25 years on and 25 properties later, the Irish Landmark Trust continues to breathe life into some of Ireland’s most unique buildings. Ever dreamed of renting out a castle, sleeping in a mill or in a lighthouse? Well you can, writes Robert Hume
OLD buildings can become so much more than stuffy museums, housing dusty exhibits for hundreds of visitors to peek at over a rope as they file around a one-way system under the beady eyes of custodians.
In the properties managed by the Irish Landmark Trust (ILT) — a non-profit-making educational charity — guests are free to browse, handle and wander to their heart’s content. No chivvying to pass through rooms quickly. No killjoy signs such as “Visitors must remain with the guide at all times”, “Strictly no photography”, and “Please do not touch curtains”. Just be careful not to break things.
Now about to enter its 25th year, the ILT has been responsible for rescuing 25 of Ireland’s most “eccentric and distinctive” properties — many of them small domestic buildings, found in ruins — and converting them into excitingly unconventional self-catering holiday accommodation. Often in remote and picturesque parts, they offer guests the opportunity of a tranquil retreat.
Typically given to the charity by their owners on a lease of up to 50 years, the properties comprise a quirky collection of lighthouses, gate lodges and castles, townhouses and mews cottages, even a schoolhouse.
Inside their walls dwell echoes from the past — be it water cascading down the weir that once powered a corn mill at Bushmills, Antrim or horses whinnying in the stables below as you sleep in the servants’ quarters at Merrion Mews, Dublin.
Things that go bump in the night
Some locations are believed to be haunted: Clomantagh Castle by the ghost of William Burke who died of dysentery during the Great Famine; and the Blackhead Lightkeeper’s House, near Whitehead, Co. Antrim, by the spirit of a former lightkeeper who whispers “strange words” in guests’ ears at night.
Yet, in spite of their rich history, the buildings usually contain every modern convenience and creature comfort that paying guests could wish for, including wifi. A romantic medieval spiral staircase might lie a few feet away from a modern kitchen equipped with a dishwasher and the latest no-frost fridge freezer; a wet room might house a digitally controlled power shower. All this is part of the ILT’s mission to nurture what it calls the “symbiotic relationship between heritage and tourism”.
The Mary Celeste effect
Orla Kelly was Lead Design Consultant for the Irish Landmark Trust for ten years and project managed the design and interior of 19 of its historic buildings.
Our goal, says Kelly, is to create a “Mary Celeste effect” by convincing guests that the former owners, just like the vanished crew who inexplicably abandoned the American ghost ship, have only recently left, leaving their personal possessions behind. Today’s guests are able to visit their world. Before restoration can start there is a period of “detective work”. The building is studied in great detail to establish how best to use it. An advertisement is placed in the local newspaper asking for anyone with interesting stories about it.
Having chipped away at layers of distemper and plaster, walls are re-plastered and whitewashed with lime. The team of designers and architects is careful to take local circumstances into account. For example, by studying the vernacular architecture of the Kilkenny area, it was decided to place a special pigment in the limewash at Clomantagh Castle.Only then can decoration begin.
This involves selecting fabrics and suitable historical colours. The Georgians used a drab white for their ground floor rooms, a muted green on the first floor, and duck blue in the bedrooms. By Victorian times pigments were being manufactured and bright greens and gold were available.
As for furniture, most of it – such as the cast iron bed with two stags, awaiting guests at The Barbican, Glenarm, or the two hundred year-old drum forming a table at Kiln Wing, Bushmills – was bought at antiques auctions.
Unusually, Annes Grove Miniature Castle in Castletownroche, County Cork, was already well furnished because over the years it had regularly received discarded furniture — including Georgian chairs — from the main house, which it has become a smaller version of.
Derelict and dangerous
Some of the buildings that the ILT becomes involved with are in such poor repair that other organisations have refused to touch them. Many sites are totally derelict, sometimes dangerous. Projects have to proceed slowly and painstakingly, using a strict conservation plan drawn up with the help of specialist architects.
Builders, stonemasons, carpenters and joiners are hired to transform the properties, using the best materials to hand. Stones from the beach were used by a team of local residents, led by well-known Irish stonemason Pat McAfee, to rebuild the famine wall surrounding the Land Agent’s House in Termon, Donegal, which had originally been constructed as a famine relief project, and had suffered serious damage in the storm of 1998.
In this process, traditional skills, such as stone masonry, jointing and thatching, are revived that might otherwise have got lost.
Even when the buildings have been made structurally safe, furnishing them might pose further problems. Should a property be brought back to the period when it was built, or be allowed to retain its later lived-in acquisitions? Sometimes, due to limited space or spiral staircases, all the furniture has to be assembled in the rooms.
Internal decoration provides further challenges. A Georgian townhouse in Dublin had up to seven different types of paper on the walls and in the attic, waxed paper used to wrap bread in the 1950s and 60s –pasted there to stop water seeping in.
The costs of conservation and ongoing maintenance normally exceed the revenue earned from holiday rentals, so ILT is dependent on grants and donations in order to continue its work.
