Friday 30 September 2016

Home Truths: Ireland baulks at big house bucks

Published 20/05/2016 | 02:30

Slane Castle.
Slane Castle.

Fancy a 15,000 square foot 18th-century mansion on 65 acres for the price of a two-bedroom apartment in Dublin's Blackrock?

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Three years ago the 360-acre Newhall Estate three miles outside Ennis in Co Clare was offered for €5m. Having failed to sell, it's now going for auction in lots in June through Sotheby's, with the house on 65 acres guiding €500,000 - currently the same price as an apartment on offer at Idrone Terrace in South County Dublin. And you'd fit almost 15 average city family homes into it. Newhall is also being offered with a 310 acre package guiding €1.7m. This beautiful house comes with gate lodges, woodlands, parklands and lakes. Newhall has been noted for its unusual layout in a long 'T', the frontage is in a central three-sided bow with two wings either side. The octagonal entrance hall has a Doric cornice and frieze with grinning masks and family crests. This historic house is truly magical.

So why so cheap?

Well like many truly magnificent Irish country homes hanging on to their existence today, this one needs a lot of work and money. It has been estimated that the house itself needs a €1m-plus injection on its own, never mind the grounds. The total investment required could be in the millions.

Newhall's price has been slashed to sell in a week in which we have learned that Government will introduce a new tax incentives scheme to enable young people to start 'living on the main street', rather than buying homes on the outskirts of rural towns. Grants will be available to restore old main street houses and changes are to be introduced to the planning laws to allow disused retail buildings (many towns are now full of empty shops) be converted to houses.

The new Action Plan for Rural Ireland is to be developed over the next three-to-six months, with definitive targets assigned to every Government department. Generally this is a good idea.

But is there a point in providing a means for new and renovated homes in empty business premises and derelict main streets if a town's economy is flagging so mortally that people are moving elsewhere?

Which brings us back to Newhall and dozens of ailing country mansions like it. With the right money spent and decent tourism business plans put in place, Newhall and its grounds could be a real powerhouse for the local economy. A €4m spend on Newhall would be a fabulous investment for Co Clare by the OPW or even (is it that really so crazy to suggest it?) for the local authority.

Think of big country houses around Ireland which have been put to work - Slane Castle with its festivals, Lissadell in Sligo which hosted the Great Yeats Birthday Party last year, and now hosts a 1916 exhibition which includes Countess Markievicz's hand-written military plans. Birr Castle and Emo House have both hosted the National Country Fair among their annual calendar events.

Celia Lamb of Ganly Walters highlights the case of a recent sale last year which could make a huge difference to the local economy in rural Kilkenny.

"Uppercourt Manor is located outside of Freshford in a quiet rural part of Kilkenny. It was in ruins many years ago and was restored. It was bought recently and word is that it's going to become a hotel after a substantial investment. That could mean 70 jobs in the area. That could actually secure a good future for a town like Freshford. That's a private investment, because the state has proven over and over that it simply won't get involved." It seems strange given that Ireland's big historic country mansions have proven again and again that they are huge tourist magnets and revenue generators. Americans in particular love them to bits. But these potential revenue engines are slipping through our fingers daily.

As it stands, the most likely buyer for Newhall is a wealthy foreign-based individual. If this happens, Newhall will be saved, but once the money is spent, the house and grounds will likely be shut up and closed as just one more private plaything of yet another globe hopping magnate. As such it will do nothing for the local economy - aside from the renovating.

Alternatively the estate could be chopped up for farming, leaving the house bereft of its natural estate hinterland. But the story of this rural "big house" and others like it could be different.

Just one proper study has been carried out by a local authority to determine the impact of a big country house working at full pelt for a local economy. Mayo commissioned an impact report on Westport House with its gardens and theme park. It sustains 50 jobs and had 162,000 visitors in one year, 60pc of whom said it was their "principal motivation" for travelling to Co Mayo. The bottom line was this magic number: Westport House generates €50m per annum for Mayo.

Can you think of any other other rural-based business that could do that?

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