Their passion for medieval history meant Liz and Gordon Jones were smitten when they laid eyes on Sigginstown Castle, in a windswept field on County Wexford’s most southeasterly tip.
The property may have been roofless for decades, uninhabited for at least a century, missing a staircase (removed to ensure intrepid livestock didn’t stray upwards to the parapets) — but as Liz says at the outset: “It’s a ruin and a lovely one, we like to think.”
Liz and Gordon had travelled from Connecticut to buy the protected structure, featuring a 16th-century tower and a 17th-century house, and restore it as their retirement home.
“Owning a piece of history was irresistible,” Gordon, a retired medic, tells architect Hugh Wallace in.
Sigginstown Castle stars in the RTÉ One series and Hugh observes: “Whoever takes on the task of restoring this grim fortress will need either a king’s ransom or a wealth of DIY determination.”
The couple bought the property for €150,000 and plan to spend “no more than €350,000” on restoring it, says Liz before they begin the work.
“We decided our children don’t need any money — they can earn their own — so we can pour it down this black hole for a while.
“The tower house dates to 1520, we think, and the house was built in 1670.
“He [Gordon] wanted to retire here; I wanted somewhere a bit warmer but once we realised we could buy a castle here I became much more interested.”
Both medieval re-enactors, their drive is impressive and they are hands-on onsite.
They also engage what Hugh describes as “a cast of thousands” when it comes to tradespeople, craftsmen and women and artisans as they strive to complete work using materials and methods in keeping with the period.
The main door to the tower was bricked up at some point in history, and the only way through is via a low entrance they’ve nicknamed the “hobbit hole”.
“This is our pit of despair,” jokes Gordon.
The area that was once a grand chamber is now a floorless void.
Liz, a global project manager, has also decided to hand-make bricks and even floor tiles, using a medieval kiln, built by local stonemason Mick Carroll.
Mick is one of many trades and craftspeople engaged in the build and recreates the ruined tower battlements by hand.
The couple buy 23 oak trees which were being felled, at a cost of €5,000, to create a green oak roof using medieval tools and techniques.
“The people who think I’m mad start with my family, but that’s not new, I don’t think I’d be comfortable if people weren’t questioning what I was doing,” says Gordon.
The couple move into a newbuild adjacent to the existing buildings, which they construct for €100,000.
Hugh wonders whether this block-built structure “will ever blend in seamlessly here”, but adds that every inhabitant “brought their own modernity to this site”, from the Siggins family who built the tower in the 16th century, to the Cromwellian lieutenant William Jacobs whose family built the big house.
Sigginstown is only accessible by road and its neighbouring lake is separated from the sea by a sand bar, but the castle was originally a maritime one, according to historian Linda Shine.
“Today looks like it is firmly inland but at the time the lake was open to the sea,” she informs Liz and Gordon.
“Seas were highways and routeways in the past ways to get around.”
The roof frame on, the couple limewashes the interior.
“It’s kind of tough [work], but If it was easy everyone would be doing this castle stuff,” says Gordon.
After spending five months’ lockdown in the US, Liz and Gordon spend their obligatory quarantine onsite, and in April 2021, pandemic restrictions on construction have lifted.
They engage blacksmith Finin Liam Christie and Colm Hassett to work on the tower’s defensive door.
Working with a heritage officer and conservation engineer Trevor Wood, Liz and Gordon have steel fitted in September to shore up the Cromwellian house walls and the roof, at a cost of €34,000.
Three years on, when Hugh revisits to see their finished product to date in April 2022 and the budget has jumped from their planned €350,00 to €425,000.
“It could have been worse, it could have been better,” says Liz of the costs.
The couple still use the newbuild adjacent, which includes a kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and living area.
Hugh is impressed as he looks around the interior of the tower and big house, noting that many castles or old houses such as these are “open to the public but nobody lives in them and they just sort of lose their soul”.
“Buildings love to be loved to be loved used, windows opened, the doors opened, and people walking through,” he adds.
“This has been the project of a lifetime for Liz and Gordon but also for so many others — a cast of thousands were given an opportunity here to express their ability and use their talents. All of the best knowledge is in this building.
The void inside has become a magnificent open-plan space, with mezzanines, showing the tower’s stonework at all levels.
“We’d like to have it be a small entertainment space, we’d like to have musical events in here and a historical tavern,” says Liz.
Hugh concludes their conservation work is “exemplary”, adding: “The pair of you are miracle workers.”
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