A place of magic at Ard na Sidhe

One of Ireland’s finest Arts & Crafts buildings, Ard na Sidhe, in the Kingdom of Kerry has been restored to create a hotel full of romantic ambience. CIAN MOLLOY reports on a labour of love.

Sitting on a 32-acre site of mixed woodland and award-winning gardens and overlooking Lough Carragh near Killorglin, Ard na Sidhe is considered one of the best large Arts & Crafts buildings in the country. Built in 1913 by Lady Edith Gordon to the design of the flamboyant English architect Richard Percy Morley Horder,  Ard na Sidhe is of a revivalist Elizabethan-style, with bold steep gables, stone-mullioned windows and metal casements with leaded lights, all set in neatly built sandstone that was quarried locally. Indeed, it is almost entirely from local materials with the only exception being the Westmoreland roof slates.  In 1915, it was deemed to be of sufficient architectural and aesthetic merit to have its design exhibited by the Royal Academy.

Described as ‘the house of my dreams’ by Lady Edith, a keen gardener, traveller and author, she boasted that ‘it never looked new’ and the weathered brown sandstone walls look as though they have stood for centuries.  Coming from the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, Lady Edith was part of a vanishing breed in Ireland, her husband, Sir Home Gordon, was the 12th, and (because he was childless) the last, Baronet of Gordon Embo; at the age of nine in 1880 he saw the first England V Australia test at the Oval and went on to become a famous cricketing journalist! Among his various sinecures was a role as a magistrate of County Kerry, which explains how Lady Edith found this location that she loved so much.

In the 1930s, Lady Gordon was forced to leave Ard na Sidhe, because she could no longer afford its upkeep. Some 25 years later, the house and its grounds were purchased by the German industrialist Hans Leibherr, who in 1958 established the Liebherr Container Cranes manufacturing plant in Killarney that currently employs more than 500 people.  For the last 50 years, Ard na Sidhe has been part of the Liebherr Group, which owns a total of six hotels – three in Kerry, two in Austria and one in Germany. Ard na Sidhe is very much the group’s boutique hotel having only 18 rooms in total in comparison, say, to The Europe in Killarney that has 187 bedrooms, more than 10 times as many!

The refurbishment cost some €2m and was very much a labour of love by Mrs Liebherr who took a personal interest in the project and visited the construction site regularly, said James Howley of Howley Hayes Architects. “We’ve done a lot of restoration work and conversions of old buildings to new uses and we were recommended for this job by another firm of architects. We had previously worked on Lambay Castle, designed by Edwin Lutyens, which is considered to be the best Arts & Crafts building in Ireland. Ard na Sidhe had almost certainly been inspired by it and is very much ‘Lambay by Lake’. The Liebherr family didn’t know this at the time of our appointment, it was a happy coincidence.”

According to Howley, in addition to requiring a general refurbishment to cope with the wear and tear suffered by the building over time, h some of the ‘radical changes’ made when the building was first converted into a hotel in the 1970s needed to be reversed or remedied. “Most damaging was the construction of internal toilets and linen stores beside the beautiful oak staircase that almost totally concealed the staircase and created an unsatisfactory entrance that was dark, constricted and featureless,” he said. “We opened up the space and turned the upper-flight of the original staircase through ninety degrees, to create a dramatic new double-height entrance hall, paved with natural stone and lined with oak panelling.  The two dining rooms were linked visually by new openings, the walls lined with painted panelling and the access points re-planned. The original arch-headed, oak, front-door, which had been removed but was being used in a 1970’s annex, was reinstated, albeit not in its original position.”

Another significant intervention was a large, new, dormer with Arts & Crafts-style window seats to light and enliven what had been a dull dark service corridor but that now leads to the first-floor bedrooms, which were re-planned to create more satisfactory rectangular proportions, all with naturally lit bathrooms.”

Howley Hayes was also responsible for all the interiors, choosing fabrics and wallpapers produced by Morris & Co, a company that played a key role in the Arts & Crafts Movement more than a century ago. The practice designed new bedroom and dining room furniture, all in solid oak and in keeping with existing antique Arts & Crafts furniture on the premises. Howley said: “We were obsessive in our attention to detail in the design of the building services, including procuring several antique Arts & Crafts-style light-fittings and judiciously chosen modern lamps, fittings, sockets and switches that matched the Arts & Crafts style.

Brunner Consulting Engineers provided structural and civil engineering advice, with Peter Brunner commenting:  “The trick with older buildings is to ensure that they are structurally sound and, once you have done that, then to interfere as little as possible with that structure. We tried to ensure that as little as possible was done from an engineering point of view. It’s always interesting working on old buildings, because you never know what problems will be thrown up, but everything on the Ard na Sidhe project went very smoothly.”

The diligence of the building contractors, Eamonn Costello Ltd, was one of the main reasons why the project went smoothly, said Howley. “The job was completed within a very tight programme and to budget, and the contractors worked very closely with us, to ensure the best possible result.”

The Tralee-based family firm was founded in 1977 by the eponymous Eamonn Costello, who had been working as a building contractor since the 1960s.  In 1992, Eamonn’s two sons Anthony and Declan came into the business, with Anthony, who is since retired, running the company while Declan studied for a BSc in Construction Management. “Originally, we did a lot of local authority and schools work and we still do a lot of that, for example, we are laying pipes for a new district heating scheme for Tralee UDC at the moment,” said Declan. “But in the Celtic Tiger years, when we had 50 staff and a turnover of more than €20m we moved into hotel and apartment construction and working on Section 50 schemes, which is where we built up a quality reputation. We’ve also done some refurbishment work over the years, notably the Muckross Park Hotel, parts of which date back to the 18th century.  We were delighted to be awarded the contract for Ard na Sidhe, especially as we did not submit the cheapest bid in the tendering process.  It was a vote of confidence in our abilities and in the quality of our previous work.”

“This was a very interesting and enjoyable project – it wasn’t just a question of laying out the blocks and mortar! There were a lot of challenging aspects and you had to sit down in advance and work out how you would approach tasks, like unusual joinery details.   We are lucky in that we are one of the few contracting firms that still have all the general trades in house, with our own carpentry and our own plasterers, but many of the tasks on this job required specialist skills and materials, such as the lime-based plastering internally or lime-based mortar for the pointing externally.

“Indeed, one of the challenges was sorting the correct materials so that they would fit in with was already there. That took some additional time, such as sourcing the breathable paints from England or bringing in the oak floorboards from Latvia. The steel windows had to be removed and sent to a specialist company, Fabco Sanctuary, in Sussex to be restored and re-leaded.”

Certainly, it was a project with a substantial project, but what has been achieved here by the Liebherr family is something of note. Not only have they have helped preserve part of Ireland’s patrimony, they have also helped ensure that it is a working building, a living space that provides employment to staff, as well as comfort and relaxation to its guests. The investment made in the hotel grounds should also be noted, with many rare, and valuable, specimen trees planted here since the 1970s.

The architect-client relationship was very satisfying throughout and we found Mrs Liebherr and her colleagues very positive from the start.  “One of our main selling points to the client was that by recreating an authenitc Arts & Crafts interior, they should not need to renovate every twenty years! Panelled walls, stone chimney pieces, oak and stone floors, leaded windows, oak doors and bronze door-furniture will effectively last for centuries. And with a few decades of wear and tear, they will look even better than they do now.”

To view the Magazine Feature click the following link:

Ard na Sidhe Hotel Feature