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Multi-generation living, Downton-style

Kilruddery is home to the Earls of Meath. When the present Lord Meath’s father came to the house in 1946, dry rot was endemic and he was forced to demolish one third of it. Even with this extreme measure, it took eleven years to make good. At the same time, he managed to modernise the agricultural estate, plant trees and generally leave the place ‘in good nick’. We met two generations of the family.

Home to the Earls of Meath

Devotees of Downton Abbey will recall how, rather than one generation stepping aside for the next, there was a more gradual transition which saw the patriarch passing over responsibilities while retaining an active commitment to the estate. So it is in real life in one of the Republic of Ireland’s great houses, where different generations of the Brabazon family team work harmoniously and as a force for the good for both the house and the wider estate.

Situated in County Wicklow, some 20km south of Dublin, Killruddery is home to the Earls of Meath. Although the house has its roots in the 17th century, to all intents and purposes it is an early 19th century house built in the Elizabethan style. Like many historic houses, both in Ireland and in the UK, its story is one of survival through strong family bonds and continual diversification.

The current Earl of Meath, and head of the Brabazon family, inherited Killruddery from his father having spent some time sharing the house both with his parents and his brother. He comments drily that it was ‘quite difficult to share with three wives’. He, in turn, moved out of the main house in June 2013, leaving his son Lord Ardee with his wife and three children to take up the reins.

When the present Lord Meath’s father came to the house in 1946, dry rot was endemic and he was forced to demolish one third of it. Even with this extreme measure, it took eleven years to make good. At the same time, he managed to modernise the agricultural estate, plant trees and generally leave the place ‘in good nick’. During this time, there were sixteen members of staff in the house, including a governess, housekeeper and sewing lady.

The post-war period was a time when skilled labour was cheap but buying a bed was a considerable financial undertaking; installing central heating in 1954 cost as much as the then value of the house.

An Irish title, the Earldom dates back to 1627, but the long line of Brabazons could have come to an abrupt end on July 4th 1993 when criminal gangs hurled a Molotov cocktail into the library as a result of a grudge against a local businessman. It was a very stormy night with thunder and lightning but luckily the family was at home and, hearing the alarms going off, rushed to the library and were able to grab a fire extinguisher to put an early end to the fire.

A family team

Although it is never easy for overlapping generations to work together, there is no doubt that the family team at Killruddery is a great success. Under the present regime, the Earl and his wife retain an interest in and involvement with the garden.

Lord Meath writes a blog entitled ‘A window on daily life’ and has most recently expressed his concern for the garden’s ecology in the face of erratic weather conditions. His wife has a particular interest in the antique contents of the house and has always hosted guided tours. Many of the more traditional events, such as the sale of work in aid of The Former Service Men and Women at Home and Abroad, continue, as does the Summer Festival of Opera. However, with the accession of Anthony and his wife, the imaginative scope and frequency of these has definitely changed up a gear.

With a farming background like his father, Anthony is highly practical with a real love of the land. He now runs the farm, house and gardens while his wife Fionnuala runs the commercial operation overseeing daily visitors, catering, corporate events and weddings – plus of course, coordinating family life.

These complementary interests manifest themselves in a seasonal programme which goes from bush craft to sheep shearing via the ‘Totally Terrific Tomato Festival’. There is a farm market every Saturday with handmade furniture, organic produce and even Lebanese food. All this activity has increased the visitor numbers from 2,500 in 2008 to 65,000 in 2015 but, with a maintenance bill that doesn’t give much change out of €300,000, the Ardees still have their work cut out making it all come together.

The 'Downtown effect'

The ‘Downton effect’ has inevitably become somewhat of a cliché in historic house circles and has been credited with everything from soaring visitor numbers to the new vogue for English butlers and, perhaps most surprisingly, the fashion for stiff collars and wavy bobs.

Ireland has not escaped this craze, perhaps because so many period dramas are filmed in Irish locations – Killruddery, for example, has played host to The Tudors. The advantages for film makers are not only the favourable tax treatment but also the ease with which they can move between city locations in Dublin to extraordinary country houses with, as in Killruddery, beautiful period interiors plus cultivated floral and walled gardens combined with the wilder extended estate.

All of this bodes well for Killruddery’s current generation’s ambition to keep the house as both a family home and a thriving business at the heart of a local community.

Ecclesiastical Insurance Group plc (EIG) Reg No 1718196. Ecclesiastical Insurance Office plc (EIO) Reg No 24869. Ecclesiastical Life Ltd (ELL) Reg No 243111. Ecclesiastical Financial Advisory Services Ltd (EFAS) Reg No 2046087. Ecclesiastical Underwriting Management Ltd (EUML) Reg No 2368571. E.I.O. Trustees Ltd Reg No 941199. EdenTree Investment Management Ltd (EIM) Reg No 2519319. All companies are registered in England at Beaufort House, Brunswick Road, Gloucester GL1 1JZ. EIO and ELL are authorised by the Prudential Regulation Authority and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority and the Prudential Regulation Authority. Firm Reference Number 113848 (EIO) and 110318 (ELL). EFAS and EIM are authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. Firm Reference Number 126123 (EFAS) and 527473 (EIM). EUML is an appointed representative of EIO who is authorised by the Prudential Regulation Authority and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority and the Prudential Regulation Authority. Firm Reference Number 402228.