Killarney House

Killarney House: The inside story of a €7 million restoration

Lords, earls and tourism

Graham Clifford

Published 17/04/2016 | 02:30

Grounds swell: Pat Dawson, of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, and gardener Gerry Murphy at Killarney House. 3
Grounds swell: Pat Dawson, of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, and gardener Gerry Murphy at Killarney House.

The €7m Killarney House restoration project should be repeated elsewhere, says Graham Clifford.

It was the home he’d always dreamed of owning, a far cry from the White House which he once renovated, but a manor in its own right, overlooking the stunning Lakes of Killarney.

John McShain, renowned architect and building contractor, acquired Killarney House, the former home of the Earls of Kenmare, in 1956. It was where the man known as the ‘Builder of Washington’ came to rest in his twilight years.

He had overseen the renovation of the White House in the early 1950s, during the presidency of Harry S Truman, and also built the Pentagon and Jefferson Memorial in Washington. And now, 27 years after his passing, his last abode, in the heart of Killarney, has been renovated at a cost of €7 million.

After the death of McShain’s wife, Mary, in 1998, the stately house, converted from stables after a fire destroyed the main manor in 1913, and its lavish gardens were passed to the State – but for 18 years the house was closed up, the famous golden gates at the entrance shut tight. Until now.

In July 2011, Leo Varadkar, as Minister for Tourism, announced the €7m restoration package – a massive sum given the poor health of the country’s finances at the time.

The way we were: The Killarney House library in 1998, before renovation. 3
The way we were: The Killarney House library in 1998, before renovation.

As part of the deal, Fáilte Ireland would chip in with €5m with the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht footing the bill for the remainder. It was a massive and expensive undertaking. Could such levels of State investment be merited in such difficult times?

Pat Dawson, the regional manager of the National Parks and Wildlife Service in Kerry, took me on a tour of Killarney House and Gardens this week and explained the scale of the renovation project and why this unique setting will start returning on the investment very soon.

“When we lifted the floorboards here, we found damp clay. There were no proper foundations laid down as originally it was used a stable. So the foundations had to be carefully put in, the roof had to be secured, new windows installed, an annex, reception and exhibition centre built and then major works on the ornamental gardens carried out. The project was part-recreation and part-renovation. All in all, it was a massive job and its still ongoing.

“But we believe it is more than worthwhile. Up to half-a-million people will visit each year and this National Park is unique in the world in that it’s accessible from the centre of a town. There wasn’t an option to leave the building and gardens as they were, and now we believe this will be a massive asset to tourism in Killarney.”

With Muckross House and Gardens and the 15th Century Ross Castle just on the outskirts of the town, Killarney now has yet another cultural and heritage tourism attraction.

It was following the visit of Queen Victoria to the town in 1861 that Killarney became Ireland’s premier tourist location – and the crown still fits today.

Across Ireland, stately homes are being used as a selling point to boost tourist numbers. Research carried out by Fáilte Ireland found that cultural/heritage tourism contributes some 54pc to the total overseas tourism revenue, compared with around 9pc for golf and 2pc for angling. Visitors want to see inside these houses and investment in their upkeep and promotion is bearing fruit.

“Undoubtedly, these houses are splendid inside but the real selling point in an Irish context is that we make them accessible and try to convey the story of the house, the owners, those who worked there over the years and much more. We say we provide ‘stories told by the best storytellers in the world’,” explains Jenny De Saulles, head of Fáilte Ireland’s Ancient East project.

Killarney House 3
Killarney House

The personal touch is seen as key and back in Killarney I meet Harry O’Donogue, the third generation of his family to have worked in Killarney House.

His grandfather saved the life of the previous owner, Lord Castleross, in the trenches during World War I and as a reward got a job in Killarney House. Harry’s father also worked here, as did Harry himself as a butler until the death of Mary McShain in 1998. Now he’s back at the house as caretaker.

“Ah sure, it’s great to see the place looking so well again. The gardens are open at weekends at the moment and the house itself won’t be open until around October, but it’s all coming together. It’s absolutely fantastic,” he says.

And De Saulles believes connections such as Harry’s are very important for visitors.

“When people visit these houses from overseas, they want to hear those kind of stories. Perhaps that’s because of programmes like Downton Abbey and so on.

“They want to learn of the human interest. In other countries, access within stately homes can be restricted by ropes and closed doors. We try to do the opposite in Ireland. Our form of cultural tourism is immersive and it’s a real selling point.”

Indeed, one of the pillars of the Ancient East tourism trail is the ‘Anglo-Ireland period’, which includes ‘Ireland’s Greatest Houses’ – most of which are based in the east of the country.

In a bid to encourage private owners of such homes to come on board and open their doors to the visiting public, Fáilte Ireland offers assistance grants.

“We want owners to be able to tell their story, so we assist with things like audio systems, signage, costumes and so on, with small grants up to €200,000. Our larger grant schemes operate via local authorities and other such bodies and these start at €250,000 and can range up to multi-millions,” says De Saulles.

And last November, Ministers for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Heather Humphreys announced an action plan for historic houses in private ownership, saying “there are up to 2,000 historic houses across the country.

“These properties are not just historically significant, they are also important… to drive tourism and economic activity. Due to the age and scale of these properties, owners and custodians face huge challenges meeting their upkeep. While it is not realistic or prudent for the Government to provide large amounts of financial support, I believe we must consider ways to better support historic houses so we can secure their viability into the future.”

Some of those homes, of course, are owned by foreign investors -many picked up for a steal during the recent downturn – and they have no plans to open their doors to the paying public. But for those who do, the benefits are evident.

Where once the State looked at these houses and manors as crumbling, unsightly, and potentially costly, reminders of a time gone by, they now see them as money-spinners, as visitors yearn to walk in the footsteps of Ireland’s departed Lords and Ladies.