€5m rescue of Cork harbour's Belvelly Castle 'the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done'

Picture: Martin Janowski | martinjanowski.com

€5m has been spent on this Cork harbour castle rescue by Garry and Anne Wilson, writes Tommy Barker.

It’s just as well that Garry Wilson’s business background is in successful company turnarounds: he needed not only the ability to see through to an end product, he also needed funds, and lots of them, when is came to turning around the fortunes of Belvelly Castle.

The 13th tower castle, which stands sentinel by the narrowest section of waterway between Cork harbour’s Great Island and Fota Island, by the triple-arch Belvelly Bridge, swallowed €5m by the time it was secured, about five times the initial budget.

Antrim-born Mr Wilson puts that down to the sheer amount of stonework that had to be done to hold together a saggy, sodden stone structure that was 80’ tall, with walls 7’ thick, penetrated by ivies, and with the ‘obligatory’ tree growing where the roof should have been.

Picture: Martin Janowski | martinjanowski.com

Add in engineering challenges, some structural steel, joinery in oak, elaborate bathrooms for the six bedrooms, brass windows, and the long and costly presence of cranes to hoist up enormous replacement stone (how they got built day one without powerful cranes is another story), new 21st comfort factors, striking interior design, a remarkable spiral stairs, and a 24 carat gold gilded bronze sculpture of a tree, and you can see how the bills might have added up.

It doesn’t seem to have fazed owners Anne and Garry Wilson, though: “it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done,” says 50+ year old Garry, quite categorically.

Picture: Martin Janowski | martinjanowski.com

The couple, both from Antrim, reluctantly left Ireland in the 1980s as ‘the Troubles’ raged. Garry attended Dundee University, qualified as an accountant and moved gradually into business restructuring, doing successful turnarounds in sectors as diverse as food, engineering and even Crown Paints, which paid handsome returns when his UK-based investment business Endless sold the restructured paint firm several years ago for a glossy £150 million.

Garry and Anne wanted a restoration project on a decent scale, not, he says, something small like a cottage. He knew Belvelly Castle to pass by over a number of years, from visiting Fota to play golf, and one day Anne spotted it for sale on the internet, listed with Galway-based castle seller Helen Cassidy.

They visited, “it felt solid,” they made an offer, and they bought it, vowing to “make it a safe place to live.” Buying was the easy part.

Picture: Martin Janowski | martinjanowski.com

At that stage, Belvelly Castle had been on and off the market for years: a previous owner was architect Peter Inston, who had worked on Castlehyde’s c €30m upgrade with Michael Flatley, but Inston never worked physically on Belvelly.

The work to rescue Belvelly took three years, 150 weeks, of non-stop labour, with 15-20 men (and women, including stone mason and cutter Julia Gebel who also worked recently on St Patrick’s Bridge in Cork city), and used additional stone sourced from an old mill in East Cork’s Cloyne. Much of it had to be painstakingly hand-tooled or ‘sparrow-pecked’ , to re-crown a castle that was up to 800 years old.

Picture: Martin Janowski | martinjanowski.com

It had been described as ‘broken down’ in the 16th century by Walter Raleigh, got rebuilt, only to fall vacant in the 17th century, and decayed then gently for nearly 400 more years.

Names associated with it include Anglo Normans like its initial builders the Hodnetts, the De Barra and De la Roche clans, and Courthorpes.

To that list now can be added Anne and Garry Wilson, its 21st century saviours, and the story of its salvation can be seen tomorrow night, on RTÉs Great House Revival, chronicled by architect Hugh Wallace.

The couple worked with interior architect Peter Plaskitt, and later sculptor Orla de Brí for her commission ‘Thinking Man’ and the gilded tree, while overseeing it all was Garry’s uncle, John Montgomery, who came over for the full project from Yorkshire. They also give huge credit and kudos to Kieran Ahern of Ahern Brothers for the serious ‘heavy lifting’ of the masonry work.

Picture: Martin Janowski | martinjanowski.com

Needless to say, the work was more complex, and demanding, than ever first envisaged, and the process was “intense,” Garry admits, quipping that when he’d return to Anne in Yorkshire from frequent site visits and asked how things were going “I tried to protect her from the worst excesses!”

Though still based in the UK for business (Garry runs some 20 companies, which combined employ over 10,000). The couple intend to increase their use of Belvelly Castle in coming years, and it will get plenty of extended family uses also, as Garry’s one of a family of eight children, and Anne’s one of five.

Picture: Martin Janowski | martinjanowski.com

“It was more than restoration project, for me,” says Garry. “It was Anne and me finally reclaiming our Irish life, which we had been denied by the Troubles.”

If they’d stopped in the face of mounting challenges (and costs) “it would have been me saying ‘we don’t belong here,’ and I couldn’t do that, no matter how much it cost.”

Picture: Martin Janowski | martinjanowski.com

As the three year project on an 800 year old building has wrapped up, the full glories of conversion to six-bedroomed 4,500 sq ft home will be seen on RTÉ this Sunday night, with architect Hugh Wallace expressing admiration for the couple in “taking on such an unknown entity, there is no way of accurately budgeting for a project like this because you will be hit time after time with surprises. They have chosen to save a national monument.”

Already photographers love it; Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are pictorially in love with the reinstated exterior, by stormy day or floodlit for effect (it went green for St Patrick’s Day, when the couple’s extended families had a celebration, one of just several celebratory parties to be held there already, including one for the heroic work crew.

Picture: Martin Janowski | martinjanowski.com

Belvelly Castle now joins an illustrious Cork roll call of privately funded castle salvations, joining the likes of Cor Castle in Innishannon, several on the River Blackwater, the on-going work at West Cork’s Castlefreke and Jeremy Irons’ Kilcoe Castle, as scenically set as Belvelly Castle.

So that’s it, so, you’d think? But, when asked if they’d ever consider another restoration project, Garry Wilson’s quick enough to respond “well, I’d like to do a lighthouse......”

Picture: Martin Janowski | martinjanowski.com

- The Great House Revival airs Sunday at 9.35pm on RTÉ One

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