Family fortunes - the highs and lows of owning a historic house
Think living in a Big House is all champagne and truffles? Think again. Tanya Sweeney meets the latest generation of custodians of Ireland's great houses
The great houses of Ireland are like swans, all grace and ease on the surface, while underneath the owners are paddling furiously to keep the roof intact and the heating on.
Take, for instance, Glin Castle in Co Limerick. For 700 years it has been owned by the same family, the FitzGeralds. And each generation has been faced with the task of keeping the estate intact, the land productive and the taxes paid.
Desmond FitzGerald, the 29th Knight of Glin, was a former curator at the Victoria and Albert, who spent a lifetime fighting for and writing about the conservation of Ireland's architectural history. He died in 2011.
Recently, the latest generation of guardians took over the running of the castle. No doubt, the decision wasn't taken lightly. Landscape architect Catherine FitzGerald and her actor husband Dominic West and family are easing themselves into the role and have brought a scattering of Hollywood glamour with them (queen of fashion Anna Wintour is rumoured to be due to visit).
"She is a great friend and we visit her every year, and she's been really interested in the [renovation] project," explains FitzGerald. "Now that we're definitely up and running she's been really keen to come."
Of the idea that Glin Castle could well become a celebrity Mecca once more, FitzGerald says: "I don't know, but one good thing is that [Dominic] is in a good position to promote the castle in the States. Well-known Americans love coming to Ireland and finding their roots, and he's in a good position to be able to do some marketing and PR in that regard."
The castle was put up for sale in 2015 at €6.5m but withdrawn last year when the idea of redeveloping it as a boutique hotel resurfaced. Now, it is available for events and rentals, among other strategies to help the historic house pay its way.
"It felt really heartbreaking and soul destroying," FitzGerald said of the moment that the castle went on the market. "It seemed impossible to avert. But then a few things happened which gave me the confidence, step by step, to piece a path forward. [Renovation] has been a gradual process, but right now we're in a very good position. I feel very calm, like this could actually work."
"It costs a fortune just to keep the roof on," West is quoted as saying. And this is something that many of the families who own Ireland's Big Houses and castles can relate to.
Yet the new generation is mixing entrepreneurial flair - not to mention, in some cases, the odd tax relief incentive and State funding - to ensure their magnificent family homes survive for another generation.
The scale of the contribution these houses, castles and gardens make to the tourism market is surprising. Failte Ireland figures show that in 2014, nearly three million overseas tourists visited house and castle destinations, with 1.9m visiting gardens. Of the domestic tourist market, 26pc visited houses and castles and 21pc visited gardens - that compares to the 18pc who took part in water sport activities and 7pc in golf.
Yet of the thousands of Big Houses and castles that existed down the centuries, it is thought that only 500 now remain. Between 30 and 40 of them are still lived in by the families that have owned them for centuries.
Donough Cahill, director of the Irish Georgian Society, has observed the innovations carried out by younger generations, determined not to let themselves be the one forced into selling the family heritage.
"There are a number of initiatives available to them - a significant one is Section 482 (of the Taxes Consolidation Act, 1997, which provides tax relief to the owner/occupier of an approved building, or an approved garden, in respect of expenditure incurred on its repair, maintenance or restoration)," he explains. "What is also important is funding through government grant schemes. In 2016, the Government launched a new conservation initiative, the Built Heritage Investment Scheme.
Failte Ireland has also recently given the OPW a capital package and funding to tell the stories of various sites along Ireland's Ancient East. Some 25 specific tourist sites have been grant-aided to upgrade their facilities, and more than a thousand tourism providers have been trained in the Ancient East brand.
For now, the current Big House residents can only hope that their progeny will carry on their good, if gruelling, work.
'My dad jokes about going from having a butler to being a butler'
Over in Monaghan, Hilton Park owner Fred Madden recalls seeing the "end of the whole Downton Abbey experience" with his grandparents. When his father Johnny lost his dairy herd to disease, the family decided to open their house to the public, and opened a B&B in 1987.
"My dad jokes about going from having a butler to being a butler," Fred laughs.
For now, he, his wife Joanna and four children live in the house. Fred trained as a chef and moved home from London, where he has put his skill-set to good use serving superb food, much of it grown on the estate, to guests. He is the ninth generation of the family to live in Hilton Park.
"It's a great lie, but it's always in the back of your mind that what we earn, the estate survives on year by year. We're a small business in a big house. You're aware you have to sing for your supper to make the place pay."
'It was head down, tail up'
Sophie Shelswell-White lives in Bantry House in Co Cork with husband Josh and sons Jacob, Max and Hugo (mum Brigitte lives on the estate while sister Julie lives in nearby Bantry). After travelling the world extensively, she returned home to the house which her ancestor Richard White bought in the 1730s.
By the time she arrived back in early 2010, her parents were "coming to a bit of a crossroads".
"The whole country was on its knees because of the recession and this was no different," she admits. "It was a really difficult time to run a family business."
Her accountant husband helped the family bring down expenditure and increase revenue streams within a couple of years, adjusting the rates to ensure maximum occupancy in guest accommodation. Events like the West Cork Chamber Festival and Literary Festival also helped raise the profile. "It was head down, tail up," smiles Sophie.
