Saturday 24 August 2019

'My home was my castle' - 842 year era is over as Howth Castle and Demesne is sold

Former fund manager and heir to Howth Castle has just sold the huge Demesne, a difficult but logical decision

Julian Gaisford-St Lawrence believes Howth Castle is in safe hands following its sale
Photo: Frank McGrath
Julian Gaisford-St Lawrence believes Howth Castle is in safe hands following its sale Photo: Frank McGrath

Fearghal O'Connor

Julian Gaisford-St Lawrence is recounting the central role of Thomas St Lawrence, the third Earl of Howth's part in the foundation of Irish horseracing in the mid-1800s, when a voice can be heard calling loudly from somewhere beyond in the musty halls of the otherwise silent Howth Castle.

He looks up with mild concern from an old painting of his esteemed forebear towards where the sound of his own name is ringing out, growing louder and louder. Thankfully it is not the sound of the dead generations of Gaisfords and St Lawrences, whose portraits crowd the walls, admonishing their descendent from the grave.

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Instead, his wife Anne dashes into the room, out of breath, relieved to have found him.

"They've been looking for you all morning, your phone was off and they need you to sign," she says, apologising profusely for the interruption to a conversation that has jumped from the slaying of 12th century Vikings by Gaisford-St Lawrence's Norman ancestors as they conquered Howth to his days away from here in the 1980s as a fund manager in the cut-throat world of London finance.

Howth Castle is a building in which it is easy to get lost but Gaisford-St Lawrence knows every creaking floorboard, every tall tale, and every artefact collected by the family over eight centuries, including a magnificent rare 1735 portrait of Jonathan Swift, a regular visitor to the estate.

As eldest son and 30th heir to inherit the 530-acre estate and castle, Julian Gaisford-St Lawrence was born into a magnificent inheritance which brought with it a huge sense of responsibility. Now after years of deliberation the culmination of that responsibility had arrived.

"They need you to sign the papers," says Anne. And so, with a flustered apology, he dashes off to meet the solicitors to finally sign over the estate to Irish investment group Tetrarch Capital for an undisclosed - but doubtless very large - sum.

***

Tetrarch's approach two years ago presented an opportunity to sell the estate to a single investor which the family believes will maintain its history, heritage and iconic status. The investment firm - which previously bought Mount Juliet - is working on a masterplan for the entire Demesne. It is planning a luxury hotel, championship golf course and new leisure centre, as well as some property, retail and sports and recreational amenities, all with strong access and links to Howth Village.

It was, said Gaisford-St Lawrence, an ideal solution but still not an easy decision: "It was emotionally difficult. I needed to bring all generations of my family along through this process,"

His father, aged 89, still lives in the opposite wing of the castle and will continue to live there for the rest of his days.

"My father has been here involved in the running of the place since the mid-1950s. Undoubtedly, he considerably prolonged our tenure by his investment in golf. It didn't, in retrospect, solve the whole thing but it certainly gave us another period. We could very easily have been Malahide in 1974," he says, referring to the sale of that castle to the State by the Talbot family.

In the early 1970s, his father Christopher was still running the dairy farm on an estate that once stretched across 10,000 acres of what is now Dublin's northside, from St Anne's Park, through Raheny, Killester and Baldoyle.

"By the '70s the dairy farm was not particularly profitable. The real family occupation was to sell off a few acres every couple of years for development. So my father decided to convert land at the top of the hill into a golf course."

The golf plans quickly expanded down the hill when the family feared a compulsory purchase order was imminent for the expansion of a nearby housing estate to within 300 yards of the castle.

"To make sure it wasn't compulsorily acquired, my father turned it into a public golf course - the first in Ireland. It opened up golf to a whole section of the population that hadn't played the game before and couldn't get into other clubs."

A hotel, the Deer Park, soon followed on a magnificent site overlooking Dublin Bay.

"He built the hotel because at that time it cost IR£30,000 to buy a bar licence. But for about IR£35,000 he managed to build a 22-bedroom hotel and got the licence anyhow. With the turnover from the golf and the bar he discovered that golf was considerably more profitable than dairy farming so he gradually increased the size of the golf offering and upgraded the hotel."

