Friday 20 September 2019

What it's like when your home is a castle

Irish castle owners open up to Celine Naughton about the advantages and drawbacks of residing in the historic homes

Lording it: The Castle in Castletownshend, Co Cork, is owned by Sharon Poulter and Justin Cochrane-Townshend
Lording it: The Castle in Castletownshend, Co Cork, is owned by Sharon Poulter and Justin Cochrane-Townshend
Justin Cocharne-Townshend and Sharon Poulter outside The Castle
An Culu's living room
Glanmore Castle in Ashford
A reception room in The Castle
An Culu in Kenmare Bay
A bedroom in An Culu
One of Glanmore Castle's four-poster beds
Glanmore Castle landing

Celine Naughton

Amidst much glamour and attention, TV star Kathryn Thomas and restaurateur Pádraig McLoughlin tied the knot in Kilkea Castle.

Their choice of medieval-style venue follows other couples like David and Victoria Beckham who famously picked Luttrellstown Castle for their big day. Actor Dominic West and his wife Catherine FitzGerald did the same in Glin Castle, then went one better by moving in.

Jeremy Irons went one further, causing a stir back in the day when he bought long time Cork home Kilcoe Castle without even telling his wife, Sinéad Cusack. Then he painted it pink.

Singer Chris de Burgh was raised in Bargy Castle in Wexford, while Lord Henry Mountcharles and his son Alex Conyngham run their Slane Whiskey venture from the famous Slane Castle. But what's it really like to live behind battlements?

Justin Cocharne-Townshend and Sharon Poulter outside The Castle
Justin Cocharne-Townshend and Sharon Poulter outside The Castle

While many a little girl has imagined herself as a castle princess, Leicestershire lass Sharon Poulter is living the dream for real. Having met her Prince Charming, Justin Cochrane-Townshend, in London; she now lives with him at The Castle, Castletownshend, Co Cork, where she runs a boutique hotel and café while he commutes weekly from his London-based job as CEO of the Clear Channel advertising agency.

Dating back to the mid-17th century, The Castle has been the seat of the Townshend family for 11 generations. Justin's grandmother Rose-Marie ran it as a B&B until 1996, when his parents took over. When they retired four years ago, Sharon and Justin decided to use the profits from a property they sold to invest in the business.

"Having watched Grand Designs and read interior magazines for years, it was exciting to have a project that we could take on ourselves," says Sharon.

"Castles are notoriously cold buildings, but with the investment we made in having it dry-lined, insulated and a brand new heating system installed, the rooms are warm and cosy. Justin and I live in the West Tower, which was once the servants' quarters. Our rooms are over the cafe.

"But while the cafe and grounds are open to the public at certain times, we keep part of the garden as a retreat for ourselves.

"When your home is your castle and your business, it can be a challenge to get the work-life balance right. The business side of things allows us to keep the castle alive, but we clearly define our own space within the castle walls and in the grounds. I feel lucky to be part of the history of this place."

An Culu in Kenmare Bay
An Culu in Kenmare Bay

They say an Englishman's home is his castle, and that's literally the case for Londoner Kevin Reardon, who built his own 9,000 sq ft An Culu (The Retreat) on the banks of Kenmare Bay.

On holiday there 20 years ago, he was drawn to an old ruin he learned had been a tearoom folly constructed for the adjoining estate and was turned into a soup kitchen during the Famine. Having bought the five-acre site, he sought permission for a relatively modest two-storey design.

"But the planners said I had to build a castle," he says. "Castles can be daunting places with huge ceilings and cold, dark rooms, but my wife Alison and I wanted a warm, welcoming environment for ourselves and our two children. So we decided to build a fairytale castle with a real home inside.

"The children were at boarding school in England, but they spent all their holidays and mid-term breaks in the castle. They brought their mates over and for years, it was filled with teenagers running around, splashing about in the basement pool or crashing out in the home cinema upstairs. It was the ultimate fantasy world for the kids. They didn't want to go back to school at the end of the holidays.

"I used to take my boat to Bull Head at the end of the estuary, where the fishing is fantastic. Sometimes I'd fish all night and sleep in cabins there.

"The grotto-style basement swimming pool has a Playboy Mansion feel to it, but I assure you nothing untoward happened there. I'm happily married to the love of my life!"

One of Glanmore Castle's four-poster beds
One of Glanmore Castle's four-poster beds

Among the features of this modern day castle is an elaborate, Tudor-style cut stone staircase, but it's rarely used, as Kevin had a commercial lift installed.

"Why walk when you can ride?" he says. "The stairs are beautiful, but it takes only nine seconds to reach the top floor in the lift."

Now that Kevin's family have grown up An Culu is being sold for €4.5m through Savills country homes department.

Chris de Burgh is currently selling Bushey Park, his palatial Enniskerry Home asking €12.5m, but the songwriter grew up at Bargy Castle in Wexford, a 12th century structure which his parents bought when he was 12. De Burgh has always said it was instrumental in forming his character and career.

His very first album, Far Beyond These Castle Walls was named after Bargy and the cover of the album features the singer at the castle window. "We moved in one winter's day before Christmas," he told the Irish Independent. "There was no light, no heating and no furniture."

His parents worked to develop the property, opening it to guests and running a large sheep farm on the land. The singer started his career performing in the dining room for guests.

In a past interview with this newspaper, the singer added: "Many people think I came from a privileged background, but wandering around fields at night in the dark and bitter cold, searching for new-born lambs was no joke," he added. "I can safely say that without that (Bargy Castle) being in my background, I wouldn't have gone on to do what I did."

When Cora and Colm O'Connor were looking to relocate back to Ireland from the United States in the 1990s, living in a castle was the furthest thing on their minds - until they saw 5 Glanmore Castle in Ashford, Co Wicklow.

Built around 1760, Glanmore Castle was home to the family of Playwright JM Synge for decades. His uncle had turrets and other castellations added in 1804. Having fallen into disrepair, the castle was restored in 1975 by a German couple who split it into four separate units. Initially it was five, but two units were combined, so even though the O'Connors bought Number 5, they had only three neighbours.

"It needed a lot of work," says Colm. "The basement was small and dark and rented out as a bedsit at the time. Upstairs was occupied by a family who had a small kitchen on the ground floor. It was like the house that Jack built, but with its high ceilings and ornate plasterwork, we saw its potential.

"We had the tower replastered and knocked the kitchen to create a grand entrance hall, featuring a suit of armour we picked up at auction. When we got back to the States, we collected antique furniture, including a four-poster bed, swords, helmets and tapestries, and had them all shipped back to Ireland when we moved into the castle in 1999.

"It was a fantastic place to raise our three children. Our back garden was the Coillte forest, Devil's Glen. When our son Jarlath's school teacher once asked her students to draw a picture of their homes, she thought he was making it up.

"For a while, Charlie Burchill, guitarist with Simple Minds, lived in Glanmore Yard, a converted stable on the grounds." But Colm and Cora eventually pulled up the drawbridge on their castle lifestyle to move closer to her family and for work. They're now in Dublin.

"Today we live in a modern, A-rated home with underfloor heating and all the high-tech gadgets you can think of," says Colm.

"It's the complete opposite of living in a castle. I miss the location and the views, but not the cold. Castle walls can be four feet thick in parts - great in summertime, but in winter they store the cold. You need a robust heating system to withstand those temperatures."

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