Wednesday 22 May 2019

How Reuben fell for his China girl

Reuben Cope and Ellen Christie run a seasonal cafe in the grounds of his family's castle in Kilkenny

Reuben Cope and Ellen Christie enjoy a hectic life at Shankill Castle. Photo: Andrew Downes
Reuben Cope and Ellen Christie enjoy a hectic life at Shankill Castle. Photo: Andrew Downes

Andrea Smith

When Ellen Christie was growing up in Hong Kong, she could scarcely have imagined that she would one day marry an Irish farmer and live in the grounds of his family's ancient castle. But that's exactly what happened, which is how Ellen (34) found herself packing her bags and moving to Paulstown, Kilkenny. She is married to Reuben Cope (33) and they now live in the steward's house at the edge of the farm at Shankill Castle, and they love it there.

Ellen was born to a Chinese mum, Fanny, and Scottish dad, Andrew. She left Hong Kong at 10 to go to boarding school in Scotland. Luckily, her older sister Frances was already there to make the transition easier. She went on to study Chinese at the University of Edinburgh, spending a year in Beijing as part of that, and then went back to the Chinese capital after graduation to work at a contemporary art gallery for two years. She then did a master's in politics and contemporary art at The Courtauld Institute of Art in London, and worked for seven years at creative arts publishing house Phaidon.

She met Reuben through her friend from university, Hannah, who was friends with him from their time spent boarding together at St Columba's College in Dublin. He and Ellen had crossed paths a few times over the years, but fell for one another when they got chatting four years ago at Hannah's 30th birthday party in Dublin.

"Reuben had great stories and was quirky, funny, different and really interesting," says Ellen.

Reuben, who jokes that Ellen is now sick of hearing those "great stories," thought she was "clever and very pretty with a lovely smile." She was living in London so they kept in touch on a daily basis and met up whenever they could. As the relationship got serious, they decided that it would be logical if Ellen moved to Ireland, as Reuben has a farm here. Ellen knew she could freelance as an editor - she edits illustrated non-fiction books and still does work for Phaidon.

When he was seven, Reuben's parents, Elizabeth and Geoffrey, bought Shankill Castle, which has an 120-acre farm attached.

He says that he and his sisters, Phoebe and Sybil, had a great time growing up in the 42-room castle. "It was exciting," he says. "It was always fun having friends around, because if you played hide-and seek, you knew all the good spots so you'd never be found."

Reuben's mum and sister Phoebe are both artists, and he is also artistic so he went to Central Saint Martins in London to do a foundation course in art. Between that and his degree in sculpture, he took a year out and did TEFL and film-making courses, qualified as a welder and did a stint at Ballymaloe. He also made a documentary with David Shaw-Smith about traditional Irish fishing boats, which was shown on RTE.

Upon returning to Ireland, Reuben bought his first bull and slowly started building up his own herd, and also spent a few months living in New York. He returned to Ireland and worked at an auction house selling antiques and furniture for a couple of years, and then became a full-time farmer. He and Ellen got engaged after being together for 18 months, and were married in September 2016 in Scotland, where Ellen's parents now live.

Aside from the farm, Shankill Castle is a busy place as guided tours and other events take place there. One part of it is pre-Reformation, and it was initially built as a Butler tower-house. In 1708, it was rebuilt by Peter Aylward and constructed as a Queen Anne house, and in the 19th Century, it was enlarged and castellated, with several additions made after that. Reuben's mum Elizabeth also has her studio there.

Last year, Reuben and Ellen decided to open a seasonal cafe together in the beautiful old coach house set in the stable yard. It made its debut last August and stayed open for two months. "We spent a lot of time renovating it and wanted to keep as many of the original features as possible, so it's all very rustic," says Ellen.

The Coach House Cafe has just reopened for this season and will remain open until the end of October. Reuben and Ellen serve Irish-roasted organic coffee alongside a selection of tasty lunch options and cakes. Most of the ingredients are organic and come from the castle's garden. Before they opened, Francis Brennan from RTE's At Your Service visited to give them advice and follow their progress. The episode on The Coach House Cafe will be broadcast next Sunday.

Reuben and Ellen love spending so much time together, and both describe each other as kind and thoughtful. He confesses that he can bit a bit disorganised, and says she's great for keeping him going in the right direction. It's a hectic time for the pair as it's calving and lambing season for Reuben, and Ellen is still editing, but sure they're young and energetic and thriving on the fun.

Moving to a new place when you're a bit older can be difficult socially, particularly in rural Ireland, and an unexpected bonus to opening the cafe for Ellen is that it's great for helping her to meet people.

"A lot of locals come here regularly, which is especially nice for me," she says.

The Coach House Cafe at Shankill Castle opens Thursday to Sunday from 10am-5pm.

Sunday Indo Living

Editors Choice

Also in Life