Castles in the air

Dunboy Castle near Castletownbere, Co Cork, was meant to be a dream six-star hotel. Instead, despite massive investment, it lies idle, reports Catherine Shanahan.

HYPED as the country’s first six-star, the hotel to eclipse all others, Dunboy Castle would seduce a new generation of affluent tourists unfazed by premium nightly rates.

Here, in the splendid heart of Beara, upmarket tourists would seek out the unrivalled quarters and 24-hour personalised concierge service of a hotel that would finally establish the peninsula as a “destination” — and not just a stopover for day-trippers, as frequently was the case.

It was a dream a community bought into, and although easy to dismiss as just another Celtic Tiger fantasy — the kind of vanity venture courted by certain developers and doomed to failure — Project Dunboy Castle was arguably anything but of that ilk.

What began as a modest proposal for a four-star hotel morphed into the largest privately funded restoration project on these islands, sparking interest in exotic quarters, including a British footballer’s wife.

But keen to see their investment turn into the kind of commercial package that would ultimately benefit the local economy, the original developers decided against selling out to a WAG.

“They would have bought it and closed the gates and that would have been no good for the Beara Peninsula,” said Dónal Kelly, one of four local businessmen to buy the site in 2000. Their plan from day one was to carry out the development in conjunction with a large professional hotel group who had the experience to maximise the potential of the site.

“A big ‘for sale’ sign went up on the gate of Dunboy Castle Estate in 1999, and we put a proposal together, four of us, to acquire and develop the ruin of the old manor (not the original Dunboy Castle, but a nearby great house called Puxley Mansion) and the surrounding 39 acres.

“Our proposal was to turn the ruin into a 100-bed four-star hotel, with a leisure and fitness centre, conference facilities, a marina and an ability to cater for coach tours and wedding parties. That was our dream first day.

“We saw it as a much-needed development on the Beara Peninsula which had just one hotel at the time.”

Another local, Colm Power, sold them the site. It had been in the family since his grandfather Maurice bought it at an auction in 1927 after the Puxley family left the area.

Colm, a retired pensioner who lives on the estate near the old gate lodge, played in around the ruins as a child.

Conscious of its historic value — the original Dunboy Castle was the seat of the O’Sullivan Bere clan — he kept the site open to the public but didn’t have the finances for restoration. He had been paying public liability insurance since the 1960s but the cost had started to creep up. Then he had a heart attack. “As someone said to me ‘There’s no tow bar on a hearse’. I couldn’t bring it with me, so I decided to sell up,” he said.

Enter Dónal, managing director of Castletownbere-based Fast Fish Ltd, and fellow investors, Michael Harrington, managing director of Harrington Plant Hire Ltd; Ned Murphy, chartered accountant with Moore Stephens Nathans and Carl Dillon, chartered accountant and partner with Moore Stephens Nathans. After buying the site, they set about marketing it, making use of the Moore Stephens Nathans international franchise.

“We spent €25,000 promoting it all over the world. People can’t find you, you have to go out and sell yourself, so we promoted it and we had three very interesting offers,” Donal said.

In the meantime, they set about obtaining planning permission and it was then that the focus of the proposal changed. Because of the historic importance of the estate the men were advised to recruit experts before lodging their application. Chris Southgate, conservation consultant, with a record in preserving the historic fabric of buildings, was hired circa 2002.

“This was going to be a career project for him,” said Noel Harrington, local postmaster, Fine Gael TD for Cork South West, and keen supporter of Project Dunboy Castle.

“I could safely say Chris was not in it for the money,” Dónal said. “He saw the dream. For him, conservation was the challenge. Anybody could build a hotel.”

Chris advised the men to get an experienced “endman” on board, a hotel operator with the kind of vision and skill that would do justice to the location.

“This was the kind of project that hadn’t really been taken on before... There was a certain viewpoint that in fact to do nothing with the building would be the better conservation result. But after a number of discussions with the planners, they eventually moved towards the idea of a hotel-type development,” Chris said. The application was lodged with Cork County Council in December 2004, just ahead of the deadline to qualify for Section 23 tax relief. The groundwork for the application, under the eye of Chris Southgate, was meticulous. Not a single objection was lodged.

