Killruddery House and Gardens, Bray, Co Wicklow
Best known for its historic gardens and the fact that it's been used as a filming location for everything from the TV series The Tudors and the movies Excalibur and The Turning, Killruddery is an 800-acre estate located between Bray and Greystones in Co Wicklow.
It has the distinction of having the only surviving 17th-century formal gardens in Ireland, along with an equally impressive 17th-century house.
"While there are a couple of others of similar age around the country, we're the only place where the gardens have been maintained and kept looking the same as they were when they were built. Our job is to maintain the garden and house and keep it preserved," says Fionnuala Ardee, who became Lady Ardee when she married Anthony Brabazon, the current 16th Lord Ardee and heir to the title of Earl of Meath.
Killruddery has been the home of the Brabazon family since 1618. Its French formal gardens were designed by a disciple of landscape designer André Le Nôtre, the principal gardener to both Louis XIV and the Palace of Versailles at the height of the Ancien Régime.
"The gardens have always been open to the public, but we started to really put a lot of effort into them - with the idea that they'd pay for themselves and be a kind of national treasure - about 12 years ago. We opened a little café and started to renovate our walled garden," says Lady Ardee.
"We wanted to ensure that the food grown on the grounds was served in the café. At that time, my husband was working on the farm and was really passionate about integrating both sides of the estate. It's largely a family business, and there are lots of people who help make it work."
According to Ardee, around 70,000 people pass through the gates of Killruddery each year, but not all visit the house and gardens. The grounds are also used by a number of partners such as Squirrel Scramble, an adventure tree park for kids, and Alive Outside, a company which runs cross-country endurance races under the Hell & Back brand, as well as summer camps for kids. A third partner, Me and the Moon, also brings kids on immersive walks through the grounds and offers arts-and-crafts workshops.
"The great thing is that around half of the 70,000 is repeat footfall of people coming into the estate. In addition, last year we opened a farm shop and café in the old horse yard that we had to close. We're opening that back up at the moment, and it feels like a rebirth," says Ardee.
Like other estates in Ireland, coronavirus stopped Killruddery in its tracks. The estate depends to a large degree on its ability to host corporate events and weddings to pay its way, and according to Lady Ardee, so far it's down €500,000 as a result of cancellations.
"Our weddings and corporate activities just stopped for the year, stopped dead, and that has had a huge effect on our bottom line. The funny thing, though, is that there is a silver lining - most of the bookings we've lost have just rescheduled immediately for next year. A few weddings we had booked from America and Australia have cancelled, because the couples involved didn't want to wait, but the net result is that 2021 is going to be a bumper year," she says.
"At the same time, we've been able to concentrate on the café and farm shop more than we expected to be able to, and they're being really well received by the public. As long as we can manage our cash flow and the Covid restrictions remain eased for the rest of the summer and into 2021, we should be okay. We've been able to take time to concentrate on aspects of the business that would have been hard to find otherwise. In the long run, we may look back on this period and find it was helpful."
The thing about running a period property, according to Ardee, is that owners are stuck in the perpetual position of being asset-rich and cash-poor.
"You have to try lots of different things to make things work. We have a big kitchen and people often look at the size of it, then look at the size of our tearooms, and say, 'That doesn't make sense.' But they're missing that we cater banquets, corporate events and large weddings," she says.
"We have the gardens and the house is open to the public - the four formal rooms in particular are gorgeous, as are the portraiture halls. We use them for special occasions ourselves or when we have friends around. We live in the west wing of the house with our family."
Lady Ardee is on the board of Historic Houses of Ireland and says there is a real determination among members of the association to keep their homes alive.
"I've seen a lot of different houses and usually the story is the same - people grow up in these houses and they love them. It becomes a source of pride that inheritors will keep the space, take pride in it, restore it and pass it on to the next generation," she says
"At the same time, I don't believe in people martyring themselves for a house. You have to be reasonable if it just isn't possible anymore. There is a balance, but so long as it remains a passionate and a possible project, you wouldn't let go of it lightly."
Lissadell House, Ballinfull, Co Sligo
Owned and operated by Edward Walsh and Constance Cassidy, Lissadell House in Sligo has been a labour of love for the couple and their seven children since they took it over in 2003. At the time, the house had been neglected for around 70 years, and it has taken the family an enormous amount of work to restore it.
The childhood home of Constance Markievicz and with close associations to WB Yeats, the house was built between 1830 and 1835 by London architect Francis Goodwin for Sir Robert Gore-Booth. The current owners opened the property to the public as an attraction, there are holiday properties to rent on the grounds, and the estate has been used to host concerts featuring the likes of Westlife and Leonard Cohen.
"It's hugely expensive to run a place like Lissadell. You have the house, the coach house, which is a visitor reception area, some of the various houses on the grounds, two gardens - just keeping all of that together costs a significant amount. In a normal year, we'd make a significant dent in that expenditure from the funds raised by visitors coming to the house and paying admission," says Edward Walsh.
"This year has been a disaster from that point of view. We started to get a sense something was up on the long weekend around March 13. We were hoping to get in four or five days' solid work, with all the family doing a big spring clean in advance of opening in April. Covid-19 was being discussed in the news and we were waiting to see what would happen."
