On the west coast of Ireland, nestled on the shore of Clew Bay in Mayo, is the kind of stately home that buyers will pay a premium for: a waterside property with architectural provenance and a rich history.
Westport House has been home to the Browne family, descendants of the Gaelic chieftain Grace O’Malley, since the 17th century. Its 455 acres include a lake, campsite and even a pirate adventure park. Yet despite drawing 160,000 visitors last year, the owners have struggled to maintain Westport House since it opened to the public in 1960. A loan of €6.5m obtained by the late Lord Altamont to invest in the property was acquired by Ireland’s National Asset Management Agency in 2010, and has now forced Westport to be put up for sale, priced at €10m through Ganly Walters.
The house enters a market still settling after a period of fluctuation. The recession sent domestic interest in Irish country estates plummeting, with prices falling 55 to 65 per cent from their peak in 2006. By 2012, overseas buyers accounted for 90 per cent of sales, according to estate agents Sherry FitzGerald. But appetite from within Ireland is returning.
Declining affordability in Dublin — where prices rose 24.2 per cent in the 12 months to October 2014 — generated a ripple effect last year, boosting the price of residential properties across the rest of Ireland by 10.2 per cent, according to the country’s Central Statistics Office. That marked the first time many rural areas had shown signs of price recovery since 2006.
Country homes fetching between €1m and €2m are now attracting two types of buyers, says Harriet Grant, head of country houses, farms and estates at Savills Ireland. One is domestic clients searching for a second home. The other is expats who have established successful careers abroad and have been lured back to the Irish market by favourable exchange rates. Some are retirees; some are couples with young families considering their options.
At the higher end of the market, there has been an influx of wealthy buyers from the US, according to David Ashmore, who has specialised in high-end country homes for 16 years and is in the process of launching the first Sotheby’s International Realty office in Ireland. “Initially the attraction may have been the massive correction in pricing, so it was value-led, but Ireland seems to be establishing itself more as a destination market,” he says.
Beyond the allure of buying property in the land of their forefathers, US executives with commercial interests in north-west Europe find the connectivity provided by airports in Cork, Shannon and Dublin very appealing. West Cork and Kerry are particularly popular, as flights from London take 90 minutes or less.
One feature in short supply, however, is acreage. “Less than 5 per cent of all properties that come on the market are over 200 acres,” says Ashmore. “Just getting estates over 100 acres is rare.”
County Limerick’s Glin Castle, a 20,550 sq ft property on 380 acres, has drawn about 50 inquiries from the US since the start of the year, according to Sherry FitzGerald. The asking price is €6.5m. Though the castle has been in the same family for more than 700 years, the owner is elderly and hopes another family will take it over. It is a familiar scenario among sellers, agents say: a burden of responsibility that facilitates a wish to downsize.
Some buyers see a country estate as an attractive investment, though. In 2003, Dublin barristers Constance Cassidy and Edward Walsh bought Lissadell House in County Sligo for €3.75m. It is one of Ireland’s most notable estates, having been the childhood home of revolutionary nationalist Constance Gore-Booth, who in 1918 became the first woman to be elected to the British House of Commons.
Cassidy and Walsh sought the property not only as a second home but as a tourist venture that their seven children could help develop, conscious that a legal practice was not something they could pass on to them.
But restoring the house to its former glory required almost €9m — and that was before a legal battle over rights of way closed the property for five years.
“It’s not unlike that film The Money Pit,” says Walsh, laughing. “While I’m pleased with the decision we made and I haven’t regretted it, it’s still a life-changer. You’re making a commitment right from the moment you take it on.”
Whereas overseas buyers typically employ full-time caretakers, and may only spend a matter of weeks in residence every year, Walsh clearly enjoys investing every spare moment into Lissadell. Admiring the 20,000 daffodils he planted last autumn, he casually mentions he has been up since 5am and that long days of manual labour are routine.
“Most of my friends think it’s absolute lunacy,” he says. “It’s a huge undertaking but it is worthwhile if you’re of a certain disposition. Just.”
● There are no restrictions on foreigners buying property in Ireland
● Stamp duty is 1 per cent on sales up to €1m and 2 per cent on the remaining balance
● Rainfall in the west of Ireland amounts to an average of 225 wet days a year
What you can buy for . . .
€1.5m A Georgian house on 15 acres on the west Cork coast
€3.5m A nine-bedroom estate on 120 acres of woodland one hour from Dublin
€7.5m A Victorian estate on 160 acres with a lake and beach
More listings at ftpropertylistings.com
Photographs: Alamy; Johnny Bambury/Fennell Photography