Saturday 17 March 2018

Property Bulletin: Ireland's castles and country estates have been taken over by a modern aristocracy

Humewood Castle, the 19th Century Gothic mansion on 450 acres in County Wicklow acquired for more than €7m by media billionaire John Malone, also America's biggest private land owner
Humewood Castle, the 19th Century Gothic mansion on 450 acres in County Wicklow acquired for more than €7m by media billionaire John Malone, also America's biggest private land owner
Tony Ryan

Laim Collins

It seems like a different world, when the local aristocrat was an impoverished peer who sat in the House of Lords for a few weeks every year to pick up a modest stipend and then arrived back to his crumbling Irish castle to hunt, drink and make a half-hearted attempt to shore up a leaking roof or stop the locals cutting down the last of his oak woods.

Generally red-faced and dressed in tweeds, they poked a few animals at the local agricultural show while their wives adjudicated in the raspberry jam and sponge cake competition among the ladies.

They are the characters immortalised by the poet John Betjeman:

'O'er the graves of his forebears the nettle is stealing

And few will remember the sad Irish Lord.'

But now, a new type of aristocrat has taken over the Palladian mansions of the forgotten dukes, the castles of the baronets and the country houses which once played host to the hunt on frosty November mornings.

Read more: Property Bulletin: The big spenders

These are the online millionaires and billionaires, the media moguls with Irish names, who want family history and a country seat to go with their wealth, and a small number of nimble, newly minted Irish businessmen who picked up stately bargains during the gloomy days following the financial collapse.

But will the new breed of Irish aristocrat bring much-needed colour back to the Irish countryside, or will they simply fly in by private jet for a weekend party that won't take them outside the high-stone walls of their Irish retreats?

Who knows? Most of them are still settling in to their new estates. But one thing is certain, their retreats will be kitted out to the last, unlike many of the previous owners, who lived in draughty Irish piles with soft rain seeping through the roof and damp rising through the cold flag floor of the cellars.

If nothing else, the hospitality and bloodstock industry will certainly benefit. The bigger purchases will be turned into luxury hotels, while the trophy country estates will be harnessed for the equine industry.

An acquaintance was reminiscing recently about the famous Galway 'Blazers' hunt - explaining how they would start off in Tyrone House on the shores of Galway Bay and hunt through the countryside until they got to Tulirea Castle, the seat of the Hemphill's in Ardrahan. The 'Blazers' would carouse through the night before proceeding to Lough Cutra Castle, a massive pile near Gort where Prince Charles recently spent the night. And so on, until they arrived sated at the O'Brien's castle at Dromland in CoClare.

While the new aristocracy might have the money, they would hardly have the energy or inclination for such extravagant adventures.

The first great buyers of big country homes after the Anglo Irish Treaty were the religious orders. They snapped up treasures like Ballyfin, in Co Laois, Moore Abbey, Co Kildare, Faithlegg in Co Waterford, Kylemore Abbey in Connemara and, on the Protestant side, Headfort in Co Meath. Many of these have been off-leaded since the decline of religion and have been turned into hotels.

But it was left to American media magnets and some canny Irish businessmen who survived the downturn to kick-start the country-home market following the collapse of the Irish economy.

It was really the Comer brothers - a pair of plasterers from Glenamaddy, Co Galway who made good in England and Germany - who revived the big-house market in 2012 when they picked up Jim Mansfield's Palmerstown House near Naas, Co Kildare, ancestral home of Lord Mayo. It went on the market at €12m, but they are reputed to have got it for less than €8m. This was a commercial, rather than personal, transaction, as Jim Mansfield had bought the house from the last owner, US heiress Mrs Anne Biddle-Bullet, and converted it into a luxury golf course. The Comers, Brian and Luke, have since picked up the Courtown estate near Kilcock, also in Co Kildare.

Then came the fabulously wealthy John Malone of Liberty Global, which last week picked up independent television station TV3.

Read more: Property Bulletin: Central Bank 'doing nothing to stop banks fleecing homeowners'

His first purchase was the massive Victorian pile Humewood Castle, near Kiltegan, Co Wicklow, and he followed that with Castlemartin near Kilcullen, whose most famous owner, Sir Tony O'Reilly, bought it from Lord Gowrie. He is also believed to have invested in other Irish property.

