Emily Naper has a magnificent period house in Loughcrew, Co Meath, and she co-owns an extraordinary castle called Manorbier in Wales - which is so grand, it has been used for many costume dramas and movies. However, she chooses instead to live in one of the compact converted stables in Loughcrew.
The owners of Ireland's fine old houses have often been accused of living in the past, but the same can't be said of the redoubtable Emily; the bubbly fiftysomething fully realises that many of these houses are in danger of extinction, and in order to survive, they need injections of energy and creativity.
"We're in a different era now - these places need to turn themselves inside out to survive; we have to be dynamic, to be inspired," Emily asserts, before going on to list the many attractions she has put in place in Loughcrew, attractions which she hopes will fund its future. Loughcrew is a spectacular house set in stunning grounds, and there are tons of natural attractions in the area, including megalithic burial chambers dating from 4,000BC - but, not content with these, Emily has opened her intriguing gardens to the public, set up an outdoor adventure centre, complete with zip line, and a coffee shop also. She also hires out Loughcrew for hen parties, murder-mystery weekends and, more recently, weddings. "They can get married in St Oliver Plunkett's 17th-Century church, and can use the house and courtyard, whatever they want, and they can bring their own caterers," Emily enthuses. "We have a wedding planner. She had a big gay wedding here last year, and we were so impressed with her that we asked her to be our wedding coordinator."
Emily is bursting with plans for even more attractions - there's the mini visitors' centre, a new cycle track, and a particularly enormous tree has just been officially deemed safe for climbing, so that's also on the list. And then there's Loughcrew Opera Festival 2015, which takes place next weekend, featuring The Puccini Scandal. "I did the garden opera here at Loughcrew for 14 years, and then I got cold feet because so much structure had to be put in place every year. So I stopped," Emily explains, adding, "then last year, we had a show by the Opera Waiters, run by Niall Morris, and it sold out. Niall came to me this year and said, 'There's a great scandal in Puccini. I want to write and perform it, will I put it on here?' I said 'No', but somehow or another, it's happening."
Maybe it got past her because the stories of opera resonate with the operatic overtones in her own life story. Emily, who grew up on a large estate in England, can seem like a cross between a Jilly Cooper heroine and Lady Grantham, but she has experienced many highs and lows, including the death of her mother when Emily was still a teenager. In her early 20s, on a visit to Ireland to see her grandmother, Lady Dunsany, she met her husband, Charlie Naper, owner of Loughcrew. As well as rearing three sons, all now in their 20s, she restored the crumbling house and gardens to their former glory.
Sadly the marriage foundered, and they separated six years ago. Then in October 2013, tragedy struck; Charlie, whom she says was always a great father to their three sons, died suddenly. Though they had parted before his death, he obviously held Emily in high esteem because he left the estate to her, and she came back. She now divides her time between the castle in Wales and Loughcrew.
She didn't want to go back into the big house and instead decided to do up one of the courtyard buildings, which had once been a brew house, then a stables. It was, in fact, the place in which Charlie lived when she first met him back in the early 1980s. "Charlie and his brother Francis lived here. It was interesting, they had a red table and the tablecloths were newspapers. Men, farmers - a bit boho, right?," Emily says, painting a picture of men and their mess.
She and Charlie lived in the stable for a few years while Loughcrew was being restored, and when they moved into the big house, the stable was rented out until six years ago, when Charlie moved back in. He intended to restore it and had an architect draw up designs, but sadly, he died before he could put his plans into action. It was up to Emily to finish what Charlie had set out to do. "Before I touched it, it was horrible - very dark and the walls were wringing with damp. I didn't want to live in it like that," Emily says, adding, "I wanted to open it up, I wanted glass everywhere to let the light in; I wanted to be able to see Loughcrew through the windows."
She kept the architect Charlie had engaged - Richard Wentges - and Charlie's builders, Tony and Bill Sheridan, and she's thrilled with their work.
The house comprises four bedrooms, an Ikea kitchen and two sitting rooms. The sitting rooms are dramatically different; one is quite traditional and is furnished with period pieces, rugs and paintings rescued from the big house. The other is all high ceilings, deep windows and rough-plastered walls, its only furniture is a large sofa and an art deco-style mirrored table, which she bought at a local auction. "I love this space, it's my chill-out space," Emily enthuses.
This latter space has a wood-and-glass staircase to Emily's bedroom, while the other three bedrooms are accessed via a second staircase. According to Emily, the staircases were dangerous, so she had sides of glass installed for both safety and aesthetic reasons. She loves glass, and has glass handles on all the doors and glass chandeliers of all ages and shapes hanging from the ceilings throughout the house, with the light bouncing off them everywhere. "The chandeliers are the only things I bought and, I'm lucky, I got them all in the local auction rooms, Matthews in Oldcastle."
Emily is thrilled with the house; indeed, she's thrilled with life and has re-invented herself as a blonde. She reveals she's found love again. "His name is Nicholas Andrews and he's a bit younger, he's 40," Emily says with a sly smile, adding, "he's a forager and a project manager and into gardening." According to Emily, they met a year ago in Wales. "I was buying a second-hand bike for my cook in a gypsy camp and he was finding his dog." She doesn't make any great claims for the relationship, except to say simply, "He looks after me". She adds, "Life just happens, it unfolds every day, the thing to do is to smile and do your best. You can be either 'oh, help me' and crying, or take control. I cried many times, but it's best to take control."
Since that meeting, they've been together and, according to Emily, he's been a great support with her castle in Wales, helping her with its maintenance, the rewiring and the like. "We're both learning stonework; I made a window last week," she says. "Here I am, the chatelaine, fixing the stones myself."
That's Emily, stone mad.
The Puccini Scandal will be performed on Saturday, July 4 at 7.30pm, and on Sunday, July 5 at 2.30 pm. The cast includes Niall Morris, and soprano Mairead Buicke. For bookings, tel: (049) 854-1356, or see loughcrew.com
Sunday Indo Life Magazine