In 2007 Sonja and Kevin Bergin purchased Tullaun Castle in North Tipperary, Ireland. Tullaun Castle is a Gaelic four-storey tower house that is believed to have been built in the mid 1500s. The couple have begun conservation and restoration work in hopes to bring the castle back to its former glory. They have also recently won the 2011 Period Living’s Readers’ Award for Best Cottage.
Sonja and Kevin graciously answered our questions about their restoration work:
Historical buildings have always fascinated us. Our house is probably over 300 years old and when we saw a tower house for sale that really started us thinking about tackling an even older property. We spent about 3 years looking for the right one, made bids on others and were outbid, but when we saw Tullaun castle and its location we knew it was special. It was abandoned in the 1600’s and has not been altered since which is what we wanted. We didn’t want to be spending time and money undoing bad restorations. There is a real sense of history in this building and its isolated setting really needs to be experienced to be appreciated.
2. Trying to restore a medieval castle is obviously a difficult task – could you describe some of the challenges in trying to do this work?
“Difficult task” is an understatement! Tullaun castle is about 1km from the nearest road. We upgraded about 500m of existing road but now have about another 500m to construct just so we can transport the necessary materials. Finding suitably experienced craftsmen, sourcing appropriate materials is not easy. There are no services currently on site, ie water, electricity and sewerage. It is extremely important for us that when we restore Tullaun castle it maintains its medieval atmosphere but is reasonably comfortable to live in. We will do our utmost to be discrete with any services that are inserted. It is a fine line for us between restored and “over-restored” where the sense of history of the building is lost I imagine heating such a building will also be a challenge. Tullaun’s location on a rocky outcrop is also going to be difficult when it comes to scaffolding. If you didn’t have the money, getting a mortgage to buy a building like this would be impossible now.
3. There seems to be a legal process in Ireland you need to follow in order to even start restoration efforts. What steps are involved in this?
Different castles/tower houses fall under different levels of bureaucratic difficulties. In our case, Tullaun castle is a “recorded monument” but not a “protected structure” (local council designation). Protected structures are eligible for grants from the local council but for some reason Tullaun castle did not qualify for this designation (even though it is nearly 500 years old) and so is not eligible for any grants at all, especially in the current economic climate, but has the exact same planning restrictions. It took us nearly 2 years to obtain planning permission and we know of other tower houses that, for some reason or other, have had an even tougher time. There is a significant cost to obtain planning – conservation architect, archaeological assessment and architectural survey drawings would be significant extra costs to a normal application,
The government does not have the money to maintain these buildings yet they do not make it easy for people that are passionate about their survival- quite frustrating!