Labour of love to restore former family castle

A retired Wall Street investment banker is spending millions of euros “on a labour of love” rebuilding a castle which was once in his family’s possession for hundreds of years.

Labour of love to restore former family castle

A retired Wall Street investment banker is spending millions of euros “on a labour of love” rebuilding a castle which was once in his family’s possession for hundreds of years.

Stephen Evans-Freke is painstakingly rebuilding Castle Freke, originally constructed as a mansion house in the 1750s, but which had impressive battlements added to it later. The castle, which is situated near Rosscarbery, Co Cork, has impressive views of the sea and surrounding land. On a clear day, you can see Fastnet Rock.

Stephen explained that the Evans’ side of the family were Welsh Celts, while the Frekes were Norse Vikings. They both arrived in Ireland around the same time, in the late 1570s. The Frekes bought land and the old Rathbarry Castle from the Barry clan shortly after their arrival. The Barrys were the dominant force in the area at the time.

The Frekes and Evans intermarried and became Barons of Carbery in 1715. The current Castle Freke was built by John Evans-Freke, although, as Stephen pointed out, there was clear evidence on the site of an older “fortified Elizabethan ‘strong house’.”

His Norse, Welsh, and Irish heritage are to the fore in the rebuilding programme and can be seen in some of the magnificent plaster ceilings which are being put into the castle. The type of plasterwork being carried out by experts hasn’t been undertaken in Europe for hundreds of years.

Stephen Evans-Freke with his partner Barbara Birt at Castle Freke Castle in West Cork. Picture: Dan Linehan
Stephen Evans-Freke with his partner Barbara Birt at Castle Freke Castle in West Cork. Picture: Dan Linehan

One of the impressive reliefs on the ceilings is a depiction of the Children’s of Lir legend, replete with resplendent swans. But Stephen has a sense of humour and in one corner, he’s added a small frog poking his head out and smoking a cigar.

To honour his Viking heritage, there’s a large plaster ceiling depiction of the Norse god Odin and his two protective wolves. It also features the legendary Valkyries collecting the bodies of fallen heroes from the battlefield to bring them to Valhalla. Freke is incidentally the Norse name for a wolfman.

For his Celtic/Welsh ancestry, he has created another ceiling scene, this time depicting the Lady of the Lake presenting the legendary sword Excalibur to King Arthur. There are also two dragons fighting, which signifies the one-time struggle for supremacy between Wales and England.

The magnificent music room has had an entire plaster ceiling installed, the inspiration for which came from the ceiling of Lincoln Cathedral. Stone flooring recently put down in part of the house came from a medieval monastery in the Burgundy region of France.

“It’s a bit of a pay as you go project,” says Stephen, who declined to comment on what the final bill for the restoration project was likely to cost him.

Funeral shrouds don’t come with pockets. You’re not going to be able to take it (money) with you. You might as well do something worthwhile with it.

There was a major fire in the castle in 1909 and when it was rebuilt, the plaster walls were replaced with concrete. A team of 20 workmen, made up of stonemasons, plasterers, sculptors, and carpenters, have stripped the walls of the old concrete and are preparing to re-plaster all of them.

The 40-plus chimneys have already been relined and the vast majority of the battlements have been repaired, as have many external walls on land surrounding the castle.

“All of the parapets were knocked for their lead in the 1950s,” says Stephen. “We’ve probably moved the world market on lead restoring them. We had two craftsmen who came out of retirement to do it.”

In particular, he has great praise for his master stonemason, Micheál Ó Suilleabháin.

He painstakingly replaced stone on the battlements and other parts of the building, most of which was cut from local quarries. Some old quarries in the area were reopened to source the same kind of stone.

“It’s been sandblasted so lichen can grow on it and give it that weathered look like the rest of the stones,” Stephen says.

Picture: Dan Linehan.
Picture: Dan Linehan.

His family owned Castle Freke up to 1921, but they didn’t leave it because of the political turmoil of the time. In fact, the Evans-Frekes openly supported the winning side.

“My great uncle, Baron John Carey, was a great supporter of Michael Collins. He was the first man in Munster to own an aeroplane used to put on flying shows at which he would raise funds for the cause of independence.”

The castle was later taken over by another family. Stephen bought it back in 1999, “but with no particular intention at the time of restoring it”.

However, thoughts of finally getting his hands back on the family pile were sown when he was quite young.

“We had a painting of the castle in our family home,” he says. “My father brought me to see the castle when I was 12. It was very forlorn-looking. This is about roots. My aim is to get the main block restored in the next five years.”

Stephen says he is also going to put a lot of effort into restoring the gardens, and will work with Cork County Council experts on the best way to do this. Eventually, he hopes to open them up to the public. Once the castle is refurbished, he plans to spend part of his time living there, but would also open it on occasion to the public for charity events.

“The castle and the approximate 170-acre estate have been put into a trust to preserve it for future generations of the family.”

From mining and biotech to trad music and fishing

Stephen Evans-Freke was born in Ashbourne, Co Meath. He is the youngest son of the late Peter Evans-Freke, the 11th Lord Carbery. Stephen’s father was an engineer, but as there was no work for such professionals at the time in Ireland, the family moved to England when he was at a young age.

After graduating in 1973 from Cambridge University with a law degree, Stephen moved to South Africa, where he worked with IBM to build the first computer programme for valuing gold mines.

In 1976, he moved to New York and became an investment banker working in Wall Street. In the 1980s, Stephen concentrated much of his efforts on financing the first generation of biotech companies, a feat he is especially proud of as many of these companies went on to produce life-saving and life-improving treatments.

He was lead investment banker to Genentech, AMGEN, Centocor, and a number of other leading biotech companies. He left Wall Street in 1990. Stephen describes himself as having a couple of great passions in his life, apart from renovating the castle.

“I’m a passionate environmentalist and very much supportive of sustainable farming,” he said proudly as he looked down from the castle turrets on a herd of horned Aberdeen Angus grazing in a field below.

“I also love traditional music.”

He also likes his fishing, and big fish at that. Stephen spends a lot of his time in the Caribbean, having moved to the US Virgin Islands in 2008, and prefers nothing better than fishing for big marlin.

He also enjoys scuba diving, sailing, tennis, playing the piano, reading history and philosophy, and horseback riding. Stephen is a well-known philanthropist. He founded new ventures on the US Virgin Islands, including the leading Caribbean air ambulance company, AeroMD.

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