Ballyseede Castle

Marnie and Rory O'Sullivan bought Ballyseede Castle in 2005 and restored it. They found the 18th century Foundation stone and made friends with their fragrant ghost Hilda who smells of roses.

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Marnie & Rory O’Sullivan, owners of Ballyseede Castle
Artiom Ganin talks to the owners of Ballyseede Castle - the only castle hotel in Kerry, Ireland. Marnie who has been in the hotel business since her childhood bought Ballyseede Castle in 2005 with her husband Rory O'Sullivan. Before they received their first guests, they had to carry out large-scale restoration works despite the fact that the castle had previously been used as a hotel. Marnie and Rory confessed that they really enjoy what they do. The castle is now an exclusive and typical Irish hotel. It has 45 rooms to offer, several restaurants and bars and - just like any proper castle does - Ballyseede has its very own special ghost - Hilda. The owners told me that every time she turns up one can smell roses! We've discussed the COVID-stricken hotel industry, the odorous spirit and why it makes sense to have your weekend getaway in Kerry.

A CENTURY IN HOTEL INDUSTRY

Castles_and_Palaces (CnP): Could you tell me about yourself and your family?
Marnie O'Sullivan (MOS): My grandparents started the family down the hotelier path when they ran the International Hotel in Wicklow during the 1930s and 1940s. My family have been in hotel management for nearly 100 hundred years now.

After finishing school, I went on to study in Hotel Management in Shannon College of Hotel Management, following in the footsteps of my mother and brother. Like most hotel families in Ireland, I worked in the family business as a child. It was here that I got their first taste of the hotel business. In 1991, we purchased our first castle hotel, Cabra Castle in County Cavan and our love affair with Irish castles began.
CnP: The Blennerhassett family owned the castle for many centuries till the late 1960s and then you took over. How did it happen?
MOS: We purchased Ballyseede Castle in 2005 and I moved to Kerry to run it with my husband Rory, and we have loved every minute of it. We have two girls Daisy and Lily-Mae who both enjoy life in the castle, and you never know, they may follow in our footsteps, but we will let that decision to them.
CnP: They may love doing it just like you did! Before the castle opened its doors as a hotel you should have carried out a proper restoration, could you tell me about it?
Rory O'Sullivan (ROS): This was a huge undertaking for us, although it had been operating as a castle hotel prior, to taking it over, it was badly in need of repair. The roof needed to be completely repaired, all the electrical and plumbing work needed to be redone, a new kitchen was fitted and each of the bedrooms were modernised to accommodate todays discerning guests. Authentic Irish Castle are protected/listed buildings in Ireland, we worked closely with the local council and planning authorities; to maintain the heritage of the castle.
CnP: What was the biggest challenge?
ROS: Finances are always a challenge when restoring a castle, but I would say, it was always the unknown of what lay underneath. Castles are old and can be damp so when you strip back wallpaper, pull up the carpets, there could always be a surprise waiting for you. For instance, we've unearthed the Foundation stone dating to 1721.

CnP: What time does the actual building date back?
ROS: Work started on Ballyseede Castle in 1721 and was completed in 1728. Ballyseede Castle was rebuilt and enlarged twice, firstly in 1821. During this first remodelling (completed in 1821) the north wing was added.
CnP: The castle has been known since the 16th century. It was built by the Fitzgerald family and was their garrison during the so-called Geraldine Wars, which had very bad consequences for Gerald Fitzgerald whose cut-off head was brought to London. Could you share an interesting or a little-known fact from the castle history?
ROS: Actually, in 1721 the first "Ballyseedy House" was built among ruins of the Geraldine Ballyseedy Castle at the west end of Ballyseedy Woods. The adjoining townlands of Ballycarty and Ballyseedy were the focal point of the Blennerhassett estate in Co. Kerry and the principal seat of the Blennerhassett family from 1590 to 1967. Ballycarty and Ballyseedy each contained small but ancient Geraldine forts or castles belonging to the family of FitzGerald, Earl of Desmond, before the Fitzgeralds were dispossessed for rebelling against Elizabeth I.
Stay at Ballyseede Castle to experience the Irish hospitality!
ROS: Ballyseedy and Ballycarty were among lands granted to the planter Sir Edward Denny who subsequently granted them to Thomas Blennerhassett of Cumberland, England in 1590.
CnP: The location – Ballyseede – and the castle itself featured in the fight of Ireland for independence and the Civil War. I read in a book about the Ballyseede massacres and about an episode when the IRA prisoners were first blown up on a road close to the castle and then their bodies were riddled with machine gun bullets at the gates of the castle. Did it really happen here?
ROS: Ballyseedy is the townland in which Ballyseede Castle is located, this massacre happened quite close to castle, but not actually on the castle estate itself.

