It sold for €25 million in 2006, and is now priced at €8m, but Humewood Castle remains a monument to a lost era of duchesses, servants and investment bankers, writes MICHAEL PARSONS
A VISIT TO Humewood Castle Estate in Co Wicklow prompts emotions not dissimilar to those experienced by ragged French peasants stumbling – dazzled and dumbfounded – into the Sun King’s Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. All four carriage drives end in a lunar expanse of Japanese zen-like gravel and a vaulted porte-cochère (carriage-porch), allowing epicene earls and delicate duchesses to alight under cover, protected from the soft Irish rain.
This was the most expensive country house sold in Ireland during the Septic Tiger boom when it changed hands, in 2006, for €25 million. Now it’s for sale again with an asking price of €8 million – a price-drop steep enough to cause a dowager countess to reach for the smelling salts. The joint agents are Sherry FitzGerald and Christie’s International Real Estate.
The property is a classic Victorian sporting estate featuring a truly astounding Gothic-fantasy mansion on 427 acres of the Garden of Ireland, with parkland, woods, private lakes and stables, along with no fewer than three staff cottages and another three gate lodges.
The main residence alone has 38,000 sq ft of accommodation – about the size of 25 normal Irish family houses – but will still only attract a €100 Household Charge. There are 15 en-suite bedrooms, a ballroom , a minstrels’ gallery, a fairy-tale tower and enough staff accommodation to house the entire below-stairs cast of Downton Abbey.
And the list goes on. A butler’s pantry, a billiard room, a smoking room, a wine cellar, a gun room, a flower room, a housemaids’ delve larder, a plate closet, separate day and night nurseries for the toff-lets . . . good heavens, you’d need a SatNav just to find your way around the house, not to speak of the entire estate. Or you could, of course, simply reactivate the servants’ bell system for summoning staff.
Wandering through the house after an earful of Morning Ireland gloom is to enter a parallel universe of unbridled privilege. You half expect to meet the Duchess of Cornwall (dear old Camilla) stubbing out a quickie Benson and Hedges on a Sèvres porcelain ashtray en route to saddle up in the stable yard. A profusion of stained glass, marble chimneypieces, painted ceilings, oak panelling and sheer, unadulterated opulence will, depending on your politics, encourage either delusions of grandeur or simmering rage.
The bedroom suites all have individual names, including the Dante, the Vivaldi, the Napoleonic, the Les Tuileries and the Marie Antoinette.
Once, this type of property used to make Irish developers turn 40 shades of green with envy and to speculate about its “potential”. And, sure enough, when the estate was last offered for sale six years ago, Galway developer John Lally’s company Lalco bought it for €25 million.
Guess what he planned to do? Right in one, of course. A luxury (yawn) golf resort development scheduled to cost €250 million. But the omens – although largely unseen – were already gathering. On March 7th, 2008, The Irish Times reported that Wicklow County Council had granted planning permission for the development. A brief story in the same edition mentioned that Lehman Brothers had “suspended two traders from its equity derivatives desk in London after the US investment bank initiated a review of the valuations of some of their positions”. Six months later, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy. And Bertie’s boom went kaboom.
Needless to say, Lalco is, to borrow a euphemism, now helping Nama with its enquiries. And Humewood stands, like the statue of Ozymandias, stranded in the wasteland of Ireland’s crash while “boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away”. Or, rather, the hungry Wicklow hills do.
Dublin is 44 miles away and the doorstep village is Kiltegan – best known to older Irish people as the home of St Patrick’s Missionary Society.
Humewood Castle Estate, Kiltegan, Co Wicklow
Asking €8m, a big drop on previous selling price of €25m
Agent Sherry FitzGerald and Christie’s International Real Estate
Spice of Irish life
Humewood Castle was built between 1867 and 1870 for William Wentworth Fitzwilliam Hume Dick, an Anglo-Irish gent and MP for Co Wicklow. The design was by William White, an English ecclesiastical architect, but the project ran way over budget. Despite an initial cap of £15,000, the builders ended up charging £25,000 – a then-stupendous sum. Sounds just like an episode of RTÉ’s Room To Improve. There were tears, an almighty row and a lawsuit.
The house remained in the Hume family’s ownership until the death of the last descendant, Catherine Marie-Madeleine Hume-Weygand, in 1992. It was then bought (reputedly for £1 million) by German-born businesswoman and polo player Renata Coleman, who subsequently decamped to Dalkey.
In recent years, the estate has occasionally been used for filming (including The Tudors) and hosted private parties. Visitors have allegedly included Pierce Brosnan, The Spice Girls, Jennifer Aniston, John Travolta and Winona Ryder. Time for those smelling salts again. Class just ain’t what it used to be. The gentry must be spinning in their marble mausoleums.