A few years ago Frank Keohane gave a lecture to the Irish Georgian Society London based on his ongoing research which would later be published as the 2020 Pevsner Architecture Guide, The Buildings of Ireland: Cork City and County. A monumental achievement by any measure. “There are so many buildings at risk in Cork City and County,” he warned. “The southeast of England hasn’t enough country houses to go round. In contrast, Ireland has one of the lowest population densities in Europe. There’s plenty of talk but action is needed too.”
“There are 345 identified buildings at risk in County Cork of which 67 are country houses,” he added. “But there are good news stories too. Monkstown Castle has been restored and Jeremy Irons famously restored Kilcoe Castle near Ballydehob. Cork naturally has the biggest asylum in the country!” One country house that thankfully isn’t at risk (the owners restored it six years ago) is The Castle, Castletownshend.
Frank summarises it as, “A house of several parts, the seat of the Townshends. The earliest, described as ‘newly built’ in 1780 by the Complete Irish Traveller, is presumably the two storey five bay rubblestone centre block, with dormers over the upper windows and a two storey rectilinear porch. Taller three storey wings with battlements carried on corbelled cornices and twin and triple light timber mullioned windows. The east wing was perhaps built in the late 1820s; the west wing was added after a fire of 1852. Modest interior. Large low central hall with a beamed ceiling and walls lined with oak panelled and gilded embossed wallpaper. Taller dining room to the rear, with a compartmented ceiling, a neoclassical inlaid fireplace in the manner of Bossi, and a large Jacobean sideboard. 19th century staircase with barley twist type balusters.”
“Oh please don’t ask me what’s my favourite Irish country house. That’s such a weak question!” jested Min Hogg, Founding Editor of The World of Interiors, giving us her last interview. The Castle has to be in our own top 10 (and we get around). “We’re the 11th generation of the family to live here,” welcomes our hostess Sharon Townshend. Guest rooms are named after people or events connected to the house. On the ground floor is the Gun Room. On the first floor, Chavenage, Deans and Studio. On the top floor, Archbishops, Army, Navy and our party room, Abigail.
Dark panelling and glass fronted bookcases stretching up to the ceiling enhance the character of the interior. Books include The Poems and Plays of Robert Brown; The Early Romances of William Morris; The Poems of Alfred Tennyson; The Plays of Richard Brinsley Sheridan; Northanger Abbey and Persuasion by Jane Austen; Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities, Nicholas Nickleby, Old Curiosity Shop and The Pickwick Papers. Keeping it local are Old Ireland Reminiscences of an Irish K C by Serjeant Sullivan and Last Memory of a Tenderfoot by R B Townshend.
The entrance front overlooks Castlehaven Bay, a spectacular setting by any standards. The northwest elevation backs onto the hillside. At its deepest part, the triple pile return wing almost touches the hillside. A 40 pane double height window adds natural light to the gallery-like staircase corridors and landings which line the north elevation.
Behind the ground floor Honesty Bar, a sepia tinted advertisement reads, “Castle Townshend, County Cork, has been the seat of the Townshend family for many generations, and is now run as a guesthouse by Mrs R M Salter-Townshend. It is situated on the borders of Castle Townshend Harbour. It certainly affords every variety of pleasure that guests could require. Mains electricity (A C current 220 volts).”
“Interior sprung mattresses and hot and cold running water in all bedrooms. Guests are welcomed to this castle as personal friends, and the old family portraits, historical associations etc, no less than the hospitality shown by all, are a delight to visitors. The climate in this part of Ireland compares very favourably with the south of England. The passage by sea from England is both cheap and luxurious. Director air service to Cork from Paris, London, Bristol, Cardiff, Dublin and Birmingham. Air car ferry Bristol to Cork and Liverpool, to Dublin.”
“There is never a dull moment at Castle Townshend, and one visit will convince you that this is just the place for a holiday that you have always been hoping to find. Also holiday cottages and maisonette flats to let. Fruit and vegetables from our own garden; and milk from our farm.”
“What we do at Castle Townshend. Boating and fishing. Own rowing boats, free to guests. Individual rowing boats can be hired weekly by arrangement. Good facilities for sailing. Own yacht, including competent yachtsmen for hire for morning or afternoon 12/6. Whole day £1. Safe bathing from nearby coves. Picnics, teas and lunches made up to order. Riding: riding ponies available for hacking. 7/6 a ride. Golf: pleasant links in vicinity (nine hole). Shooting: woodcock, snipe and duck shooting over 300 acres private woodlands and estuary, in season. Salmon and white trout fishing in River Ilen, Skibbereen (£1 licence). Trout fishing in own lakes and streams free.”
“Hackney cars available to meet train or bus by arrangement, and for motor drives to Bantry, Glengarriff, Killarney, Berehaven Mountains, Healy Pass (1,500 feet), Pass of Keimaneigh, Glandore, Baltimore, Crookhaven, Lake of Swans and Mizen Head. Wireless, good library, books, billiards.”
