Take a break in the Big House


The owners of many of Ireland’s castles and grand country houses are offering them as posh holiday rentals, writes EDEL MORGAN

ALL AROUND the country this summer there will be Irish holidaymakers, wealthy tourists and staff from big corporations rattling around Irish castles and ancestral homes, playing lords and ladies of the manor with a butler on standby to cater for their every whim. A growing number of Irish country house owners are letting out their homes. Some are doing it quietly, staying under the radar by using discreet agencies, while others are touting for business on the internet.

An estimated 40 estates, country houses and small hotels are being offered for rent, according to Siobhán Byrne of Adams Butler, a Dublin-based luxury travel firm that organises accommodation for wealthy clients. This represents a 25 per cent increase since 2008.

Some were bought by wealthy property investors during the boom, when there was a revival of interest in the Big House and the lifestyle of the landed gentry. Some were restored to their former glory at great expense and now the owners are looking to recoup some costs and pay for the upkeep of these enormous piles.

Castle Oliver in Co Limerick is an example of a big house that was purchased by an investor in a more buoyant economic climate. Byrne says some are letting their properties to help pay the mortgage . “Others are family-owned and now, with a recession on, the last thing they want to do is lose part of the family heritage.”

A number of the large homes that have recently been added to the rental stockpile have been lying vacant for some time while undergoing major refurbishments. Castle Oliver is one the most popular properties on Adams Butler’s books, says Byrne. A sprawling Gothic mansion on 15 acres in the Ballyhoura mountains, it comes complete with butler.

Built by wealthy sisters Elizabeth and Mary Oliver Gascoigne in the 1840s, the 100-room house takes up an acre and has 12 staircases, a very baronial-looking diningroom, a library, drawingroom, billiards room, 11 bedrooms – some with four-poster beds – and a full complement of staff if required. The castle fits 16-18 and costs €10,000 for seven nights, excluding staff, and around €5,500 for two nights. However, says Byrne, all prices are negotiable.

Americans, Indians, Arabs and Australians are among the company’s main overseas clients.

She says that while they’ve had fewer bookings overall this year, the appetite for larger homes has not waned. “We are the only tour operator listed on Condé Nast Traveller for Ireland. There are enough people with big budgets to pay extra staff, in fact it’s better this year.” The peace process has meant the company now has more homes in Northern Ireland on its books. These are popular with Indian clients because the entry requirements to the north are less stringent than the Republic .

Geraldine Murtagh of luxury tour operator Elegant Ireland, however, tells a different story. She finds demand is not as high as it was before the volcanic ash began disrupting flights. “It did slow things but they’ve started to improve again,” says Murtagh. “Traditionally people booked large estates a year ahead, now it tends to be two to three months ahead. We get Irish people and companies holding business meetings or team-building exercises and of course weddings and anniversaries.”

She says one of her most requested properties is the west wing of the Belle Isle in Co Fermanagh – a 1,900-acre estate with a fairytale Victorian castle on the shores of Lough Erne owned by the UK’s National Trust. It has four-poster beds, a rowing boat with outboard engine on the lake “available at own risk”, tennis court and six bedrooms. One week costs from £2,200 (€2,634) and weekends are from £1,900 (€2,274) in low season.

Also in Northern Ireland, the ultimate ascendancy pile is Drenagh in Limavady, Co Derry, set on 1,000 acres, which was designed by Charles Lanyon. On the books of Adams Butler, it has Italian-style terraced gardens; enormous, lavish formal rooms; hunting, shooting and fishing facilities; and it sleeps up to 14 people. It costs from €2,000 for two nights and from €8,000 for seven nights. John Colclough of Adams Butler says his company gives cancellation waivers to people who can’t fly because of ash. “We are expecting three clients in on private jets from the US in the next 10 days. Rich people love a bargain and are getting houses that are pretty much half price compared to two years ago,” he says.

Siobhán Byrne says their wealthy clients are often difficult to please. “The bigger the bucks, the more the demands,” she says. They recently had one American client who rang to cancel her trip because her manicurist couldn’t travel with her. “We said we could come up with a manicurist in Ireland, so we produced someone to go in and do her nails every day,” says John Colclough.

Some properties offer a self- catering option, or clients bring their own staff or hire staff here. “Celebrities tend to want privacy. Michael Jackson wanted staff to sign contracts,” says Byrne of one of her more famous clients. Some bring a retinue including a personal trainer, a cook and a beautician.

For those who like their stately home lavish and baronial-looking, Lough Cutra Castle, on 500 acres near Gort in Co Galway, with a lakeside setting, could fit the bill. It was built in 1811 and has the obligatory sweeping staircase, a billiards room and opulent reception rooms. It is let on a self- catering basis but guests have the option to hire staff. “We guarantee privacy as well as the utmost discretion . . .” says its website. “The relaxed nature of our staff and of the Castle itself means guests are encouraged to feel as though Lough Cutra Castle is their own home.”

Making yourself at home at Lough Cutra , however, comes at a price. Weekends cost from €10,000 and a week is from €21,000 to €32,000 The castle sleeps 16 people.

Geraldine Murtagh from Elegant Ireland lists Lismore Castle in Co Waterford, owned by the Duke of Devonshire, and Ballynatray Estate in Co Cork as being among the most lettable on her books. The 800-acre, 18th century Ballynatray Estate sold for €12 million in 2004.

The main house has four sumptuous reception rooms and a salon, log fires, an indoor pool, a walled garden and a helicopter landing pad. It costs from €6,000 per day and sleeps six to 10 guests. The main house plus all six cottages cost from €10,000 per day and sleep up to 24 guests. One stately home that has just come on the market is Fort William, a Georgian estate on 400 acres overlooking the Blackwater Valley in Co Waterford, “available for private rental for the first time” says the press release. To let through UK company SJ Villas, it provides a ghillie, who can arrange salmon fishing on the River Blackwater, five double en suite bedrooms and a further wing of five smaller bedrooms and a self-contained flat suitable for a nanny. There is a French-panelled drawingroom, study, morning room, diningroom, kitchen (with Aga), and a games room with a cinema and billiard table. Outside there’s a croquet lawn and a tennis court. For a week Fort William costs €16,701 (£13,944) or €1,392 (£1,162) per person based on 12 people sharing.