At one point, the prospect of selling the house's contents loomed large. "It was emotionally difficult, but it's an example of what Big Houses have to go through to keep hold of it," says Sophie.
Another lifeline came entirely by happenstance; specifically, via one of the 30,000 visitors that descend on Bantry House every season.
"A lady put my mother in touch with a university in Stuttgart who have a big conservation arm, and they asked if they could send students to us as part of a project to work on content in the house," she explains. "For now, we are focusing on the house as a centre of excellence in terms of conservation."
"I think [future generations] will want to be here anyway, as it's home," says Sophie. "There's really no push for us to be here - we are here for the love of it."
'They're never really Finished, you always have to do something'
Alexander Durdin-Robertson of Huntington Castle in Clonegal, Carlow, took over the running of the house, which has been in his family since 1625, when his father David passed away. He lives there with his wife Clare and young children Herbert, Esmonde and Freddie.
"It was a big upheaval as we'd been in London for a couple of years," he admits.
Durdin-Robertson is putting the castle's impressive heritage to use: it now boasts a garden, tearoom, playground and farm that are open to the public. He also offers historical tours to visitors, which he loves.
"I'm lucky in that I'm of the internet generation; when my father was doing this, there was less of a recreational market for Big Houses and gardens," he says. "We're part of Ireland's Ancient East, an initiative by Failte Ireland, who have been amazing in terms of getting American tourists into Longford, Meath and Carlow."
He describes the challenge of keeping his family home warm (incidentally, some Big House owners put the price of their heating bills at around €10 an hour). "Oil is a major cost, and these houses are not designed to be hermetically sealed and heated to 25 degrees. If you did, you'd have problems like plaster cracking and timbers drying out," says Alexander.
His father, a builder who specialised in restoration, had done much of the upkeep on the castle. "To be honest they're never really finished," he says. "You always have to do something.
"For these family homes, having the family in them is the best way to ensure their future," he says. "It's important to have that family connection as you wouldn't put up with the day-to-day reality of boilers dying and leaks otherwise."
'My friends used to call it Brrrrrr-town'
James Fennell grew up amid the splendour of Burtown House in Athy, Co Kildare, which his family has owned since 1710. His childhood on the 2,000-acre estate, he says, was idyllic.
"It was really fantastic, mainly because I didn't know anything else, but the continuous stress of money was permanently going on in the background," he explains.
"My dad inherited two sets of debt that he paid off three years before he died. Everything was slowly falling down, from the farm to the stable yard. We grew up in the main house, but in the basement, which was originally the coal chute room.
"My friends used to call it Brrrr-town," he adds. "You'd have to run from the kitchen to the bedroom with a hot water bottle, and we had to keep the pictures and furniture from the walls it was so damp.
"The sunny, beautiful picture that people have of country houses is often far from the truth."
Renowned photographer James, his wife Joanna and three children Bella, Mimi and William now live in the first floor of the main house. Ever mindful of the old character of the building, they began carefully restoring the house 10 years ago. "Luckily, my parents were able to hand it to me without debt so we could fix and repair," explains James.
"Working overseas to pump everything back into the house was not a way to make it financially viable, so we decided to open the gardens six years ago."
Indeed, Burtown House now boasts magnificent gardens, the Green Barn Shop & Restaurant, as well as an art gallery. (While Scottish and English Houses are thought to be rich in assets like farmland or art, Irish houses often boast huge gardens).
Several original sculptures and artworks are found on the Burtown House estate - a nod to the family's artistic reputation.
For any prospective Big House buyers who need to embark on a similar journey of restoration, James advises: "Diversify your business interests. You don't want to put everything into weddings, in case the market takes a downturn."
"One would hope [the children] would want to take it on," says James.
"We have had them working here since they were three or four. We'll definitely be thinking about how to get them interested in the history and heritage. It's expected that William will take it over, but if he doesn't want to, perhaps one of the girls will show a keener interest and we might consider that."
‘The moment the people leave, the building starts to decompose’
What to consider before you restore, according to architect John J O’Connell, whose conservation projects include works at Abbeyleix and Fota Houses.
“Historical buildings are like books,” says architect John J O’Connell. The binding is the exterior, while the pages are like the house’s interior. Take it into your hands with care — study, read and then re-read.
“To read a building is to see its whole history and to reconstruct its history. The most urgent part is its condition and for this you may require assistance in the form of an architect or building surveyor.
“In fact, I’d prefer to use a building surveyor as they’re more used to seeing the potential problems in buildings.
“To take possession of a historical building, you’re making yourself responsible for now and for future days. Try to ask yourself, ‘What’s the best decision for the building rather than for me, me, me?’
“Above all, make sure the property is not left unoccupied for any length of time.
“If buildings are left for a day, a week or even a year, the moment the vendor closes the door and the purchaser takes possession — the smaller that length of time the better. For some reason, the moment the people leave, the building starts to decompose. I’ve seen it happen; the ceilings start to collapse and fireplaces get stolen.”