mother of invention Vladimir Ashkenazy has been a past draw at the festival

Great Music in Irish Houses had plans to celebrate its golden jubilee last year but these were scuppered in Covid-19’s unrelentingly treacherous seas. With Government restrictions on gatherings continuing, the commemorative programme could not be revisited meaning headaches for the festival’s artistic director, Ciara Higgins, and her assiduous team.

However, Ms Higgins is nothing if not ingenious and a 2021 festival, while not a replica of what should have occurred last year, will take place from June 17-21 online with details at

There is another initiative in that the event has been re-christened as the Dublin International Chamber Music Festival although retaining the ideals of the original A Festival in Great Irish Houses that subtly changed its title to Great Music in Irish Houses in 2012.

Launched in 1970, the first festival followed a chance conversation between music enthusiasts David Laing and Desmond Guinness. Laing suggested a concert in the Georgian mansion, Castletown House, in Celbridge, then owned by Guinness.


The latter’s response went much further than Mr Laing’s proposal with, “Why not a festival”? The result was a weeklong extravaganza from June 7-14, 1970 shared between Castletown and its relatively close neighbour Carton House outside Maynooth.

Preceded by a garden party, the visiting Camerata String Orchestra opened and closed the week with international soloists including brilliant trumpeter John Wilbraham, distinguished Amadeus String Quartet and eminent organist Simon Preston, who played concerti by Handel and Haydn on the Telford instrument in Carton since 1857.

Members of the exceptional Tortelier family appeared in a number of recitals while among Irish artists came fledgling flautist Patricia Dunkerley and young contralto Bernadette Greevy.

As time went on more stately edifices – some family residences like Killruddery near Bray, Russborough in west Wicklow and Tullynally Castle in Co Westmeath – were added to the prestigious venue list.

Fine artists

The festival has brought many fine artists to its platforms not least pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy who, on a very wet evening in Killruddery’s orangery in 1983, was sprinkled with rain falling through the glass roof. His festival reappearances were accommodated in the safer confines of St Patrick’s Hall, Dublin Castle and the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham.

Other splendid artists included singers Elly Ameling, Janet Baker, Philip Langridge, Rita Streich and Frederica von Stade, violinists Midori, Arabella Steinbacher, Kyung Wha Chung and Pinchas Zukerman, cellists Marc Coppey and Mischa Maisky, and clarinettists Michael Collins and Gervase de Peyer. There has also been a stunning array of string quartets and other instrumental ensembles.

Starting with David Laing, the festival has been guided by four artistic directors. Judith Woodworth followed Laing, holding the reins for eighteen years. Hugh Tinney was third in line and he passed on the orb and sceptre to reigning monarch, Ciara Higgins, in 2007.

The online 2021 event promises a kind of musical kaleidoscope with an eclectic mix from the Baroque to the contemporary with artists including cellist William Butt, pianists Philippe Cassard and Finghin Collins, guitarist Seán Shibe, soprano Elizabeth Hilliard in a specially commissioned work – Great Women – by Gráinne Mulvey, and tenor Robin Tritschler.