Tommy Barker returns to Parknasilla to learn about its heritage and designer

Is there an architect in any period of Irish history with as many hotels and suites to his credit, as Kerry’s James Francis Fuller? 

Tommy Barker returns to Parknasilla to learn about its heritage and designer

Born 180 years ago this year, he’s now recalled here in 2015’s Irish Heritage Week (August 22-29).

The fruits (some of them exotic fruits, others more like lemons?) of the Celtic Tiger building splurge saw hotels mushroom around the country, creating millions in fees for architects at home, and abroad, as the international chains piled in, and as spa and golf resorts became de rigour for the masses.

But, before that ‘golden age’ of 21st century frenetic activity, and some misplaced investments, there was another period of targeting nascent tourism, in the mid 19th century.

The enterprising professional (also an actor, and author, as well as architect) to the forefront was this Kerryman Fuller, born to what’s described as minor Irish gentry, on the Ring of Kerry at a house called Clashnacree.

He was responsible for over 200 Irish buildings, from asylums to churches and castles, to follies and Farmleigh in the Phoenix Park, and Kylemore Abbey in the west.

And, while Fuller was responsible for many fine, purpose-built hotels such as the 1890s-built Parknasilla and Kenmare’s Park Hotel (both for Great Southern Railways), many other of his edifices started out as private homes, and only turned to hotel and guest use in later decades and centuries.

Among his later ‘converts’ to now serve a wider, appreciative public as hotels are the likes of Ballyseede Castle in Tralee (pictured above), built originally for the Blennehassett family, Ashford Castle in Mayo which now has had a series of extensions, and following its most recent sale, a €40m upgrade, and Mount Falcon (pictured below), also in Mayo, on the River Moy, which has many Victorian design touches akin to the palette at Parknasilla and Kenmare’s Park.

Given the many similarities, it’s little wonder that Irish Manor House Hotels of Ireland is accommodation sponsor of Heritage Week, as its 29-strong boutique and castle hotel portfolio includes at least three Fuller designs, Parknasilla, Mount Falcon and Ballyseede Castle in Tralee.

Parknasilla, built as part of the mid and late-1800s rise in tourism, fuelled by the spread of railways to places like Killarney, Kenmare, Galway, Bundoran and Bray, was built in the 1890s and had a special place in Fuller’s enormous output, replacing as it did a former country house on the rocky fingers of land dipping into the Kenmare River by Sneem.

It’s next to the ruins of the Bland family’s Derryquin Castle, ancestral home to James Franklin Fuller on his mother Frances’s side, and at one stage the Blands controlled 32,000 acres in Kerry.

The UK’s prime minister David Cameron also has Bland family ancestry.

Don’t be disinclined by the surname, there’s royal dramas in them, especially the actress Dorothy or Dora Bland, who bore 10 children out of wedlock to the Duke of Clarence, later to become King William IV.

William died without legitimate heirs, assisting Victoria’s ascension to the English throne.

Just how much of this got discussed when Victoria visited Killarney as monarch for eight days in 1861 isn’t told, but she did foster Victorian Britain’s embracing of Ireland as a holiday destination, a relationship that has endured since, with peaks and troughs like the waves in Kenmare River.

“It was called Kenmare River, rather than Kenmare Bay, as that extended the salmon fishing rights right out the peninsula to the sea for the Landowne Estate,” explains Parknasilla walks guide (and Fuller fan) Kevin Larkin, a font of much local historical and heritage wisdom, a purveyor of some local news (he’s also Sneem’s postman).

He’s a former employee at Parknasilla,having set up its clay pigeon shooting and archery ranges, as this Irish Examiner reporter is: I worked there seasonally in the 1980s.

In my, eh, professional capacity, I revisited Parknasilla in late July, after an absence of some 30 years, to learn some more about James Franklin Fuller for Heritage Week, getting to stay one night in the hotel’s suitably plush three-roomed penthouse (a far cry from the staff quarters of the ‘80s, I vaguely recall), while former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern was also a guest a floor below, in the hotel’s Princess Grace suite.

Bertie Ahern’s a loyal and annual visitor at Parknasilla (following the less-regular footsteps of the likes of Princes Grace, Charles De Gaulle, George Bernard Shaw, and journalism students) and Kevin Larkin told a first-hand, delicious media-friendly story about a time (2005?) when TV crews came to Parknasilla to interview Ahern about a breaking news story, to do with the IRA, guns and Colombia Farc guerillas.

A live radio interview was being conducted with An Taoiseach when suddenly the sound of shooting peppered the Sneem soundscape.

The order ‘Ceasefire’ was barked up and down phonelines, along all appropriately diplomatic channels and in rather undiplomatic language.

The message got relayed to Kevin Larkin, over by Fuller’s Derryquin castle ruins, and Parksnasila’s clay pigeons descended, in sudden, imposed silence, like doves of peace.

It’s oral heritage on top of physical heritage - and an example of why you should always take a walk on the wild side, with those in the know.

See www.heritageweek.com 

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