“Right around the goodwill factor was unbelievable, it was a very, very sensitive site and An Taisce, I believe, said it was one of the best presented applications that they ever saw. Everything was going fine,” Dónal said.

By now, in addition to a WAG, two prestigious hotel groups had expressed interest in the project: the Fitzwilliam Hotel Group and the West Paces Hotel Group, founded by legendary hotelier Horst Schulze, who had also founded the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Group.

“The story is that Horst Schulze put a proposal to his board at the Ritz-Carlton that the world was awash with five stars and that a six-star was the next move. The board said no. He was bitterly disappointed. So when he came back with his head hanging after the board telling him ‘No’, our proposal happened to be on his desk. He looked at it and he said ‘That is a spot for a six-star hotel’ and that’s where it all started,” said Dónal.

Horst retired from the Ritz-Cartlon group in 2002. After just one weekend, he was back at his desk busy setting up the West Paces Hotel Group.

“I stepped back from the Ritz Carlton and said ‘Gee, I should have done things better’. I started dreaming. I retired on a Friday and on Monday I said to my wife ‘I’m returning to business again’ and she said ‘You’re nuts’.” Within the West Paces Group, Horst set about establishing the Capella and the Solis brand, hotels to “redefine” standards of luxury. “Some people like to play golf, I like to play hotels,” he said.

His version of how he got involved in Project Dunboy Castle, delivered from his base in Atlanta, Georgia, is that an American friend living in Phoenix, who had done a lot of work in Ireland, came to him and said Dunboy looked like it would fit “right in” with his plans for a new hotel group. “He [the friend] said ‘It seems to be a great deal if you want to explore it’. That’s how the conversation started.” However he dismisses the notion of a six-star. “There is no such thing,” he said.

Horst did his homework. Dunboy had history and location but he needed to know if top-class travel providers would include it in their programme and sell it as a destination. There was interest in North America, Britain, Europe, Asia, particularly Japan.

“Frankly, I was in love with it, with the town, the fishing boats, the colour. You felt it was a community with a heart. I did a survey with top travel providers and agents and they fell in love with it. I thought ‘If you give this Ireland to the world a little bit, they will love it’.”

“I had envisaged regular storytelling sessions about the history of the place, how the British and Irish had fought, about the boats that were lost. It was beautiful, and I fell in love with that.

“I was imagining discussions outside around a bonfire, telling stories and connecting the guests to the heart of Ireland, where fresh fish are brought in and where the guests could see that. That’s the stuff I saw and to me, it was so unique, the rough heart of Ireland. It was different to Castlemartyr [formerly Capella], totally different, that was for travellers with an interest in golf who would be brought from one golf course to another.”

Horst came on board and so did Dublin-based finance company Cap Partners.

“Our job was done then. That was what we had set out to do. Our expertise didn’t extend beyond that. We were not experts in how to run a hotel,” Dónal said.

“We bought the site, promoted it, brought in the hotel group, brought in the developers, Cap Partners, they then dealt with contractors, they took over and we bowed out gracefully. We knew our limitations. We sold our interest in it. Our financial involvement is now nil.”

In early 2005, Cap Partners appointed Phil Donohue, managing director of the Wicklow-based Ardcastle Group, a consultant and project management company, as project manager, acting on behalf of Resort Hotels Development (RHD) Ltd, the vehicle company set up by Cap Partners to oversee the development.

“I came on board post-planning permission and pre-construction. On my first site visit there were cows walking around inside the castle,” Philip said.

Philip had previously project managed the restoration of Crosshaven House, a 250-year-old Georgian property and Class A protected structure, a project Chris Southgate was alsoinvolved in.

“My two areas of interest are conservation and hotels so this was a marriage made in Heaven.

“The decision had been made to go forward with Dunboy Castle under the Capella brand. Construction was initiated on the basis of a very high-end five star-plus hotel. A huge amount of consultants were employed. I was the only non-local person on the project team,” Philip said. “They (RHD Ltd) were very conscious of employing Cork companies and of involving locals and bringing employment to the area.”