As a young man, Julian Gaisford-St Lawrence had gone to school and college in England and spent 19 years working as a fund manager in the City of London. He returned to Howth in 1999 to begin taking responsibility for his inheritance as the eldest son, when his father turned 70.

"My son had also turned six and I wanted him educated in Ireland rather than going through the London school system. We took a decision to make a change. It was some change. But it was a change we knew we were going to have to make. It was also a change a lot of people I knew in the City knew we were going to have to make and that was probably having an effect on my career because I was in a reasonably senior fund management position."

The golf business was still going strongly, with people sometimes arriving at 2am to stay overnight in the car park to get a Saturday morning tee time on the course. But in 2008 that all changed.

"Our customer base tended to be self-employed taxi men, plumbers, fitters, people in the construction industry, who were all particularly hard hit during the recession. You didn't have to look too far to see why they weren't playing golf."

Turnover fell 30pc as recession bit deep and high-end courses like the K Club slashed prices. Tastes too were changing, with men less willing to leave their families for a day of golf on a Saturday. Even when a recovery of sorts began in 2011, it was washed away by a dreadful summer of bad weather in 2012. The hotel also needed modernisation and finally closed its doors in 2014 after plans to lease it out as a nursing home were abandoned.

"I think that summer of bad weather in 2012 accelerated a social trend away from golf that was going to happen anyway," he says.

"We have a certain amount of investments and we were selling investments to keep the whole thing going. That is not a long-term strategy. The fund manager side of my brain was telling me this was not going to work long-term."

As the economy improved, the opportunity grew to do something radical with the huge estate. He feared that doing nothing meant storing up huge problems for his own son, the next in line.

"I needed my father to come to the same conclusion… and he has. I give great credit to him for doing so. He was brought up to inherit the castle, to be the heir, and perish the thought that you should sell it. But at some point you have got to recognise that times move on. The castle itself has had to be reinvented every 50 to 100 years. This is another phase of reinvention and it is logical."

But making the decision to sell was nevertheless very difficult for everyone in the family.

"I too was brought up that it was the wrong thing to do. So emotionally I felt I was doing the wrong thing, whereas the fund manager in me and the logical thinker in me was saying that if I did not do this now I would have to do it when I was 80 and that was not going to be any easier. This is something that had to happen at some point.

"In some ways it would be easier if it wasn't a decision, if the manager from Bank of Ireland had rung up and said 'You might think you are selling it, but actually we are'. We certainly weren't in that sort of situation, but it would have taken the responsibility and the decision away."

***

Later in the afternoon, Gaisford-St Lawrence pulls up at the castle yard in his 2007 Japanese imported car, returning from his earlier dash across town to the solicitors to sign the papers that have ended his family's ownership of the estate. "I did the car dealer a favour with this one... it had been sitting in his yard for some time," he jokes.

He leads the way through a side door into a relatively small modernised wing of the castle in which he and his wife live. Outside, a gardener tends a sunken garden designed by the renowned British architect Edwin Lutyens, who remodelled large parts of the castle in 1910. But once inside this wing of the castle it feels almost like just another suburban home on the well-to-do peninsula, with its tasteful decor, homely clutter and wifi router on the kitchen counter.

A distant chainsaw is the only noise interrupting the heavy silence that pervades the castle. The kettle boils and goes cold as he talks with restrained passion about the rationale for the deal, carefully pondering every word in an accent as evocative as his name.

"In an ideal world there would be another rich man who wanted to live in Howth Castle. They don't exist. So the usage of the house as a private estate has come to an end essentially. So then you have got to identify who there is out there who might do a decent job of taking it on. This place has very considerable opportunities. I can see why Tetrarch want to buy it. They plan to build a much higher grade of hotel on the site of the present one. It's a fantastic site. Getting to that bigger vision is going to be quite an expensive journey. And I'm a hotelier by default. I'm a better - or at least I was - a better fund manager."

So what is he going to do with the money from the sale? It is not a subject he is comfortable discussing and he pauses so long that the question almost floats off into the turrets above.

"Well you are not going to come and suddenly find two top-of-the-range Mercedes outside the house because basically it doesn't do it for me. Wealth is something that is very nice if you have it, but it is not something to brag about. We, of course, will be in a situation to do things like buy flats for my children."

