THE IR­ISH COUN­TRY­SIDE IS MORE POP­U­LAR THAN EVER

Muscat Daily - - FEATURES -

Three years ago, Kanye West and Kim Kar­dashian spent their hon­ey­moon at Castle­mar­tyr Ho­tel and Re­sort, a pala­tial 17th cen­tury manor house built around 13th cen­tury Norman cas­tle ru­ins. In Septem­ber 2015, the five-star, 220 acre es­tate set in the quiet coun­try­side out­side Cork, Ire­land, was bought by Bri­tish hote­lier Martin Shaw, who also has a ma­jor stake in Hamp­shire’s golf mecca Old Thorns Manor, for US$16mn.

Since the sale, Shaw has dou­bled down on his in­vest­ment, re­fur­bish­ing ev­ery­thing from the pre­mier golf course to the world­class spa. But the re­sort is ben­e­fit­ing from Brexit more than any glam­our af­forded by a jet-set­ting celebrity duo.

Since the 2008 re­ces­sion, nearly a dozen her­itage prop­er­ties such as Castle­mar­tyr have been scooped up and tar­geted for face-lifts through­out Ire­land. The leg­endary Ash­ford Cas­tle sold for US$23mn to the Red Car­na­tion Ho­tels group in 2013; the sto­ry­book Water­ford Cas­tle with its Ra­pun­zel tow­ers, sold for US$7mn in 2015 to the Aus­tralia-based in­vestor Sea­mus Walsh; and Hog­warts-es­que Adare Manor, bought by horse rac­ing ti­tan J P McManus for US$30mn the same year.

In­vestors were seiz­ing on great real es­tate deals - com­pare Castle­mar­tyr’s US$16mn price tag with the US$90mn it cost to build up.

The cap­i­tal they saved on their pur­chases turned into gen­er­ous slush funds for ren­o­va­tions. And now, af­ter the June 2016 vote that led to Brexit, the un­cer­tainty about fu­ture trade terms with the UK has pri­ori­tised skilled con­struc­tion and restora­tion work from Bri­tish ven­dors while it’s still pos­si­ble.

In the process, th­ese charm­ing Ir­ish cas­tles have quickly mor­phed from Bri­tish-oc­cu­pied week­end re­treats to world-class re­sorts, draw­ing the at­ten­tion of well-heeled trav­ellers from the Amer­i­cas and be­yond. Tourism from out­side Europe is surg­ing.

Coun­ter­in­tu­itive to the fears that Brexit may sti­fle the lo­cal econ­omy, the In­ter­na­tional Mon­e­tary Fund ex­pects Ire­land to achieve 3.5 per cent gross do­mes­tic prod­uct growth this year and 3.2 per cent in 2018. For the fourth year run­ning, Ire­land is set to have the fastest-grow­ing econ­omy in the Euro­pean Union, boost­ing con­fi­dence among up­grade-happy hote­liers. The Kim and Kanye ef­fect is just ic­ing on the cake.

Ire­land’s come­back

Few real es­tate mar­kets took as dire a hit fol­low­ing the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis as the Ir­ish coun­try­side. Years of tax al­lowances had let Ir­ish hote­liers write off the costs of con­struc­tion, and Ir­ish banks be­came dan­ger­ously over­ex­posed.

Ac­cord­ing to Mar­cus Mag­nier, the sell­ing agent for Water­ford Cas­tle and a direc­tor at Col­liers In­ter­na­tional in Dublin, many Ir­ish cit­i­zens had their pen­sions in bank shares at the time. So when the banks failed, do­mes­tic wealth - and do­mes­tic tourism - plum­meted, send­ing half of Ire­land’s prop­erty into re­ceiver­ship. Fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions such as Ernst & Young took pos­ses­sion of manors and scram­bled to find new own­ers, even if it meant sell­ing at a loss.

