Tuesday 17 September 2019

From high life to high court, saga of the €20m mansion and changing fortunes

A dispute over the Castletown Cox estate follows a long history of intrigue and riches, writes Liam Collins

Castletown Cox, near Piltown, Co Kilkenny
Castletown Cox, near Piltown, Co Kilkenny
Lord Magan. Picture: Fiona Hanson/PA Images via Getty Images
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

As he served with British Intelligence in Persia and later Palestine, Bill Magan dreamed of the hunting fields of Westmeath which he had abandoned to go to war, and of re-establishing himself in Ireland in the style of an old Gaelic chieftain.

The Magans of Umma-more, a townland between the villages of Moate and Ballymore, on the edge of Moyvoughly bog, were said to be descended from the ancient Gaelic MacDermott Roe clan and over the centuries, had acquired castles, manor houses and estates stretching to 20,000 acres across Meath, Westmeath and Offaly.

In the end, it wasn't Bill Magan who re-established the connection with his homeland, but he did live to see one of his two surviving sons, George, a highly successful London banker and former Deputy Governor of the Bank of Ireland, make a triumphant return to one of the most sumptuously restored mansions in the country.

Lord George Magan of Castletown settled not in the Midlands like his ancestors, but in the splendid surrounding of Castletown Cox, a 513-acre estate once owned by the Earl of Dunraven, in the fertile lands on the Kilkenny/Waterford border near Carrick-on-Suir.

He not only meticulously restored the great Palladian pile but also filled its rooms with Old Masters and other treasures - only to then see it go 'sale agreed' for €20m last August by the Castletown Foundation Ltd, a Jersey-administered trust which he himself had established.

The sale of the most splendid stately home in private hands in Ireland went through, even though it was opposed by the Lord of the Manor and the Edgehill Trust, established by Lord Magan for the benefit of his two children, Edward and Henrietta.

The intended buyer has paid off a €14.5m borrowing secured on the property by a finance company, Sancus Jersey, in anticipation of closing the sale and to prevent what the Castletown Foundation believes would be a "fire sale" of the great house.

In the High Court in Dublin last Wednesday, the saga got even sorrier for the wealthy Conservative Party donor and his wife Wendy, who live in a £7m (€7.9m) pad at Cambridge Place, Kensington, London. Mr Justice Robert Haughton ruled that the Castletown Foundation Ltd is entitled to summary judgment for €571,893 against Lord Magan in respect of rent arrears which have accumulated since he put Castletown Cox into a trust and rented it back for his own use.

For a man who values his privacy to such an extent that he wouldn't reveal who was behind the fabulous restoration of the mansion, and whose wealth was once estimated at between €68m and €226m, depending on which Rich List you read, this publicity could only have come as a double blow.

But it certainly adds another layer to the already colourful history of both the Magan family and Castletown Cox.

One ancestor, Francis Magan, a barrister, is credited with betraying Lord Edward Fitzgerald to the authorities in Dublin Castle, leading to Fitzgerald's capture and death. Another ancestor, William Magan known as ''The Magnificent'' of Clonearl, Co Offaly, cemented the family fortunes by marrying heiress Elizabeth Loftus of Killyon, Co Meath, and in turn, their only daughter, Elizabeth Georgina Magan, lived like a miser while filling her homes with a mixture of treasures and trash.

The house at the centre of the drama, Castletown Cox, was built of stone and Kilkenny marble on lands owned by the Duke of Ormond between 1767 and 1771 for Michael Cox, the Archbishop of Cashel. It passed to the Villiers-Stuart family and was sold in 1926 by the Earl of Dunraven when he moved into the family seat in Adare, Co Limerick.

The son of Major-General E.R. Blacque sold it to the self-styled 'Baron' Brian de Breffny, the bisexual son of a London taxi driver who was born Brian Lees. He settled there with his adopted aristocratic title, and his exotic second wife, Ulli, and is credited locally with saving the house which was then in a state of disrepair. De Breffny, author of Castles of Ireland, was said to have hosted lavish parties at Castletown Cox which lasted for days, replete with champagne and caviar, and where the servants witnessed decadence on an epic scale.

This wistful longing of the Magans for a return to their ancestral homeland appears to have been fostered by William 'Bill' Magan who wrote the acclaimed book, Umma-More: The story of an Irish family, which the writer Charles Lysaght described as "a social history" that "narrated their evolution over succeeding generations into members of the Anglo-Irish Protestant ascendency".

After an idyllic Irish childhood, William 'Bill' Magan was sent to public school in England, returning briefly in 1938 to Killyon Manor near Hill-of-Down, Co Meath where he became Master of the Westmeath hunt. Fluent in Farsi, he served with distinction in Persia during the war, preventing German infiltration of Afghanistan and India. Afterwards he rose through the British Intelligence service to become Director of F Branch (counter subversion) and C Branch (protective security division) of MI5 before his retirement in 1968.

He had four sons, two of whom died before his death at the age of 101 in January, 2010.

His son George, a banker and financier, is said to have made €22.6m alone from the sale of London's Hambro Magan bank. He bought Castletown Cox in 1999 after it had lain idle for many years after the ''Baron'' died of cancer at the age of 58. The restoration of the mansion took several years to complete and although Lord Magan, his wife Wendy and their children Edward and Henrietta kept a low profile, they are said to have ridden out with the local hunt, the Kilmoganny Harriers. Because of his international business and Irish connections, George Magan was appointed to the ''Court'' of the Bank of Ireland in 2003 and succeeded telecoms tycoon Denis O'Brien as Deputy Governor in 2008, when the share price was €15.46. He resigned with other members of the board following the financial collapse and the Government bail-out.

In 2005, Lord Magan established the Castletown Foundation Ltd. The Castletown Foundation became the owner of Castletown Cox and Lord Magan rented it and a licence to use the fine art hanging on its walls for €100,000 a year. But the Foundation claims that the upkeep of the house costs €500,000 a year and Lord Magan, who was raised to the peerage on the advice of then British prime minister David Cameron in 2011, hadn't paid the rent since 2013. The Foundation then discontinued his tenancy. He counter-claimed that he had spent €361,000 of his own money on its upkeep.

The case has transfixed the last of the 'bluebloods' living in Irish historic homes. The High Court was told last month that Lord Magan regularly used Castletown Cox prior to his tenancy being revoked. Then on May 23 last, a "large gang" cut chains to the gates and forcibly took control of the estate when Lord Magan wasn't there.

At a High Court hearing in October, Mr Rossa Fanning SC said that Lord Magan was in "straitened financial circumstances" and had obtained a loan from a fellow peer, Lord Ashcroft, to stave off a bankruptcy application in London. Lord Magan confirmed to The Daily Mail that he was in dispute with Bank of Ireland "over certain financial arrangements that have been in place for some time" and he expected the matter to be settled:"Our family net worth is very substantial and I am sure that with a constructive approach matters between myself and Bank of Ireland can be resolved satisfactorily."

Things have moved on inexorably since then and Lord Magan and his family have been forced to retreat from what is arguably one of the most beautiful homes in Ireland to their English domain. Bizarrely, the matter of the cancelled tenancy of Castletown Cox and Lord Magan will be adjudicated by the Residential Tenancies Board.

Sunday Independent

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