Jennifer O’Connell: The State should not buy Luggala

Opening the national chequebook is not the way to secure its future

The Irish love affair with property is like a bad marriage. We lurch from obsession to betrayal, and back again.

Our attitude to the Big Houses of the past is no exception. In the post-independence period, the former homes of Anglo-Irish landowners were looked on with disdain, as relics of a time we’d rather forget.

By the latter part of the century, this had mellowed into a kind of benign indifference. Recently, we’ve begun to view them with a more proprietorial eye.

Now one of these properties, Luggala Lodge in Co Wicklow, is on the market for €28 million, and the debate about whether the Irish state should rush in to snap it up is under way.

The idea was first mooted by Irish Times journalist, Ian O'Riordan, who spent a year living in an unheated cottage on the 5,000-acre estate, and fell in love with what he called a "miraculously preserved kingdom that by turns of the hour or light can be touchingly calm, or tortuously bleak".

To some, wrote O’Riordan, the €28 million price tag “might sound a bit steep for an old hunting lodge and some smaller dwellings on largely infertile ground. To me, it sounds like an absolute steal.”

In the Dail this week, Labour arts spokesperson Joan Burton and AAA-PBP TD Gino Kenny echoed the calls for the State to consider acquiring the property.

It is a romantic notion – but like many romantic notions, it is probably best regarded as fantasy.

To secure the future of houses like Luggala, there is a need for more creative solutions than automatically reaching for the national chequebook.

The lodge's charm and colourful history aside (it has the air of a place Snow White might have retired to after she married Prince Charming, has been immortalised in poetry by Seamus Heaney, and described by Bono as an “artistic epicenter”), the price tag is at least partly – if not substantially – a reflection of the house’s location.

It is set amid spectacular beauty on the edge of the peaty, Guinness-black waters of Lough Tay, surrounded by the 18,000-hectare Wicklow National Park.

It is this location that is at the nub of public concerns about its future. In 2006, the state bought 1,600 acres from the owners, the Guinness family, for €1.725 million, allowing the linking of two previously separate areas of the National Park.

In a letter to The Irish Times earlier this week, Roger Garland of Keep Ireland Open echoed the call for the government to step in and buy the rest of it.

"The last of the Guinness owners, Garech Browne, has always allowed access for walkers.

“In return we respected his right to privacy of the house and grounds. Luggala attracts hundreds of walkers at weekends to enjoy the walking route to Lough Dan as well as the opportunity to climb Fancy Mountain and Knocnacloghoge,” he wrote.

Ian Lumley, heritage officer of An Taisce, agrees that “because of its locational sensitivity, the future of Luggala needs to be considered in conjunction with the long-term management of the Wicklow National Park.”

However, Lumley takes the view that “the government can’t be expected to have an open cheque book every time a major historic property comes suddenly on the market”.

Minister of State Michael Ring evidently takes a similar view. "The State doesn't have that kind of money," he said on Wednesday, appealing to the Guinness family to donate the house and lands instead, or at least to negotiate.
"The department could only consider acquiring this property if the price fell within a certain range in this context."
Prof Terence Dooley of Maynooth University, the author of a comprehensive 2003 report on the future of our historic houses, agrees that "the onus shouldn't always be on the State to buy these houses. It is doing an excellent job of maintaining the houses it has already purchased.

“But it can’t be expected to take on every house that comes on the market. Instead, we need to think about how we stop it getting to a situation where these houses had to be sold. “

And that is the crux of the issue.

There are many more fine old Irish houses still in private ownership that may eventually come up for sale: most recently, Westport House sold to Mayo hoteliers, the Hughes family, despite the hopes of many that it would end up in state ownership.

In his 2003 report, Prof Dooley pointed out that, in the past, state investment in historic houses had not always been a guarantee of their future, especially when public funds were under pressure.

Irish Heritage Trust

The solution arrived at in 2006 by Dooley and then-Taoiseach Bertie Ahern was the establishment of the Irish Heritage Trust (IHT), which was set up to safeguard the future of historic properties when the owners could not afford to carry out restoration work or manage public events. Fota House was secured in this way, after it was taken over in 2007.

The trust also now manages Strokestown House, and will be involved in regenerating Johnstown House, mostly using endowments raised philanthropically.

Lumley’s preference would have been for some similar arrangement to be reached for Luggala.

“We need to develop alternative structures to ensure that important properties can be maintained in the public interest, such as developing the structures already in place through the Irish Heritage Trust,” he says.

Dooley points out that there is an action plan for the sustainable future of Irish historic houses in private ownership, which aims to keep the original families in situ where possible, offering support including tax breaks.

“The government needs to be involved in promoting our heritage assets, and developing specific visitor programmes around them.

“And I would argue for the need to educate the public, beginning with national school children, on the importance of our built heritage as a national economic asset.”

Should the Guinness family donate to the State, "it would by any measure be a significant addition to our stock of publicly-owned heritage properties and lands and would add greatly to the integration of the Dublin and Wicklow national parks", Minister Ring said.
If the original owners of a house like Luggala choose not to donate, and can no longer afford the upkeep of the house, then passing it into the hands of wealthy private investors – especially ones with deep pockets – may not always be the worst outcome.

In the case of Luggala, the €28 million price tag is likely to be just the starting point.

As any owner of a historic house can tell you, even the most lovingly maintained properties can be eye-wateringly expensive to run.

With around 1,200 families homeless in Ireland in December, rents at record levels, house prices climbing again, and tough lending rules making mortgages a pipe dream for many prospective buyers, we do need urgent action we need on housing.

But the action we need is not the acquisition of another Farmleigh-style bolthole for visiting dignitaries.

This week, the Peter McVerry Trust made a submission to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing and Local Government to look at how to make use of vacant housing.

It says there are 13 empty houses for every homeless person in the country.

It might be an idea to ensure every Irish person has access to at least one small house for themselves and their family, before we start hankering after acquiring more big ones.

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