Uppercourt Manor. Uppercourt Estate. Just Uppercourt. For locals around North Kilkenny, the name doesn’t immediately ring a bell.
Mention though the college, or the boarding school just outside Freshford, closed over three decades ago, and it’s a different manner. That has been inthe intial memorable link in people’s memory but the beautiful house, with over a milllenium history is now being restored. For more than a decade, this once stately home lay in ruin.
And then, in 2004, Mr Paul O’Byrne, a consultant surgeon, Galway man and founder of Barrington’s Hospital in Limerick, spotted the house for sale, and immediately set about planning the restoration of this once great, Kilkenny manor.
Nine years on and Uppercourt is very much a different place - it is now a vibrant venue for weddings, and this month has welcomed two couples and their guests to their resplendent rooms.
It is also a stud farm, and recently sent a horse bearing the Uppercourt title to the USA. It has the most fantastic, 12 foot high walled garden in this county and possibly beyond. Uppercourt is coming back to life, driven by Mr O’Byrne and his business mannager Denis Cahalane.
“We’re a little behind where we want to be on the restoration project,” explained Denis,”The recession hit at the wrong time and raising finance in 2007 and 2008 was just impossible, so we’ve had to manage things differently,” he added.
And thus the stud farm became a priority, bringing in a European warmblood mix of Swedish, Dutch and Belgium horses. The success of the stud farm is growing, and is key to the future restoration of the house.
But it presently is in fine shape. Thne basement is completed, first floor spectacular and the rooms in the main building simply stunning.
“Our business plan for Uppercourt to generate money and restore it is to create a venue for weddings and social gatherings, which is going well with bookings in to next year, our stud farm and the development of the walled gardens,” he added revealling that apart from the weddings, weekends are booking up fast for people to come and stay - extended families love it - and they are also hosting Christmas parties.
“I am really looking forward to winter, these old houses were built for frosty mornings, cold evenings, warm fires, fantastic settings really,” he said.
“The pace is disappointing sometimes, and you know sometimes we are partly responsible for that. Any business person makes mistakes, and no one can blame you for trying but for the last five years we have had to ensure that the restoration is self-financing for Uppercourt.
“We’re not in the hotel market, it’s a fine house that will attract different clients.”
The restoration work has been outstanding. An expert on plasterwork from East Germany spent six months on his back, on scaffolding restoring one of the fine rooms.The level of detail and the purchase of all the furniture required has been a real labour of love. Little if any of the furniture or fittings is from the original house yet nothing seems out of place. Every minor detail has been accounted for and if it’s not found straight away, there are no stop gaps.
The entrance to Uppercourt, the panelled walls, the fine ceilings, the large rooms with centred, magnificent fire places really present the wow factor. But what’s really fascinating for the visitor is what’s behind that initial impact. The basement is simply wonderful, for guests a self catering apartment but for those interested in history a real insight in to how people lived over a century ago. One of the issues to be tackled was a stream running right under the house - fed from the mountains around North Kilkenny. In modern building this would be unheard of - but it was literally a water system for the residents of the time - for freshwater and sanitation.
The experience of Mr O’Byrne is very telling in this project. The restoration of Baringtons Hospital in Limerick, which was closed from 1988 to 1994, saw it reopened in 2000 and now has 80 consultants, and an additional staff of 120. For Paul O’Byrne, his passion for heritage is relenteless and his determination to see this restoration project through - despite the most difficult recession we have every wtinessed - is very much obvious. One day, Uppercourt will be a fully self-financing venue. There is no doubt it will be a major addition to Kilkenny tourism - and that means job creation. The potential is endless - Uppercourt the brand may not just rest with horse bloodstock but with farm produce. Uppercourt the venue may not rest with weekend accomodation but as a busy, vibrant venue.