From a conservation viewpoint, Dunboy Castle is, Philip said “without doubt the most prestigious ever conservation project undertaken in Ireland, and in value, the largest privately-funded conservation project in the British Isles”.

“We had to do the impossible,” Chris said. “I can say that what we had to do was to reconstruct a very extravagant and expensive building that had burnt out in the 1920s and restore it to how it once looked. We had to do that in quite a tight timeframe and with a very commercial budget.”

There were endless surveys carried out and reports compiled before work ever began — environmental, archaeological, architectural, structural, conservation. Archaeologist Dr Colin Rynne, a member of the archaeology department at University College Cork, was involved.

“It was an interesting site with lots of potential. We did the pre-planning archaeological survey and assessment and analysed all of the building materials and looked at what should be preserved and everything we said was taken on board.

“There was a lot of stonework on the floor, best practice is to use the original building materials, so that was picked up and catalogued and restored to its original location. It was very work-intensive, but that approach was necessary to protect particular parts.”

Conor Kelleher, consultant ecologist and chair of Bat Conservation Ireland, was called in.

“I was brought in initially before the project began to do a constraint study. I had a look at terrestrial mammals in the area to see where we needed to bring in safeguards. Then I saw the bats.”

The problem for Conor was that the bats had made their home in the 64 chimneys around Puxley Mansion.

“You have to get a Government licence to ensure bat safety and in order to do that we had to create a proper roost before moving them.

“There were 64 chimneys and fireplaces, so we had to narrow down bat use of the building to one or two points in order to know where they were.

“I hired a very large crane and had to block the chimneys and the fireplaces at both ends, top and bottom, making sure the bats weren’t present at the time. A bat house was being constructed at the same time. You can’t catch bats and move them, they have to move themselves.”

Eventually, one bat checked out the new bathouse, a €150,000 bungalow, and the population moved. It took two seasons.

An ornithologist was on site to look after barn owls, some of whom had be held in captivity for safety reasons while the work was underway, and then rehabilitated.

Stonework was no less demanding. Every stone that had to be replaced had to be done so to the nearest millimetre. There was a full-scale 3D model on site rather than drawings, and there were interactive workshops.

A casting workshop was set up on site to recast the chimneys. Local boat building techniques were adapted to building skills, three generations of local leadmakers were involved.

Philip said when the acting head of Dúchas came down to inspect the site, he couldn’t find a single fault, and his only criticism was the colour of the rafters. “The attention to detail was unreal,” Donal said.

“You had this fantastic old mansion, and when you got there, there was a tree growing out of it, over the wall, and you had to turn that into a modern hotel with everything the visitor would expect from a hotel in New York,” said architect Johan Wilken, of RKD McCarthy Lynch, on the challenges of transforming an 18th-century ruin into a functioning luxury commercial entity.

By October 2007, restoration work had reached a level where it was time for the “topping out” ceremony, traditionally held when the last beam is placed at the top of a building. Photographs and videos of the event show how substantially completed the interior was: the great Scottish baronial hall restored to its previous magnificence, fully restored marble pillars and vaulted corridors.

Cap Partners, Michael Humphreys and Adrian Dunne, were on hand to toast the event. Chris Southgate gave a speech in which he captured the passion behind the project.

“There was something more than finance involved in Michael and Adrian’s involvement, and I think the way I can explain that is there was passion. It was not only the development strategy or the development financing mechanism, there was a kind of feeling that there was going to be an epitaph on Michael Humphreys’ grave that said ‘I am the guy who helped restore Dunboy Castle’, and it was that passion and that belief that have really carried through the project.”

With plans to open the hotel running behind schedule, a “soft opening” was held in December 2007 to ensure Project Dunboy Castle maintained its tax status — Section 23 for the 72 modern suites constructed at the rear of the castle which were being pitched for sale with a price tag of €500,000 by Cap Partners to Irish and international investors. Dunboy Castle Estate had also been granted Section 428 tax relief which allows the owners of an approved building, including surrounding garden, to claim back tax in respect of expenditure incurred on repair, maintenance or restoration. In exchange, the public must have access 60 days per year.

