Despite a €5m tag, there’s a quiet air of confidence about Seafield’s sale prospects, writes Tommy Barker.
Back in their 19th-century heyday, many of the finest homes in West Cork’s Castletownshend sort of did a ‘musical chairs’ series of ownership exchanges, with the tiny coastal community’s most wealthy families buying and selling houses to one another, sort of a more extreme version of holiday home swaps.
Carrying into the 20th and 21st centuries too, their well-built homes, where little expenditure had been spared in initial construction, have continued to be highly prized — and priced; in fact, each are now so valuable that it’s most unlikely any of the remaining families will be stretching their wallets to trade from, or to add to, their impressive holdings.
Families such as the Townshends, Chevasses, Coghills, Bechers, and Somervilles left their physical mark in and around the ridiculously scenic hill-set village, a short haul from Skibbereen, and many of their dynastic mansions, castles, and townhouses still stand proud, tall, tended, and, heated.
The Townshend family whose West Cork roots go back to the 1600s, still have their castle, now open to paying guests and cafe diners, as it recently moved into yet another generation of family care, down by the water’s edge.
Up at the top of the period-piece village, Drishane House and gardens is open on set occasions to paying visitors, known far and wide as the former family home of Edith Somerville, co-writer with her cousin Violet Martin/Martin Ross, of the winsome, and affectionate, Somerville & Ross Irish RM series of books, later refashioned to huge acclaim for TV.
Very much part of the gilded set was this Georgian gem, Seafield House, now for sale, and while it had some quite noted owners, its most famous resident (albeit, temporarily) may have been actor and director Kevin Costner, who stayed here one summer while researching a script for a movie he’d planned to make about Michael Collins (more anon).
Seafield, in its own gilded setting within the village, and with 300 yards of shoreline frontage with slipway and boathouse, was built by a contractor named Bailey for his own family use.
By the mid-1800s, it was owned by the magistrate judge JF Townshend who extended it, and, in later ownership, it was extended in 1913-14 by Major Henry Chevasse to a design attributed by Mark Bence Jones to Cork architect Henry Hill, or at least to the Hill practice.
And, that ‘Hill’ reference is appropriate in another way, because, as a result of the extensions, and the site’s topography and slope down to the sea, the actual property proceeds in three levels down towards the sea, ending at a large sweep and envelope of stone terraces within immaculate grounds.
As a result, it gets an utterly distinctive internal layout, with ceiling heights getting taller and the main rooms all the grander as the build progresses downhill.
On the one hand, it’s an entirely quirky period property, spanning as much as 8,500 sq ft of well-kept home, which clearly eschews the Georgian preoccupation with symmetry and it gains much character as a result.
On the other hand, it’s just the core part of a truly prime West Cork coastal parcel, just recently for sale, and already it is getting some serious and moneyed viewing attention, from places as diverse as London and California (and, no, that’s not Kevin Costner back to buy what he could only rent before!).
It’s listed with agents Charlie McCarthy and Sean Carmody, a director of Charles P McCarthy in Skibbereen, with an unapologetic €5m price guide.
Mr McCarthy reckons “it’s possibly the best West Cork coastal property I know of”. Charles McCarthy sold it the last time around, too, nearly 30 years ago, to its current owner, now a vendor, an international businessperson, who kept it solely for his holiday home use and who owns a series of high-end properties Stateside and worldwide.
Locals in and around Castle-townshend say that in recent times it got used only for a few weeks in the year (a fate not unknown in many other of West Cork’s more exclusive settings), but the maintenance levels have been commendable, both in the main house, the other associated ‘estate’ properties, and their four acres of private, mature grounds and scented, woodland-like walks.
The location is towards the end of The Mall, a cul-de sac run of period homes and townhouses set perpendicular to Castletownshend’s Main St, that precipitous, slalom-like hill cascading down to the castle: Hang a sharp right at the twin sycamore trees precariously planted in the middle of the village’s vertiginous hill, and you’re on The Mall.
As well as having direct water access, The Mall’s Seafield has several entry points to its four acres, largely screened by a very high stone wall and access gates, with the house set off past a double garage, tree-lined avenue, and turning circle, and past its own private streetscape of three terraced period-era mews cottages and mews apartment.
Those mews, also period in feel and character and well-maintained (if little used), are described in Skibb-based McCarthy’s sales promotion literature as suitable for guests, or for staff, and in new ownership would as readily have rental income potential. They are entirely separate to the main Georgian and fan-lit entranced house, scarcely impinging on its privacy.
There are two functional garages for car/boat storage, as well as two boathouses, one with a slip access, the other more or less disappearing into the lush growth and grounds, by the shoreline.
Almost in the very best position in Seafield’s private four-acre village enclave is an artist’s studio, an older style, lofted, standalone building with stove, kitchenette, and work area with old etching press and window seat, all within a few metres of the lapping, safe harbour waters (pics far left/p13).
That studio has the utmost appeal, in its own small way, and was much favoured by the individual, private owner of Seafield, who’s now downsizing his international property portfolio, of the finest homes.
He managed to fill it all, in any case, opting for high-quality pine furniture, in the main, stripped and polished, and it helps to lend a welcoming, lighter air to the interiors, where dark brass and mahogany furniture might have been more expected.