The Getty estate on Lough Derg was bought by an Irish couple based in the US, while another Lough Derg property, St David's, went to an Irish-American couple, and Slevoir near Terryglass went to yet another jet-setting American couple.

An as yet unnamed, but exceedingly wealthy, American family is also believed to have bought Tony Ryan's lavishly restored Lyons Demesne near Celbridge, Co Kildare. The Ryanair founder is said to have spent an estimated €100 million on the former estate of Lord Cloncurry, but the property was off-loaded by his heirs, Declan and Shane Ryan, for an estimated €25m in 2014.

Jim Thompson, a New Jersey-born Hong Kong-based billionaire and his wife Sally snapped up Woodhouse Estate near the village of Stradbally. Once viewed as a possible Irish retreat by the singer Michael Jackson, the Thompson's got a Georgian mansion and 350 acres for €6.5m.

Thompson, who made his fortune specialising in relocating executives for global companies, came across the property, once owned by Lord Waterford, when visiting Ireland to research his family history.

While the wealthy British and Chinese buyers fiddled around but didn't buy, some thinking they could get a better bargain, it was really the Irish and the Americans who made the running at the top end of the property ladder in recent years.

Among the new Irish property aristocrats is Charles Noell 111 (63), who made his fortune as co-founder of JMI Equity partners, a private equity firm which invested in various businesses from the San Diego Padres baseball team to stud farms in Kentucky.

Noell bought Ardbraccan House, a stately pile on 120 acres near Navan, Co Meath for €5m in 2013.

Once the palace of the Protestant bishops of Meath, Dean Swift was involved in the early planning of the house, which was eventually built to a design of Richard Castle, architect of Leinster House.

Read more: Property Bulletin: Prices may be both rising and falling on the same street - cue confusion

Noell - who has withdrawn an appeal against a decision by Meath County Council not to allow a lift (something that must have amazed the American) in a house with 82 steps from basement to second floor of a five-storey mansion - said the lack of such a modern convenience would make it difficult for his elderly parents to visit his Irish retreat.

Noell, who is based in Austin, Texas has incorporated Merriebelle Irish Farms in Ireland, among the directors is solicitor Ivor Fitzpatrick of Castle Howard in Co Wicklow.

It isn't only country piles that the Americans are finding attractive. Dr Joe Elias, who studied medicine in the College of Surgeons in Dublin and made his fortune as founder of a company that specialises in online in-flight shopping, is believed to have recently paid €7.5m for Strathmore, a mansion on extensive grounds in the Dublin suburb of Killiney.

Another famous Irish house, Tulira Castle and 265 acres near Ardrahan, Co Galway, was bought by Niall Turley, who, along with his brother Greg, founded the car-hire software company CarTrawler.

Niall Turley and his wife Sinead live in some style in Rathgar, Dublin and intend to use the Galway castle, ancestral home of Lord Hemphill, as a stylish weekend and holiday retreat.

But there are still plenty of mansions scattered around Ireland awaiting new aristocratic owners, some of which can be picked up for the price of a Dublin terraced house with sea views.

Bellamont Forest, described by Mark Bence-Jones as "one of the most perfect examples in the British Isles of a Palladian Villa" near Coothill, Co Cavan is still on the market.

Minister for Children James Reilly is selling his Loughton estate in Co Offaly, while the ancestral pile of the Lefroy family (with cow sheds by James Gandon) in Longford, is also on the market after a failed attempt to turn it into a golf course.

Capard, an impressive mansion in the Slieve Bloom mountains in Laois is on the market, as is Quinsborough in Ardnacrusha, Co Clare - once owned by various members of the Dunraven and Headfort families.

As for the new aristocracy - they're hardly likely to be immortalised in poetry in the way that John Betjeman did for the impoverished Irish aristocracy. They are also unlikely to engage in such manly pursuits as getting drunk at the Hunt Ball or horsewhipping the unruly natives.

But they are certain to enjoy leisurely pursuits such as racing, fishing, showing off their new status to friends, and saving some of the remaining Irish country houses for the generations to come.

Irish Independent

Business Newsletter

Read the leading stories from the world of Business.

Also in Business