“Ev­ery sin­gle ho­tel that sold would have been in need of vary­ing lev­els of cap­i­tal ex­pen­di­ture,” Mag­nier said. “They were ab­so­lutely starved, start­ing to look tatty and tired, and needed a cash in­jec­tion.”

Bri­tain’s Ar­ti­cle 50 with­drawal from the EU next March and the de­tails of the UK’s fu­ture re­la­tion­ship and trade terms with the union are still un­clear. So far, Ir­ish manors seem to be try­ing to get ahead of the un­cer­tainty. “It would ap­pear pru­dent to get th­ese re­fur­bish­ments done sooner rather than later,” said Garry Kelle­her, chair of the Cul­ture, Arts, Sport and Tourism Com­mit­tee of the Bri­tish Ir­ish Cham­ber of Com­merce in Dublin.

Adare Manor, for in­stance, is set to re­open this fall af­ter an 18month restora­tion by Rear­don Smith, the ac­claimed Bri­tish ar­chi­tec­tural firm, and a new golf club­house by Lon­don-based David Collins Stu­dio. When com­plete, the neo-Gothic es­tate in County Lim­er­ick will also fea­ture a new 42-room wing fea­tur­ing ex­pert stonework and wain­scot­ing. It will have the only La Mer spa in Ire­land and the UK - also built by a Bri­tish firm that could soon be off lim­its.

Bal­lyfin, a 20-room es­tate in County Laois, has Colin Or­chard & Co, a spe­cialty Lon­don in­te­rior de­sign firm, work­ing on a twobed­room suite called the Gar­dener’s Cot­tage, a stand-alone build­ing out­side the walled gar­den ad­ja­cent the manor house.

Bal­lyfin is aiming to have it ready by 2018, a time frame that would pre­vent Brexit en­tan­gle­ments from ham­per­ing its use of a Bri­tish firm.

In the case of Castle­mar­tyr, Shaw has al­ready added 19 mod- ern court­yard lodges and nine “gate” lodges with a nos­tal­gic vibe; BBC golf com­men­ta­tor Peter Al­lis, a Brit, re-did the in­land links-style course. New club­house ameni­ties are in the works, but Brenda Mur­phy, Castle­mar­tyr’s direc­tor of sales and mar­ket­ing, says the re­sort will avoid most Brexit com­pli­ca­tions by “keep­ing it as lo­cal as we can with re­gards to labour, trade, and sup­plies”.

At­tract­ing clien­tele

“Manor ho­tels have to re­po­si­tion them­selves to cater for a dif­fer­ent mix of vis­i­tors,” said Marie Hunt, head of re­search at com­mer­cial real es­tate com­pany CBRE Ire­land, which sold Adare. She added the prop­erty’s im­prove­ments have been aimed at at­tract­ing US clien­tele.

The coun­try is also ben­e­fit­ing from a grow­ing rep­u­ta­tion for safety, par­tic­u­larly in com­par­i­son with the UK and con­ti­nen­tal Europe.

Travel agents say that Amer­i­can trav­ellers are in­creas­ingly re­spond­ing to the ro­man­ti­cised coun­try­side va­ca­tion seen in TV shows such as Down­ton Abbey. They’re drawn to glam­orous, old­fash­ioned pur­suits, like fal­conry, skeet shoot­ing, and horse­back rid­ing.

“Those were ac­tiv­i­ties of the wealthy, and now they serve as a re­minder of sta­tus,” said Hous­ton-based Cyd Clif­ford of Trav­elWorks LLC.

“Those with the means seem to al­ways push the norm. They’re al­ways de­mand­ing more unique ex­pe­ri­ences.”

The im­pos­ing fa­cade of Adare Manor Adare Manor will re­open this fall af­ter an 18-month clo­sure

Glenlo Abbey Ho­tel, be­tween Gal­way and Con­nemara, is among the coun­try manors that have got­ten re­cent facelifts

Cur­rently be­ing ex­panded is Bal­lyfin, an iconic home in County Laois

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