Friday 24 November 2017

Downturn abbey: uncertain future of Ireland's big houses

The gates could soon close on Westport House, the final act in a saga that - according to its tearful owner - has destroyed her family. Should the State do more to protect our historic houses?

Uncertain future: Sheelyn Browne at Westport House.
Uncertain future: Sheelyn Browne at Westport House.
Lord Henry Mount Charles

Graham Clifford

As Westport wakes Sheelyn Browne sits in silence in the library of the house which has defined her family for almost 400 years. It is in her DNA.

Outside on the great lawns of Westport House the morning dew is slowly lifting, the swans gently glide through the still waters and a gardener is preparing for his day's work.

Sheelyn, who manages the house with her sister Karen, clasps her hands and bows her head. When she lifts it again there are tears in her eyes, pain on her face.

"This ongoing saga has destroyed our family, it's a complete disgrace. How could it have come to this?" she asks desperately, her voice breaking. "I haven't slept properly in four years fearing what will happen to this house and to our family."

Nama plan to offload their loans against the Westport House estate, at a current value of around €9m, as part of its Project Arrow portfolio. Locals, who gathered in their hundreds this week for a public meeting, are hoping and praying that their greatest manmade asset can somehow be saved by state intervention. Last year alone it's estimated Westport House generated €50m for the region's economy.

In the background local politicians talk of ongoing negotiations. But unless the 380 acres which surround Westport House are removed from the Nama portfolio in the coming days and weeks it could well be lost as a tourist attraction forever.

Sheelyn Browne, the 14th great granddaughter of Pirate Queen Grace O'Malley, is angry. Her father, the charismatic Lord Altamont, who passed away in July last year, poured his life and soul into this stunning house. His borrowings of €6.5m in 2006 to renovate the estate and keep it open to the public were relatively modest when stacked against land prices at the time.

But the economic crash hit hard and debts spiralled. Sheelyn wonders how, at the 11th hour, politicians managed to discover section 4.1.1 of the Nama Act, which lets the State purchase loans directly 'for legitimate reasons in the public interest'. If this clause is invoked Westport House could be removed from Nama - but there would still be a long road ahead.

She tells me: "It's so late in the day for the powers that be to finally take an interest. Why didn't someone tell my father about this clause before he died. He went to his grave feeling like a failure [because of the debts]. At this stage we just want this nightmare to end."

Can the Brownes somehow stay on in Westport House? It looks highly unlikely. While the local community are hoping local minister, Michael Ring, rides in through the gates on his white horse with a rescue plan funded by the taxpayer, Sheelyn tells me: "This estate has been in private ownership for 400 years, perhaps it should be in private ownership again with the right owners who have the money and vision."

Whatever happens in the coming weeks regarding Westport House the saga has led to many asking what protection, if any exists, for our historic houses? Are those in the big house one bad loan away from eviction?

While some stately homes, including Muckross House in Killarney, Fota House in Cork and Malahide Castle in Dublin, have found their way into state ownership over the years, the overwhelming majority of historic houses and homes are privately owned.

In a bid to keep the wolves from the large double-doors, owners have had to be inventive in terms of generating revenue to keep going.

Kilruddery House outside Bray has been used as a location in many well-known movies including My Left Foot, Far and Away and Angela's Ashes. In the coming weeks it will stage Halloween themed evenings, a Christmas market and Santa Claus himself will travel down the lengthy chimney.

In Slane, overlooking the River Boyne, Lord Henry Mountcharles has used his lands to create one of the most eye-catching outdoor concert venues in the world. Since 1981 acts such as the Rolling Stones, REM, U2, Queen and Bruce Springsteen have attracted hundreds of thousands to the summer concerts.

Reacting to the plight of Westport House, Lord Henry Mountcharles (inset left) told me this week: "There's a very thin line between protecting a house and its heritage and then making it commercially viable. It's a constant dance we have to endure."

In the 1980s he lobbied government and in '87 tax concessions were offered to owners of stately homes who spent money renovating their properties.

