"Castle Hyde is one of those incredible jobs where fate has brought together a magnificent house with a visionary man determined to restore it to its former glory." (Peter Murphy, Architect to Michael Flatley, 2002)
Early in the summer of 1998 word spread around Dublin that Michael Flatley was seeking an Irish home in earnest. For some years it had been said that he loved Killiney Bay and Dalkey, the scenic coastal area south of Dublin city known as 'the Golden Mile' because of the wealth of the homes and the celebrity status of many of their owners. It is easy to imagine him enjoying that neighbourhood, with its steep hills full of walking paths, stone-stepped trails, and the long stony beach that many an athlete uses for the toughest workout in the fresh sea air. It was reported that he was flying in specially to view several impressive homes on sale there. However, although they were beautiful, sadly none of them would be right for Michael. Some were too small, one or two just too much on top of their neighbours, some too visible so that the paparazzi could have a field day every time he ventured near a window, let alone went outside. One of the homes sold for a record-breaking sum, 5.9 million Irish Pounds, more than 6 million US dollars, and the 96-year-old lady whose home it had been was interviewed on RTE television news and asked if she knew who had bought her house. She replied that she didn't, and added 'But I hope it was Michael Flatley, because I'd like him to have it.' However, she did not get her wish, and reports continued to pop up for the next year about Michael's continued search for his Irish home.
In summer of 1999, according to the press, Michael was combing the countryside by helicopter in his quest for the perfect location, and when his journey took him over north County Cork he suddenly came upon a stately home overlooking the Blackwater River outside Fermoy, knew instantly there was something special, and immediately visited the German owner. It is said that on his first visit to Castle Hyde he took his flute to the library and played it, and then knew he had found home. The story may be true or not, but to quote the words at the beginning of the old western movie 'The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean': 'If this isn't how it was, it's how it should have been.'
At first, of course, there was much speculation, and suspicion, about how Michael would deal with his new home. Part of this came from ignorant assumption that Michael's flamboyance and love of sparkle on stage would be reflected in his choice of home surroundings, they would all be full of 'glitz and glass'. Part also came from a fear that one more historic Irish home would be ruined as a new owner renovated by running rough-shod over it, erasing anything of historic or artistic value.
|Only those who had seen, and understood, the published photos of Michael's magnificent restoration of his historic London home knew that the reality would be very different. The features on that home showed clearly that Michael's artistic visions were, if anything, even greater off the stage than on. Employed experts play a part, yes, but only with a highly educated and cultured employer could the results shown in the London mansion be achieved.|
The estate of Castle Hyde - the name is often written as one word nowadays, Castlehyde, but the original spellings shown in old publications make the two word version the correct one - has a very long history. There is the ruin of a Norman castle dating from 1301 (and part of that may indeed be quite a bit earlier) on top of the cliff just behind the present house, and the extensive forest that sprawls along behind the house on top of the cliff, has been there, much of it totally untouched by human hand, for many hundreds of years, and contains a number of unique specimen trees.
The Hyde family, who gave their name to the estate, in fact became bankrupt trying to maintain the estate and had to sell in the mid-eighteen hundreds, and the house has had several owners of colourful character since then. There was Henry Laughton, who ended up fleeing his nagging wife and taking up residence in the coach-house, and the famous American yachtsman, William Wrexon-Becher, who sailed a cutter from Cork to America and back in 1856. Then there was the man who apparently imported the entire Boston Symphony Orchestra for a party in the ballroom. The most famous name associated with the house was Ireland's first President, Douglas Hyde, who came from a branch of the old Hyde family. Douglas Hyde was also founder of the Gaelic League, which had much involvement with the formation of An Comisiun na Rince Gaelacha (the Irish Dance Commission), and of course the county of Cork is said to be the birthplace of Irish Dance several centuries ago, so what home could be more appropriate than Castle Hyde for the man Dr. John Cullinane, historian of Irish Dance, calls 'the third great milestone in the history of Irish Dance', Michael Flatley?
|The present main block of Castle Hyde house dates from 1760, with extensions designed by Cork architect Abraham Hargreaves the Elder some forty years later. Completed in 1801, the house is in the Palladian style of architecture, which is to say its style follows that of the famous Italian architect Palladio, whose work was revered and copied throughout Europe during the eighteenth century. Palladian mansions have an impressive central block with two smaller 'pavilion' buildings, one on either end of the main block.|
Sometimes these are curved forwards from the main house, but Castle Hyde is all in a line, with bow-ended (curved) pavilions, presumably as the building is tucked in beneath the cliff and runs parallel to the Blackwater River, which flows past not far from the front of the house.
