Making a 450-year-old castle feel like home again

Caroline Delaney meets a couple whose idea of a happy new home is a currently uninhabitable who dismissed the idea of a turnkey home and opted instead for a 450-year-old castle which they plan to renovate.
Making a 450-year-old castle feel like home again

You’ve got your turnkey property where new owners can walk in and just switch on the kettle... Or for similar money you could become the proud, and hardworking owner of a castle.

Liz and Gordon Jones opted for the 450-year-old option.

But any kettles boiled at Sigginstown Castle in Tacumshane in County Wexford, might be over an open fire.

It’s a bit of a work in progress, if you’re an optimist, and more of a crumbling moneypit, if you’re not.

The property consists of three buildings which were built in different eras: a tower built circa 1550; an attached house built in the 17th or 18th century; and the remains of two walls which were once probably part of an agricultural building.

So the tiaras and velvet robes might have to stay in storage a bit longer.

Liz and Gordon are Americans of Irish and Scottish ancestry who have a passion for all things mediaeval.

Their two children are off at college in the US, so they figured it was the perfect time to go castle-shopping — with help from professional castle-hunter, Bena Stutchbury who was involved in bringing Kilcoe Castle to Jeremy Irons’ attention.

Bena finds properties for anyone looking for castles or similar buildings that may or may not be on the open market.

She doesn’t have a formal rating for the properties she sources, but describes Sigginstown Castle as “a humdinger” and “really special”.

The Jones don’t just want to renovate a castle as a home, they also want to create a “place for living history and community events”.

Liz, a global programme manager providing technical services and training, explains: “Our family has participated in medieval re-enactment for the last 30 years.

“We have always dreamed of having a venue to teach traditional and historical skills, and learn more ourselves.

“We would like to see the building used for community activities and workshops at various stages of construction.”

That might be a worthy ambition, but the couple seem to be grounded in reality too: “We were especially attracted to the attached house, as we realised that spiral staircases in keeps are tough as you get older.

“And Gordon is adamant that proper plumbing is installed — there is a garderobe, but we will use that for ducts and wiring rather than its original intention.”

A polite enquiry as to whether the couple are billionaires is met with shrieks of laughter: “Definitely not billionaires or millionaires — probably not even thousandaires,” says Gordon.

“Since we are not fabulously wealthy, our challenge will be to balance creativity, cost and conservation. Gordon does not want to eat cat food in his old age due to this project!” notes Liz.

Gordon, an emergency medical technician with a local ambulance company in Connecticut, also worked as a professional draughtsman for many years, so hopefully it will be just the latter skills he’ll need for this project.

He is also a professional musician, singing church music, classical and opera, as well as playing American and Irish folk music on guitar.

Liz isn’t afraid of a challenge either — she took up the fiddle two years ago to learn Irish trad music, having not touched it since age 15.

The couple want to renovate the property, which is listed as a historical monument, to a habitable condition.

And they want to get the community involved as much as possible.

They explain: “We are sponsoring a student design competition. We hope to get students to submit design ideas for the property.

“We hope to involve the winner in the project going forward if that is feasible.”

The design should conserve the tower in a state contemporary with its 1550 construction — it will be a crudely liveable space but with few, if any, modern amenities.

However, the Jones want to live in the attached house while minimising the impact on the historical fabric.

“We are mediaeval buffs — but we also want to live in the 21st century so we will need plumbing and flush toilets etc,” said Gordon.

The Jones’ new ‘home’ has no roof, windows or doors, but it does have parapets, a watchtower, garderobes, a portcullis and a machicolation (an opening in the battlements, through which stones or other material, such as boiling water or oil, could be dropped on attackers).

They have been busy clearing some of the weeds from the site this week and hope to draft in family and friends as well as experts.

They have found some bits of broken pottery and some early 17th century cobbles but are not expecting or hoping to find some archeological treasures.

  • The design contest runs until December 18, and the prize is €1,000.
  • See or look up

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