The reality that something significant was happening set in when first one, then two and then all the booked coach tours expected in the following weeks were cancelled.
"By April 1, every tour - and that was hundreds of tours - was gone. Each tour would have had 25 or 30 people, and without them, we can't generate a profit. We could open but we'd have real trouble even washing our face, financially speaking," he says. "Over the course of that weekend in March, it became quite clear that everything was closing down."
Earlier this summer, the decision was taken not to open in 2020 at all, due to the complexities of ensuring the property, tea rooms and gardens were Covid-19 safe.
"We've made efforts to comply with social distancing while working on the place but basically we're concerned about staff and visitors - we don't think we can protect them properly so it's highly unlikely we're going to open this year. We have to think of general safety."
Faced with a closed estate and no end in sight, the family decided to throw themselves into renovations. Maintaining a period property like Lissadell is an ongoing process, and there's always work to be done.
"It's been a dreadfully difficult period, but there have been upsides. We've never had a full stretch of time like this here working at the estate and that's been fantastic. We've achieved an awful lot and we've a lot still under way. So we're being positive and proactive about painting, cleaning, tidying, archiving - all the humdrum, non-paying jobs which are actually essential," says Walsh.
Lissadell largely depends on visitors coming from the US and Britain to fund its renovation projects. While Walsh says that there is an appetite for properties like this from Irish visitors, it's not big enough to pay all the bills.
"Our experience has been that 50pc of visitors are from America, England and Northern Ireland. If we don't have the English and the American tourists, you don't get into profit. The Irish market might get you to break even, but you wouldn't make anything above that to invest in the estate," he says. "We normally have 15 or 20 staff working here in the summer, between guides and people working in the tearooms and so on, young people from the area who come in and work for the season. That's income that won't go into the local community. That's an enormous shame."
Just before lockdown, it was announced that a deal had been signed to make Lissadell an important music venue, staging up to 12 concerts a year for the next five years. That has also now been put on hold. Meanwhile, the question of when, and if, the house can reopen is still up in the air.
"Even with the easing of the restrictions, in my view there is no way you could open a house like Lissadell with people having to be two metres distant. Unless you brought in one or two people at a time, you couldn't do it. So we're very gloomy about the idea of opening this year," says Walsh.
"What if two people want to look at a painting or piece of furniture at the same time, and they're suddenly within two metres of each other? Do we step in and ask them to move apart? It'd be like an old school dance with the parish priest walking around with a ruler to keep people apart. It's very difficult to see it working."
Ballinwillin House, Mitchelstown, Co Cork
For smaller country houses, the challenge of making a property pay its way requires owners to be highly creative. In the case of Patrick Mulcahy and Ballinwillin House in Cork, that has meant completely reinventing the property, making it a combined organic venison, wild boar and goat farm together with a boutique bed and breakfast, with a cellar stocked with wines from the house's vineyard in Hungary.
As if that wasn't unique enough, Mulcahy also operates a retreat centre on the property where he guides retreats under his other name, The Mindful Farmer. Ballinwillin has been hit extremely hard by the coronavirus pandemic; not only did the bed and breakfast and retreat business disappear, so too did its food business.
"Most of our customers were high-end hotels and restaurants and all of a sudden that market disappeared. We were closed for 50 days. I've been in business here for 37 years and this was the worst crisis we've suffered since the foot-and-mouth outbreak in 2001," says Mulcahy.
"But then something wonderful happened. A man called Jack Crotty in Cork started up the virtual farmers' market NeighbourFood for local food producers, and it's no exaggeration to say that it saved us. It allows people at home to order from us online and, instead of having to come to a farmers' market, they can collect their orders at an agreed place."
Mulcahy describes NeighbourFood as being "fantastic for farmers". He particularly enjoys the fact that this way of shopping is both brand new and a throwback to an older way of purchasing food - buying locally from local suppliers.
"We had no other way of selling in the pandemic. We were racking our brains about what to do and were extremely worried. We had 226 acres to look after and 1,500 animals to feed every day - that's a feed bill of €700 a day for organic food for the animals, with no income coming in. We also had a lot of people working for us, counting on their salaries to pay their mortgages," he says.
According to Mulcahy, his route through the calamity was to depend on mindfulness, meditation and prayer.
"I don't know how you'd last without them. I think there are a lot of very stressed people out there, but at the same time, trying circumstances also make you innovative," he says. "You can't lie down; you must get up and go."
Ballinwillin House was built in 1727 for the famed agriculturalist Sir Arthur Young by the Earl of Kingston. In modern times, guests come to stay on the working farm to attend the retreats, but also to go mountain biking in the Ballyhoura mountains and play golf.
"As a farmer, it's important for me to see my customers and not just see our foods disappear into a supply chain. When you're in the business we're in, it's hard. Organic farming isn't easy. It's a vocation," Mulcahy says.
"When we started out, we were naïve enough to think we'd have a livelihood out of working with supermarkets, but 10 years later we were out of business. They don't pay enough, they don't pay on time and they end up squeezing the farmer out of business."