Some of the pieces, including dressers for display of ware and glasses, are about as big as you’d find in any European or US home, and what’s particularly notable is the broad book and library-like collections, spread across many rooms, including bedrooms, serried landings, seating niches, and hallways.
There are novels and reference books, collected by theme and by author (there’s a lot on and by Joseph Conrad) as well as a 20-volume set of Oxford English Dictionaries — in the unlikely event the occupants are ever caught for words.
The level of upkeep in current ownership is impressive, especially given its apparent quite limited use, and it’s still full of original, essential detailing, including well-tended sash bow windows (plus some French doors with delicate glazed tracery) and internal doors, joinery, flooring, and tiles. A distinct feature is the sheer volume of wood-panelled walls, in halls, circulation ares, some bedrooms, and in the studies.
The two most elegant or classical rooms are at the southern/lower end, with high ceilings, fireplaces, and framed views through sash windows over tended gardens, stone-flagged terraces, and down to the water by the sheltered harbour. In the middle, linking core off the wide central hall is a reading room next to a music room with terrace access.
Here, in pride of place, or at least equal to the books on display, is a pristine baby grand Steinway, set so its notes will reach the most possible rooms over several levels in this expansive, long house — surround sound of its day, as it were.
There’s a lovely, old-fashioned feel within and without, and outside its walls are draped in Virginia creeper, while its roofs are all in natural slate: Money wasn’t spared in upkeep, even if the house (or the way it was used by its owner) never demanded sizeable alterations or upgrades.
Case in point is the kitchen, where, bar the presence of a white Aga, the layout and range of units would be outclassed by most individual, one-off Irish homes built anytime in the past quarter century. But not many have among the cookbook titles on a shelf Cooking for Castles....
Despite a €5m price tag, and the fact the Price Register only shows one relatively recent sale locally over €1m (Bow Hall at €1.2m), there seems to be a quiet air of confidence about Seafield’s sale prospects.
Chas McCarthy has the Liss Ard Estate, with 163 acres and 23 bedrooms spread over two immaculate period homes closer to Skibbereen still for sale with a €7.5m price guide, while Sherry FitzGerald launched Castletownshend’s 4,800 sq ft period Red House on a half-acre in 2017, at €1.45m. Sold back in 2014 as a 2014 highlight was Glasheenaillin, a contemporary ‘farmhouse-style’ cluster, with land and views a few miles west of the village, near Toe Head, via Charles McCarthy, for €1.65m.
The very special Seafield will cast its nets wide to an exclusive tier of international buyers and home hunters, though an Irish buyer isn’t ruled out either.
It has already been visited by an A-list actor, sort of reprising the connections forged in the early 1990s, when rented for a short few summer weeks by Kevin Costner, fresh from his success with Dance with Wolves, which went on to gross over €400m.
Costner came to Cork, keen to do a movie about Michael Collins, recalls auctioneer Charles McCarthy, who had a hand in that fleeting Hollywood sheen, fully enjoying and barely eschewing a fun role as a 20th century Castletownshend guide, a la Somerville and Ross’s Flurry Knox.
Costner famously toured Béal na mBláth, Kilmichael, Cork City, Shanakiel, and Shandon, visited local West Cork GAA matches and even Croke Park, where he was snapped at a Dublin-Clare game in 1992.
Costner may have played the Big Fella, as might another possible
Gabriel Byrne, while writer Eoghan Harris was to do the script. But, in the event, the Michael Collins movie delivery went to the Warner Brothers’-funded epic, directed by Neil Jordan, starring Liam Neeson and — the casting clincher — Julia Roberts.
For other, lesser-spotted faces, and even those keen on keeping a low profile, Cork Airport, city, and port are about a 90-minute commute.
Skibbereen is wired at some speed to the world beyond, thanks to SIRO high-speed broadband town designation and the recently completed Ludgate Centre with 1GB connectivity, while the wider area is blessed with good land, strong towns, indented coastline of exceptional beauty, beaches, a sprinkling of artistic-minded souls, and many under-the-radar, high-net-worth individuals.
Add to the divers attractions the likes of Michelin-star restaurants in Ballydehob and Baltimore, many others operating at the highest level, an acclaimed West Cork food and food producers’ autumn festival, garden trails and finds, and the indented shoreline ideal for sailors from near and far, and really, a buyer could come from anywhere.
The randomness of the southern coastline is instanced by just one or two Castletownshend ‘jetsam and flotsam’ observances’.
A small stony beach by Seafield is known locally as Nelson’s Cove, as it was where word reputedly and breathlessly first came back to these shores about the Battle of Trafalgar, which for younger types was a bit of a naval skirmish in 1805 between
Britain’s Admiral Nelson and combined French and Spanish fleets.
Earlier still, a tale about four O’Driscoll fisherman from the locale conversing with Spanish sailors shortly after the Spanish Armada visited these parts — and, speaking to the crew in Latin, via a priest on board — was recalled in a book published in the past 20 years called Past Speech of the Sea, by Timothy Chavasse.
That Mr Chavasse had grown up in Seafield, sailed as a boy in the bay, and his family had gone on to buy Castlehaven’s Rocket House right next door, in the earlier part of the 20th century.
Plus ca change.