IT is arguably the most expensive, beautiful and elegant residence in Ireland and is without doubt the best hidden heritage gem in Kilkenny city or county. Now home to a real life lord, it was the former home of a bogus, but much loved, baron and for many years the residence of the very popular and late Brig General Charlie Blacque and family.
Yet outside of the area around Piltown and Owning, the general public have never heard of it. To appreciate this special place, imagine, Downtown Abbey from the hit BBC television series, and think of somewhere even posher. It is really Ireland’s answer to the Taj Mahal and that is not an exaggeration. The gardens on their own are simply breathtaking and the house, it just opulence personified. That is not a criticism and before I go any further, I have to say we all owe a great debt of gratitude to the present owner retired banker and former chairman of the British Conservative Party, George Magan aka Lord Magan of Castletown for buying it and for painstakingly restoring it. He is the son of an amazing Irishman born in Athlone, Brigadier Bill Magan, one of most important figures in Cold War espionage, serving at the very pinnacle of the MI5, British secret intelligence. He died earlier this year aged 102 after leading an incredible life and unlike others, never spoke about his time in MI5.
We are appealing to Lord Magan to open the gates and let us, the ordinary people see this extraordinary place. Set amid the rolling hills of South Kilkenny, Castletown Cox has been veiled in secrecy for too many years and has had a rich and varied past since it was first built in 1776 for the Protestant Archbishop of Cashel. Architecturally, it is stunning and is the work of a Sardinian born canal engineer, who really came up with a design which has stood the test of time.
You elicit a gasp once you turn the corner after sneaking in the main entrance and see it for the first time, It is hard to get your head around it - the sheer scale of the complex symmetry of the entire structure is awesome. Even in this recession it is priceless, and the interior is, we are reliably informed, exquisite with a private art collection which would make even Michael Smurfit wobble.
Built in the baroque style and three stories high, it has pillars, huge windows and two wings which are placed at right angles to the main house, barely touching it. At the end of the wings are octagonal slated domes..
One of the most eye catching pieces is the gardens front with its blue Kilkenny limestone and dressed sandstone. Much of the plaster work inside was by Waterford’s Patrick Osborne and includes motifs of cherubs, fruit and flowers.
And it has had its fair share of wonderful owners like the Bogus Baron de Breffny, the son of a London taxi driver turned bookie who invented the title and married the Finnish born widow of a hooky Bahamas based titled banker who fled the country in disgrace. (You could not make it up)
He and Ulli held lavish parties at the house that would last for three days and people from around Owning who waited on tables there said that what went on at Castletown Cox would make the of the Celtic Tiger era look like penny pinching.
The Baron’s first wife was an Indian princess and his second wife, Lady Ulli Sands, was the Finnish-born widow of the extremely wealthy Sir Stafford Lofthouse Sands. On one occasion, a Kilkenny city resident went down to visit the Baron on business and when he walked down from the reception hall there were eight gentlemen of oriental extraction standing in morning suits at the door of each of the right rooms.
Built by Sardinian architect, Daviso De Arcort, (a canal builder) for Michael Cox, the then Archbishop of Cashel (who also built the Cashel Palace hotel in the centre of Cashel) it had the impact that Cox wanted, it wowed people and in the grounds, a wonderful dowager looking house with Italian strains to it, looks exquisite. Castletown Cox was completed in 1775 and is said to be based on Villa La Rotunda, a Renaissance villa just outside Vicuña in northern Italy and on Buckingham House (not palace) in London.
Rumours abound about who now visits Castletown Cox and for security reasons we have to be careful what we say but there have been sightings of famous foreign politicians and leading members of the British monarchy. The people in the townlands of Castletown, Graigue and Ballyhennerbry and across to the village of Owning are extremely protective of the current owner and his guests.
However, it is Brian Baron de Breffny that still haunts the place. Since his death in 1989, the stories about him abound. Here are some truths that have been verified by his family. Born in Isleworth, London, in January 1931, to an English-Jewish father, Maurice and an Anglo-Irish mother (O’Dell). The family had a taxi firm and bookie offices and that’s where he got his first bit of money. He is really a tragic figure in the make of F Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby.
He first married Princess Jyotsna, the daughter of His Highness Sir Uday Chand Mahtab, KCIE, Maharajadhiraja Bahadur of Burdwan, India. and although the marriage lasted just long enough to produce a daughter, Sita, before being dissolved. It was, from the outset, a match largely of convenience. The Princess needed a way out of India, he needed the settlement, and credibility, she brought with her. Unusually, Sita-Maria remained with her father, eventually coming with him to Ireland where she married Viscount de Vesci of Abbeyleix and had three children.
He then met his second wife. Ulli. She was the widow of the former finance minister of the Bahamas and one of the notorious “Bay Street Boys” - the white businessmen-politicians who controlled the Bahamas at the time. He died in 1972, after becoming embroiled in a scandal relating to $1,8 million paid to him by the operators of two large local casinos. The money arrived in the guise of consultancy and legal fees, and the payments were hardly unusual by the standards of the Bahamas at the time, but it was nevertheless an embarrassment for Sir Stafford, who left for Italy, where he bought the glorious 16th-Century, 37-roomvilla in Italy. The baron was her fourth and final husband. Those who knew the Baron never forgot him and for what failings he had over his title, he was blessed with a great personality and real charisma.
A time line for Castletown Cox has been put together by Edward Law of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society:
1767 - Built for Archbishop Cox of Cashel. Central block with L-shaped wings, designed by Davis Ducat.8.1774
Castletown, seat of his Grace the Archbishop of Cashel. [FLU]
5.3.1788 Richard Cox Esq.., Castletown. [FLU]
1801 Few private houses can show a more beautiful façade, than the southern front of Mr Cox’s house at Castletown; the architect was Ducat, a Sardinian. [Tithe]
5.10.1808 Michael Cox, Castletown, game licence. [PJ]
16.10.1811 Michael Cox, Castletown, game licence. [PJ]
16.10.1811 Benjamin Cox, Castletown, game licence. [PJ]
1.12.1827 Richard Cox, Castletown. [Mod]
March 1836 Michael Cox Esq.., of Castletown died. [I Hayden commonplace book]
1836 Died, Michael Cox of Castletown Cox age 69. [Mod 30.3.1836]
c1840 Castletown House built. [O’Dell]
18.11.1843 Sir Richard Cox, Bart., Castletown. [JPL]
7.5.1846 Sir Richard Cox of Castletown died about 62. [I Hayden commonplace book]
24.7.1847 William Villagers Stuart, Castletown. [Kin]
1853 William Villagers Stuart, DL, Castletown, Carrick-on-Suir. [Thom]
2.9.1857 Castletown, seat of Major Villagers Stuart. [Mod]
1859 Hon. Mary Cox, Castletown. [Will]
1863 William V Stuart, Castletown, Carrick-on-Suir. [Mod 10.1.1863]
1873 Death of Col. Wm Villagers Stuart of Castletown House, age nearly 70. [Mod 19.11.1873]
1876 Catherine Villagers Stuart, Castletown, Carrick-on-Suir, 2,790a. [Land]
1884 Col Henry J R V Stuart, JP, Castletown, Carrick on Suir, High Sheriff, Co. Kilkenny. [Bassett]
1908 Hay John Rd Villagers Stuart, Castletown. [CAS deed Box H6]
1921 At the auction of Castletown Cox in 1921 … [Irish Country House, Somerville-Large]
1969 Owner Col. Wyndham-Quinn. [Georgian]