“Open all the year round. April, May and June: 10 guineas a week. July, August and September: 12 guineas a week. Christmas week: 14 guineas. The remainder of the year: nine guineas a week. Per day for not less than three days: July, August and September 37/6. The remainder of the year except Christmas 32/6. Bed and breakfast (all year) 23/ a day. Garage 1/. Early tea 7/ per week. Meals served in bedrooms 1/ extra. Electric convector heaters with own meters in bedrooms, or if required, log fires at 8/ a day or 4/ per evening. No reductions made for long visits. Please pass this on to an interested friend. Dogs welcome but not allowed in the dining room or drawing room. Telegrams and phones: Castletownshend Five.”
Sharon and Justin Townshend provide plenty of their own up to date notes: “We welcome you to enjoy our home which is steeped in history and the charm of days gone by. Colonel Richard Townshend built The Castle (Castle Townshend) around 1650 and it was gradually expanded over time with the towers being added in the 1800s. The portraits, panelling and wallpaper in the Front Hall are all original and where possible, 11 generations on, we’ve tried to retain the character of The Castle.”
“Relax and enjoy the views, the village and the grounds. Take a walk to the two ruins up behind The Castle, Bryans Fort and Swifts Tower, named after the second generation Bryan Townshend and Dean Jonathan Swift who wrote Gulliver’s Travels. Swift was supposed to have stayed at The Castle. Visit the church on the hill up 52 steps (one for each weekend of the year) for the views. Open for services on Sundays, weekly in summer and first Sunday of the month in winter, catch a look at the Harry Clarke stained glass windows.”
“You’ll find warm Irish hospitality up at Mary Ann’s and Lil’s further up the hill. So take in the village as it really is like stepping back in time. The Castle is a wonderful and unique place, and we are lucky to have the opportunity to live in it and be the guardians until the next generation.” We take their advice to heart and really take in the village and, as it turns out, the village really takes in us, including for midnight wine.
Even the breakfast menu in the Dining Room is imbued with history: “The Castle itself started off as a much smaller building and was gradually added onto over time with the castellated towers being added in the 1800s. Of the portraits of the Townshend family that you can see on the walls around you, Richard Townshend MP is the earliest portrait, the 4th generation here. He married Elizabeth Fitzgerald whose brother was the Knight of Kerry: a very prosperous family alliance. Their portraits can be seen in the Front Hall.”
“Above the 400 year old sideboard you’ll see Colonel John (6th generation) on the left and his brother Reverend Maurice on the right. Colonel John fought with the Duke of Wellington in the Spanish Peninsular War around 1810, and on the opposite wall is a portrait of the Dublin Duke himself, Arthur Wellesley.”
“Reverend Maurice became the heir to the Townshend estate and wrote to the Townshends of Norfolk, England, where he requested that the whole Castletownshend family also incorporated the ‘h’ into their name. Therefore, it is speculated that, because the Norfolk Townshends have titles and can trace their heritage back further, the first Richard Townsend of Castletownshend was perhaps an illegitimate child who was sent off with the army.” This brings a whole meaning to “dropping you ‘h’!”
“Reverend Maurice married Alice Shute who had inherited a property in Gloucestershire called Chavenage (that’s where our bedroom name comes from). Unfortunately, Chavenage was later sold to pay off inheritance taxes. Interestingly, the property is used in many period dramas, the most recent being the Warleggan family house in the television series Poldark.”
“To the right of the front window is a portrait of Reverend Maurice’s son, Henry. One of his uniforms, along with the original helmet, is displayed under the sideboard. The Castle has been welcoming guests for over 60 years. Rose Marie Salter Townshend from 1947 and then by her daughter Anne Cochrane Townshend from 1997. We took over in 2015 and were delighted to win the Georgina Campbell Bed and Breakfast of the Year Award in 2019.”
A sign at the foot of the hill beyond the Dining Room windows, just visible from our breakfast table, states: “The private grounds cover a total of 90 acres, much reduced from the 8,000 acres originally recorded. The woodland is open to the public for walks at set times during the year. Discover the ruins of Bryans Fort, the original castle before it was destroyed, and Swifts Tower named after Dean Jonathan Swift who wrote Gulliver’s Travels and travelled and wrote here. Follow the marked paths to discover the St Patrick’s Cross hidden deep in the woods, admiring the view down harbour along the way.”
Decisions, decisions. Union Hall smoked salmon and scrambled eggs? Or vegan breakfast? Thank goodness for multiple night stays. We’ll alternate. The latter includes Clonakilty vegan black pudding. It’s from down the road in the town made famous for meaty black pudding. But to channel our inner U2, the vegan variety is “Even better than the real thing”. Clonakilty is also known as the final earthly resting place of the late Damian O’Brien, Marketing Director of Bord Fáilte and country house enthusiast. While we’re enjoying breakfast, turndown of the Abigail Room takes place: beds remade and towels replenished.
To paraphrase the words of Mrs Salter-Townshend, Sharon’s predecessor back a generation or two, The Castle certainly affords every variety of high voltage pleasure that we could desire. The West Cork weather really does compare favourably with southern England. This weekend anyway. And yes, there’s never a dull moment at Castletownshend.