Want to stay in a castle for Christmas? Course you do

Some of Ireland’s finest homes are available for short-term letting over the holiday season

At the top end of the short-term rental market, it's not unusual to find reality and fantasy fuse, making it possible to live out the Downton Abbey or Game Of Thrones experience. And, if you amass the right number of people to chip in and come along, the experience can be snapped up for less than the price of a typical three-star hotel.

Look hard enough and you’ll find grandeur to be enjoyed in castles, stately homes and Big Houses aplenty. Where once these palatial spaces were enjoyed by royalty or the landed gentry, a sip of the (very) good life now has a price tag, thanks to the sharing economy.

Considering a New Year party or Christmas get-together with the jaw-drop factor? Curious to see how the other half live (and decorate)? Now’s your chance to find out.

New Jersey native Elizabeth Marshall McLaughlin had a view to retiring in Ireland, and in the 1980s, John Huston's Galway bolthole St Cleran's was in her crosshairs. Yet even she couldn't have foretold back in 2009 that in the years to come, she and her husband (formerly a head of sales at IMB in Manhattan) would welcome guests to their own castle.


"My husband wanted to retire to Ireland – he's Boston Irish and I'm Philadelphia Irish – yet he left the choosing of the potential abode to me," she explains. "We were on our way to view a property and there in the distance was a derelict castle that hadn't been touched since the potato famine. It had no roof, windows or floors, but it did have amazing views of the mountains and lake."

A €3.5m renovation on Ross Castle, near Moycullen in Co Galway, saw the ivy-covered ruin restored to its former Georgian glory.

Upon arrival at Ross Castle, it's the tidy, emerald front lawn that really takes the breath away. Through the castle's carriage entrance, a tangle of herbaceous-bordered pathways leads visitors to surprises at every turn: stone sculptures, a small pond, angelic statues, a wrought-iron bistro table and chairs. Ross Castle's guests are then brought to Park Hall, previously the castle's carriage-house and servants' quarters. Its former life belies its current grandeur; with eight bedroom and seven bathrooms, Park Hall boasts exposed beams, stone walls, vaulted ceilings, oriental carpets, silk wall hangings (by gardener Lorna McMahon) and a Steinway baby grand. Most of the furnishings came directly from the family home in New Jersey, while other furniture items were sourced at the Victor Mitchell auction house in Tipperary.

Marshall McLaughlin was mindful of the legacy and history of Ross Castle, all the while using local craftspeople. The renovation was presided over from the family home in New Jersey, with blueprints ricocheting between the US and Ireland for several months.

There have been a few 21st-century modifications in the renovation: "When young families come to stay, the teenagers all want internet," smiles Marshall, as she's known. Yet given the estate affords access to a heated indoor pool, billiards room, lake (with rowing-boat) and tennis courts, WiFi soon falls down the priority list for most guests. Park Hall (€800 a night on Airbnb. ie) sleeps 16 guests, with tea with the highly charming and storied owners and a tour of the castle thrown in for good measure.

Marshall enjoys receiving guests, but admits her decision to post a listing on Airbnb was at least in part financially motivated.

“Airbnb comes in very handy when your heating bill is €30,000 a year,” she explains. “All the oil companies around here love it.”

Jim and Kate Nicholson, who live in Lismacue House in Bansha, Co Tipperary, are similarly keen to offer guests a trip to remember (the property accommodates 10 and can be booked for €1,250 a night via HiddenIreland.com). The shimmering jewel in their 200-acre estate is a classic Georgian country house with Gothic accents, updated while still preserving the glorious patina of years past.

Kate’s family has lived in the house since 1704 (purchased at the time for a tidy £923), and many details – among them the drawing room’s wallpaper and cornicing in the library – are original.

"We have been mindful to preserve the integrity of the house and exterior," Jim explains, likely referring to the Gothic porch designed by William Robertson (the Irish architect born in 1770). While Lismacue House's Blue Room – decorated in calming blues and whites – looks out onto the Galtee Mountains, Jim's favourite sleeping space is the Four Poster bedroom.

“There are a couple of bullet holes on the bed’s headboard,” he says. “We’re still not sure what the circumstances are.”

That intriguing detail aside, the Nicholsons’ guests enjoy Cordon Bleu cooking, thanks to Kate and their daughter Rachel, both trained at the Parisian institute. Their guests – usually American or French families – can also access the stud farm on the estate, and peruse the temperature-controlled wine cellar. “There are a few gems in there – a few Margauxs and a 1964 Beychevelle,” says Jim.

