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The Sunday Times (Property section) - 8th October 2006

How fallen trees are helping stop the rot

William Bunbury McClintock has found some inventive ways to make his family estate pay its way, finds Niall Toner

If Lisnavagh House survives for another hundred years, it will be thanks to the energy of William McClintock Bunbury, weddings, a recent dose of reality television and the occasional windfall. McClintock Bunbury, who grew up at the 1,000- acre Co Carlow spread, is the son of Lord and Lady Rathdonnell. He moved to England in the 1990s, but at the turn of the millennium returned to try to revive the fortunes of the family seat.
Now, unlike so many of its counterparts that found themselves ill-equipped to cope with the realities of the 20th century and ended up no more than grainy black-and-white memories decorating coffee table books, Lisnavagh may be about to turn the corner.

Last year, in search of inspiration, McClintock Bunbury proved he would go anywhere — and that included reality television.

Seeking views on his plans to revive the estate’s fortunes, he was grilled in front of a national audience for RTE’s popular programme The Mentor, which has aspiring entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to the business experts Jay Bourke and Dr Jeanne Bolger. To find out how he got on, you’ll have to tune into the follow-up series, The Mentor Revisited, which starts this week.

McClintock Bunbury says he returned from Britain full of ideas. First he started small, seeking to turn fallen wood on the estate into badly needed cash. From there more ideas followed and, so far, his plans seem to be working.

Though only halfway restored at the moment, parts of the mansion are already looking stunning — as shown by its selection for a glossy colour spread in this month’s edition of Image Interiors. The attention was thanks to its iconic and sensitive interiors by Sue Craigie, a designer. Now McClintock Bunbury and his wife, Emily, are planning to embark on the rest of the job.

An increasingly important source of income for them is the “timber project”. Initially it was set to be only a small part of the overall diversification of the affairs of the estate.

“I only saw it as a hobby initially,” he says. “When trees blew down on the estate in the past, we sold them to local lumber yards, which wasn’t financially expedient as you would only get a fraction of what the timber was worth. So I thought, ‘Why not make them into planks ourselves and sell the finished product?’” The trees are dried and planked on the estate and the project now supplies a selection of kiln- and air-dried hardwood boards to furniture-makers. However, falling trees can only partially ensure the stately pile continues to stand.

Back in 2000, the place was haemorrhaging money and the house itself had fallen into a state of disrepair.

McClintock Bunbury explains: “The financial losses had been growing for many decades. Bits of furniture and bits of land had been sold off over the years as well as a couple of houses.

“What I wanted to do was to stop the selling off of capital assets, because I had seen similar properties dwindle down to nothing in this way.”

He had to swallow that principle in 2002, when his efforts to turn things around didn’t seem to be succeeding. “We were forced to sell off another house. It did give us funds to pay off some of the debt and and we were left with a couple of hundred grand to invest in equipment and the buildings for the timber project. Spending that money quickly was a good decision because otherwise it would have just dwindled away.”

He was also in a position to invest some of the money in restoring the main house, where his parents still live, but the money ran out by the end of last year, confirming McClintock Bunbury’s distrust of selling off assets to pay off debts.

“I had married Emily in the meantime and other plans and ideas began to materialise. One was the idea of doing something with the main house. Though my parents were still living there, they were talking about moving to a smaller house but didn’t know how to go about it.

“We had to come up with ideas for the place to earn an income so we would have some sort of repayment capacity to build them a home and also do up the main house.”

Then the opportunity arose to brainstorm some of their ideas with Bourke and Bolger. However, McClintock Bunbury found that he and the two mentors had conflicting ideas about how things should be done.

He says: “I tend to take a fairly careful approach, whereas Jay likes a more aggressive approach. For example, the mentors were keen that we flog some land for development.

“We had a valuer who looked at a piece of land on the estate and reckoned it could be worth €5m, but it isn’t that simple. It would only be worth that with planning permission, which could take up to five years. We are still looking at the possibility, but it certainly isn’t an easy option for us.”

During the course of filming, the couple explored a number of other ideas for income generation, including the notion of holding a music festival at the estate, a suggestion put by Bourke on the programme.

McClintock Bunbury says: “John Reynolds of Electric Picnic came and had a look at the place and thought it would make a good venue. Nothing came of it, but it may still be something we do in the future. We did get access-all-areas passes to last year’s Electric Picnic festival, though!” In the meantime, the restoration of the Daniel Robertson-designed neogothic mansion went ahead and the roof has just gone onto a new house for his parents. “My parents lived there through all of the work with all of the noise and dust, but we had no choice,” McClintock Bunbury says. “We are going to leave them be now until the new year.”

There is still lots to be done on the main house. A substantial amount of expensive work remains to be carried out on the roof. Having spent well into six figures so far, he reckons the sky could be the limit in restoring a house such as Lisavagh.

“For the roof alone, you could start with a million (euros). It all depends on how you do it. We are going to put in some more loos in the spring and do up a flat at the top of the house, which we may move into.”

The couple have also decided to exploit the fine gardens as well as the house, and go into the private party and weddings business.

A wedding, without sleeping accommodation, costs €5,000, and the 14-acre gardens can be hired on their own for €3,000. The original designer of the gardens also did those at Powers- court in Co Wicklow. Bedroom accommodation costs from €75 per person per night.

McLintock Bunbury says: “The bare-bones upkeep of a house like Lisnavagh is about €30,000 per year. The idea is to make the house and estate generate an income to match that. And of course, in the meantime, we have to live as well.”

The McClintock Bunburys arrived with the Normans — their immediate ancestor served Willian the Conqueror. They acquired the Carlow seat in 1702.

The existing house was built in the mid-19th century. It was much larger than it is now — two-thirds was demolished in the bleak economic climate of the 1950s.

Ironically his father, Lord Rathdonnell was himself an early pioneer in some of the alternative businesses that have now become necessary for the upkeep of hereditary country estates. Rathdonnell got involved in the Hidden Ireland initiative and converted a number of cottages on the estate into holiday accommodation.

McClintock Bunbury will now at least be content that his efforts haven’t gone without applause. He reckons he got an overall thumbs-up from mentors Bourke and Bolger when they returned to make The Mentor Revisited.

“I think everybody learnt something from doing the show,” McClintock Bunbury says.

www.lisnavagh.com; www.irishwoods.com. The Mentor Revisited starts on Thursday, at 10.45pm on RTE1