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A fairytale castle and a piece of history for €3.12m

Markree Castle in Sligo is for sale for the first time since Cromwell gifted it to the Coopers

Colonel Cooper of Markree Castle in Sligo made a point of giving his servants a good scuttle every day. The servants, we are told, were singularly unimpressed.

The lady of the house, was far more generous with her favours, but only when the colonel's back was turned.

Edward Henry Cooper's stinginess was preserved for posterity by Thomas Kilgallon, the butler of the Gore Booths, the nearby 'Big House' in Lissadell.

In his memoir of his decades in service in the late-19th century, Kilgallon recalled his chilly visits to the neighbouring castle at Collooney in County Sligo with sniffy disapproval. "The Colonel was very stingy over fires," Kilgallon wrote. "The servant department was allowed only one scuttle per day. There were constant rows amongst them as they stole from each other."

According to Kilgallon, Mrs Cooper was more liberal with the coals and, because of that, her husband wouldn't let her anywhere near them.


The carved oak staircase in Markree Castle's upper hall

The carved oak staircase in Markree Castle's upper hall

Open fire at the foot of the staircase of Markree Castle

Open fire at the foot of the staircase of Markree Castle

The stained glass windows at Markree Castle, Sligo

The stained glass windows at Markree Castle, Sligo

Bedroom in Markree Castle, Sligo

Bedroom in Markree Castle, Sligo

The grand staircase at Markree Castle

The grand staircase at Markree Castle

Large dining area at Markree Castle, Sligo

Large dining area at Markree Castle, Sligo

The Johnny Cash Room at Markree Castle, Sligo

The Johnny Cash Room at Markree Castle, Sligo


The carved oak staircase in Markree Castle's upper hall

And being Scrooge with the heating had serious consequences - the lowest air-temperature reading ever recorded in Ireland was taken at Markree, site of one of Ireland's longest-standing weather stations. On January 16, 1881, during the colonel's coal-pinching pinnacle, it hit minus 19.1°C.

Kilgallon also complained that the Markree pheasants were allowed to grow too tame, and would peck at the shooters' legs. "Neither the Colonel or Mrs Cooper were popular," he declared.

But, if Cooper was 'old king no-coal' at the castle, perhaps he had good reason to be. The military man had left the service in the early 1860s to inherit his uncle's vast 30,000-acre estate and family seat in Sligo. The house had been castellated in the early 1800s to a design by Francis Johnson, the architect who designed the GPO. Now, the colonel was expected to make his mark.

The first thing he did was to engage the prestigious Scots architect, James Maitland Wardrop, to further enlarge the place. The frontage was doubled in the Gothic Revival style and, judging by the opulent grandeur and elaborate expensive workmanship we see today, the renovation bills must have been simply enormous.

Markree Castle at Collooney is way more elaborate and fantasy-like inside than most Irish castles. And it hasn't changed hands - unless you count father to son and uncle to nephew - for more than 350 years. It's also huge: more than 40,000 sq ft, or 40 times the size of an average semi. But now, after 10 generations, the castle and 225 acres of land are on the market for €3.125m.

Today, Markree owes its survival to Charles and Mary Cooper, who have run it as a popular niche hotel for the last 25 years and are famed for their generous hospitality.

Back in 1988, the great house featured on the cover of Vanishing Country Houses of Ireland, an extraordinary photo catalogue of conservation shame, detailing ruined and crumbling manses nationwide. The cover featured a shot of Markree's great hall with rubble strewn on the floor and a huge hole where the remarkable ribbed cathedral-like ceiling had collapsed.

Markree had lain empty for many years after World War II, and by this time it was being used as a set for the TV series, Troubles, which starred Sean Bean. It prophetically centred on a couple's efforts to transform an inherited, ruined grand family house in Ireland into a hotel.

There were many theatrical modifications, including, as the current owners recall, "plywood turrets" and a statue of Queen Victoria that disappeared after the shoot, only to turn up later in a neighbour's garden covered in fairy lights.

The following year in 1989, before its dereliction became irrevocable, Charles Cooper came to the rescue of Markree. Having been in the hospitality business for years, he acquired the house from his brother with the intention of restoring it and running it as a hotel.

The work was extensive and expensive - family photos of the restoration process show an example of dry rot "so fabulous it was shipped to Australia for a dry rot conference" - but it was done quickly, and the hotel opened for business that year.

Markree Castle has since been operated as a relaxed hotel, where you can put your wellies on the furniture and have your dog in the bed with you. Some guests seem to dislike this arrangement; others love it.

Among those to have put their boots up was Johnny Cash, who stayed for a memorable Halloween weekend with his wife June in 1990. During his stay, he happily wandered the grounds, dressed up as a native American Indian (for a costume party), poured himself pints of Guinness and recorded a music video in which he duetted 'Woodcarver' with Sandy Kelly on the grand Victorian hand-carved oak staircase. His suite is now "The Johnny Cash Room" and the video is on YouTube.

It all started back with Cornet Edward Cooper, who was given Markree Castle and estate as a show of thanks for all the sterling work he did in helping Oliver Cromwell defeat the O'Brien clan in the mid-17th century.

In this case, though, the O'Briens may have been the victors in the long run. After her husband's death, it is said that Conor O'Brien's widow, the infamous Máire Rua, offered to marry any Cromwellian soldier who would adopt her two sons, to protect them from being disinherited by the English laws that took property away from the locals. The Cornet Cooper by all accounts obliged, and Máire Rua's sons - Conor O'Brien's sons - took the Cooper name.

If that's true, then you could say that Charles Cooper, the current owner of Markree Castle, is no descendant of a Cromwellian usurper but an O'Brien, with direct lineage from the vanquished high kings of Ireland.

The 'castle' was built in 1802, replacing, and incorporating in places, an earlier Cooper residence known by the phonetically similar name of 'Mercury'. Francis Johnston, who did the work, also styled the GPO. Later under the colonel, it was enlarged and renovated further in the glorious Gothic Revival style.

And this, folks, is a real fairytale castle, complete with grand staircase, towers flying about, battlements, crenellations, a porte-cochere and a chapel.

The National Inventory of Architectural Heritage describes Markree Castle's interior as "opulently decorated in florid classical style". The carved-oak staircase in the upper hall is dominated by a massive stained-glass window depicting the Cooper family tree from the time of King John to the Victorian age. The wow factor is enormous.

Off the upper hall is the bar, with a mullioned window overlooking the Unshin River. Also at this level are the drawing room and three reception rooms, decorated with gold leaf and Louis XIV-style plasterwork. Today, there are vast open coal-fed and roaring fireplaces all over.

At hall level and on the two floors above are the 30 ensuite guest bedrooms. The lower ground floor consists of pantries, staff rooms, and store rooms, as well as the original kitchens and cellars. There is recent planning permission to convert this level into a restaurant and function rooms.

There are formal terraced gardens to the front of the house, facing the river, with walkways, a pond, lawns, and a Victorian rockery. The grounds include woodland walks and a riverside landing place with the remains of a Victorian boathouse.

With the Cooper family now retiring from the business, Markree is ready for a new dynasty for the first time in 350 years.

The property is for sale for €3,125,000 with Ganly Walters (01 662 3255) which expects it to be bought as a hideaway private castle home by a super-rich individual (a la Enya), or developed further as a castle hotel.

Indo Property