“When they stay here, people like to get a sense of the tradition and history, and how we came here,” he says. “But the vibe in general is very relaxed and laidback. People don’t come here to be exercised.”

There's a similarly tranquil experience to be had in lake-dotted Fermanagh, where the Earl of Erne has opened the imposing Crom Castle in Enniskillen to visitors. The west wing can be rented for Christmas week, December 23rd-28th (on rental site elegant.ie for €6,750 for the week, and sleeps 12).

The current earl, John Crichton, grew up in the castle but was schooled in England. "My father and I started the business here in 2003, and had no option but to use the house for commercial reasons. We have zilch money, save for this great big asset. Even the Queen opens her back garden now."

The castle, on a 1,900-acre estate on Lough Erne, was built in 1843 and designed by Edward Blore (who was responsible for the completion of Buckingham Palace). The earl is the seventh member of the Crichton family to take over the property.

“Growing up here was amazing, a privilege,” he says. “It was lovely to explore and run around. People always say to me, ‘you’re so lucky to have grown up here’. I always reply, ‘would you like to see the bills?’”

Upkeep may be a headache, but for visitors, the west wing vibe is decidedly opulent and warm (with WiFi, heating and en-suite rooms).

The west wing is a self-catering part of the castle, but next year, the earl plans to offer another, more immersive experience to visitors as personal guests of his: one which will, he says, open doors to other members of the aristocracy.

“I’m an outgoing person and love people, so thank goodness this is the industry I can do to keep my house,” he says, referring to the growing short-term rental market.

Durhamstown Castle, near Navan in Co Meath, meanwhile, dates back to 1420 and has four original vaulted rooms (the castle can be rented for €1,190 a night via Durhamstowncastle. com, and sleeps 16 in eight double rooms). The eye-catching decor throughout runs the gamut from the middle ages to the Victorian era; from eclectic antiques to vintage shop finds.

Sue and David Prickett bought the castle in 1994, moved into it in 1996 and started working on the renovation bit by bit. They started hosting the Posh Nosh Supper Club during the Celtic tiger crash "to bring in a few shillings". Hosting Airbnb guests was the natural next step when guests, from farmers to lawyers, asked if they provided overnight accommodation. "You need to do more than sell dinner to 15 people to keep a place this size going," says Sue.

Currently, guests run the gamut. “Some families come and don’t want any interaction,” says Sue. “Others, like groups of Americans, want lots of interaction. Hen parties love to stay in the castle, while bigger groups use our converted stable barn. We threw ourselves into it and sometimes it’s as much fun for us as it is them.”

Sue was keen to blend treasured finds from vintage stores (like the now-defunct 3rd Policeman in Rathmines), with family keepsakes to create an informal interior. And despite the grandness of the castle’s 600-year backstory, the vibe is pointedly informal. “We love lots of colour, and we were very much led by our own taste,” she says.

Of the castle’s decidedly singular decor, Sue adds: “We never had a huge amount of money, and we decided that we didn’t want to do a painstaking restoration, and we’d never gut the place.

“We didn’t want stuff to be matchy-matchy. A lot of it is personal, as we wanted to raise a family here. We’ve always just patted it down and hand-painted it, and gentled it along.”

To see these listings, log onto www.airbnb.ie.

Other castles to rent on Airbnb

Nearer Dublin, it's possible to book into a Martello tower; a hallowed coastline icon. Sutton Martello tower is one of a handful left standing of the 74 built in the early 19th century, to safeguard against a possible French invasion. And like Napoleon himself, this two-bedroom Martello tower (€200 a night) may be small, but plenty about it – from the sweeping 360-degree sea views to its original limestone staircase – packs quite a punch. A word of warning, though: parties not permitted.

If you'd rather an authentic space boasting original layout and features like whitewashed stone walls and staircases, there is a room (complete with roll-top bath) in Aughavannagh Barracks in Wicklow (€92 a night), once the shooting lodge of Charles Stewart Parnell.

If you'd rather a prime slice of unabashed opulence, with upcycled antiques and crushed velvet on king-sized beds, there is the 19th-century castellated Wilton Castle in Enniscorthy, Wexford (€1,000 a night, sleeping 14).