The “soft opening” went ahead on Christmas week.

“We had a trading licence and a bar licence. We opened up 12 rooms for a week. We opened a temporary kitchen and served food, 600 meals a day. We hired in a chef and staff,” Philip said.

“One of my staff was acting general manager that week. People slept there. We hired furniture for the week.” The opening culminated in the mother of all New Year’s Eve parties.

“We all had a ball,” Dónal said. “There was a bar, catering, the works. It was a whooley, it was the biggest New Year’s Eve party Castletownbere ever had. It’s a shame it wasn’t completed for the next New Year’s Eve. We thought it was a taste of things to come, but what came was totally different.”

Donal pins the turning point of the project on that fateful day in September 2008 when US bank Lehman Brothers collapsed spectacularly.

“The day it (Dunboy Castle) went down the Swanee was the day George Bush pulled the plug on Lehman Brothers. That was the day. The money dried up. That was the real beginning of the end,” Donal said.

Plans to open Dunboy Castle in the summer of 2009 failed to materialised. Work on the project was suspended in January 2010. By the end of 2010, building contractor PJ Hegarty and Sons was in the Commercial Court suing Resort Hotel Developments Ltd over its alleged failure to pay €1.2 million due on the €50m refurbishment of Puxley Mansion.

In its claim, PJ Hegarty’s, of Carroll’s Quay, Cork, said it entered an agreement with RHD in July 2006 as main contractors to carry out the refurbishment, conservation and reconstruction of the house and that the work was to be completed in about 65 weeks. However, it was subject to significant delays because of the failure of RHD to secure a flow of funding to keep the works going with reasonable efficiency, according to Declan O’Brien, a director of PJ Hegarty’s, in an affidavit.

When contacted by the Irish Examiner, PJ Hegarty and Sons did not wish to comment on where the matter currently stands. Neither did Cap Partners, although Phil Donohue said they were “actively trying to sell it and have been doing so for the past 18 months” through international estate agents, the Carlton Group.

Bantry-based estate agent Denis Harrington reckons the project came unstuck because of too large a reliance on the need to sell the suites to the rear to generate funding.

“It transpired that the success of the project depended on the sale of a large number of apart-hotel units — that was the part that subsequently turned out to be its Achilles heel,” he said.

And what about the isolation of the location, two miles from Castletownbere, almost 80 miles from the nearest airport?

“When you are talking about the very wealthy, they’ve enough for a helicopter ride from A to B,” Chris said. "West Paces has a client base that consists of film stars and very wealthy clientele. An Irish businessman might consider the distance to Castletownbere a nuisance but to the film star wandering around, not hounded by the paparazzi, this offers a different environment. They don’t want boutique shops. For Ireland to pinpoint that sort of resort would be a huge advantage.”

Horst said a high-end traveller “who flies from Japan and who has the money wants the experience to be real but they want to retreat somewhere comfortable”. “These people travel by helicopter. A four-star will not work — weddings, function, tour buses — you won’t get the prices you need to fund that sort of hotel.”

So what now for Project Dunboy Castle, so meticulously and elegantly restored to its former glory only to be left surrounded by high-rise security fencing, bereft of guests and the threat of bats and other wildlife returning?

What now for a peninsula without a single hotel bed west of Glengarrif? Noel Harrington believes there is a future for the project, because “the monumental task of conservation” — an element that would have deterred others from taking on the project outside the Celtic Tiger years — is complete.

Denis Harrington believes if fresh thinking is brought to bear “when all the property chaos settles and sentiment improves, then, for the reasons it was a good idea in the first pace, it will be again”.

Chris says the castle is not going to suffer from exposure to the elements, and “in a sense you could say from the perspective of a conservation consultant, I am entirely satisfied”.

“However, my biggest disappointment,” Chris said, “is it brought a glimmer of hope for the local people — I’d like to see the project resolved for the sake of the local economy.

“The point is we’re in economic difficulty, but at some time in the future there will be discussions to bring it to a level that’s feasible.

“What you need to ask is — is there anyone out there willing to finance the best hotel in Ireland?”

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