Ancient Castlegrace, with its cider apple orchard, sounds tailor-made for the catchphrase “nothing added, but time”, but it’s too lightweight a slogan for an estate with such a meaty history.
In fact a great deal has been added, starting with a Norman castle in the 1300s, built for Raymond Le Gros, son-in-law of Strongbow, known then as Castle Le Gros and now as Castlegrace.
Later, in the 1800s, a mill and a handsome Georgian home were built on the 120-acre estate, by merchant and miller Samuel Grubb, and, in more modern times, an orchard was planted, as well as many wonderful trees. A state-of-the-art farmyard was also installed, and much more besides.
In fact, so unique is Castlegrace that even a famous movie director fell under its spell in the 1970s, when Stanley Kubrick chose it as the setting for his Academy Award-winning movie, Barry Lyndon, where, alas, not even the spectacular view of the Knockmealdown Mountains or the splendid remnants of a Norman castle could distract the viewer from the sight of a bare-chested Ryan O’Neal, slugging it out in a bare-knuckle fight with one of his fellow soldiers.
“It was the only bit of fighting, the only bit of excitement that took place under these walls,” says an amused Nicholas Grubb, whose great grandfather Samuel set up a successful mill operation on the Castlegrace Estate in Clogheen, Cahir, in the mid 19th century.
Extended members of the Grubb family had up to five mills in the locality at the time, until the repeal of the Corn Laws around 1850 allowed the importation of cheap grain, ultimately putting paid to those operations.
The mill remained closed from about 1870 until 1939 when Nicholas’ grandfather Raymond came to Ireland, replaced the old mill wheels with a turbine, and set up Tipperary Products, later taken over by Nicholas’ father Patrick, “producing vast quantities of anything that could be ground and found in rural Ireland”, Nicholas says, such as blackberries picked by local children and transported by rail and sea to Robertson’s (fruit preserves) in Bristol.
Like their ancestors, the nouveau Grubbs were enterprising fellows and at one point developed a business relationship with a gentleman called Hartog who dealt in white port from the Duoro Valley in Portugal. Hartog had struck a deal with the Catholic Church to supply them with communion wine (port) but as his was of the white variety, he needed something to colour it. The Grubb family’s elderberries helped in the performance of this minor miracle and, for a time, they did well out of it, until the Catholic Church realised the intervention was not quite divine and the contract ended.
“Millions of Communions were falsely served at the time,” says Nicholas with a grin.
The Grubbs brought more than ingenuity to Clogheen — they also brought good local employment, with up to 100 people employed in the mill in its heyday, “a great alternative to mass emigration in the 1940s and ‘50s”, Nicholas says.
His father Patrick tried every manner of diversification to keep them in business, of which the best known is probably the Tipperary Horse Trailer, with a sophisticated German axle.
While all of those earlier enterprises are now defunct, the estate is still generating good income, through a cider apple contract with the C&C group (Bulmers) in nearby Clonmel, as well as from farmland let out to pasture and a state-of-the-art farmyard leased until 2025. There’s further income from tillage, with land leased on a yearly basis.
The mill, a protected structure, and the backdrop to a Bulmers Cider ad, is no longer a source of income. It closed in 1980 and has lain empty since, but its heritage value has been acknowledged by the Heritage Council, who have in the past given money for its care and maintenance, including the roof.
As the mill is a protected structure, what use, if any, it is put to is a decision now for the next owners, as the Grubb family is selling up, much to the devastation of Nicholas, who co-owns the estate with his UK-based brother.
With none of the wider family interested in taking on the running of the estate, Nicholas will focus instead on his wife’s 600-acre family estate, Dromana House and Gardens on the River Blackwater, once seat of the FitzGeralds, and later, through marriage, home to the Villiers Stuarts, of whom Barbara Villiers Stuart is Nicholas’ wife.
Nicholas leaves behind not just a historic old mill at Castlegrace, but that handsome three-story Georgian house, as well as a separate Mill House, comprised of a two-storey gate lodge adjoining the mill which once served as a bank for the Grubb milling enterprises; Bridge Cottage, a two-storey home adjacent to the farmyard; 120 acres of land, with c30 acres in tillage and 38 acres in pasture; and 2.25km of fishing.
There’s also that 33-acre apple orchard, planted with the technical finesse of a vineyard by Philip Little of the Little Apple Co in Kilkenny, with an annual yield of circa 600 tonnes of cider apples, supplied, as already mentioned, to the C&C group.
