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Wednesday 27 August 2014

Speak of the Devil

Published 28/05/2013 | 05:42

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The fireplace inside the church at Loftus Hall

When the 'For Sale' advertisement was published - something along the lines of '63 acres of good quality agricultural land, with disused residence and outhouses' - it was just the land that interested the Quigley family from Bannow.

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It made sense. That was in May 2011, and the guide price for the property at the time was €625,000 - a huge drop from a €1.7 million deal that had been agreed with another potential buyer less than three years earlier, but which subsequently fell through. It meant that the land was on the market for a fairly normal price of about €10,000 per acre - but what wasn't normal about this particular sale was that the 'disused residence and outhouses' portion of the ad didn't refer to just some old ramshackle cottage and a couple of cowsheds. It instead referred to a 27,000 square foot mansion that is submerged in legend and lore, and which revels in the title of 'The Most Haunted House in Ireland'.

Yes - buy that land, and you would also be buying Loftus Hall.

The imposing edifice may have been in a poor state, but it had potential. It had been inaccesible to the general public for many years - not exactly hidden away, mind you, due to its sheer size and exposed location - but having those two iron gates at the end of the driveway locked for so long perhaps only added to the appeal, as people strove more and more for the chance to eventually have a look around for themselves.

Still, says Aidan Quigley (now the manager of Loftus Hall and all that goes on there), that wasn't foremost in his family's minds when they bought the place.

'We'd always been involved in farming and then for the last twenty years or so we've been in the building trade as well, but really it was the 63 acres here that was the main interest for us. We had hoped to park the whole question of the house itself and what to do with it for a while, but when we took over around September 2011, we discovered that the structure was worse than we'd realised, particularly the roof, and it probably wouldn't have survived another winter if we hadn't started work on it. So we stripped it all off - and prayed hard there wouldn't be snow or anything! - and the work paid off as we got the roof sorted out by Christmas.

'So, that hastened the whole thing for us, because once you start investing money, you have to look at how to recoup it. We considered various options, and to be honest, I was on for going down a different route myself, because I've a background in multi-sports and adventure racing and the like,' says the man who himself does Ironman Triathlons for fun.

'However, we did an online survey of various people to try gauge what they would like to see here, and 87 per cent of all responses had The Legend of Loftus Hall as by far and away their number one thing, so that obviously had a large say in helping us decide what way to go!' he says.

A thorough study was carried out to see what exactly might be feasible, and one of the first decisions made was that the interior of the house would be 'more or less' left in the fairly decrepit state it had fallen into - 'it was ready made for a haunted house tour,' Aidan says. 'We decided there was no point in investing colossal amounts of money in it - it would have taken millions, and not alone would millions not have made sense, but millions weren't available anyway. Still though, we've put in a lot of work and a lot of money - maybe around €600,000 - but because most of that is in structural work like the roof and re-inforcing walls, people don't realise just how much has happened. We spent some more in bringing in some expertise to get us up and running - Ronan O'Flaherty is a consultant who did some research for us on the history of the house and worked on the script for our tours, and we also commissioned some special effects from Paul Savage and his 'Zolk C' team.'

Then last Summer, as the work inside the house was still going on, the first stage of the re-opening of Loftus Hall came to pass as the grounds were opened to the public in mid July - on Friday the 13th, to be exact. The date was hardly a coincidence?

'No, the Friday the 13th thing was deliberate all right!' Aidan laughs. 'The date fell right for us and we decided to go for it. We really put ourselves under pressure though, and it was non-stop for the last two days and two nights in particular. I remember we were supposed to open at 10 a.m. on the Friday, but we had to put it back to 12 noon because the toilets weren't ready yet! But we got there all right, and the place was mobbed, all that afternoon and all that weekend too. To be honest, I was surprise at how big the crowd was, and I'm still being surprised all the time at just how busy we are. You know, we had so many telephone inquiries after we opened up first that eircom literally had to come along and put up a new line, because the old one just wasn't able to handle so much traffic!'

With the grounds open and the crowds flooding in, attention turned towards getting the indoors ready for visitors, and another suitable opening date was chosen: Hallowe'en.

'Sure what else?' asks Aidan, as he recalls how the opening event took the form of a charity costumed 18th-century period ball, which raised some €36,000 for good causes. Then, the following day, the public was allowed inside for the first time - and they've been coming ever since.

