The trials and tribulations of an Irish castle renovation
Valentine's home is definitely a castle – as every romantic dream-struck little prince and princess brought up on Disney, Ivanhoe, Rapunzel and the Princess and the Pea, will know.
No building is bigger on romance than a towering medieval keep with its salty whiff of chivalry, outsized log fire, a great hall for storytelling, wine goblets and bardic music; its battlements aflutter with coloured standards and of course, the obligatory candle-lit ladies' chamber on the top floor with fur throws flung across a thick hewn four-poster.
At least that's the romantic's dream.
The reality for those who pursue the castle dream in Ireland is usually more of a nightmare – protection orders that make restoration work prohibitively expensive, grim rooms perpetually darkened by arrow slit windows, ice cold retaining stone walls, tight winding stairs purposefully designed to cause slip-ups and head cracking doorway arches built when the average prince was five foot five.
There was Sean Simon, the Roscommon-born actor and British-based star of stage musicals, who bought Cloontykilla Castle after a childhood love affair with the place only to crash and burn on television – pulled down by the complexity of the project, the increasing cost of restoration and the recession. It was all detailed in the most famous episode of Channel 4's 'Grand Design's' series.
That's why the most successful love affairs with Irish castles have tended to be those conducted by rich celebrities with the cash to splash like Enya – who acquired and refurbished Ayesha Castle and very romantically renamed it Manderley – after the abode of the Daphne Du Maurier novel. Or Jeremy Irons who famously painted his restored West Cork Castle a very romantic bright pink.
But the story of Grantstown Castle in Kilfeakle, Co Tipperary, is a fairytale with a difference. The owners weren't rich but the outcome was royal albeit after 15 years of hard work. Grantstown has been restored inch by inch by the German couple – craft jeweller Jorg Schneidereit and his wife Ulrike, a gynaecologist, who solidified their own marital relationship by spending summer after summer in Ireland working patiently on it.
Originally built between 1480 and 1530 by the de Burgos, the castle was embroiled in conflict right up until the Civil War when the IRA executed one of their own inside its walls.
Grantstown great hall door
In 1998 the couple had combed Ireland in search of a project and finally found the 20-metre high tower house shell on the road from Tipperary Town to Cashel. With his trade in high craft jewellery, Jorg was convinced that the castle had to be restored using authentic techniques as close to those used by the original builders and craftsmen as possible. Their restoration also led to a mammoth European-wide search for authentic materials starting with the timber beams.
"Grantstown almost entirely satisfied that which we had hoped to find. Fundamentally solid, no tears testifying to land slip, a dry location on a hill and original window openings. From the battlement parapet there is a sweeping view of the entire Golden Vale. Despite the changeable Irish weather the tower house is already five hundred years old. It is a striking and valuable example of Irish architecture at the end of the gothic era."
After several months of negotiations they finally acquired possession in 1998 and the planning process began.
'Our first job was to take an inventory of the condition of the building. Drawings of the building from all levels and views of the tower had to be drafted. Loose capstones on both turret platforms had to be secured and nest material and plants had to be removed from all of the inner rooms of the tower. The emergency roof installed by the previous owner was further sealed. A year later we could begin to install utilities. A multi-chamber effluent tank was installed. The castle was supplied with water and electricity. Now we were primed for more work."
The couple acquired a supply of 200-year-old timber beams from Germany. Unfortunately it was contained in a barn that was still standing.
"We had to deconstruct the building ourselves. Together with friends we set about doing the job. After almost three months we had about 20 tonnes of wood at our disposal. But more importantly: we had been initiated into the art of Tudor-style construction. Without using a saw we had carefully dismantled the entire building by removing the wooden pegs. The entire structure of the building was revealed to us in the process."
The process would be invaluable for the work on Grantstown and also gave them the idea to build a number of Tudor-style half timbered houses around the base of the castle to act as temporary accommodation while they worked on the project, to provide a jewellery workshop for Jorg and to provide covered storage.
"Historical sources indicate the existence of half-timbered houses in the direct vicinity of castles. There are descriptions of this in almost all European countries. The 'keep', 'strong-hold' or 'donjon' was simply the central point of retreat. Everyday life took place in the surrounding houses."
From here on, almost everything was done according to hand-crafted historic methods.
"We feel committed to the tradition of the historical art of building. We would like to give an authentic impression of medieval building techniques and materials. At the beginning of the 21st century it is possible to use historical construction techniques and building materials, they are still valid.
The intensity and precision with which the Schneidereits went about their project obviously caught the attention of locals.
"I'm sure some people thought we were crazy," he adds.
But over the following years the parish became accustomed to groups of young and enthusiastic Germans – stone masons, carpenters and craftspeople who came over to work on the project – eager to travel to Grantstown for the unique opportunity to work on a real medieval tower house castle.
In 2003 Jorg told an interviewer: "Questions were being asked, like: Where can I get a window like that? Who can craft me an iron mounting? Is that really forged by hand? Is it really possible to build without cement? Can a modern day stonemason do such things? What is a dove-tail joint? Re-used slates? Breathable walls? Is it possible to live in such a building? Time and again we have found ourselves in the following situation: surrounded by curious onlookers who by some coincidence became interested in us and listened attentively to our historical lectures while we worked beams or stones. Inquisitive people came and left with new knowledge. Many returned out of sheer enthusiasm, for us this has been a positive affirmation of what we are doing and at the same time has paved the way for new ideas."
Today the castle has 10 rooms, including a dungeon and is perhaps, the most authentic of all of Ireland's castle restorations. Its features include a minstrel's gallery, a great hall with a tiled floor and huge open fire, a huge chamber on the top floor, even a dungeon.
There's a walkway around the roof which looks tens of miles in every direction. There are hand-crafted stainless glass windows, antique gothic timber doors. This is the real fairytale deal. Perhaps the only non-medieval luxury is the underfloor heating installed to keep out the damp which plagues so many castle dwellings in Ireland.
But the Schneidereits have fallen in love again – this time head over heels with another castle in Jena in their native Germany which they've acquired and now plan to restore. So it's time to break off the affair with Grantsown which has been placed on the market for €535,000 through local agent and castle specialist Helen Cassidy (094-9546868) – a price which reflects the fact that it will need perhaps another €100,000 spend providing kitchen, bathroom and plumbing facilities. The tudor-style half wood houses currently provide those services.