Despite this setback, Mulcahy was able to turn his business around and today he's optimistic for the future.
"A good thing about this situation is that it has those of us involved in the production of healthy food talking to each other. I see NeighbourFood as a huge player in the future, and I hope that when the great restaurants and chefs we have here get to open again, they'll come back to us. We have some very loyal customers so I'm confident something will happen," says Mulcahy.
"I don't think things will go back to exactly the way they were, but something will come back. A big issue for us is letting people know we're here. That's the great thing about technology - it can carry your message to new people. So now we're selling online and it's flying. We have 71 products available either directly from us on our site or through NeighbourFood."
The uncertain times people are living through have also prompted Mulcahy to take some aspects of his business in a new direction. He's started conducting retreats through the Zoom video-conferencing platform.
"They were very well attended, and a lot of people told us that they're eager to come for retreats when things open up. It would be great to know a bit more about when that might happen, but for now the goal is just to nourish people who are overworked and overburdened," he says.
Ballinwillin House's range of organic free range meats can be ordered from www.ballinwillinhouse.com
Glin Castle, Glin, Co Limerick
Located on the banks of the Shannon in Limerick, Glin Castle is one of the few very historic properties in Ireland to have stayed in the same family for all of its life. Home to the Knights of Glin and the FitzGerald family for over 700 years, the current castle was built in the 17th century.
Every cliché you can think of about period properties is true of Glin, according to Catherine FitzGerald, whose late father, Desmond, was the 29th Knight.
“A place like this is enormously expensive to run. It’s a money pit with horrific heating bills and is a nightmare to maintain. In buildings like this, nothing is ever straightforward,” she says. “It’s a constant battle but it’s also a labour of love, because we really feel that this is an important place. It’s the vessel that holds all the memorabilia of an old family’s history and we want to preserve and share that.”
The FitzGeralds settled at Glin in the 13th century and were attacked numerous times over the years, including during the Desmond Rebellion, the Cromwellian conquest and the Jacobite rising. Legend has it that when the IRA arrived in 1923 to turn out the 27th Knight, Desmond FitzJohn Lloyd FitzGerald, on the basis that his title to the land came from the English crown, he produced an ancient Latin document showing this wasn’t the case, and they were obliged to leave.
Today, Glin is weathering a different kind of storm in the shape of Covid-19. Like hotels and private rental properties all over Ireland, it’s had to shut its doors and cancel events.
“We survive by operating two distinct businesses — welcoming guests and running events. We had a big food festival in the pipeline that was meant to happen in May and obviously that had to be cancelled. We had secured quite a bit of funding for it and there was lots of local buy-in so that was a real shame,” says Catherine FitzGerald.
“All of our other events have been cancelled, and so have the property rentals we had secured. We had a couple of big bookings from families from the US, renting out the whole property for gatherings, but that’s all gone, and yes, that makes us very anxious. But everyone is in the same position, and it’s not all doom and gloom. We were able to furlough people and that cut down some of the costs.”
On the plus side, Glin Castle is seeing bookings for 2021 come in thick and fast.
“We have several bookings in for early in the season in May, which is great. We are also looking at the domestic and corporate market for Christmas parties with a night or two-night stay attached. The exclusivity of the Castle is a plus now and makes it more attractive than booking a hotel or more public place.”
In 2018, Taylor Swift and her partner and family as well as friend Judd Apatow took the castle for Christmas, so hopes are high a similar booking will come in for 2020.
FitzGerald and her husband, the actor Dominic West, are the public face of Glin and the FitzGerald family’s efforts to keep the castle alive and kicking. In the past, the family has run it as a hotel and a bed and breakfast, but today it’s used as an events venue and is available for private hire.
“We have had to shutter the doors and accept that this situation has happened to us, as it has to so many others. There wasn’t an option, because we don’t have any other ways of raising money. We depend on people to come and when they’re understandably staying away, there’s nothing we can do,” she says.
“On the flip side, we have been able to do a lot of conservation work on the house that we wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise. Normally you have to slot these things in around guests but, as there haven’t been any, we’ve been able to work away. We’re trying to do as much of that as we can now while we have time.”
And there’s a lot to do. Despite the property being in good condition, keeping it that way is a constant struggle.
“No matter how many times you rewire them or plaster them or repair them, you end up having to do it all over again. The reality is that the house wasn’t particularly well built at the start. It wasn’t made from cut stone but rather from rough rubble. It’s basically a 1780s building with a lot of inconsistency,” says FitzGerald.
Although there is considerable uncertainty around how properties like Glin will be able to operate in the near term, FitzGerald is optimistic that things will improve. While she had given up on the rest of this year, recently there have been suggestions that things might improve.
“We had retreats booked for this summer that have all been moved to next year. However, we have also had some enquiries for September — nothing definite, but we’re hopeful it’ll be possible. So something might happen yet. We run Glin Castle as a less intensive version of a hotel, and that might suit people going forward. A group can come and rent the place, be together in a controlled way and not have to deal with, for example, mixing with a lot of other guests at a breakfast buffet, as they might in a normal hotel.”