Castle Life in Ireland

Castle capers – our castle dwellers connected to Attila the Hun and King Henry VIII

Barbara McCarthy

PUBLISHED11/01/2016 | 02:30Castle Capers Life Magazine

Anthony and Fionnuala Brabazon, Lord and Lady Ardee5
Anthony and Fionnuala Brabazon, Lord and Lady Ardee

Since the Normans first landed on Irish shores in 1169, the Irish landscape has been peppered with over 4,000 castles. Throughout the generations, many fell foul to dry rot, some were taken over by hotel groups, while others are still inhabited by the families who built them or who have occupied them for centuries. Our reporter went to visit some of Ireland’s finest castles, whose owners include war heroes, humanitarians, film directors, patrons of the arts, entrepreneurs and plant experts.


Their gloriously eccentric families are connected to Henry VIII, Attila the Hun, Vasco da Gama,  Robert Louis Stevenson, Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney and Winston Churchill, among others. The famous Guinness brewers, the Rolling Stones, film stars, poets, wits, ufologists, musicians, royalty, astronomers . . . all form part of the rich historical tapestry of Ireland’s castle-dwelling folk.

The Hon Garech a Brun, Luggala, Co Wicklow

“Champagne?” “Don’t mind if I do.” So goes the initial exchange between the Hon Garech a Brun of Luggala in Co Wicklow and myself as he leads me through his enchanting home on the shores of Lough Tay in the most beautiful valley in Ireland.

After he wanders slowly into the pantry to fetch my midday beverage, I have a look through his guestbook, which lays open beside me in his living room. Kofi Annan, Brendan Behan, Seamus Heaney, Dennis Hopper and a mixed bag of cerebral types, toffs and people of the night are in it, photographed as they party like it was the fin de siecle.

I wish I had been there. The vacuous ‘all substance, no style’ parties of nowadays are so dull compared to these. Either way, I am delighted that Mr a Brun, as he likes to be called, remembers me from around the place. The first time I met him, he was after ‘taking a turn’ at the Rolling Stones concert in Slane Castle and was brought to another party by Mick and Keith’s driver after the duo expressed concern about his well-being.

Known locally as ‘a great character altogether’, he is instantly recognisable by his beard, ponytail and dapper sense of style, which favours three-piece coloured or pinstriped suits, gentlemen’s watches and hand-knitted jumpers from the West of Ireland.

“I’ve been living in Luggala all my life,” he says. “My mother’s father – my grandfather – originally rented it because he liked shooting grouse, and there was a lot of grouse here. He placed his three daughters in Luggala, and himself and his wife in Lough Rea, Co Galway. He eventually bought it, and gave it to my mother as a wedding present.”

Born in 1939, when Europe was on the cusp of World War II, a Brun is the son of Oonagh Guinness of the famous brewing dynasty, and Dominick Geoffrey Edward Browne, who famously sat in the House of Lords in London for 72 years without ever uttering a word.

“I read that he raised pigs in the boudoirs of his house in exchange for a few guineas,” I proudly boast after some research. “That’s utter nonsense,” a Brun insists. “The Daily Telegraph put them in my father’s living room in his obituary, but you wouldn’t find piglets in the house, on account of them not being there.”

Mr a Brun’s mother and her sisters Aileen and Maureen, known as the ‘gorgeous Guinness girls’, were celebrated as much for their beauty, as their deviance and tireless propensity to party. I ask a Brun when his mother died, to which he says: “I have absolutely no idea. I’m not good at that sort of thing.”

Either way, she was responsible for turning Luggala into the most ‘decorative honey pot in Ireland’ during the 1950s, attracting poets, scribes, musicians and artists, who often came for dinner but stayed for days.

A Brun, who founded Claddagh Records in 1959 and was instrumental in the formation of The Chieftains, continued his mother’s legendary hospitality throughout the 1960s, 1970s and beyond. His brother Tara’s 21st birthday party guest-list in 1966 included Mick Jagger, Brian Jones and John Paul Getty, who swore that it was one of the great parties of the decade.

Tara tragically died in a road accident in London later that year, and was immortalised forever in the Beatles song A Day in the Life, which, in part, was written by John Lennon after he read the obituary in the Daily Mail.

