Celtic Tiger palazzo on brink of ruin

One of Co Wicklow’s most stunning houses – a wisteria-clad Italianate Georgian mansion on 93 acres near Glendalough – needs €2m to rescue it from clear and present danger


When Michelle Obama and her daughters visited Glendalough in Co Wicklow last week their convoy whizzed past the smart entrance to Derrybawn House outside the nearby village of Laragh. Behind an electric gate, and up a gravelled avenue bordering a deer park, is one of the Garden County’s most stunning houses – a wisteria-clad Georgian mansion built in the Italian style that could have been transplanted from a rolling Tuscan hillside.

The splendid pile may not be as well known as St Kevin’s monastic settlement but Derrybawn House, on 93 acres and for sale by private treaty through Lisney for €2 million, is just as emblematic a historical monument – albeit illustrating a more recent chapter in Irish history. The house epitomises the folly and excesses of the first decade of the 21st century in Ireland.

The house was originally built in the early 19th century for a gentry family but following Independence was home to the prominent Sweetman family. By the end of the 20th century it had become an exclusive guesthouse.

Investment projects
In 2001, Derrybawn was acquired, for €2.85 million, by Tom Dowling – a former tax inspector turned financial and property investment guru. He set up a company called First Equity Group, described as “an Irish investment company specialising in sourcing and placing equity and mezzanine finance” which managed investment projects for “high net worth clients and institutional investors”. Plans included developing luxury apartments in Beverly Hills, California, and SnOasis – a £600 million plan to build the world’s first indoor ski resort in Suffolk.

Dowling and his wife Marie reputedly spent €7 million refurbishing Derrybawn to create a Celtic Tiger palazzo with lashings of marble, solid oak floors, plasterwork ceilings, a closed-circuit television security system, a kitchen anchored by a vast French Lacanche cooker, underfloor heating, a wine cellar and a sauna. An astro-turf putting green and an artificial ornamental pleasure lake were built on the lawn.

In 2005, the house was advertised to let, with an asking monthly rental of €10,000. Apparently there were no takers.

Following the financial crisis of 2008, First Equity Group collapsed into liquidation and the Dowlings departed. The estate agent said simply the property was being sold “on the instructions of a bank”.

At first glance, from the avenue, the cut-stone and brick-built house looks very smart but, up close, weeds pushing up through the gravelled drive are the first tell-tale signs of trouble.

Stepping inside is like going behind a film set and discovering the reality behind the deceptive facade. The nine–bedroom house includes a connected, self-contained mews with a separate courtyard entrance. In all there’s more than 8,200sq ft of accommodation and some two dozen rooms. Almost all are echoingly bare and stripped of furnishings.

There is evidence aplenty of an elaborate, and clearly expensive, refurbishment throughout but recent neglect is beginning to take its toll.

The heating hasn’t been on for more than three years, and as a consequence some of the walls are disfigured by mildew and water is leaking in through unrepaired guttering.

Most shockingly, the solid-oak floors are buckling in many of the rooms – in some cases rising in grotesque foot-high protuberances which resemble contemporary art installations.

There are a few traces of the former inhabitants. Abandoned soft toys in a child’s bedroom. A leopard-skin patterned armchair in a marble bathroom. In a wardrobe, some men’s jackets hang limply alongside a suit-bag from Blacktie – the formal menswear dress hire chain which was itself a casualty of the crash. Beside the master bedroom is a walk-in strongroom with three (presumably) empty metal safes – one designed for a shotgun.

The house is set on 93 acres – mostly of mature woodland with a few grazing paddocks in one of Ireland’s most picturesque areas.

Derrybawn House is in clear and present danger. Decay is setting in. A quick sale would probably ensure that the deterioration of the house could be halted and reversed. If it is neglected for much longer then a lot of money will have been wasted.

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