Perspective: Who Pays for Our Heritage?; Kevin Smith Opens the Doors on the Financial Crises Facing the Owners of Britain's Stately Homes -and Finds the Irish Setting the Pace for Diversification

Article excerpt

Byline: Kevin Smith

On the walls of Lord Henry Mount Charles's office in the stables of Slane Castle near Dublin, dusty ancestral portraits jostle for space alongside concert posters for rock groups such as Guns N' Roses and U2.

It may be an incongruous sight but it sums up modern-day reality for the owners of Ireland's great houses as they struggle to preserve old-style grandeur in the face of 21st century financial pressures.

The revenue from annual rock festivals in the grounds of Slane Castle has helped Mount Charles to maintain an architectural jewel that has been in his family since the 1700s.

'Really, you have to negotiate this strange dance between the commercial and what is aesthetically right, what is spiritually right. It's an odd journey,' he said.

Mount Charles also rents parts of the castle for corporate functions and weddings.

However, his entrepreneurship and that of his fellow gentry who have turned to the hotel business or created theme parks on their estates to support their ancestral homes, is just one side of the story.

Others, such as the Gore-Booth family in the northwestern county of Sligo, have increasingly found the task of maintaining their houses -described by one owner as being 'like trying to breastfeed a dinosaur' -just too much to bear.

The Gore-Booths' sale earlier this year of Lissadell House -the childhood home of legendary Irish patriot Countess Constance Markievicz and one-time haunt of poet WB Yeats -caused a furore in Ireland and has sparked a fierce debate about the future of the country's historic houses. Built largely for the Anglo-Irish ruling elite -the descendants of the army generals and officials who accompanied Oliver Cromwell and King William III into Ireland in the 17th century -the great houses were viewed by many, after Irish independence from Britain in 1921, as symbols of oppression.

'They were seen as a legacy of a colonial past people wanted to move on from,' said Terence Dooley, a lecturer in modern history at Ireland's Maynooth College and author of a report on the subject.

Crippling taxes imposed by successive Irish governments effectively led to the demolition and break-up of many estates, while big houses along the border with British-ruled Northern Ireland were being burned down by the Irish Republican Army guerrilla group as late as the 1980s.

Spiralling insurance costs have also taken their toll, with premiums affected by a number of art thefts from stately homes in Ireland and Britain as owners opened their doors to the public to get tax breaks.

Of the 400 or so great houses flourishing in 19th century Ireland, only about 100 remain and of those, less than half are still in the hands of the original families. …