A festival entitled A Day in The Life, which was to be headlined by the elusive German electronic-music pioneers Kraftwerk, was meant to take place in Tara’s honour in the summer of 2008. “But unfortunately it rained and rained in the days leading up to it and I had to cancel,” Garech tells me. “Then, miraculously, everything dried up, but it was too late. The band came to have a look at the place anyway and they were perfectly lovely,” he says. I can’t help but wonder if he knew how lucky he was to have Kraftwerk, one of my favourite bands, in his house.

A Brun, who has an honourary doctorate from Trinity College, is nonchalant about the comings and goings in Luggala throughout the years. “I just get on with people,” he says, happy to share some anecdotes about Michael Jackson.

“He was sitting where I’m sitting now. He couldn’t have been more charming, though he fucked up his face. I felt like I was talking to a mask and couldn’t see the person inside,” he adds.

“We got an SOS that he needed somewhere to live, so I felt sorry for him and let him stay. He wanted to stay longer, but the place was booked for someone else and he had to leave. What can you do?”

Despite their best efforts, members of the media, who had descended upon the nearby town of Roundwood, were at a loss to find Jackson. When asked about his whereabouts, a Brun allegedly said: “I have no idea who you’re talking about.” He then asked the bar staff: “Do you know someone called Michael Jackson? I believe he’s famous?”

A Brun, who takes no active part in the brewing business, spends part of his year in the Gujarat State in north-western India as he is married to Princess Harshad Purna Devi of Morvi. As you do.

Anthony and Fionnuala Brabazon, Lord and Lady Ardee, Killruddery Estate, Co Wicklow

“The glorious thing about Killruddery House and Gardens is the fact that three generations of the family get to live here,” Anthony Jacques Brabazon, Lord Ardee, who was born in 1977, says of the home he shares with his wife, Fionnuala Brabazon, his four children and his parents, the Earl and Countess of Meath.

When I go to meet the couple, who married in 2004, they bring little Evelyn, who had been born less than a month before, in a Moses basket, as they talk me through the many events that happen at the castle throughout the year.

“There’s a lot going on. We have falconry, major sports events like Hell & Back, where people have to crawl through mud and obstacles, concerts for local musicians, gardening tours, a supper club with al fresco suppers, weddings . . . the list goes on,” Anthony says.

The two-day Groove festival, which was launched in 2013, takes place right beside the main house over the first weekend in July, and last year included Kila, Christy Moore and The Darkness. In 2004, 1,000 people a year were coming through the gates; last year there were 86,000 people, and this is mostly down to the dedication of the couple.

“It’s amazing to have something like this to do together. We have really grown into it in the past 10 years,” Fionnuala Brabazon says. “Now, when I look out of the window, I think how much I love this place. I didn’t always feel like that about it. It’s beautiful. We used to always wonder how we would get people to come and visit, and were often very frustrated, but now they come by themselves.”

Lord Ardee, who is known locally as ‘Anto’, says he initially wooed his wife by preparing a picnic, a lit fire and Champagne by the Little Sugar Loaf, when they started dating. “What’s not to love about that?” the now Lady Ardee says. “It was pretty impressive.”

Indeed it was, and continues to be.

The house currently stands on the site which was built in the 1900s, but the Brabazon family have been around a lot longer than that. According to lore, the family were established by the time Henry I came to the throne in 1100. The first Brabazon to arrive on Irish shores was William Brabazon of Leicester, who was sent to Ireland by Henry VIII in 1534 to serve as vice-treasurer. It wasn’t until 1618 that the Brabazon family was granted Killruddery Estate.

It’s surrounded by gardens, which were designed in 1682 by a Frenchman, Bonet, who was a Huguenot. The current house was built in 1820 on a site where the previous house had been destroyed by fire. It has been used as a film set for movies, including My Left Foot and Far And Away, and the TV show The Tudors.

It is surrounded by 850 acres of land including a farm, which the couple also manage. A lot of the farm produce is sold at the weekly farmers’ market or in the famous tearoom, where we are sitting, looking out onto the spectacular estate.

“It’s hard to leave. When you have four children, the space is incredible,” Lady Ardee informs me. “When we got married, Anthony’s parents were still looking after the estate full-time. They have pared back considerably since then.

“I had gone to art college and was working in community arts,” she continues, “Then I did a course in management practice, so I could hone my skills. I like economics and figuring out how to make things work, which is great for the kind of projects and events we have here,” she says.

You can tell that there is a very creative brain behind the events and cookery schools and festive gatherings that take place throughout the year. “It’s all well and good being creative, but it has to be sustainable,” she says, “Keeping an estate like Killruddery going is relentless. There are 19 full-time staff, and when events are on, there are a lot more.”

Lord and Lady Ardee are extremely approachable and chilled-out, despite the perpetual pressure of keeping a huge estate like Killruddery going.

“We still have to be careful about how we run it. It has to be organic. We produce high-quality produce without compromising the diversity and ecology of the environment. When people get married here, the menu consists of what’s in season,” says Lord Ardee.

There are only 12 weddings a year, and the castle is booked out until 2017. He adds, “Each season brings something wonderful with it and we are very honoured to be a part of it. Even though we get so many people coming in and out, and we have such a great historical legacy, it’s still a home, and that’s what fantastic.”

Randal Plunkett, the 21st Baron of Dunsany, Co Meath

I first met Randal Plunkett, a 32-year-old film director and 21st Baron of Dunsany, outside the Martinez Hotel during the Cannes Film Festival in 2013, where his short movie Out There was being shown. “It’s a zombie film with some crazy twists,” he explains now. “Its only the fourth movie I’ve made – two of which were pretty amateur – so we did it on a really low budget and had to pull in favours from everyone. Even the local supermarket gave us some free food and tea.”

The movie was shot on the grounds of Dunsany Castle, where he lives, and where many generations of his family have lived before him.

I accepted an invite to come and visit the castle and am greeted warmly by Randal and his mother, Brazilian-born Maria Alice Villela de Carvalho, a descendent of Vasco da Gama, who had prepared tea and cake for me.

“We are essentially just caretakers, looking after the castle. There is no end of hoovering and polishing,” she says, as I get a tour of the castle, for which construction began in 1180. “It’s the part people don’t know about – the endless cleaning. But that’s what you have to do,” Randal adds.

The Plunketts were Anglo-Normans who arrived in Ireland in the 12th Century, settling at first in Beaulieu in Co Louth, before later moving to Killeen and Dunsany in Co Meath.

The Barony of Dunsany is one of the oldest Irish titles, created in 1439 under Henry VI. “I can trace my lineage to Saint Oliver Plunkett, a 17th-Century Roman Catholic Archbishop who was hanged, drawn and quartered, and Horace Plunkett, co-founder of the Irish agricultural co-operative movement,” Randal says.

Other famous family members include Edward Plunkett, the 18th Lord Dunsany, who was a dramatist and fantasy fiction writer, and Randal Plunkett’s paternal grandfather – also called Randal – who fought in the North West Frontier Province, South Asia, in 1930, and in World War II.

Randal’s father, Eddie Plunkett, who was described in his obituary in the Daily Telegraph as being “shy, cultured, extremely good-looking” after his death in 2011, was well-known in Ireland as a portrait painter and a painter of geometrical abstractions, with a following in Italy, where he had a studio for years; and Brazil, where he spent the first part of his childhood, not learning English until he was aged seven.

He met Randal’s mother – a celebrated architect and relative of Alves Cabral, the founder of Brazil – in New York in the 1970s. She oversaw a massive architectural project in the castle, turning the lower floor into a gallery of her husband’s work. They had three children together. She, just like her son Randal, is extremely modest and hard-working.

“Work is pretty much all I do,” Randal says when I go back to visit him again. It has been two years since my last visit and I bring my baby with me, who, as it turns out, likes castles, especially the endless floors she can crawl along.

“I’ve spent the last two years raising money for my new full-length feature film – a post-apocalyptic horror road movie with a lot of special effects and a Gothic theme,” he says, once again over tea and cake.

“I’ve been obsessive in my research to a point of fanaticism, but it’s paid off.”

Originally he planned to raise €100,000 for the movie, but he raised over €6m in Ireland and the US and got a talented crew on board including Academy Award and Bafta winners, as well as people who worked on Star Wars, Avatar and numerous well-known Chinese movies.

Some scenes will be shot in France, but most of the film will be shot in Dunsany Castle.

“It’s huge pressure,” says Randal. “The main cast will be moving into the castle for the duration of the shoot, so it will be a great adventure.”

All the cast members have not yet been confirmed, but there will be some A-list Hollywood people involved.

