December 4, 2022

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An Irish Castle to Call Your Own

6 min read

The imposing wooden door creaks open and my children burst into the shadowy entryway, gleefully giggling as they race up the spiraling stone staircase. Holter, 5, counts out each one of the 50 steps as we wind our way up through a 550-year-old tower to the cozy stonewalled living room. A few moments later we’re peeking out over a corner of the fortified roof, gazing at miles of lush green farmland. Towering over everything in sight, we feel like kings of our own castle. For one night, we are.

An authentic Irish castle that dates to the late 1400s, Cahercastle sat in ruins for centuries before its new owner painstakingly restored it. Castles like this one, also known as “tower houses,” pepper the landscape of Ireland. Designed as both fortifications and residences, most are just a single tower stretching up above the landscape, the interior floors and walls long since crumbled away. None would make the cover of a guidebook, but there is something about their humble appearance that feels so ancient, so Irish, so connected to the land where they stand.

They are nothing like the country’s better-known castle-hotels, those extravagant properties that host fairy-tale weddings in breathtaking ballrooms and pristine walled gardens. Certainly, those places have their appeal (if you can spare the $2,000 and more a night some can run). But when I hear “Irish castle” my first thought is of places like Dunmore Castle, a modest stone ruin that I spent childhood summers playing in while visiting my mother’s rural Galway hometown.

My brothers and I would pretend we were medieval warriors deterring invaders while scaling up the decaying stone walls and searching for the secret tunnel a cousin told us led across the road to Fairy Hill.

Planning a trip back to Ireland with my own young children this summer, I could not wait to watch them spend hours playing in and around Dunmore Castle. My wife, Holly, suggested the kids (who spent many more hours of pandemic lockdowns watching “Frozenthan we’d care to admit) would also adore sleeping in a castle. We looked at some castle-hotels, but had fearful images of them sprinting down portrait-lined hallways imitating Princess Anna and Elsa, knocking over some priceless 15th-century vase. Then I discovered this entirely different breed of Irish castle accommodation, a small but growing number of places like Cahercastle, where enterprising people have taken on the daunting task of renovating ruined tower houses and renting them out, both on Airbnb and their own websites. We stayed in two of them. Here are those and two others that can be yours — for a night, at least.

Craughwell, County Galway

Peter Hayes, 60, who owns Cahercastle, has been fascinated with tower houses since his teenage years in County Kerry. He recalls youthful expeditions where he’d ride his bicycle, hop over stone walls and sneak around bushes to wander through ruined castles. In the 1990s, while working in theater in Galway, he got it in his head that he wanted to live in one. Mr. Hayes bought Cahercastle and set out to make it a family home. He studied with a French stonemason and built a pulley system to cart his cut stone up to rebuild the crown of the castle. It took years to renovate the inside and out, but he and his family eventually did move into the castle. In 2013 he started renting the top two floors on Airbnb.

It’s surprisingly affordable (from $177 a night) and Mr. Hayes makes it clear in his listing that sleeping in a 550-year-old castle is not for everyone, noting the cobwebs, dust and single bathroom that requires a trip back down the spiral staircase from the bedroom to the living room. He welcomes children, but warns the castle is absolutely not childproof and you will need to keep a close eye on your kids as they navigate those spiral stone steps. It’s well worth the extra effort to see them relish exploring every nook and cranny on each level, Holter periodically poking his head around a corner to tell his little brother, Elliott, 2, he was looking for secret passageways.

Near Nenagh, County Tipperary

Sonja Bergin, 57, and her husband, Kevin Bergin, also 57, had already restored a classic thatched-roof cottage when they saw a tower house listed for sale. “We didn’t realize that you could buy them,” said Ms. Bergin, but they were intrigued.

They passed on that first tower, but began a yearslong search for a castle to restore. “We went around the country with maps and this series of books by an Englishman who had logged all of the castles,” said Ms. Bergin. When they found the Black Castle in County Tipperary, “it was just before dusk, we didn’t have torches,” she said, using a common term for flashlights. They had to walk across a bog, but “as soon as we went in, we just got the vibe that we loved,” even though most of the internal floors were gone, so they could stand only in the spiral stairs and one floor at the top.

After working on it intermittently for the better part of a decade, they’ve restored the Black Castle (from $300 a night) to something much like its original incarnation, with a vaulted stone ceiling and huge carved fireplace anchoring the second-story great hall. “We wanted it to still feel like you were in the 16th century,” said Ms. Bergin. “We wanted it to still feel like a castle.”

Barna, County Kilkenny

John Campion’s family farmed the land surrounding Tubbrid Castle for generations. “My great-grandparents would have been the last of the family to live in the castle as tenants of the local landlord,” Mr. Campion, 33, said. His father grew up in a house down the road, then he and his wife built a new house nearby, where they expanded the family farm and raised their own children.

“Growing up, my dad would bring the cows in and he’d look at the castle and say, ‘Someday I’m going to restore that,’” Mr. Campion said.

His father started the restoration, putting on an Irish oak roof made in the original style, with no screws or nails, just dowels holding it together. Years later, Mr. Campion completed the renovation, aiming for “as light a touch as possible”; his mother, Helen Campion, now handles the day-to-day of running the castle. While there are modern conveniences like rainforest showers and super-king-size beds with goose down duvets, each floor is essentially just one big room. “When people walk through the door and see this place that generations and centuries of people have woken up to, witnessing their reaction is really rewarding,” he said. (From $674 a night; three bedrooms sleep up to eight guests.)

Drogheda, County Louth

Hidden up a sloped road where leafy trees stretch across the road to meet each other, creating a cavernous secret gardenlike entrance, Drummond Tower (from $160 a night) is more of a respite than a fortress.

It’s technically a “folly tower,” built by a wealthy landowner in 1858 in remembrance of his mother, rather than as a fortification. Like its more venerable cousins, it eventually fell into disrepair.

Eánán O’Doherty’s father bought the land to farm in 1969, and Mr. O’Doherty, 47, would play in the tower as a kid, stepping over barbed wire and “into a muddy pit, where all you could see was blue sky.” Mr. O’Doherty has now renovated the tower, including putting in new floors, windows and a heating system that takes out some of that castle-y dampness.

It’s pint-size by castle standards, with four small rooms stacked atop each other: a homey stone-floor kitchen; a stately book-lined sitting room; a light-filled bedroom; and the crown jewel: a timber roof deck with panoramic farmland views. On our night at Drummond Tower we dined on the roof deck as the light faded and the first stars came out, relishing this rare chance to go back in time for a night in our own private castle.

Brendan Spiegel

2022-10-12 09:00:49

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