HILDA THE GHOST AND THE SMELL OF ROSES

CnP: A ghost called 'Hilda' is said to haunt the castle and each year on the March 24, she makes her presence known. Who is this ghost?
MOS: Hilda's presence is said to be felt in the castle especially on March 24th, this date marks her passing. Hilda Blennerhassett - the last Blennerhassett to live in Ballyseede Castle - was born in 1884. She passed away unmarried in 1965 aged 81 years old. She left Ballyseede Castle to her cousin Sir Adrian Blennerhassett who sold it in 1967.
MOS: A lot of people independently would say that, at different times of the year on the main staircase, they get a very strong smell of roses. The scent is an eerie aromatic announcement that precedes the appearance of the ghost of Hilda Blennerhassett herself. She is mostly seen "roaming around" the upper floor bedrooms of the castle and the main staircase. Patrons who frequent the hotel bar recall catching glimpses of an old woman in a black Victorian dress.
CnP: Have you personally met or seen Hilda?
MOS: Well, one of the most recent sightings was May last year when the castle was closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I was convinced that I saw the outline of a woman looking out at me from a window in the castle. It was also collectively met with Molly, our resident Irish Wolfhound, barking at this same window, despite the castle being empty. I took a photo of this outline in the window and we uploaded it our castle Instagram account, with a poll asking people if they can see Hilda or not. With more than 1700 people voting on the poll, 56% of people said they too could see Hilda.
MOS: There was another incident but the question is whether it was Hilda. We usually close in January for 6 weeks, and one particular year at this time, Rory, my husband, and I were staying at the castle. We were the only people in the castle, but I was awoken in the middle of the night by voices at the top of the stairs, followed by sounds of people running down the stairs. I woke Rory, and he ventured out of our room to see what was going on. But there was no-one there. The doors were locked and there was no sign of a break-in.
CnP: What's your favorite place in the castle?
MOS: We don't live in the castle but my favourite place in the castle is Maime's Lounge. It looks out onto the winding driveway up to the castle. I love to sit here and watch guests arriving and see their reactions as they round the find bend on the driveway before arriving at the front door of the castle. Sitting here you get that sense of excitement and wonder guest visiting the castle first time experience, it never gets tired.
CnP: What is your most memorable day in the castle?
ROS: Everyday is a memorable one here, but without doubt it has to be when we welcomed our first guests to the castle in 2005. A lot has changed since those early days but our great welcome and quest to provide exceptional hospitality remains.
CnP: The 3-floor castle has 45 rooms – I bet all of them are great and elegant but still - which one is the best and why?
MOS: Each of our rooms is unique and special, castle hotels have the luxury of no two rooms ever being the same. For me, our Allingham Suite is a spectacular room, with its four-poster bed, free standing roll top bath and views of the front and back gardens. One could easily sit on the window seats, enjoy a good book and let the world pass by.
CnP: In principle what is so special about Ballyseede castle hotel? Why should one opt for staying here?
ROS: Ballyseede Castle is Kerry's only castle hotel - Guests can savour the wealth of bygone eras and Irish culture throughout their stay, from the grand castle exterior to the richly decorated interior that speaks of centuries of care and love of fine craftmanship. The castle has a charm and aura which will make you want to return as soon as you have departed.
CnP: What do you offer apart from just accommodation?
ROS: At Ballyseede Castle, we have the great privilege of hosting over 120 weddings every year. We have three restaurants to choose from. Guests can enjoy all day dining in Pappy's Bar, Maime's Lounge and the Kennelly Room. Afternoon Tea is served daily in the Orangery, a recently added area to the castle. Guests can also enjoy a Fine Dining experience in The O'Connell Restaurant. Our Irish Beef & Guinness Pie is our pride!
CnP: Previously Mr. Higgins the Irish Wolfhound was is involved in weddings but he died in April. Who has taken over?
MOS: This is true, Mr Higgins the Irish Wolfhound sadly passed away in April. We were fortunate to have Mr Higgins in our lives for 10 years. His daughter Molly now takes over the roll as Queen of the Castle. She welcomes couples and their guests on arrival, is happy to pose for pictures with wedding couples and is known to show her face during dinner celebrations in search of food.
CnP: The surroundings are rather picturesque – all these harbors and bays, hills and mountains, islands, and islets. What would you recommend doing if staying at Ballyseede Castle?
ROS: Ballyseede Castle is located on the world famous 'Ring of Kerry' part of the 'Wild Atlantic Way', this would be top of list. If into mountain climbing, Kerry is home the Ireland's tallest mountain Carrantuohill. We are spoilt in Kerry with some of Ireland's most beautiful beaches and golf course.
CnP: Skellig Michael has become quite a well-known spot world-wide after The Last Jedi premiered in 2017, hasn't it?
ROS: Absolutely. A visit to Skellig Michael is a must. It was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1996. It truly is a remarkable place to visit, following a 30-minute boat trip, you then embark on climb of 618 steps, following in the steps of the monks who once inhibited the great island.
CnP: Is it difficult to run your castle hotel?
MOS: Castles are old, in constant need of repairs and maintenance these are some of the challenges you face. Owing and running a castle is a love affair, which fortunately we love.

CnP: How did the COVID pandemic affect your business?
ROS: Good news is that we've just re-opened this week. Covid-19 had a huge impact on our business, we closed our doors in March 2020, reopened in June 2020 and closed again in December 2020. It has been a long six months since Christmas, we have missed seeing our team and meeting our guests. Numbers for weddings and events have been reduced, and this has led to some couples postponing their weddings until later in the year. Non-resident guests will now have the option to dine outside only with a max of six per adults per table, families and friends are anxious to meet again. Ireland would not be known for its sunshine, but we hope for a great summer and easing of restrictions.
CnP: What would you tell those who dream about buying a ruined or a dilapidated castle with a goal to transform it into a private residence or an exclusive hotel?
MOS: Embarking on the journey of restoring a castle will be a lifetime project. We are 16 years in Ballyseede Castle, and every year we say, 'that is it now', but then we start on another project. It will be financially demanding. We would recommend doubling the contingency fund, you will need it.

MOS: If you are planning to run it as exclusive hotel/private venue for events, consider what type of events you will run and make sure your kitchen is capable of serving the number of guests you can accommodate.
We very much hope that you loved the story told by Marnie & Rory O'Sullivan, the owners of Ballyseede Castle in Kerry, Ireland.

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Photo credits: Ballyseede Castle

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