Saturday 18 January 2020

Getting into the groove of the Big House

Killruddery House and Gardens have been revitalised by their owners, Anthony and Fionnuala Brabazon

Lady and Lord Ardee, Fionnuala and Anthony Brabazon. Photo: Mark Condren
Lady and Lord Ardee, Fionnuala and Anthony Brabazon. Photo: Mark Condren

Andrea Smith

The ultra-cool Anthony Brabazon devised a good strategy every time his girlfriend Fionnuala Aston broke up with him when they first started dating back in 2000. He would calmly suggest that they meet up the following week for a walk as they are very much outdoor types -and boom, they'd be back together.

"Anthony wasn't an obvious choice for me," admits Fionnuala, who was only 20 at the time. "He was really scruffy and had quite a bad dress sense, but I loved his shoulders and his jaw and hair. I was quite young and independent and wanted to do my own thing, and we were from different backgrounds. He was from this big Anglo-Irish house and I had preconceptions around who'd he be. Every now and again, I'd say, 'That's enough, we won't go out now', and I'd go home and bawl my eyes out. Then we'd meet for the walk and it would be back on again, because it was just better being together."

Born in Donegal to English parents, Fionnuala (38) comes sixth of Joe and Fiona Aston's nine children. The family moved to Clare when she was seven and her parents now live on Sherkin Island. She studied weaving, pottery and ceramics at Grennan Mill Crafts College in Kilkenny, and was doing fine art painting at NCAD when she met Anthony.

He was her friend Barbara's landlord in Dublin, and after she moved into the house herself, Anthony was a most attentive landlord, always willing to put up shelves, etc.

Anthony (41) is the son of Jack and Xenia, the Earl and Countess of Meath, a title that will ultimately pass to him. He and Fionnuala are now Lord and Lady Ardee. He has an older sister Corinna and a younger one, actress Serena Brabazon.

He was educated at Harrow, and then made his career initially in 3D graphics and animation for TV. He also did agricultural studies as he runs Killruddery farm. Anthony was attracted to Fionnuala as he felt that she had a "great energy and an amazing physical presence". "She was arty and bohemian and not very predictable, but there was a sensible thing going on behind it," he says.

Fionnuala liked that Anthony was very much his own man and quite individual, and she was drawn to his intelligence and sense of fun, and to his openness to different ideas. "He's strong as well, as I'm tall and quite heavy and he could lift me up," she says. "I was very attracted to this really scruffy English/Irish boy, and the surprise element left me curious."

Anthony and Fionnuala were married in Carrigaholt in 2004, and held their reception in a marquee on her parents' lawn. They now have four children, Nora (11) Aldus (eight) Aileen (four) and Evelyn (two). Having children means they aren't as carefree as before, but they're loving being parents and pretty much divide up the childminding equally.

Anthony spent his early years living in the 850-acre Killruddery, and then moved to Glenmalure with his parents. He moved back in to help his grandmother run the farm, and when he and Fionnuala were married, they lived in a wing of the house initially, while his parents were in the main house. They've now swapped, and Anthony and Fionnuala run the house, farm and gardens. Killruddery Gardens are open to the public, and when the couple first moved in, it welcomed 1,000 visitors annually. This figure has grown to 65,000 annual visitors, which is a testament to their hard work.

With her mother-in-law Xenia, Fionnuala implemented silent film nights and theatre in the garden, and held teddy bear picnics and other events. They opened a tearoom in the gardens and are planning a new cafe, and Anthony put a giant sandpit in the walled garden.

One of the things they're most excited about is the Killruddery food they produce through their farm and kitchen garden, including Lady Meath's Marmalade. They are able to supply food for events and weddings held on the premises. Killruddery Farm Market runs every Saturday from 10am-3pm, and offers fine foods, locally-sourced produce, crafts and more, with free entry and parking.

Killruddery House is 400 years old this year, and the family recently moved out for a few months as the Stephen Spielberg supernatural horror film, The Turning, was being filmed there. A modern adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, it stars Mackenzie Davis as a nanny to two orphans, who is convinced that the old mansion they live in is haunted.

Killruddery is also the location for the sixth Groove Festival, in conjunction with Energia, which has established itself as a quality bespoke music festival. Taking place over two days next weekend, there will be 24 music acts, including the Fun Lovin' Criminals, Heather Small (M People) Something Happens, Jerry Fish and The Stunning. There will also be great food, a comedy club and entertainment for children.

With such activity going on around them, there are times when Fionnuala and Anthony pass like ships, but they make an effort to spend time together as a family. "It has been an intense few years, particularly as we have four young children, but we are very much enjoying it," says Fionnuala.

Killruddery House & Gardens, Southern Cross, Bray, Co Wicklow

Groove Festival, in conjunction with Energia, takes place on Saturday and Sunday, July 7-8, at Kilruddery House & Gardens.

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