"At the time it was seen as a way of enticing people to purchase historic homes which looked like being lost otherwise. It was progressive and in that sense the state didn't stand idly by," said Mountcharles, adding "but as we see with Westport House, more supports are necessary. From a heritage and tourism viewpoint that should be obvious. Undoubtedly it's a bit of a taxing problem to say the very damn least."

When prominent Dublin barristers Edward Walsh and Constance Cassidy bought Lissadell House in Sligo for €3.75m in 2004 they knew it would take millions more to bring the former home of Constance Markievicz and Eva Gore-Booth back to its former glory.

"The total costs for our restoration project here comes to about €13m," explains Edward Walsh. "For 70 years it had been effectively neglected so we had a huge challenge which we met with our own money. There were no grants or public funding used to pay for our extensive restoration project. What we really need is something like a panel of departmental advisors to help owners to maintain and improve their properties but not build up excessive debt."

A protracted legal row with a local group regarding rights of way cast a shadow over the early years of ownership at Lissadell but now 40,000 people visit the house and gardens annually.

Edward Walsh told Review: "In 2010 we had Leonard Cohen here in concert and, of course, last year the government cabinet convened in the house which was a great honour while Prince Charles and his wife Camilla Parker Bowles visited Lissadell en route to Mullaghmore last year also.

All of that publicity certainly helps us and we're hoping to grow our annual visitor numbers to 100,000 before long."

Other historic homes have been purchased by overseas buyers in recent years with wealthy American business tycoons particularly eager to secure a posh Irish pad.

American billionaire Jim Thompson, the shipping and logistics mogul who runs Crown Worldwide Group, bought Woodhouse in Stradbally, Co Waterford during the downturn for €6.5m in 2012.

And the Victorian Gothic Humewood Castle in Kiltegan, Co Wicklow was snapped up for at estimated €8m by US media and land billionaire John Malone.

The former home of Gilbert O'Sullivan, Ravenswood, a 6,500 sq ft mansion outside Bunclody, Co Wexford, was sold in 2012 for €1.3m to a US buyer, believed to be a Texas-based lawyer.

In 2013, a Japanese hotel chain bought the Abbeville estate, the home of former Taoiseach Charles Haughey, for €5.5m.

Further south though the sale of historic Irish houses into American ownership was reversed earlier this year when Irish business man JP McManus paid an estimated €30m for the Adare Manor and Golf resort.

Its previous owner was Thomas Kane, an investment banker from Florida, who purchased the historic house in 1987 before converting it into a manor hotel.

Originally it was a two-storey seven-bay house from the early 18th century and when it passed to the second Earl of Dunraven in 1832 he began rebuilding it in the Tudor-Revival style.

Big wallets secure big houses then.

But Ian Lumley, the heritage officer with An Taisce, believes historic homes, such as Westport House, should be protected by the state.

In a letter to Brendan McDonagh, the chief executive of Nama, Lumley wrote: "A future needs to be found for Westport, which should not become part of the portfolio of a vulture investment fund to be treated or disposed of at whim."

And he recommended that "the advice and involvement of the Irish Heritage Trust be sought to put in place a solution similar to that used by the National Trust in Britain and Northern Ireland. Over a number of decades major heritage properties were transferred to the state in lieu of death duties, and then vented with the National Trust, with the original family being able to continue to reside on the estate."

For now, the Browne family and the local community in Westport anxiously wait to see if that advice will be heeded.

Lost Historic Houses

Over the decades a huge number of historic homes and castles have fallen into disrepair across Ireland and many have ended up as ruins. The crumbling walls of homes such as those mentioned below tell of former glories. But could the endangered historical houses and estates be the ruins of the future?

Clifden Castle, Galway

Built around 1818 for John D'Arcy, the founder of Clifden, it was constructed in Gothic-Revival style. In 1935 the Land Commission passed it to a local tenants group but it quickly became a ruin.

Moore Hall, Mayo

Built between 1792 and '95 by the aristocratic Irish Moore family. The house was burned down in 1923 by anti-Treaty irregular forces during the Irish Civil War because Maurice Moore was viewed as pro-Treaty.

Allenstown House, Meath

A four-storey Georgian mansion built around 1750, it was controversially demolished in 1938 after surrounding lands were sold.

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