Most of these come from the Heritage Council, private donors, and the Irish Landmarkers programme that encourages people to contribute regularly.
Conservation projects often prove very expensive because so much work needs to be done to rescue buildings. One property that at first sight seemed almost beyond saving was Triumphal Arch Lodge at Colebrooke, Co. Fermanagh.
Another was Salterbridge Gatelodge in Cappoquin, County Waterford, which had only walls standing when the Trust took it on.
“The debate at the time was whether is should be conserved as a ruin, or whether it could be properly restored”, says ILT Executive Director, Mary O’Brien. It looked more like “the ruins of Pompeii”, adds Kelly, some of the walls being only two feet high.
The architect at that time undertook serious research to work out what the doors, cornicing and roof would have been like. When a photo of the property later showed up, it proved a surprisingly good likeness.
As the ILT team ventured into the cold and damp schoolhouse at Annaghmore, Sligo, wearing hard hats, they found that cows were sheltering inside.
It was “completely falling apart”, says Kelly: the walls had gaping holes and it was not possible to see the roof at all. With remarkable vision the building was brought back to how it once was.
Further up the west coast work at another site came unexpectedly to a halt. In December 1998 as the builders were waiting for plaster to dry at Termon House, Donegal Bay, torrential rain drove in and soaked it. Just as it was beginning to dry out a second time, a huge whale beached up outside the house. Before the Council managed to remove the unfortunate creature, it began to rot and the smell of its carcass became so unbearable that the builders packed up tools and left.
Eventually, restoration was completed and here as elsewhere, many of the transformations have proved dramatic. Rundown ruins have successfully been converted into properties that are providing truly exceptional holiday homes.
Here are just a handful of the successfully restored properties that this writer has fallen in love with:
Clomantagh Castle, Freshford, Co. Kilkenny, which originally belonged to the Earl of Ormond, is the oldest ILT property. As you walk through this creepy 1430s towerhouse and climb its spiral staircase from the kitchen to the bedroom, the past “echoes in every footstep”. Guests can also wander freely between the tower and the Victorian farmhouse — once the site of a medieval banqueting hall — and experience its rustic charm and original features. On one of the stones is carved a Sheela-na-gig, or symbolic pagan nude.
A Georgian townhouse, 25 Eustace Steet, Dublin, built around 1720, is situated in the heart of the city’s cultural centre. Unlike most ILT buildings, which are found in the countryside, its urban location means that it is constructed of brick. Former residents include wool merchants, a merchant tailor, and a maker of false teeth. Some occupants had social aspirations way beyond what they could afford, and had to settle on fake wood panelling and fake marbling to convey grandeur. Today the house allows guests to step back in time and “experience the elegance of a former way of life”, and comes complete with a Bechstein boudoir piano.
Wicklow Head lighthouse
Wicklow Head Lighthouse, Dunbur Head, Co. Wicklow, built in 1781 and acquired by the ILT in 1996, is able to offer four people and a dog something special. Guests actually stay in the tower itself, not in a lightkeeper’s cottage. The lighthouse’s six vertically arranged octagonal rooms provide “a peace seeker’s haven”. From its high arched windows, 27 in all, set into walls almost a metre thick, the tower offers inspiring views out to the Irish Sea. Furniture is somewhat “minimalist” because it either had to be made in the rooms, or else dismantled to bring it up the winding staircase of the tower. Perfect, as long as you don’t mind the trek up 109 steps to the kitchen at the top. Make sure you pull down your sailcloth window blinds at night – otherwise your lights might confuse ships around the headland.
Kiln Wing Corn Mill
Kiln Wing Old Corn Mill, Bushmills, Co. Antrim, built in the 1830s, looked like a hopeless case when Sam Huey first saw it in 1986. Great holes in the roof, crumbling walls, and nesting birds would have deterred most people, but Huey had a soft spot for the area — his father was born in the nearby village of Dervock — and he was determined to transform the 740 square metre mill into a home.
Many original features have been retained, including the regularly greased cogs and wheels situated at the core of the building, the huge waterwheel, and the grinding stone propped against a wall in the front yard. Everything is in perfect working order. The mill could be “fully up and running within two days”, maintains house manager, Ken Davis. Restoration has been completed using local materials. The timber flooring and the huge beams supporting the roof were salvaged from quayside warehouses in Derry. A range of vernacular furniture and ornaments have been carefully chosen, and a framed 19th century document about salmon fishing, old prints of the mill, and a rare wooden logo from the Great Northern railway adorn the walls.
Annaghmore Schoolhouse, Co. Sligo, built in the 1860s for local children, is an attractive rural L-shaped building surrounded by woodland. This youngest ILT property retains many of its original decorative features, including lattice windows and a projecting oriel window. A schoolroom fireplace, coat hooks for the pupils, and chalkboards add to the authenticity and charm. Should that not be enough to whet your appetite, there is a further attraction. The last tenant, Hughie Savage, who lived at Annaghmore without electricity or running water, did not have a bank account and kept all his money in a tin box which, so the story goes, is still buried somewhere on the premises. Only take care not to miss the unsignposted turn on the N17!
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved