“In my grandparents’ day, it really was like Downton Abbey, with big weekend parties and lots of servants,” says Fred Madden, heir to Hilton Park in County Monaghan, which has been in his family for four centuries.
But like the real-life Highclere Castle, where the adventures of Julian Fellowes’ Earl of Grantham are filmed, big houses have to find a way to survive in the 21st century.
And luckily for those of us who crave some Titanic-era glamour, many of the owners have opened them to paying guests…
Alan Brooke, 3rd Viscount Brookeborough of Colebrooke Park in Fermanagh, believes that those grand house parties had a special magic: “People would be invited because they were interesting and could entertain the family and each other.”
These days, “we have groups for shooting or fishing who already know each other, which makes it easier because we really take part as hosts when people come to stay.”
The soul of the building
But it’s not all just economic reasons. Emily Bunbury, whose husband’s family bought Lisnavagh, County Carlow, in 1702, says that guests are essential for the building’s soul. “You can feel it as soon as you walk in: Lisnavagh really loves a good party, otherwise it can start to feel like a museum.”
So what’s it like to have strangers in your living room? “Busy!” laughs Alex Durdin-Robertson, whose family have lived in Huntington Castle in Carlow since it was built in 1625. “We’ve got two boys under two, four dogs and a pair of pot-bellied pigs. Even without visitors it’s chaos!”
Even so, living in a national treasure is a balancing act. “On the one hand it’s a 400-year-old castle, but on the other it’s where we live. At six o’clock it turns back into our home.”
Big house homes
Growing up in a castle was great fun, admits Alex: “We used to hide under a four-poster bed and giggle at the visitors. They probably thought the place was haunted!”
Giving small boys the run of the place can be risky, though. “I once kicked a football and knocked over a glass of red wine – it splattered right up the wall,” remembers Fred. The rest of us would solve the problem with a damp cloth, but in a house like Hilton Park it isn’t so easy.
“The wallpaper in one of the bedrooms is actually listed,” says Fred. “Luckily this was in the drawing room and we had a spare roll so we could repair the damage. I was more careful after that!”
Colebrooke’s busy months are in the winter for the shooting, whereas the others are open during the summer. But for all of them, come the end of the season, the doors are closed.
Emily Bunbury echoes all the owners when she laughs, “By that stage the house needs a rest for a few weeks – and so do we!”
Fancy staying in a grand house or castle on the island of Ireland, here are five to try.
If you'd like to find out more about Ireland's historic buildings visit Irish Heritage Towns.
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