US tycoons splash millions on Irish stately homes before dollar tumbles
Americans spent more than €30m on Irish country mansions in the past 12 months and are likely to account for half of the big estate homes sold here this year, the Irish Independent can reveal.
Estate agents attribute the spree to the urgency among some in the American business community to get their money out of the States over fears that the dollar will fall against the euro.
This has combined with the positive perception of value for money for big Irish properties given that prices have fallen by 70pc since 2007, and strong indications that the country estates market is in recovery mode.
Among the wealthiest to have acquired a property here recently are American billionaire Jim Thompson, the Hong Hong-based global shipping and logistics mogul who runs Crown Worldwide Group.
He came to Ireland last year to research his family roots and ended up buying Woodhouse in Stradbally, Co Waterford, for which Savills was seeking €6.4m.
Mr Thompson's genealogist found that his people were originally from the area and brought him the brochure details.
Harriet Grant of Savills said Americans dominate the country homes market ahead of all other nationalities, including the Irish themselves.
In a market where native buyers accounted for 80pc of sales in 2007, they now make up closer to only 10pc at the top end.
Perhaps the biggest deal in the past six months was the sale of the Victorian Gothic Humewood Castle in Kiltegan, Co Wicklow, to US media and land billionaire John Malone through Sherry FitzGerald.
The extravagant property is believed to have sold for between €7m and €8m.
During the boom, the former home of international socialite Renate Coleman had sold for €25m.
Mr Malone, the chairman of Liberty Global and CEO of the Discovery Holding Company, told one interviewer that he bought the 15-bedroom period property on 427 acres because "it captured my wife's fancy".
Connecticut-born Mr Malone's ancestors left Ireland for America in the early 19th Century. Today, their descendant owns more than two million acres in the US and is the country's biggest private land owner.
The quest for Irish estates has also become highly competitive.
Charles Noell, the founder of Baltimore-based JMI Equity, was recently pipped to the €5m post at the Ganly Walters auction in January for the deeds of Dowth Hall in Co Meath, which was built in 1760.
Determined to secure an Irish property of note, Mr Noell recovered quickly to acquire the deeds of Ardbraccan, an 18th Century estate house in Co Meath that was sold this year by Savills for a similar amount.
Many wealthy American buyers have managed to remain anonymous in a number of €1m-plus purchases during the past 12 months.
The former home of Gilbert O'Sullivan, Ravenswood, a 6,500 sq ft mansion outside Bunclody, Co Wexford, which was sold last autumn through Colliers for €1.3m, was acquired by a US buyer, believed to be a Texas-based lawyer.
Anner Castle, on 131 acres in Co Tipperary, was also recently sold by Savills, and is believed to have been acquired by a New York-based businessman with links to the area.
Another American buyer with an Irish family connection scooped up Gurtalougha at Ballinderry, just outside Nenagh in Co Tipperary.
The former home of late billionaire John Paul Getty III was recently sold through Ganly Walters.
The property, with 100 acres facing Lough Derg, also changed hands at the end of last year for €1.53m.
David Ashmore of Sherry FitzGerald, who sold Humewood Castle, said: "There are only about 20 big country properties on the market in all of Ireland of the type that these buyers are looking for."
Michael H Daniels, a specialist in big country homes in the south, said he is looking for a "truly majestic but recoverable ruin for restoration" on behalf of a wealthy US client who he declined to name.
He said there is far more to the Americans' objectives than dew-eyed sentiment for the "old country or grandiose gestures to keep their wives happy with chocolate-box castles".
"These people have made their fortunes in the first place because they are smart buyers who get in at the bottom, and that's what they're doing," he said.
"While they might buy on a whim, they never acquire anything that doesn't have that investment potential.
"They've been sitting on the fence for a number of years waiting for rock bottom in Ireland.
"Now that they've judged it to have been reached – that prices won't get any lower – they're all getting in at the same time."
Mr Ashmore said: "Ireland's country home prices are currently equivalent to that of south Kent or Devon in the UK.
"However, Ireland is the only English-speaking country in the eurozone judged to be a good base from which to do business and is ideally placed for easy air access to many other parts of the world."
Mr Ashmore has already received American interest for the former home of Charles J Haughey.
The Abbeville estate, on 250 acres in Kinsealy, Co Dublin, has been priced at €5.5m.
"Abbeville will need some restoration, but it's easy to see why it's in such demand," he said.
"It's got history and it's an extremely private landed estate on the outskirts of the capital, just minutes away from Dublin airport."