Another enterprise is a medium-scale hydro-electric scheme, once part of the mill operation, and which Nicholas says can be used to offset electricity demand on the estate, creating savings for the owner, or exported to the national grid.
“It can be enhanced with heat pumps, and in this day and age, it’s a very, very valuable asset. It gives us power at the time of year when you need it, 70kW of power in the cold wet winter,” he says.
Nicholas, who describes himself as “an extreme environmentalist”, has put a lot into the estate over the years since he came to Ireland in the 1970s. Armed with a degree in agriculture, he got involved in importing and breeding Limousin cattle and wound up as president of the Irish Limousin Cattle Society, which he and Barbara ran out of the house in Castlegrace for about 35 years. He also established the orchard and planted many remarkable trees, including a Kentucky Coffee Bean tree, grown from a seed.
The estate in the Golden Vale is visually stunning, with its magnificent Norman ruins, a walled garden with several ancient yew trees, the mill river and the River Tar along the southern boundary, and that orchard, in full bloom right now.
The main house and the two cottages are part of a “Georgian cluster” Nicholas says. The main house is impressive — the entrance hall, with sweeping staircase and tall windows, is hung with portraits of Grubb ancestors and hunting trophies — but the interior needs a substantial upgrade. Insulation is definitely on the cards and probably a re-arrangement of layout. There are lots of rooms to choose from in this 7000 sq ft home, including drawing room, dining room, billiard room, sitting room, office/bedroom, and two kitchens downstairs (reflecting a time when two generations of Grubbs lived there) and upstairs, at different levels, seven bedrooms and a number of bathrooms. There’s also a basement floor with seven rooms and a wine cellar.
Throughout the house, there are tall sash windows with shutters, fabulous fireplaces, and high ceilings. Nicholas and Barbara lived there from 1989 to 2007, after which they let it out to a South African couple, who Nicholas says had an interest in buying it, but it wasn’t for sale at the time.
The separate Mill House — which has an iron-backed door dating to its banking days and a gunhole in an upper shutter — has three bedrooms and needs an upgrade. Bridge Cottage, near the farmyard, is also a three-bed home.
Michael Daniels, of Michael H Daniels and Co, is joint selling agent with Shelley & Purcell of Carrick-on-Suir and he outlines a number of options for prospective buyers.
The estate can be bought in its entirety for €2.75m (in 2019, it was on the market for €2.65m and was almost sold until Covid-19 hit, and Mr Daniels feels the market has improved since); or it can be bought in Lots. Lot 1 includes Castlegrace House, the Mill, Mill House, Bridge Cottage, the Norman ruins, the orchard, and 62.5 acres for €2m; Lot 2 includes the farmland and farmyard (57.5 acres) for €750,000; and Lot 3 is the whole estate on 120 acres for €2.75m.
Interest in Castlegrace is both domestic and international, with “frustrated” potential buyers hoping for a viewing as soon as travel restrictions ease.
“We have interest from Canada, the UK, and Dublin,” Mr Daniels says. “It’s a broad range of people, from wealthy individuals looking for an exclusive hideaway to families looking for a beautiful home, to corporate bodies.” In fact, the sale that almost went through in 2019 was to a corporate body, linked to a US-based private Catholic institution, Newman College, which would have involved students coming to stay at the Castlegrace Estate, “but the whole thing fell through with Covid”, Nicholas says.
Mr Daniels says whoever buys will inherit something “quite unique”.
“There are very few places like this. It’s a top property with two rivers and an amazing history in a lush rural setting. It’s an extremely tranquil location with no noise or light pollution, but still within easy reach of the M8 Cork/Dublin motorway.
“There’s an abundance of amenity, with rivers for swimming and boating, and there is a beautiful weir. It’s a place with lots of different angles to it,” Mr Daniel says.
Looking down on the estate, from the elevated angle of his whimsical beehive-shaped cairn, near the Vee Pass in the Knockmealdowns, where he was buried standing upright, is Samuel Grubb, perhaps turning in this grave 100 years after his burial, at the thought of his old family home being sold.
Castlegrace Estate, overlooked by Sugarloaf Hill, is a genuine one-off that could make a terrific retreat, or an enviable family home, or, given its history, a fantastic space for the public to visit and enjoy.
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