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
estates fortunes, he was grilled in front of a national audience
for RTEs 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, youll have
to tune into the follow-up series, The Mentor Revisited, which starts
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 months
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 wasnt 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
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 didnt 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 Bunburys distrust of selling off assets to pay
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 didnt 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 isnt 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 isnt an easy option for
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 years 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
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 havent 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.
The Mentor Revisited starts on Thursday, at 10.45pm on RTE1