Kings of the castles: Inside some of Ireland's most picturesque castles
It's not all lavish banquets and grand balls being custodians of Ireland's famous castles - it takes some commercial imagination to ensure their survival, as we found out
Published 06/09/2015 | 02:30
They say a man's home is his castle - and for some lucky people that can be taken quite literally. It's a bit of a fallacy, however, that people who live in castles or stately homes are rolling in it.
In fact, living in a national treasure is quite the balancing act. On the one hand it's living history, on the other, a family home with all the travails of one except perhaps more rooms to clean, bigger lawns to mow and an annual electricity bill equivalent to a small country's GDP. Most owners see themselves as stewards of history, continuing family legacies and maintaining ancestral homes.
But ownership often brings pricey renovations and tourists on the manicured lawns. Highclere Manor, the location for the much-loved Downton Abbey TV series, draws 1,500 visitors a day, a relief to the owners since it's annual running bill is €2m.
In Ireland, big houses and castles must similarly find a way to survive the 21st century and sharing their public space or selling some rolling acreage may decide their continued existence. Many custodians, having grown up in these grand homes, are unsentimental about what could be seen as a massive intrusion.
By their very nature these homes are large enough to accommodate the family in private quarters, and visitors, while becoming a revenue stream, also prevent these historical piles becoming dusty museums. Here, we meet four castle-dwellers from around the country...
Huntington Castle, Co Carlow
Together with his wife Clare and sons Herbert (4), Esmonde (3), Freddie (1) and five dogs, Alexander Durdin-Robertson (36) splits his time between running Huntington Castle, the family farm and his day job as an environmental consultant.
"Owning a castle is a bit like painting the Golden Gate Bridge," says Alexander. "As soon as you finish fixing one thing, you start again. It's a constant mistress."
His "mistress", a Gothic pile built as a military garrison in 1625, has been a family home since the 17th century, something Alexander confirms is paramount to its success. "These buildings have a future and they need custodians who are passionate about them to prosper. That emotional attachment is important, especially when you watch all your cash being swallowed up," he laughs. "If I won the EuroMillions tomorrow, it would probably only pay for a new roof."
The heating alone costs €10-€15 an hour and there are regular leaks in the roof, but on the plus side, there's rolling parkland and rambling battlements for his three children, Esmonde, Freddie and Herbert, to explore and, of course, the public who are welcome to visit during holidays.
Tours of the house and historic gardens contribute to the upkeep, as does the working farm and Alexander's day job as an environmental consultant. "It's a 24-hour job but we have a lot of fun doing it," explains Alexander, who manages the castle with his artist wife Clare. Christmas, Easter and Halloween are big events at the estate where the whole family take part in the theatrics.
"Huntington is supposedly one of the most haunted buildings in Ireland, so Halloween is my favourite time of year, the gloves come off."
Noises in the attic and lights turning on and off hasn't, however, deterred celebrities from overnighting. "My brother Matthew was too busy playing computer games to take a tour one day, it turned out to be Michelle Pfeiffer who was the guest. He was pretty depressed all evening. My great aunt Olivia once asked Mick Jagger what he did for a living. When he told her he was a musician, she replied: 'Oh wonderful - do you have your own band?'"
Howth Castle Co Dublin
Julian Gaisford-St Lawrence (58) is the 30th generation of his family to inherit Howth Castle where he resides with his father Christopher, two children Thomas (22) and Alix (20) and his fiancée Anne.
When Julian's son Thomas was in kindergarten, he told his teacher he lived in a detached terrace house. He wasn't exactly wrong. Howth Castle, which has been the seat of the St Lawrence family since the 12th century, is the sort of rambling Gothic pile where, on account of being lost, you may not be found for a week.
Large rooms and wings made it easy for the family to divide up the house, creating private spaces within it. The contents of the castle have never been sold, making it a real museum for the public who are invited to take a tour by appointment only, but the grounds are free to roam.
