A four-year long restoration of a ruined castle from bare shell to dream home isn't everyone's idea of a retirement plan.
But when Dublin-born engineer Brian Hussey and his wife Anna, a beautician from Limerick, decided to break from the rat race back in 1993, the energetic couple eschewed golf in favour of a considerably more ambitious pursuit.
Brian, who was also farming, had acquired some land in the Ballyvaughan Burren Valley in Clare and had walked it for two years without ever realising that the scrub contained a hidden 15th century castle. Closer investigation of a particularly thick clump of trees and foliage revealed, to his surprise, a complete and concealed shell of a tower house castle, with stone steps winding up inside.
This was Gregan Castle, former seat of the O'Lochlainn Princes of the Burren. Brian vowed that when he retired, he would completely restore the historic Irish family seat and he and Anna would live in it as king and queen of their own castle.
The Cromwellian conquest saw the Martyn family assume the land from Owney More O'Lochlainn, reckoned to be the last of the Burren Princes. Local history says that in a clever manoeuvre, Turlough O'Lochlainn married Alice Martyn, daughter of the mayor of Galway, and their son George Oge took the Martyn name to hold the castle as Catholics were being dispossessed. Martyn records contradict this version, asserting that George was Mayor Martyn's older son.
In either case, in the 1740s, the Martyns moved to a new mansion built nearby (today it's the Gregan's Castle Hotel) and the tower house was abandoned and forgotten.
Among those who happened across the concealed tower was Lord Of The Rings author JRR Tolkien, who explored when residing each summer at the Martyns. He served as an external examiner for UCG from 1949 to 1959. Recent investigations of his papers establish that the karst landscapes he sketched at the Burren part inspired those of Middle Earth; the Misty Mountains in particular. A photo from 1954 shows JRR and Edith Tolkien alongside Dr Francis Martyn and housekeeper Ms Crowe, who would later inherit the house and sell off land, including the tract acquired by the Husseys.
From their retirement move west, the Husseys embarked on their own heroic quest of restoration. "After Brian pulled all that ivy off, the first thing he did was to hire the architect Padraig O'Cuimin to draw up plans for a house beside it," says Anna. With O'Cuimin's help, a new two -storey home was designed to blend with and link to the tower itself.
"From then on, I came second to Gregan Castle," laughs Anna.
Huge timber beams were sourced in Wicklow and then hand worked and pegged into place in the old-fashioned way by a craftsman.
"Brian researched it all and restored it as close as possible to original construction," says Anna. The tower was insulated authentically with sheep's wool, and period style mortar used. It was lime washed on the outside as it would have been originally. "This helped to keep out the damp and to kill germs," says Anna. Finally, a top floor was added, built and roofed in the authentic tower house style.
It took four years to complete with Anna contributing mainly on furnishings and interiors. The original bawn wall which surrounded the tower had been broken in parts by Cromwellian troops, but enough remained to have it restored. The Husseys located the only craftsman in the region with knowledge of the old building technique to tackle it. "Gregan Castle is among the few to have its original bawn wall," adds Anna.
The end result of their four-year project concluded in 1997 is a unique and romantic home with an authentic great hall as its centrepiece. The latter has limed walls, a triple-height vaulted ceiling overhead and a great fireplace around which the Burren Princes entertained guests with feasting, storytellers and bards.
But this is also a functional and warm home. The cottage portion comprises a large open-plan kitchen and dining area with a mezzanine overhead and the former comes with a cherry red Stanley stove as its centrepiece. The master bedroom suite is located in this part of the house and it comes with its own bathroom ensuite. There's a cosy living room with its own stove.
Aside from the Great Hall, it has a grand entrance hall, an upstairs library overlooking the Great Hall below, two more bedrooms (one doubles as a study), a second kitchen, a ground floor bathroom and a wc. The battlements look out across The Burren and the property has 22 acres with its own woodland. For almost 30 years Anna has been the tour guide for thousands of visiting castle fans who have arrived from all over the world to experience this restored landmark and to hear its story.
The couple have it for sale for €695,000 through Sherry FitzGerald McMahon and Premier Properties.Now in their 80s, the Husseys are retiring for real this time. Having found a shell, they leave a castle.