Things in frames are a great way of adding interest to your interior. Paintings and photos are popular, but lots of other things - pieces of fabric, old letters, maps - look good in frames too. Dr John Campion, owner of Tubbrid Castle in Kilkenny, opted to frame a host of poems by Irish literary figures, and these sit on shelves in the bedroom on the ground floor of this magnificently restored building.
However, for John, they are not just an interior design device - these poems are deeply significant. Several are tributes to fathers, including the short and pithy poem titled 1.1.87 by Seamus Heaney. It goes: Dangerous pavements/But I face the ice this year/With my father's stick.
"I visited Heaney's homeplace in Bellaghy and saw this poem," John explains. "His father had just passed away when he wrote it. It's dated the beginning of the year, the beginning of a new chapter and he felt he got strength from his father to face it."
This poem resonates particularly with the young medic. His father had started the restoration of the castle 20 years ago, but sadly he suffered from Parkinson's disease and became too ill to continue.
Drawing strength from what his father had done, John opted to finish this sensitive restoration, while at the same time doing advanced medical studies; still only 30, he's been a qualified doctor for six years and is training to be a consultant.
In fact, the day we photographed John at the castle was the first time he was back in Kilkenny in four months, having spent that time in Cork University Hospital working with Covid-19 patients.
"I was working in the medical assessment unit but when Covid-19 hit, it was turned into the Covid assessment unit. We treated each patient as if they were coronavirus positive, that meant we were well trained in how to make sure that we were putting on and taking off the PPE correctly," he says. "I still remember the first patient I saw who was suspected of having coronavirus. I remember the novelty of putting on the PPE. The first day, it took 10 minutes to put on; we had it down to a minute by the time we were practised in it."
John adds that in the early days they were preparing for the kind of scenario that had occurred in Spain and Italy but thanks to everyone in the HSE and the Irish people, that hasn't come to pass.
He's about to embark on the next stage of his medical training - he's aiming to become a gastroenterologist - but first he's spending a few weeks in his castle. It's only a stone's throw from the house in which he grew up, the youngest of five, three girls and two boys.
John's parents were farmers but he wanted to become a doctor from an early age. "When I was in transition year, I organised a work placement in St Vincent's hospital in Dublin," he says. "I moved up to Dublin for the summer on my own and worked as a porter and a ward clerk to see what a hospital environment was like. Seeing the doctors and nurses going about their work appealed to me; they seemed to get great satisfaction in their work."
After the Leaving Cert, John went to NUI Galway, which he loved. During his six years there, he did an Erasmus in a hospital in Montpelier in France, and most summers during his studies he opted to work in the medical field. This included a summer in the WHO in Geneva; a summer in Georgetown University on a research programme, and another summer in Uganda with the noted nun Sister Doctor Maura Lynch. In Uganda, he studied malnutrition in patients and obstetric fistula, a painful and life-altering condition that is common in less developed countries in women who experience difficult childbirth.
"Maura Lynch established repair camps where women would come from hundreds of miles away for surgery to give them back quality of life," John says. "It opened my eyes to the importance of basic medical care."
In 2014, he did his internship in St Luke's in Kilkenny. Then, after two years in St James's in Dublin, he returned to Kilkenny where he was a gastroenterology registrar for a year. "Dad was in the later stages of his illness, Mum took great care of him and I wanted to be near them," John says.
It was during this time that the idea of completing the restoration of the castle took hold. "Dad had started the restoration 20 years ago," John explains. "He was one of 11 children and he told me they played in the castle and used to bring my grandmother back flowers they had picked from the top. He told me that, later, as he used to be bringing the cows past it, he'd think to himself, 'I'm going to restore that some day'."
John says his mother wasn't too keen on the idea of the restoration - she thought it was a folly - but his father was not to be deterred. "He was single-minded and had great vision," says John.
The castle dates from the 15th Century, but it's thought a fort stood there before the castle - according to John, the King of Ulster led an army of "a thousand leather cloaks" in 942 around Ireland in a show of strength and there is a mention of Tubbrid in a poem written by the king's bard to commemorate the event.
Several elements of the castle's design point to the fact that it was very much built with defence against the enemy in mind. It stands four storeys high, and the stone staircase is so narrow, it's impossible to go up if someone is coming down against you. There is a murder hole to the ground floor, so rocks could be flung at intruders, and the tapered window slits made it easy to fire an arrow outward but difficult to successfully fire one in.
John's great-grandparents used to live in the castle as tenants before moving to a house on the land. Then, in 1929, the Land Commission sold the land, including the castle, to them.
When John's father started his restoration work, there was no roof, no windows, no doors and the walls were crumbling. "He worked on it for 12 years," John says. "He did a lot of the work himself, a little bit each year. There was a community of like-minded people with similar buildings at different stages of their restoration and it gave him great encouragement."
Among the jobs John's dad did was the roof; he enlisted the services of Paul Price in Dublin who specialises in traditional roofs - it's made of green oak and covered in slate.
"He did it the traditional way, so there are no nails or screws, only dowels and joints," John says."When you think of how they built places like this originally, they had no cranes to lift the materials; the stones would be quarried and then brought here by horse and cart."
His father also put in the windows, choosing very simple ones so that the mullions - the stone dividers - would be showcased. He repaired the walls, too - using a traditional lime-based mortar. His father had also bought tons of Kilkenny limestone flags for the flooring five years ago but didn't get around to laying them.
"Then his health declined and I asked to take it over," John recalls.
It's a listed building and national monument so John realised he needed expertise on board. Conservation architect Cormac O'Sullivan had advised his father and continued to work with John.
"We had Dad's vision to cling on to but there were a lot of late nights working out solutions to the challenges a building like this throws up. I had the shell and we had to instate character," John says. "Dad originally planned to divide up the rooms to maximise space; I changed that to allow the architecture to be appreciated."
So each floor consists of just one room. There are three large bedrooms, two en suite; and the first floor is the great hall which comprises an open-plan kitchen/dining/living room.
John got local builders Charlie and Frank Murphy to complete the restoration. Considering there are over 60 stone steps on the narrow staircase from top to bottom, it's not surprising that the builders said they got a rigorous daily workout."Getting the flagstones up those stairs was some challenge," says John. "They put in underfloor heating and did a great job of hiding all the modern elements like wiring."
John himself did the basic design. He had the walls whitewashed and he opted for grey units in the open-plan kitchen/living/dining area, but he got Kilkenny interior designer Orla Kelly to source the furnishings and fabrics. "We sourced as much as possible locally, and all the tables are by the Wood Factory in Dublin."
John's bedroom is just under the roof. Waking up here is a real privilege, he says. There are particularly wonderful views from this room, taking in the family farm all around him.
The land includes a tiny cemetery where many of his ancestors are buried, and, more recently, his beloved father. "Because it was my dad's legacy I wanted it to be done right, a good reflection of all the work he had put in," John says. "I'm glad now it's complete and from his final resting place he can keep an eye on it."
John's work takes him away for long stints so the castle is available to rent per night.
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan
Photography by Tony Gavin