The golf course, which was the first to be established in Ireland, cookery school, founded by Julian's sister Edwina and his late wife Christina, and festivals keep the estate on its commercial toes, as does its popularity with film and TV crews. Queen Victoria, George V and Bing Crosby are noted on the guest list.
"Joan Rivers was probably the most memorable. She came for afternoon tea but ended up staying well into the night - we got treated to a private show. It was one of the more entertaining evenings I've had at the castle," notes Julian.
And on the drawbacks of living there? "Living here in winter is a little too close to the elements for comfort - there's no double glazing and the place is impossible to heat. But we have a lot of logs thanks to the woodland surrounding us, so there's always a fire lit." Every little helps when you're running one of the oldest family homes in Ireland.
Tullynally Castle, Co WestMeath
Tullynally Castle has been the home of Thomas Pakenham (81), his wife Valerie and their four children for over 50 years. Thomas has been a writer since leaving Oxford University in 1955 and has published nine books, including four bestsellers and, in his own words, "two flops".
The Pakenhams have a history of storytellers in their ancestry; Thomas's sister Antonia Fraser was the wife of the late playwright Harold Pinter and a bestselling author, and their mother Elizabeth Long wrote a biography of Queen Victoria, which can be found in libraries around the world, and current owner Thomas and his wife Valerie - now the 10th generation of Pakenhams to live at Tullynally - are both published writers.
"One of the greatest advantages of a big house is that when writing my book on the Boer War, I was able to spread out all 39 chapters on the library floor," laughs Thomas. And what of the challenges? "We've overcome the challenge of living in a big house by creating a small house within it."
The family live in just five rooms and the big hall is reserved for public concerts, which take place four or five times a year.
They have kept the original laundry and Victorian kitchen intact and Thomas, an expert on trees having written five books on the subject, has spent much of his time maintaining and planting the grounds.
Thomas is positive about the commercial angles to his palatial pad and says he doesn't regard it as a "sink into which all our money goes". Tullynally has both a working farm with 500 dairy cows and has managed to convert old stables into apartments for long-term lease. "We've made a community on the grounds which has made a big difference, both financially and personally. Otherwise, it might be very lonely up here in the demesne."
However it's the library, replete with thousands of books dating back to the middle 16th century (including two tomes inscribed by Yeats), that is his favourite room.
"Yeats was a guest of my grandfather, Edward Long, in 1931 and left the books as a parting present." His grandfather drove him to Connemara and Yeats was curiously silent the entire way. Years later Thomas discovered an entry in Yeats' diary from that very day in 1931, which described the journey as "the most terrifying drive of my life" and Edward Long as "a terrible driver".
The family history is one of the estate's trump cards, as is the view.
"If money wasn't an issue, I'd knock a wall down on the first floor so I could enjoy the beautiful vista south and east but then, the whole place might crumble."
Carigeen Castle, Co Tipperary
When David Butler (38) isn't greeting guests at his family's B&B at Carigeen Castle alongside his mother Peig (75), he teaches Geography and Genealogy at UCC.
"The only prison in Ireland where you can stay without having committed a crime" was how one guest described Carigeen Castle when it first opened as a B&B in 1976. A former bridewell (small town prison), Carigeen Castle in Cahir, Tipperary has been owned by the Butler family since 1919 and still bears the hallmarks of its penal past in etchings on the former walls of the exercise yard and the iron gates that were used as prison cell doors.
"It was certainly a novelty growing up here," says David, who now manages Carigeen with Peig. "My school friends were eager to hang out in a castle. You just had to remember to make your bed in case a guest opened the door."
Converting the former prison into comfortable lodgings had its perils. Apart from beds getting stuck in the spiral staircase, most of the furniture was installed by removing windows and lifted into place using a pulley system. According to David, owning a castle means you have to be commercially imaginative. "No two days are the same and that's wonderful, but also challenging. Unless you have a comfortable nest egg, you have to be able to convert your premises to make money and that can be a slow grower."
But living in an historic building in the town centre has its perks. "You can pop next door for your shopping and still be inspired when you arrive back. Freestanding with so many viewing possibilities, its silhouette still moves me."