Being south-facing, the house must be wonderfully light, the pavilions bathed in morning and evening sunshine, which in Ireland is precious! In a Palladian house, the entrance usually leads into a reception hall with large fireplace, and is usually accented by Roman style marble columns. The floor is either black and white marble (in houses without basements or cellars beneath) or wood if in a basemented house, which Castle Hyde is. The staircase often does not rise from this reception hall, but is in a separate staircase hall accessed through a side or rear door.
|Castle Hyde has its separate staircase hall to the rear, and its oval, cantilevered staircase, constructed of stone and rising the full height of the building to a small domed skylight, is reputed to be the finest in Ireland. The glazed dome of the skylight can be seen in some photos of the house, a slight 'hump' in the centre of the main roof.|
|In the earlier Palladian houses a series of large rooms connect one into the other from one end of the house to the other, with the hall as one of them, a comparatively narrow corridor hallway running along the back, behind the rooms. Castle Hyde however, follows the more 'modern' design of a very wide 'gallery' hallway running from one pavilion to the other, these serving as two more reception rooms, rather than as offices, which would have been the case with the older style of proportion. This design, with Corinthian styled marble pilasters (half columns set into the wall) lining the gallery hall, makes a magnificent space, with the staircase hall accessed off the centre of it.|
It has been reported that Michael intends to host dinners for large numbers of guests in this superb gallery hall. What a setting for a ball it would make too!
It was said Castle Hyde had only two out of its four floors habitable at the time Michael became owner, the upper floor closed off and unsafe, the roof leaking, rain dribbling down the walls inside, and tales of the floods from the river into the cellars led to irresistible humour in the press - 'he will be able to do the Riverdance in the cellars in winter'! Along with the rampant, out of control jungle growth in the vast estate grounds, all this added up to a historic home crumbling seriously, in the last days of its life, and of course what was visible on the surface was doubtless no more than the tip of the iceberg. The previous owner was aware of the importance of the house and had established preservation orders on it (which have caused not a little trouble during the restoration!), but clearly could not cope, so no wonder he was willing to sell!
When Michael first saw it he may well have thought it would involve a year or so of renovation as his London home had done, but this was a very different adventure. When he bought the house it was thickly covered in creeper, as had been the London mansion, and one of his first tasks was to have the whole house cleaned of vegetation, so photographs taken of the house in 2000 were already in sharp contrast to older views. Then, he must have thought the job was progressing well, and there were reports of his plans for a house-warming New Year Millennium party! Castle Hyde had other ideas, however, even proving to have unstable foundations, so close was it tottering on the brink of destruction.
It would undoubtedly have been much easier, quicker, and less costly, to simply demolish the house and build a new one, but Michael's respect and love of Ireland and of history could never be party to that, nor to cutting any corners for convenience, and by 2001 the entire structure was shrouded in plastic and scaffolding, the roof being completed restored, also every window in the house renewed - not replaced, but restored repairing and re-using using every possible scrap of the original materials.
From the cellars up, every inch of the house was being strengthened and renovated with archaeological care and attention to detail. Long periods of time were dogged by delays from red tape problems as shortsighted and ill-informed members of planning boards and conservation authorities obstructed the proposals for restoration, and many other trials which must have tested Michael's loyalty to his home.