The busiest day so far was the Sunday of the May Bank Holiday weekend, which had an estimated 1,000 people on the premises at one stage during the afternoon, and indeed such is the demand that sometimes people have had to be turned away disappointed, because no places remain available on any of the guided tours on the day they roll up to visit. Booking ahead is strongly recommended!

'Some of them then ask why we don't just let them in to ramble around the house themselves, but there are good reasons for that,' Aidan says. 'Safety is a large part of it, because the fact of the matter is that there are parts of the house that are still just not safe. But just as important is that wouldn't get nearly as much out of a visit that way as they would from going on one of our tours. The tours are about an hour long, and there's a lot to hear about and some theatrics along the way too, so really it is the best way to enjoy your visit and we've never heard anybody say that they didn't enjoy it.'

There are a number of tours to choose from - from the family-friendly one that's suitable for children of all ages and grown-ups of more delicate dispositions, to the adult-only 'Legend of Loftus Hall' tour that's much more ghostly and spooky, to the more academic 'Architectural and Historical' tour.

Aidans says they have to insist on children sticking to the more child-friendly tour. 'Sometimes parents say to us that their children would be well able for the scarier one, because they've seen horror films or have watched such-and-such on television, but we have to tell them this is not Disneyworld,' he says. 'This house is haunted. Our tours are scary. Children will be frightened if they go on the adult tour.'

The children's tour can't leave them too disturbed though, if the number of hand-drawn brochures and posters in the new café area near the visitor centre entrance are anything to go by. They were all crafted for a competition by children who visited the house, and they gush forth with messages such as 'come and visit Loftus Hall - it's the most haunted house in Ireland - it's great fun and we had a fantastic time there!' Not exactly the stuff of nightmares...

All tours take in such key stops as The Card Room, where the visitor in the Legend of Loftus Hall was uncovered as Old Nick himself, and The Tapestry Room, where the unfortunate Lady Anne Tottenham is said to have been locked away after falling for the dark stranger before making her diabolical discovery. The ornate mosaic flooring and cornices and fireplaces and doorframes give a flavour of the opulence that the privileged few enjoyed in the past. Aidan says that much of it is older than many may actually realise, as they have discovered that many are wrong in their belief that an older house on the site - known as Redmond Hall, and where the visitation itself is said to have occurred - was knocked to the ground in 1870, more than a century after the events of the Legend, and replaced by the building from scratch of the current Loftus Hall.

'What really happened was more of a re-modelling, as Loftus Hall was built around Redmond Hall, instead of replacing it,' he says. 'Some parts of the house go right back to the 18th century. For example, the doorway where the tour starts dates from 1751. The strange visitor arrived in 1766. So it's the very doorway that the visitor passed through when he rode up here on that dark and stormy night. It's not often that people get the chance to follow in the exact footsteps of the Devil - or even want to do so! - but that's what happens here.'

If or when you're suitably spooked - or even if you don't feel like being spooked at all - there is much more to Loftus Hall than the ghost story, and even more is planned for the future. For example, already there is bicycle hire and a newly-surfaced pathway to the house's private beach. Future attractions include a petting farm, a play area, Laser Tag, a 'get fit and lose weight' Boot Camp, a night-time wine and tapas bar, and camping out in Mongolian Yurt-style tents, while there is also talk of possibly a music festival in a couple of years' time. Aidan and his crew are certainly not standing still.

'Oh no, you can't stand still,' he says. 'Our aim here is to give people a complete day out, and to have something for everybody, aged from two up to 102. The hope is that if we keep adding more attractions, people will keep coming back, and will keep recommending us to more and more people too, and so the business here will continue for a long time into the future.'

He acknowledges too the role that staff at Loftus Hall are playing in this emerging success story.

There are some 25 people employed there in total - mostly young, and mostly from the local area - and all are involved in several aspects of the operation. 'We have a great skillset here and everybody does every job, so that things keep moving no matter what, and overall everything is working well for us,' he says.

And how is that farmland that they bought the place for working out?

'There's 51 acres of it under barley,' he answers. 'The other twelve acres are the ones around the house and the beach, so there's really only 51 acres that can be farmed. And that farming's a whole other story....'

www.loftushall.com

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