€6m magical pile in Phoenix Park goes on sale
Mark Keenan tours a €6m pocket estate beside the Phoenix Park which has to be one of Dublin's best-kept secrets
NOT many Dublin homeowners can tell you that the morning walk around the outskirts of their garden amounts to a full mile.
Each morning the retired Irish motor businessman Michael O'Reilly, sets off past a 12ft-high waterfall and a fish pond, past a pair of cast -metal elephants frolicking in a millstream, past fountains, a restored Turner greenhouse, past a 100-tree orchard, a Victorian gate lodge, a putting green, tennis courts and an isolated church steeple.
He turns along by the Tolka River and the banks of the Royal Canal, past 10 box stables and back again to Ashtown Lodge, the family's 10-bedroom period city home with 30 acres of gardens at Dublin's Castleknock which has to be one of Dublin's best kept secrets.
Ashtown Lodge is plush, warm and homely. It's mostly Georgian and Victorian in its layout and style and spans a whopping 7,000sq ft – enough to fit seven standard family semis inside it.
The pocket city estate and mansion was first offered for sale over a year ago for just over €6.5m, but given its sheer size, the O'Reillys have now decided to offer it separately in components – three different properties on three different parcels – as well as in its entirety.
There are two things most people don't know about the dapper motorman who is best known as the founder of Windsor Motors.
The first is that his real name is Merlin.
He points to a photo of the man he was named after his uncle Merlin Pryce. "That's the guy who really discovered penicillin." Indeed it was uncle Merlin who pointed out to Alexander Fleming that mould spots in his petrie dish of bacteria seemed to be immune from attack.
The second unknown is that Michael has been a lifelong magpie of architectural salvage in all forms and, with the aid of various family members and staff, has proven something of a wizard in its application to living spaces indoors and out.
In times past when people were busy throwing out old period marble fireplaces, statuary, stone-carved work and beautifully cast ironmongery, Michael was there to hoover it all up – even to the extent of acquiring thousands of unwanted cobblestones and sets of iron street lamps from the old streets of Dublin. Most of his investments have paid big dividends.
As a result of his savings and reapplications of historic bric-a-brac, the formal gardens are absolutely magical. You never quite know what you might happen across next. With their assorted fountains, terraced waterfalls, bridges, and expert planting, they are easily a match for the formal grounds of any "big house" open to the public today and far more fun.
Among the curios is a huge church steeple rescued from an old church in the North and now providing Ireland's most unusual garden ornament. There are two giant-sized cast elephants picked up years ago on a trip to the Chelsea Flower Show. The grounds have their own woodlands and pass by the locks on the Grand Canal.
His knack for restoration has also found its mark indoors. He is immensely proud of two fireplaces in the house by the renowned 18th Century Italian craftsman Pietro Bossi who is famed for his inset work with the scagliola technique. One was in the house, one he sourced elsewhere.
Thirty years of renovation and restoration have now transformed Ashtown from a tired and run-down period house stranded in a load of farm fields, into an elegant wonderland where every nook and cranny inside and out has a story to tell.
Among Michael's sourced treasures over the years is an entire unwanted period stone-gate lodge – demolished elsewhere in the country and saved and then moved by him, stone by stone to Ashtown.
"I heard about it through a man I knew who was an expert stone worker. He contacted me because he thought I might be interested in it. He was right." It looks like it's been at Ashtown forever.
But perhaps the greatest investment in period curios Michael ever made was in Ashtown itself – a pocket country estate in the heart of the city which he bought at a time when few Irish people valued such ex-empire debris.
"We bought the house in the early 1980s from the Walton music family. Martin Walton had just passed away and I think it would be fair to say that the house had become run down. The lands were used for farming pretty much, so we started converting them back to more formal gardens."
Martin Walton, the one-time 16-year-old rebel had served as a courier from the GPO to Jacob's factory in the 1916 Rising. After internment, he founded a music business empire in his 20s based on publishing, instrument manufacture, music schools and retail outlets. He lived at Ashtown for 50 years and ran it as a self-sufficient farm.
The main house is believed to have been constructed originally as a hunting lodge and added to since then.
Mostly Victorian with Georgian parts, and built on what is believed to be Tudor foundations, it was probably part of the exclusive British gated cluster community of high civil servants attached to the Viceroy which ruled Ireland until 1921 and lived together in Phoenix Park area in luxurious seclusion.
It is quite likely that a young Winston Churchill played in these grounds as a child when his father was private secretary to the Lord Lieutenant and lived at nearby Ratra House.
It was home to the surgeon Dr Travers Blackley in the middle of the 19th Century and then by 1900 owned by a Colonel Dugdale. Its best feature by far is an extraordinary triple-sized reception room in a grand Edwardian style with a huge period fireplace at either end.
This, the Walton family called the "ballroom", indicating – along with its parquet herringbone pattern floor – that it was historically used for hosting the lavish society parties typical in the dying days of British empire in Ireland. It will take 80 people easily.
The dining room has the best Bossi fireplace, and indeed every fireplace (or chimney piece) in the house is a quality hand-crafted example in marble, wood or cast iron. Additional receptions include a sitting room in period red-striped wallpaper, a huge kitchen/dining room overlooking the grounds and the wide and airy hall areas lead up and down to different parts of the house. There's a library and a sun room.
Upstairs the master bed chamber is its own mini complex with dressing room, lines of wardrobes and an en suite. There are nine other bedrooms, two studies, a self-contained basement apartment. There is an annex off the main house which is a self-contained three-bedroom home in its own right with a kitchen, dining room and separate reception.
In the 80s, Michael added a long two-storey storage building for holding cars. This later became converted into a faux (and quite convincing) Victorian coach house and the second extraordinary home on the estate – for his son Merlin (of Merlin Car Auctions) and his family.
It comes with six bedrooms, a 1,000sq ft kitchen (big enough to fit the floor area of a townhouse inside it) and its own modern leisure centre complete with a 60ft-long indoor heated swimming pool.
The aforementioned imported gate lodge is over 3,000sq ft with four bedrooms, receptions and underfloor heating.
As a city central family compound and estate Ashtown Lodge would be ideal for embassy use where security is a consideration.
It is also expected to come on to the radar for foreign-based Irish businessmen and women of the sort currently buying up trophy homes in the city.
But this important historic home wouldn't be there at all without the efforts of the O'Reillys and the Waltons to stave off the wrecker's ball.
Ashtown Lodge can be purchased in one or more lots. The main house on three acres is €2.5m, the gate lodge on a quarter acre is €1.5m and the coach house with swimming pool is €1.75m through agent Vincent Finnegan (01-2984695).