Have you ever wondered what people did before modern fridges? Obviously the vast majority did without, but for those who could afford one, ice houses were as good as it got up until the mid 19th century. Ice houses were a primitive if lavish form of fridge and gave those who could afford them the ability to preserve perishables in hot summer months.
These massively labour intensive and costly constructions were obviously limited to the rich and wealthy and unsurprisingly were a feature of landlords mansions until the late 19th century in Ireland.
One such mansion was Castlecomer House pictured above. Although by no means large when compared to the large estate mansions in England it was owned by the wealthy Wandesforde family, colonists from the 17th century. At Castlecomer the Wandesfordes built an impressive mansion (above) close to the site of an earlier 13th century castle. Amid the ruins of the castle protected by a canopy of trees they sunk an ice house. This impressive brick structure is almost completely hidden from view but beneath the surface lies a chamber over 20 feet deep.
The entrance. (The bank to the left is the remains of a Motte and bailey castle built in the early 13th century.)
A few feet inside the arch is a window like structure which in turn lead into a large cylindrical brick chamber. Although difficult to tell from the pictures the structure is quite large.
You can get some perspective of the size of the chamber from the vent in the roof. The purpose of this vent is puzzling. It may have been used as a mechanism to melt the ice in order to replace it.
According to the 1850 must-have classic “The villa gardener: comprising the choice of a suburban villa residence; the laying out, planting, and culture of the garden and grounds; and the management of the villa farm, including the dairy and poultry-yard” ice could be collected from lakes in winter, ground down and then battered against the wall before being sprinkled with salt water. Another method was to buy Ice imported. This add from The Irish Times on September 23rd, 1878 offered Ice imported from Russia.
According to The Villa Gardener the ice would remain frozen in an Ice House all through the summer. Ice houses became increasingly redundant from the 1850’s when fridges were invented. Incidentally almost nothing of Castlecomer house remains – it was completely destroyed by a fire in the 1960’s.