Heirs and graces: Peek inside the magnificent Killruddery House
Anthony Ardee and his wife Fionnuala Aston had vastly different childhoods, however, they find that their diverse experiences are invaluable in building up their enterprise.
Programmes like Who Do You Think You Are and commemorations, such as the 1916 centenary, have ignited a real interest in history and our ancestry.
However, most of us haven't a clue about our forebears - in the main, we know who our grandparents were, but try and go back any further, particularly if those grandparents have passed away, and we usually hit a brick wall.
Famine, emigration, and lack of meticulous records are probably to blame for our ignorance and, in any case, given the history of Ireland, the lives of those who came before us were probably quite impoverished; snatches of family lore will have been passed on but no great narratives, and, in the main, few treasures. And maybe that's no bad thing; we can all start with a clean slate.
It would be impossible for Anthony Ardee, however, to escape his ancestry; his family, the Brabazons, Earls of Meath, have lived in the same place, Killruddery House, Co Wicklow, since 1618. It's been rebuilt and remodelled as family fortunes and the state of the buildings have waxed and waned, but it must be awesome, even burdensome, to think that 16 generations of your family have grown up playing in the same magnificent gardens - modelled, it's said, on those at Versailles - enjoying the same spectacular views of the Little Sugar Loaf and the surrounding mountains, eating and sleeping in the same lofty rooms.
Anthony is now in charge of the house, the attached farm of 850 hectares, and the gardens, and he and his wife, Fionnuala, have the task of making them pay for their maintenance as well as providing a living for their growing family.
It's a very professional operation - they employ staff to run the gardens, which can be enjoyed from May to October by the public; while the wonderful cafe serves dishes made from their own home-grown vegetables and herbs, as well as delicious cakes, breads and pastries made on site. These two elements are only part of the whole enterprise; Anthony and his wife Fionnuala also organise on-site team-building events; horse riding; extreme outdoor sports; a farm market on Saturdays; weddings; festivals and concerts; as well as many family days, like their famous Teddy Bears' Picnic.
Fortunately for Anthony, as a child, he was never made to feel the burden of all that history or the magnitude of the estate; it was a fun place to live, and that was it. "I grew up here with my parents, grandparents, cousins and my two sisters; the house wasn't so open, we were all running around, having great crack," Anthony recalls. "There were lots of places to explore; you'd run out and wouldn't come back until suppertime. When the bell rang, you had 10 minutes to get back home, or you wouldn't get supper. If you couldn't hear the bell, you were in big trouble. If you were down at the haybales, you wouldn't hear the bell. I got stuck there a couple of times and had to be rescued."
There were a few other places, too, which were out of bounds, and Anthony had a habit of ignoring the parental warnings. "We weren't allowed in the big formal rooms, or near the priceless cabbage-leaf china, which my mum found me playing with when I was about five, having a tea party in the middle of the night, and one bit was broken," he recalls, laughing at the memory.
For this family, there was no shortage of old treasures or old stories. "We were always getting in trouble for rooting through cupboards and finding old swords and guns and muskets," says the boyish 30-something, who is known as Anto to everyone. "We used to sneak ponies into the garden and gallop around, and Granny would be saying crossly, 'Someone is riding horses in the gardens', and we'd be going, 'Gosh, Granny, that is terrible'."
In fairness to Anthony's granny, Betty Meath, she and her husband, another Anthony, the 14th Earl of Meath, tended the house and gardens themselves, with only a little paid help in those days. And they did a whole lot else besides. "Granny painted the ceiling of the drawing room, and you can see chairs all over the house that she covered herself," Anthony marvels, going on to explain that Anthony and Betty had to do everything themselves as money was scarce after the war. Also, his grandparents had a huge death-duties bill to pay after the death of Anthony's own father, Normand; if Normand had lived two weeks longer, they wouldn't have had to pay the death duties.
"There was great chat about whether they'd put him into the freezer for two weeks, or what to do with him," Anthony says with a laugh; obviously they did the legal thing and owned up.
Anthony's parents Jack and Xenia then took over, and even though Anthony himself is the middle child - he has two sisters - it was decided he would inherit. "We only really decided it was going to happen in 2001; big family discussions; what are you doing next; what's the plan? I suppose I was conscious before then that it would happen, and I was told to go off and have a career. I think you've got to get kids out to find their own thing," he notes.
So Anthony went off, studied computer science at Trinity, then did further studies in computer graphics, and afterwards worked in animation and special effects.
Farming is quite a big part of the Kilruddery operation, so after five years of the computer animation he trained as a farmer in Mount Bellew in Galway. As it happened, he had done quite a bit of farming, having worked for five years before Trinity at his uncle's farm.