“When I’m not working, I’ll go to the ends of the Earth to source an obscure Taiwanese or Chinese subtitled movie. I know, it sounds so nerdy. I also like heavy metal and anything to do with horror,” he says.

“I can’t bear any of those things,” I say.

He laughs. “Come back when we make the film.” Goes without saying.

Sir John Leslie, 4th Baronet, Castle Leslie, Co Monaghan

“Oh how wonderful,” exclaimed 99-year-old John Leslie, a 4th Baronet and World War II veteran, when he became a knight of the National Order of the Legion of Honour in the French Residence in Dublin in November 2015, 75 years after fighting at the Battle of France. The French ambassador to Ireland, Jean-Pierre Thebault, said Leslie was being rewarded for his “significant personal contribution in the defence of freedom of France”. “I accept this medal on behalf of all soldiers from the island of Ireland who fought and died between the two great wars,” he said.

I am present, some weeks before, when Sir ‘Jack’, as he is popularly known, initially receives a letter announcing his bestowal in his drawing room in Castle Leslie. “That’s a very high honour,” he says to his nephew Mark Leslie, who went behind his back to send necessary information to French officials. “I can’t believe it; I had no idea.” He goes on to read the letter, without the help of a pair of glasses, which impresses me deeply.

When we sit down to chat, I have to shout, as he lost his hearing in one ear after a childhood disease. “It’s in the book,” he answers to many of my questions. “It’s called Never a Dull Moment. It’s got lots of old photographs in it that I had under my bed.”

The book’s title couldn’t be more apt. Born in New York in 1916, ‘Uncle Jack’, as the family call him, travelled to Ireland with his parents when he was three years old, settling in Castle Leslie in the small village of Glaslough in Co Monaghan.

The Leslie family tree includes Attila the Hun, bishops, officers, ufologists, royalty, fighter pilots, authors, artists and Winston Churchill, the former British prime minister. They are known for their eccentricities and shenanigans, and you could write several books about them.

I liked the story about Mick Jagger emerging naked from a lake in front of a group of hysterical schoolgirls and a group of nuns back in the 1960s, when the rock star was seeing Marianne Faithfull.

He was chased into the bell tower. I applaud Mick’s tastes in castles and the company he likes to keep.

Jack’s mother’s side, as it turns out, is equally interesting. Her father, Henry Clay Ide, was US Governor General of the Philippines, where his family lived in the Malacca Palace, which was allegedly turned into a museum for Imelda Marcos’s infamous shoes. He was also Chief Justice of Samoa in the South Pacific, where he hung out with Robert Louis Stevenson.

Educated in Switzerland before he studied at Cambridge, ‘Uncle Jack’ was called to battle in 1940. “He went straight to war from a party at St James’s Palace,” Mark Leslie says. “There was no one left to fight and Winston Churchill needed men, so they got the Irish Guards to come to France, where Jack ended up in one of the bloodiest battles of the war – in Boulogne-sur-Mer.

“There was no word from him for six weeks, so it was assumed that he had died heroically, but then the family heard he had been captured, and was a prisoner of war in Germany. He had to endure appalling conditions, but he managed to get a postcard out to Winston Churchill, knowing that it could get him killed, but he did it so his men would be saved.”

Sir Jack and his men were released from the camp at Moosburg in Lower Saxony in 1945, and he returned to Glaslough a hero. “I came back to look after the castle. To do the gardening and fix things,” he says. But then, after brief stints in New York and the odd world tour, he eventually settled in Rome, where he bought a 1,500-year-old monastery called the Badia di San Sebastiano di Alatri. Dating back to 480AD, it was built on the remains of an ancient Roman ruin. He lived in Rome for 40 years before returning to Castle Leslie in 1994, aged 78.

Not one to embrace retirement after returning home, ‘Uncle Jack’ discovered a passion for dance music in his 80s after a local night out. “They were playing this boom-boom music,” he says, “I liked it a lot.” His newfangled passion brought him to Manumission in Ibiza, the world’s most famous club night, to celebrate his 85th birthday. “They asked me on stage and I had to dance in front of 10,000 people. It was fantastic,” he says, laughing and nodding. I flash back to seeing him on the dancefloor at his 95th birthday party at the castle, giving it socks.

