Virtually every Irish school leaver knows something about one of the great heroes of Irish history, Daniel O'Connell.
Most would probably know that he wanted Ireland to become independent of England by peaceful means; he achieved Catholic emancipation in 1829 (among other things, this meant an elected member of parliament no longer had to swear allegiance to the English monarch) and he was known as The Liberator.
Some people would be aware that he was fiercely anti-slavery, and pro women's rights. Most would know too that he was from Co Kerry, but what they might not know is that he was also something of a bon viveur, a wonderful host, and that he loved his whiskey.
However, his great-great-great-grand-nephew, successful businessman Sir Maurice O'Connell, has, with his wife, Francesca, a former investment banker, just embarked on an interesting project that will bring that aspect of Daniel to a wider audience. Maurice and Francesca, who own the magnificent Lakeview House on Lough Leane in Killarney, launched their Wayward Irish Spirits company just before lockdown; the whiskey is called The Liberator, and there is a subtle silhouette of the Great Dan himself on the label.
"We'd been talking about the whiskey project for 20 years, then the stars aligned in several ways. We refurbished the 300-year-old outbuildings and these provide the perfect conditions for whiskey-making, including the correct temperature," Maurice says, while Francesca adds: "We wanted to pay homage to Daniel, in a very gentle way. And he liked his whiskey, actually; we came across a piece referring to an article in the English Times back in the day, accusing Daniel O'Connell of trying to kill English people with kindness by giving them hot toddies."
Sir Maurice's family have been in Kerry for hundreds of years, and indeed from 1450 to 1820, they were involved in the spirits business. However, during his childhood, his parents were primarily farmers, working the land around their magnificent home. It's an idyllic setting: it's just a few steps from the house to the lake itself, with views from its many windows of the ever-changing waters, historic Innisfallen Island and the brooding MacGillycuddy Reeks. There are constant glimpses of the wildlife around them - deer and red squirrels dart across their gaze, while swans glide gracefully across the lake.
According to Maurice, it's the land of the Fianna of Irish legend and Tír na nÓg is reputed to be there, all details he's very proud of now, but of course as a child, the eldest boy in a family of six children, he took it all for granted. "I didn't admire the landscape when I was young. We'd all be huddled around the fire not taking any notice of the view. My father used to say to us, 'People would pay thousands of pounds to see what you're seeing now', but I didn't take any notice," Maurice says, adding with a laugh, "I find myself saying the same thing to our son, Morgan, and he ignores me too."
He does, however, recall a carefree childhood. "We were left to our own devices. We were let out in the morning and came back when we were hungry," Maurice says. "We had horses. I remember my brother and I got into trouble when we found some old swords and we charged each other with the swords on horseback, but it was alright, we had corks at the end of the swords."
Maurice was sent to the local village school for his primary education and then away to boarding school, first in Scotland, then to the top Catholic public school in England, Ampleforth, which was run by the Benedictines. He didn't bother with university. "I just wanted to get on with it, I wanted to be an entrepreneur," he explains, adding with a laugh, "at Ampleforth I'd been suspended for running a taxi service for the boys to take them to the local pub."
After Ampleforth, he took himself to London where he launched himself by buying a property; it was a flat above a pie shop, which he bought with his first credit card. He then did it up and sold it on. And he proceeded to do similar projects for many years and became very successful. "He was very good at identifying good locations before they became fashionable," Francesca volunteers.
The couple met through mutual friends. Francesca, a former investment banker, was brought up in South East Asia - her father's job in trading brought the family to Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia and Hong Kong at various stages throughout her childhood, then she settled in London. They met in 1990. "It took me a while to wear her down, but I eventually succeeded," says Maurice. They married in 1993 and have one son, Morgan (16).
Maurice inherited the house and the title in 1993 but they didn't start to renovate the property until 2000. "Actually, I didn't come home for a long time. I knew I'd be back and it would be hard work, and I thought I might as well enjoy myself in the meantime. Also, you need a fair amount of money to run these houses," Maurice notes.
When he did start coming back in 2000, it became an all-consuming project. He returned to Kerry from London practically every second weekend. During these weekends, he oversaw the renovation of the house."My father had kept the roof on, but we had to replumb and rewire. You'd put the kettle on and all the lights would go out. We did it in stages," he says.
According to Maurice, there's a lot of O'Connell history as well as that of the McCarthys - his mother's family - surrounding the house and the lands.
"The house only dates from 1870 but the O'Connells were here in 1820. Prior to that, the McCarthys had land here for 700 years, so my family have been here for 900 years in total," he says proudly.
Though a baronet - his title is inherited from his father - Maurice is an Irish Catholic, while Francesca is a British Protestant, so she was rather taken aback by a certain type of picture in one of the rooms when she arrived. "There were rather a lot of religious pictures," she notes, while Maurice adds with a laugh, "They were all in what was then the drawing room, ready for when the Pope would come. He never did."
Spreading the religious paintings around the house was a tiny job; there were many mammoth tasks. The upstairs had a lot of bedrooms, some huge, some small, so they cut down the number of bedrooms by turning the smaller rooms into en suites. They now have nine bedrooms in total, most of which are en suite.
They kept some aspects of the house intact - there's a lovely library; a dining room and a drawing room; the magnificent hallway has four distinct areas and all they had to do in those spaces was decorate and furnish them, but they changed the usage of other rooms completely. For example, what was the morning room is now the kitchen. It's an untypical room in which to place a kitchen; it has a big period fireplace, high ceilings and intricate cornicing and it's absolutely stunning; it also affords wonderful views of the lake as it has windows on three sides.
The colour palette in this room is very subtle; the walls and floor are painted cream, the units are blue/green. The subtlety of the colour scheme is deliberate. "Every window is like a painting, the view is blue and green. It changes all the time, we can have the four seasons in one hour, and if you're looking at all this, you don't want what's inside the room to fight with it," says Maurice.
The kitchen has an island that faces the lake, but the sink is facing the wall. "When the units and island were being put in, the sink was in the island facing outward. At the time of construction, an elderly male friend was visiting and he remarked how considerate my husband was to give me a nice place to do the washing up," says Francesca, adding tartly, "we decided the sink would face the wall and my husband would do the washing up."
Heating was another issue, according to Maurice. "There used to be six radiators, only three of which were used. When my mother moved out, she moved to a house one-sixth of the size of this and it had 22 radiators," he says.
Clearly, a lot more needed to be fitted at Lakeview.
Work also had to be done to the windows and, over time, to the roof. "There are 26 roofs and we've done them all at this stage," says Maurice. "The trouble is, you're never finished in a house like this. If you sit back, it'll come and kick you."
However, they have got to the stage that they now have time to concentrate on their pet project - the whiskey. It's an ideal project in that the barley is grown on their own land, Francesca's family have contacts in the spirits world in Portugal and they sourced their barrels there, while the renovated outbuildings can be maintained at the perfect temperature necessary.
Maurice is very excited about its reception by spirits lovers and sees it as a long-term project."I wanted a reason to be here, for one thing," he says. "Whiskey is a nicer world than the property world. I want to leave my mark; I'm building the business as my legacy."
Somehow one feels The Liberator would approve.
The latest release of The Liberator Whiskey is now available in specialist retailers. See waywardirish.com
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan
Photography by Tony Gavin