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A castle for Christmas: Roaring log fires, candlelight and banquet tables laden with food

The festive period in a castle can be enchanting, but it also has its challenges, as the owners of Cahercastle, Tubbrid and Fanningstown tell us

Spending Christmas in a castle conjures up visions of roaring log fires, flickering candles and a banqueting table groaning under the weight of festive food and drink.

It is as wonderful as it sounds, says John Campion, who owns Tubbrid Castle in Kilkenny. But there are also practicalities to think about. How do you get a large Christmas tree up narrow stone steps?

And where do you begin decorating when you are dealing with the vast space of a castle?

“We try to focus on local decorations as much as possible, using high quality, natural products that highlight the castle’s original features, rather than attempting to cover the whole room in decorations,” he says.

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“As you can imagine, that just isn’t possible, given the size of the castle.

“We try to decorate the features that are there, like the corbel stones, the stone recesses in the walls and the vaulted ceilings in such a way that they are lit nicely.”

Among the locally-sourced decorations are candles from Bennetsbridge candlemaker Moth to a Flame. “They are beautiful wax orbs with a candle inside. We put them in the stone recesses in the Great Hall and they light up the original features.”

His mother Helen oversees the Christmas decorations and she has a band of eager helpers – her grandchildren from Kilkenny, Clare and Down.

You feel a lot of pressure to mind it and preserve it for the next generation. I think a lot of people with castles feel a similar responsibility and have to take guests to allow them to do that

“We usually decorate the tree on December 8th,” he says. “We have a tradition that the youngest of the grandchildren gets to put the star on top of the tree. And we have mince pies and treats when all the decorating is done.”

He says the biggest challenge is getting the eight-foot Christmas tree in place. “Our Christmas tree takes pride of place in the Great Hall, which is on the first floor, one flight of stairs up. It’s where any feasting and celebrations would have been done back in medieval times,” he says.

“It is a little bit difficult to get the tree up the 25 stone steps into the Great Hall, but we always manage to do it.”

His great-grandparents were originally tenants on the land, on which the 15th century tower stood, and bought the holding in the 1920s. At that stage, the castle’s roof was gone, and it was falling into disrepair. His father John began a painstaking restoration in the early 2000s and John took it over in 2016.

The family spent their first Christmas there in 2019. “The first Christmas was really special because the project had taken 15 years at that stage,” he recalls. Unfortunately, my father had passed away the summer before, but that made it all the more special for the rest of the family to be able to gather and mark his great achievement in restoring such a special piece of Ireland’s built heritage.”

Knowing that they were the first family to celebrate Christmas in the castle in more than a century made it even more special.

They opened the castle to paying guests in 2019, and Helen now cares for the castle. “Our guests who stay at Christmas tell us it has been the highlight of their year, getting to spend Christmas at an Irish castle,” he says.

“There’s nothing like waking up under a vaulted ceiling, where they know people have been waking up for centuries before. It feels really special on Christmas morning to unwrap presents under the tree and enjoy the log-fire stove. We have an oak banqueting table in the Great Hall, so it’s the perfect setting for a lavish Christmas dinner.”

Over in Limerick, Mary Normoyle encourages her guests to think about Christmas dinner as soon as they arrive at Fanningstown Castle, near Adare.

“When they arrive, I like to have the table ready, set up for Christmas dinner with my nice white linens and a lovely red velvet runner,” she says.

“I go into the garden and get nice bits of holly for around the candles. It is very cosy.”

The gothic castle has been in the family since the early 1920s. Mary and her husband David began taking guests in Christmas 2001 to help fund the upkeep of the five-bed castle. She says they see themselves as caretakers for their descendants.

“You feel a lot of pressure to mind it and preserve it for the next generation. I think a lot of people with castles feel a similar responsibility and have to take guests to allow them to do that.”

Before the guests began arriving, she remembers many happy family Christmases at the castle. “We have a grand diningroom table, which seats ten and we would have had plenty of family and guests coming at Christmas time,” she recalls.

The storytelling would start around the table and then move to the sittingroom, where the flames danced in the period fireplace.

Decorating the castle is a big undertaking but an enjoyable one, she says. However, the usual Christmas trinkets for a family home look lost in a castle setting.

“We do have larger decorations, mostly golds and reds in keeping with the rich colours in the castle. I love candles so we have a lot of nice candles around the place with holly from the garden.”

She loves to browse in local shops, particularly Vokes, and Kerry Woollen Mills in Adare, and she picks up a few decorations every year.

Many guests arrive with their children, and she says it’s a very atmospheric place to welcome a visit from Santa. And while children are busy with their presents, parents can enjoy a glass of mulled wine in front of the fire, or play a few yuletide tunes on the piano in the library.

Her three children are well on the road to adulthood now, and she is already looking forward to future Christmases with an extended family. “We will hopefully all be around to welcome the next generation and I can’t think of anything more special than preparing the castle for our own extended family and to have Santa arrive at the castle for them,” she says.

Santa hasn’t called to Cahercastle, near Craughwell Co Galway for many years now, and its owner Peter Hayes isn’t expecting many callers this Christmas. Instead, he is looking forward to shutting the world out. “I prefer Christmas with just myself and my partner Eva [Goncalvez],” he says.

If his two adult sons are not home, he says it will be very quiet. “We live simply. We don’t do a big Christmas dinner. We might go for a walk, taking it easy, reflecting,” he says. Friends are welcome to come and stay, on one proviso. “All we ask is that they bring their own fuel for the fires,” he says.

He bought the medieval tower, which has been standing since the late 1400s, in 1996, and spent more than 20 years restoring it. He points out that he still doesn’t own it. “You can’t own a building like that. It owns you,” he says ruefully. “We are just passing through and it will be here for many years after us.”

His pared back plans for Christmas are explained by his growing horror at the commercialisation of the festive season. “The commercial side of Christmas, to me, is heartbreaking. All the waste. You have people out there with absolutely nothing, and we are still showering our kids with plastic toys that will be broken and put into landfill,” he says.

“It’s supposed to be a time of peace and goodwill to all, but it has lost that. It seems that we are born to consume, rape and pillage this earth to an inch of its life, and we are all responsible for that. Every one of us. Sorry if that doesn’t sound Christmassy.”

Unsurprisingly, he is not the type of castle owner who calls in an interior stylist to do his Christmas decorations.

“We do put a wreath on front of the door,” he concedes. And he has a Christmas tree all year round. It’s hung upside down from his livingroom ceiling and covered in fairy lights. “It’s a light fitting now, and it has been decorated by the spiders with the cobwebs,” he says. “We have lots of spiders here.”

He takes paying guests at the castle, warning them to expect the eight-legged creatures, and some dust, and advising them against expecting pristine hotel standards. His warnings do not dissuade visitors; at one stage, in 2019, Cahercastle was the most visited Airbnb in Europe.

After experiencing the castle without guests during the Covid pandemic, he decided to close to guests from October to March. “Before that, we did have people here for Christmas and Eva made decorations, but I think people who were coming just wanted to get away from the Christmas madness, to cut themselves off,” he says.

“We got rid of the TVs years ago, so you are truly cut off from the world here. And that’s the way we like it.”