Peek inside a renovated farmhouse and a castle once attacked by Cromwell
Caroline Sweeney was born and reared in London but, unusually for a young woman, she eschewed the bright lights and opted for a castle ruin in Co Kilkenny. Edited by Mary O'Sullivan. Photography by Tony Gavin
Setting up a business, particularly in the world of hospitality, can be hard: you have to have a USP - a unique selling point.
Take someone who welcomes paying guests into his/her home - sure, it's lovely if the grounds are great, the decor is charming and the food served is all home-made, home-grown and artisanal, but a lot of foodie entrepreneurs offer all that and more. There has to be something extra.
Caroline Sweeney of Legan Castle Farmhouse has it sussed; she has a delightful 200-year-old farmhouse on six acres of pure get-away-from-it-all countryside, and she cooks divine food. Into the bargain, she has not just one but two national monuments in her garden, both of which are fascinating.
"According to local history, Legan Castle dates from the 15th Century and belonged to the monks at Jerpoint Abbey, and was later lived in by the Grace family. It seems that in March 1650, Oliver Cromwell came here, attacked the place, and now all that remains is the front of the keep. I love it; I feel it adds such character to my home," Caroline notes, adding, "At the front of the keep, an ogham stone stands; it dates from 400 AD. Apparently, even in the 15th Century, when the castle was being built, and the ogham stone was found, it caused a stir, and it was used as a lintel on the castle. I get a lot of archeologists coming to look at it. They get very excited."
Caroline has only been living in the farmhouse since 2013, and only in Ireland itself for the last seven years; she was born and bred in London of Irish parents, but has always adored Ireland, and was determined to come and live here. "My mother is from Cappoquin and my father is from Achill," she says. "My dad has his own specialist joinery company in London and employs 100 people. We all - I'm the middle child of five - spent every holiday in Achill, and I always wanted to live here permanently. Everyone in the family would tell you, I was always going on about it."
In 2009, Caroline finally decided, after working in admin for over a decade, to make her dream come true. "I had spent 11 years working in offices, including 10 years in my dad's company, and I was unhappy. I love the outdoors; I was like a caged animal. My dad, though, said I was mad. He said people were leaving Ireland in their droves and I was heading the opposite way," Caroline notes with a laugh.
Her other great passion was horse riding - she'd been riding since she was nine - and so she made up her mind to up sticks and head to Achill and get involved in horses.
Even though coming to live here was something she always wanted, she was a bit thrown when she first arrived. "I cried for two weeks solid; I thought, 'What have I done?,'" Caroline says, insisting that it was only a minor wobble, and she settled quickly, in particular when she got the opportunity to do an equestrian course in Thomastown, Co Kilkenny. After nine months, she qualified as a horse-riding instructor and quickly got a job in a yard.
However, for various reasons, that job ended, and the only alternative was to take work again in an office.
So she was back where she started and, needless to mention, she found this demoralisng. "My self-esteem was very low, I was quite depressed; it was a rough time," she notes.
One good thing did happen around this time - she found Legan Castle farm, which she had seen on daft.ie and had fallen in love with when she and her parents went to look at it. Initially, she wanted it purely as her home, but it was while decorating and sourcing furniture that an idea began to form about taking in guests. Caroline decided that offering hospitality would encompass all the things she loves doing - looking after people, cooking, gardening and the outdoors. She moved into the farmhouse in 2013, and in the summer of 2014 she took in her first guests.
The farmhouse is quite compact - comprising three bedrooms, two reception rooms and a spacious kitchen - but it works as a guesthouse as there are several different entrances, so the day can pass without Caroline and her guests getting in each other's way. She also has two bell tents, which are fitted out with good mattresses and can offer a form of glamping, if you will.
Animals are particularly welcome as Caroline has her own adored pets - Oscar, a velvety Weimaraner she brought from London, and Wilde, an 18-month-old tortoiseshell cat from a local rescue centre.
Initially she did pure bed and breakfast, but now she provides dinner as well. Her offering is unique; she only takes one booking, so if you are on your own, Caroline gives you her undivided attention. However, she can take up to eight guests, so the booking might be a family or a group of women - or, indeed, men - who want a short break away together.
"I get a lot of groups of women who want a few nights away to enjoy nice food, and they can bring their own wine," Caroline notes, adding, "Even though there are lots of amenities in the area and we're only 20 minutes from Kilkenny, people come mainly for the farmhouse and all that I have to offer."
It sounds as if there's major pampering - Caroline asks for dietary preferences and favourite foods and tailors the menu accordingly, focusing on seasonal, organic and local. Butter comes from the local farm, fresh eggs from her own hens, who are looked after by Roger the rooster; and she bakes all her own scones and cakes. She is completely self-taught and tends to devise her own recipes.
"I suppose I've been around good food all my life and I've absorbed a lot about it," the 30-something redhead explains, adding with a laugh, "I look at books for inspiration, but I've never followed a recipe in my life. I don't even own a weighing scales. It's fistfuls of this and that."
But it seems she didn't lick her talent from the stones; her grandmother had a guesthouse in London. "My mum's mother did bed and breakfast and she had a long-term lodger - my granduncle on Dad's side. Dad came to visit his uncle and met my mother. The rest is history."
So it's in the genes, after all.
Legan Castle Farmhouse, Legan, Thomastown, Co Kilkenny, tel: (056) 781-1024, or see legancastle.ie
Sunday Indo Life Magazine