The world first got a taste of Jack Leslie in 2002, when he unwittingly announced the wedding plans of Paul McCartney and Heather Mills. “They’re getting married on Tuesday, but it’s a secret,” he said on live TV outside the castle. It worked out well for the Leslies though, as it put the castle on the global map. Just a few years after, his niece, Samantha Leslie, began a massive refurbishment project to turn it into a now magical five-star estate.

There are many fabulously refurbished hotel castles across Ireland, but this one is special because ‘Uncle Jack’ lives in there, and you can’t put a price on that.

The 7th Earl of Rosse, Brendan Parsons, Birr Castle Co Offaly

The 7th Earl of Rosse, Brendan Parsons, who lives in Birr Castle Demesne, says his family ‘blew in’ to Ireland 400 years ago.

We meet in the courtyard cafe of the Demesne before I am brought on a wonderfully informative guided tour of the gardens, which are among the finest in Europe.

“I’m a 13th-generation Parsons,” he says, “but only the 7th Earl. The castle you can see now is an extension of something that was built by the Normans in 1170. We came here in around 1620.”

Born in 1936 into a family which included scientists, architects, and astronomers, the current Earl is an expert on plant life, and was happy to share his knowledge as we walked along the estate.

“We have over 4,000 plant species here. One section of the gardens was designed by my mother on the back of an envelope to mark her marriage to my father in 1935,” he says. “We have between 50,000 and 60,000 people coming to visit each year. Many of them come to see Ireland’s largest tree house, which is also here,” he says fondly.

“The last few generations of the Parsons have focused particularly on landscaping the 65-hectare gardens, which surround the castle. Nearly 40pc of all the plants come from China. The rest come from Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, Kashmir, across Eastern Europe . . . and we’re introducing plants from Chile, Argentina, Tasmania and New Zealand, and then from the US, Mexico and Canada – around 40 countries in total,” he says.

Educated in Switzerland, which he loved, and Eton, from which he was happily expelled, Parsons followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather by becoming an officer in the Irish Guards for three years, spending time in Egypt, Jordan and briefly joining the Arab Legion.

He then studied in Oxford, where he met his wife, Alison – they would go on to have three children. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s he worked for the UN, serving in Bangladesh, Algeria, New York, west Africa and Iran.

“They were very interesting times. I lived in Iran throughout the 1970s where I worked on various adult-education projects as well as programmes for women. It was a fun role. I’ve lost most of my languages now from my time abroad, but I still speak Persian and French,” he says.

We wander towards the Leviathan of Parsonstown, the erstwhile biggest telescope in the world, which sits proudly in a field in front of the castle. Built in 1840 by the 3rd Earl of Rosse, it is responsible for revealing the spiral structure of the M51 nebula – a whirlpool nebula. Some 1.8 metres (6ft) in diameter and weighing three tons, it reigned supreme until the Hooker Telescope in California overtook it in size and stature in 1917.

Birr Castle is also known for its long history of photography, the Earl reminds me – “Mary Ross was the earliest acclaimed female photographer in the world. Her darkroom is still preserved in the castle exactly as she left it when she died, in 1885.”

The Earl of Snowdon, one of the world’s great photographers, learnt his craft at Birr Castle. Born in 1930, Antony Armstrong-Jones is the son of Lord Rosse’s mother, the late Anne, Countess of Rosse, born Anne Messel, and Ronald Armstrong-Jones, her first husband.

Despite growing up in the UK, Snowdon spent summers in Birr Castle, where he nurtured his photography skills to become a debonair photographer to the stars.

He won the heart of Princess Margaret, the Queen of England’s younger sister, in the late 1950s. “They came to visit in the 1960s after they got married.” Did the Princess like it here? I ask. “I think so,” the Earl shrugs.

What’s not to like? Birr Castle with its gothic facade and spectacular gothic ‘saloon’ overlooking the River Camcor, which has hosted presidents and dignitaries and well-known musicians, is a special place.

It’s also refreshing to meet someone, who understands how privileged he is to be born into such a proud lineage, but who also takes his responsibilities seriously.

“I want to plant trees for further generations to enjoy. We used to have 12,000 visitors per year 10 years ago, and now we have between 50,000 and 60,000, which makes me very proud. I love seeing people enjoy the gardens.” Then he suddenly takes a mad dash to the middle of a field and comes back shaking his head in disgust. “Rubbish. I can’t bear it.”

Photography by Barbara McCarthy

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