He had to contend with the scare of a fire from a burst boiler which could have claimed the house if not for the efficiency of the Fermoy fire department, uproar when his men had to take out a landmark ancient hedge because generations of neglect had left it diseased beyond saving, and even the arrival of New Age travellers who left serious mess behind them on Castle Hyde's land when they were finally persuaded to leave. By all accounts, every new day brought a new obstacle, so bad that at one point Michael reportedly threatened to sell up and leave, and not until 2002 did the house re-emerge from its shrouds, like a majestic butterfly from the chrysalis. As late as the latter half of 2003 some scaffolding still remained, so vast was the project, along with some of the sea of workmens' huts and stacks of building supplies. However, at least now there were extensive and serious, respectful articles appearing in the press reporting on the project, which was being acknowledged as probably the largest and most culturally valuable ever undertaken by a private individual.
It has been a journey of unexpected adventure also, even of historic discovery. In the spring of 2002, as luck would have, at a time when Michael was present, while digging for a new septic system, workmen found an ancient burial site, thousands of years old, complete with intact earthenware pots. Michael's appreciation for history at once came into play and work was halted, Cork University was contacted and the experts summoned. What a thrill the find must have been for someone so passionate about the heritage of Ireland!
Castle Hyde's rebirth is an extraordinary phenomenon, and for Ireland, quite the most important and precious project Michael has ever undertaken. It may well be the ultimate masterpiece creation of his genius, no matter what other wonderful shows he may come up with in the future. To the outsider, that may seem an overstatement, but in the context of our history, it is not.
Two hundred years ago Ireland sported one of the most sophisticated and cultured capital cities in Europe, and her countryside was lavishly dotted with superb estates and mansions, filled with the greatest treasures of the world by their aristocrat owners. Yes, the owners were, for the most part, British, not Irish, and for that reason when the Irish Republic came into being there was an inevitable reaction against those properties, as being part of the past that needed to be shed, which resulted in their burning, looting, neglect and all other imaginable forms of demise possible. Memory is long, and no doubt the great homes also still suffered from the memory of the Great Famine, when millions starved to death and/or were evicted from the land for their inability to pay exorbitant rent, while the great estates continued to be maintained, inevitably appearing to the distressed Irish people as useless objects with absurdly rich interiors, and fancy flower-gardens where life-saving food should have been grown. During the twentieth century, as the fledgling Irish nation became established and developed, many of the old estates disintegrated, in a way suffering similar fate to the people of the Famine era, unwanted and uncared-for, considered worthless relics of bygone times.
However, those great places were in fact built with the blood and sweat of Irish people, and with their fine skills of artistry, and now that Ireland has matured and 'come of age' as a nation, it has been realised too late what we have lost - the majority of the magnificent work created by Irishmen of centuries past is either destroyed and gone, or sold overseas, or so long neglected that no-one can afford to salvage it. Their treasures of Irish furniture, famous Georgian silver and cut glass, along with Irish paintings and unique literary volumes, have long been scattered across the world as owners of the great estates have sold them off in the struggle to remain in their ancestral homes. Still today, almost daily more great homes are still being put up for sale, often to be turned into health spas or hotels, as the only option save demolition.
The State cannot afford to restore them all. Several State and semi-State bodies do make valiant efforts to preserve some, and in recent years the Government has courageously restored a lovely and most historic home, Farmleigh, adjacent to the edge of the Phoenix Park in Dublin, to be used as a State Guest-House since we didn't have appropriate accommodation to offer visiting dignitaries. However, there is still a significant number of people who object to spending on such luxuries, and despite allowing the public to visit Farmleigh free of charge as often as possible, the Government has received much criticism for its good deed! So how is our heritage of the remaining great houses to survive? Most cannot, but thanks to the sensitivity and the fine understanding of one Michael Flatley, Castle Hyde will not only survive but is becoming a true jewel in the crown of Ireland once again. The vast team working on the restoration is headed by those who worked on Farmleigh, and the final results of their work at Castle Hyde are clearly even more superb. Now the architect/interior designer, Englishman Peter Inston, has created magnificent period interiors, while also incorporating all the modern luxuries befitting a celebrity lifestyle. Michael's fine and diverse collections of wine, rare flutes, Irish literary masterpiece first editions, great paintings and antique furniture, are gradually filling the house and making it a home. Yet, at the same time, Michael has said Castle Hyde is about much more than him, that it is an important part of Ireland. As one member of the restoration team put it: 'Castle Hyde at last has the owner it deserves.'