Malahide Castle has been a major tourist attraction for more than 30 years but, with facilities becoming dated, wheelchair access limited and the fabric of the castle requiring some repair, Fingal County Council initiated a project for the redevelopment of the castle last year to reassert its position as one of Ireland’s top tourist destinations.
Originally a Norman tower house built by Sir Richard Talbot after the lands of Malahide and its harbour were presented to him for his loyal service to King Henry II in the late 12th century, the building was extended in the 15th century during the reign of Edward IV and then in the 19th century it was castellated and had its fourth south east tower added (Although there is no evidence that the castle was ever fortified). For eight centuries, this Castle and private home remained in the ownership of the Talbot family until the death of Milo Talbot in the 1970s when it was sold to Dublin County Council. It became the property of Fingal County Council when that body superseded Dublin County Council in 1994.
In addition to conservation works, there has been a major upgrade and improvement to the castle and its ancillary facilities, making it both more universally accessible and vastly more engaging for visitors. There is now a new interpretive and educational centre that focuses on the history of the castle and its occupants. The Talbot Botanic Gardens, which is home to more than 5,000 botanical specimens, has been revamped with improved access and longer opening hours.
The courtyard area to the north of the castle has been substantially improved. Not only does it give access to the castle’s interpretive centre and to its walled garden, but 20th century farm buildings in the courtyard have been demolished and replaced with new buildings that house a Garden Museum and an Avoca Food Hall and Shop. Looking at consumer websites like Tripadvisor.com, the addition of the Avoca Restaurant is seen by many as a real boon and is a major factor in encouraging repeat visits to the facility.
Beyond the castle, but within its demesne, footpaths and signage have been improved to give greater ease of access between the castle and Malahide village and DART station. Indeed the new direct, and more picturesque, path through the demesne to the village was the original route that connected the castle to the village in medieval times. The demesne also has a new children’s playground only a short stroll from the castle site. The demesne comprises 250 acres of parkland and woodland and within it you will find picnic areas, football pitches, tennis courts, an 18-hole pitch-and-putt course and a cricket club (which was recently redeveloped so that it can now host international fixtures with up to 11,000 spectators).
Fingal County Council Architects Department designed and project managed the redevelopment of the castle and its gardens. County Architect Fionnuala May said: “We are experienced at working with old buildings, as there are quite a few historic buildings within the council’s portfolio, notably Ardgillan Castle, Newbridge House, Bremore Castle in Balbriggan and Swords Castle as well as our Carnegie Libraries.
“At Malahide, the biggest challenge in the design stage was getting the levels right to allow for wheelchair access through more of the castle than before and throughout all of the visitor centre. This was achieved with a new zinc-clad lift that was added to the exterior of the Castle in the rear courtyard. We also installed a new zinc-clad spiral fire escape, which was incorporated into an existing unseen interior shaft. When work began on the building, the biggest challenge was the reuse of the Fry Building, which housed the Fry Model Railway Collection. This was a steel-framed building built in the 1980s. The original frame was reused in its entirety.
“The main contractor was Francis Haughey and their input and expertise to the project was highly valued As well as working on the castle and the interpretive centre, they also completed extensive works in the secret garden and the Cambridge greenhouse.”
The Talbot Botanic Gardens are also known as the ‘Secret Gardens’ because, although the grounds became the property of the state in the 1970s, for decades they remained largely unseen by the public. The gardens feature a beautiful Victorian glass. The gardens have also been made more accessible, with paving instead of gravel on the footpaths and with a total of seven different glasshouses now part of the garden tour.
The opening of the gardens is very important to the future viability of Malahide Castle as a profitable tourist attraction says Noeleen McHugh, the Fingal County Council’s senior executive who project managed the redevelopment. “It would be rare for people to revisit the castle, but people will revisit the gardens regularly. That is the great thing about gardens: as the seasons change, there is always something new to see.”
The courtyard to the rear of the castle has been redeveloped to provide access to the visitor centre, the castle’s walled garden and a newly constructed building that is home to an Avoca Food Hall and Shop.
“Now that the interpretive centre is complete, we don’t plan any new buildings being built in the demesne in the foreseeable future,” said Fionnuala May. “But there will be ongoing conservation work on the castle – some of the upper floors have not had any work done on them recently, there are windows that need repairs and ceilings that need inspection.”
The main contractor on the project, Francis Haughey, is a company that specialises in restoration and conservation projects and has more than 35 years experience in the area. “We have completed conservation and restorations works on places like the Red Stables in Raheny, 3 & 4 Capel Street, Georgian houses in Upper Mount Street, numerous Churches including St Marys on Haddington Road, various courthouses , Church of Ireland Cathedral in Armagh amongst many new builds and extensions of schools throughout the country.,” said Francis Haughey. “Malahide Castle and Courtyards was a very interesting project with its high conservation area and national monuments. A lot of care and attention was required as archaeologists were onsite all the time examining parts of the ground and buildings during construction. There was no question of knocking down a wall and building it up again!
“Completing the renovating works at the castle in the tight confines of vaults as well as within the rest of the castle involved a lot of manual input and working very closely with sub-contractors and architects as decisions had to be made promptly and with due consideration due to the fabric of the building. One highlight of these works was the installation of the spiral stair case, manufactured by Morris Engineering of Castleblaney, in that the stairs were made off-site and lowered in by crane in just four sections. With margins of 10mm it was a testament to all involved that it was installed within 12 working hours.
“There were quite a few challenges along the way, but we worked well with the Fingal Architects’ Office to resolve any issues quickly. Often we could see a problem coming and, as we brought an issue to the clients’ attention we would also be proposing possible solutions. I have to say it worked very well.
“We have a core team who have been with us for many years and their expertise and pride in their work ensures that projects such as this are completed within tight schedules whilst allowing us the flexibility to adapt according to conditions and architect instructions.”
The new paths leading from the castle’s entrance to the Avoca store and within the walled garden were laid by Turley Brothers, a Newry-based firm that has been in business for more than 50 years and is Ireland’s leading flooring and resin-bond paving contractors.
The paths have the appearance of being formed from loose gravel – but the gravel isn’t loose. In fact the paths within the walled garden are formed from 950m2 of resin bond paving, while the path leading to the Avoca and castle is formed from 970m2 of resin bound paving. The resin bound paving is hand applied and trowelled to provide a smooth seamless finish which is highly suitable for being traversed by vehicles.Aside from construction activity, as part of the redevelopment, a new ticketing system has been installed that allows for visits to individual attractions within the demesne or visits to a combination of attractions. Tickets can be bought from a central kiosk or online via a dedicated website, www.malahidecastleandgardens.ie. A key part of Fingal County Council’s strategy is to maximise the value of tourists as widely as possible within the county, so in line with hopes that the castle redevelopment will have wider spin off benefits for the wider community in the locality, the website highlights the attractions of Malahide Demesne and Village, as well as the castle, its courtyard and gardens.
Also the castle has a new operator, Shannon Heritage, who is involved in managing seven other historic visitor attractions, most famously Bunratty Castle and Folk Park. The company is employing 20 people to operate and market Malahide Castle, with employment further boosted by up to 80 people working in the Avoca restaurant and store. Shannon Heritage Chief Executive John Ruddle said: “We see Malahide Castle and Gardens as a natural fit with our existing portfolio of day visitor attractions and evening entertainment venues in the Shannon Region. Fingal County Council has done a superb job in the redevelopment of the castle and we look forward to building on this work to grow visitor numbers.” http://www.francishaughey.com/