"The parents would have loved me to be a lawyer or an accountant, to have a career that would provide enough cash to live in a place like this," Anthony explains. However, his different experiences have helped to mould him as a manager of an unusual enterprise which encompasses not only the farm but also all the buildings, entertainment, and hospitality. "My work is split three ways, running the farm, the garden and keeping an eye on the business from a financial point of view.
"The farm is run in a very environmental way; it's very low maintenance, which is great, but we need to get as much produce to the customers as possible. We want to open a butcher shop here to get more meat to the customers; we want to get a farm-to-fork thing going. We have farm-to-fork when it comes to the weddings and the cafe, but we'd like visitors here to be able to buy Killruddery lamb and Killruddery pork. We're looking at all that now," he enthuses.
Anthony and Fionnuala, who is one of nine children, met in 2001, around the time of the momentous discussions, and she, too, is a full partner in the Kilruddery enterprise. As it happens, though her upbringing, education and experience were vastly different from Anthony's, they were unusual, and a good preparation for the variety that life at Killruddery throws at her.
"Both my parents were brought up in England and they moved to Ireland in the 1970s. My dad was a journalist first, he came to Northern Ireland to report on the Troubles, met this great priest in Donegal at the time, Father Dyer, who was trying a bartering system. My parents were Catholics and their move was sort of idealistic," Fionnuala, whose maiden name is Aston, notes.
Her parents bought goats and decided they'd start a goat farm in Donegal, but the climate didn't suit, so her father began fishing. Shortly afterwards, the family moved to Carrigaholt in Clare. "Their hippie contemporaries went to west Cork, and actually my parents live in west Cork now," she says. "I grew up in Donegal until I was seven, and then we moved to west Clare, where Dad was a fisherman. My father turned sailor and when I was 17, after my Leaving Cert, I did quite a bit of sailing with him in Spain and the Azores and Scotland; he took people out whale watching. Then I went to live in Bristol, working with children. I also worked in restaurants since I was 16 to pay my way."
Fionnuala also did voluntary work in Kolkata, then traveled around India, sometimes with others, sometimes not. "You know that brave thing you do when you're 18, 19; you just go for it. Indian people were so lovely. Indian women taught me to shout loudly when anyone bothered me. I worked in street-children's schools, mostly keeping them off the streets, and giving them food, so there was one less meal for their parents to provide; and a little broadening of their education. Only about one in fifty would end up getting through school," Fionnuala muses.
After that, she thought she might do art therapy with kids, and went to Grennan Mill Craft School in Kilkenny for two years. She really loved it, so she went on to NCAD and did painting, and then did a postgrad in community arts in Maynooth. By the time she finished that seven years of college, she was already two years married to Anthony; they had met in Dublin through a mutual friend who was renting a house from Anthony. "I moved in too, and Anthony kept turning up to mend something and take us out to the pub," Fionnuala notes with a laugh.
That was in 2001, and they married three years later. They had their wedding in Carrigaholt, but they had a great garden party in Killruddery with drinks in the orangery; the orangery is ideal for a drinks party, and many of the people who use Kilruddery as a wedding venue incorporate it into their plans for the big day.
The couple now have four children Nora, nine; Aldus, six; Aileen, three; and baby Evelyn.
Despite having four small children to look after, Fionnuala also works full-time - she's the creative director and CEO of the company that puts on all the events - "I've always had a mixed brain; half economics, half artsy" - so she oversees all the events, the concert calendar, and also the marketing and visuals of all the marketing material. Her job is particularly full-on in summer as they are open seven days a week.
The organisation of tours of certain parts of the house is one of Fionnuala's many responsibilities. She also looks after letting out the house and gardens to TV and film companies; most recently it has been used for The Tudors.
The formal rooms - stuffed with stunning antiques and their walls lined with family portraits - are on view, but certain areas are kept private. Anthony's parents live in the north wing, while Anthony and Fionnuala and their family live in the west wing and parts of the east wing. They have their own family kitchen, playroom, living room and bedrooms and they use the big formal rooms, for family celebrations - for example, the family Christmas tree is always erected in the library. They also love to sit in the orangery in the evening. "It's really nice. If it's not in use for an event, we love to sit down and have a drink there, and relax," Fionnuala says.
The orangery, it's said, was built with the proceeds of the sale of a family tiara, and the crenellations on the roof were based on the design of the tiara.
So one less treasure for the kids to root out and mess with, but yet nice for everyone to enjoy.
For details of special outdoor theatre events in the gardens in August and for all information about the house, see killruddery.com
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan. Photography by Tony Gavin
Sunday Indo Life Magazine