Tetrarch provided that opportunity and, now, with the deal done, life carries on.

"No, I don't think the ghosts of the past admonish me," he says.

But he would feel admonished if he had got himself into, for example, a situation where there were debts that could not be paid, he says.

The family, he says, could have sold off different parts of the estate in a piecemeal way.

"But we decided the right way to do this was to do a deal with one person who would masterplan the whole estate and create an integrated tourist resort, investing the sort of money that, if I went to the bank and asked them to borrow, they would get the men in white coats out to take me away."

Selling now will secure the family's long legacy and contribution to the area.

"We have always had a very close relationship with the community, albeit in the past a rather patriarchal one. This will ensure the structure of the castle is kept and attract a lot of people to come and enjoy it. To do that you have to invest quite a substantial amount of money. I would rather let Tetrarch get on with doing that using the expertise they have developed on other historical resorts they have been involved in rather than let the whole thing fall down around my ears before handing on the problem to my son to sort out when it is a markedly worse problem then it is now.

"This is a large house, an important part of Ireland's heritage, that features in the opening lines of Finnegans Wake. It is in reasonably good repair. But if we continued to run the place, ran it into the ground, allowed the house to deteriorate markedly, I don't think we would be doing us as a family any favours, the local community any favours and we certainly wouldn't be doing the national heritage any favours."

He strongly believes the expertise and the investment Tetrarch will put into the estate will create a magnificent tourism resource for the city but also allow the people of Howth continued easy access to the estate.

Despite this long-standing open-door policy, as children he and his siblings did not mix with other local children from the nearby village.

"There was a certain distance," he says.

But childhood in the castle was "quite fun" with his two sisters and brother: "There was not a large staff by the standards of what there had been but there were maids, Nellie and Kathleen, and Mrs Rankin who did the cooking and doled out plates that needed licking. It wasn't quite Downton Abbey. Those days ceased with my great uncle's death. Even he thought he had economised enormously… getting down to 12 gardeners," he says with the hearty laughter that regularly punctuates his reminisces.

He remembers Mr Russell, the head gardener, asking his mother each morning which vegetable she would like for lunch.

"I have always recognised I am very fortunate to have been born in the circumstances which I am. In my experience, people who have made their own money tend to be more convinced of their own superiority than people who have inherited it through the accident of birth. I'm actually a very shy person and sometimes it was difficult to overcome the barriers that come from where you have been brought up.

"One of my ancestors complained in the late 16th century that he was regarded as an Englishman in Ireland and an Irishman in England," he says. "Coming from a background 500 years later that has embraced both cultures it is not that significantly different."

But the sale marks the end of that phase for the family, he says.

"My son could easily come back and live in Howth. He is different to me. He was brought up entirely in Ireland and went to the junior school at Sutton Park and had quite a lot of friends locally. They've had more of a normal Irish upbringing. Yes, they lived in a castle and I think they enjoyed living in a castle. They took over a sitting room as a playroom and they would have in their friends who were ordinary Irish middle-class kids."

The parents of those friends work in the many and varied types of jobs found sprinkled around any north Dublin housing estate, he says.

"Nice people, but not from the same Anglo-Irish background that I come from. My children have had an upbringing that is much more integrated into the locality than my own was. Their mother Christine is sadly dead, but her family came from a French diplomatic background and so they have had a more European upbringing. My father's generation were part of a dwindling Anglo-Irish clique with a few Irish friends but not many. It was a world that had it's time. The environment in which Thomas and Alix [Julian's son and daughter] have grown up in has given them a much greater ability to get on. I'm quite proud of the way Christine and I have brought them up."

The family will now spend the next two years untangling themselves from the castle.

"We have worked up various protocols on an amicable basis with Tetrarch and we'll need to work our way out of the castle in what you might describe as on orderly fashion. There is massive quantities of furniture, books, china. We will be selling some things and we have artefacts that are of interest to the State and we will talk to the State about them."

He is thinking about relocating to south Co Meath or north Co Kildare, where he has a lot of friends involved in racing. Perhaps he could buy Michael O'Leary's Gigginstown operation, another empire seemingly been wound up?

"I could, yeah," he says, contemplating the idea the way Vikings might have watched Normans coming across the sea. "That is quite a way of turning a large fortune into a small one."

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