Friday, June 01, 2012

'Eye Sore to Extraordinary': Q&A With Irish Landmark Trust's Mary O'Brien

The Irish Landmark Trust is an organization that saves built heritage of an unusual or historic nature and restores them to their former glory.  The properties are then let as holiday homes with the revenue generated (along with fundraising) going to sustaining them and allowing them to embark on new projects.
Mary O’Brien has been with Irish Landmark Trust since its inception, and has been Executive Director of the organization since 1998.   Before Irish Landmark, Mary spent five years working with the Crafts Council of Ireland. Married, with 2 children, Mary finds relaxation through reading, walking and swimming.  She also enjoys music and since her early years has been a member of choirs and musical societies. Wild Geese Preservation editor Belinda Evangelista put some questions to her about The Irish Landmark Trust.

The Wild Geese: What is The Landmark Trust, and how long has it been in existence?

Mary O’Brien: Irish Landmark Trust is an all-Ireland organization whose primary purpose is the conservation of interesting properties of architectural, historical or social merit.   To ensure the conserved houses have a sustainable future, they are made available as holiday homes.   Irish Landmark was founded in 1992, and began operating first in the Republic of Ireland.  In 1996 it branched out into Northern Ireland.  The guiding principle of Irish Landmark is that we believe that Ireland would be a better place if more people could understand, engage with and experience our built heritage, which is so richly embedded with local community values. 

The Wild Geese: Tell me a little about some of the restored properties.

O'Brien: There are now 23 properties in Irish Landmark Trust’s portfolio.  Of these, 15 are in the Republic of Ireland and 8 in Northern Ireland.  They range from gate lodges to light-keepers’ houses, a castle, schoolhouse, townhouses, a tower house and a large country house.   Many were in a derelict condition when taken on by Irish Landmark, but after careful and meticulous conservation work, these are all now available as holiday homes.  They offer an opportunity for our guests (both home grown and overseas) to experience the best of a former way of life in a modern-day setting.

Our latest additions to the Irish Landmark portfolio include the West Wing at Russborough and the soon-to-be-completed Tullymurry House at Donaghmore in County Down.   The West Wing has been conserved in a partnership with the Alfred Beit Foundation.   This conservation provides a rare opportunity for people to come and stay in one of the great houses of Ireland.  Tullymurry House will offer guests a chance to experience life in one of Ireland’s country houses.   Both of these properties will accommodate groups up to 8, and will be great for family reunions or a gathering of friends.

The Wild Geese: Tell me about some of the properties in need of the trust’s attention?

O’Brien: Irish Landmark is currently fundraising to save two thatched cottages – one in Limerick and one in north Cork; to complete conservation work at the lightkeeper’s house on Valentia Island [County Kerry]; and also to complete the work at two lodges which flank a wonderful triumphal arch in Crossabeg, near the town of Wexford.  Varying degrees of work have already been carried out on all these four projects -- ranging from work costing €15,000 [c. $19,000] to over €100,000 [c. $126,000] in the case of the lightkeeper’s house on Valentia.  The work undertaken has ensured they have all been saved from immediate loss, but we urgently need to raise the funds to ensure their ultimate survival and long-term sustainability.  
The Wild Geese: Do you have any favorite stories to tell about any of the properties?

O’Brien: Each house has a story of its own -- either from the historical social record, or indeed from the ‘new’ history being put in place by the guests’ visits.  Only last Friday it was great to welcome back to Loop Head light keeper’s house a man who was born on that lighthouse station, Joe McGinley, the uncle of Taoiseach Enda Kenny.   We’ve been fortunate to have great guests stay at the properties: For instance, Jean Kennedy Smith, during her term as U.S. Ambassador to Ireland, spent a short break at Wicklow Lighthouse.    But it’s always great to uncover the stories of the people who lived their lives in the houses we are now privileged to have as Irish Landmarks.  

The story of one Lizzie Taggart and her husband who lived at Drum Gatelodge [Bushmills, County Antrim] from 1898 until her death in 1962 is one of these:  It was 1898 when Lizzie Taggart and her husband came to live at the Drum. Both of the Taggarts were employed on the estate, he as a farm laborer, and she as the ‘hen girl’ looking after the geese, ducks and hens.   Mr. Taggart died sometime between 1910–1920 leaving Lizzie with a family of two daughters, named Elizabeth and Martha, and a son called Joseph. Elizabeth married and went to live in nearby Castlecatt;  Martha moved to Cloughmills  and and married a farmer. Robbie (Robert), one of her children, was sent back to be reared by his grandmother at the lodge.  Lizzie's son, Joseph, joined the [British] army at the outbreak of the First World War, served in France, and married on his return.  Lizzie Taggart herself was quite a character, Mrs. Shanks (who lived nearby as a child) has vivid recollections of her from as far back as the 1940s:

" My childhood was spent on a farm just along the road away from Bushmills, and I remember Mrs. Taggart and Robbie, her grandson, and their quaint home. We children spent the first few years of our school life at the wee two-teacher school at Castlecatt. We had permission to take a short cut through the estate, and as we always walked to school, this saved some time and shoe leather. We passed right by the lodge twice a day and often saw and chatted to Mrs. Taggart. We knew that her name was Lizzie, but to us children, she was always Mrs. Taggart.   We were in no hurry on that homeward journey -- we'd dawdle among the trees, pick the odd wild flower or play tag around the trees near the Lodge. Mrs. Taggart might have been feeding hens or carrying in water from the well, as we passed. Although kindly, Mrs. Taggart was fairly outspoken, and voiced her opinion when the occasion demanded it. My brother James and I, being the youngest, usually walked home together, and we still laugh about the time when he left me behind among the trees while he ran off without me. I was crying, so I was escorted into the Lodge with soothing noises and some tit bit or other, and James was sent off with her opinions ringing in his ears and no goodies!"

The Wild Geese: How can the Diaspora help you to achieve your mission?

O’Brien: Irish Landmark believes that the properties that we restore and conserve are part of all our histories.   If we truly value our heritage, then we must all get involved to ensure it isn’t lost and most importantly that it is accessible to, and available for future generations to enjoy and understand.   Therefore, we all have a part to play – be it supporting the fundraising activities of Irish Landmark or coming to stay in these houses and telling other people all about them.   This is our past, our heritage and we must claim it for ourselves, our children and our children’s children. WG

To book accommodations, and to learn more about and support Irish Landmark Trust’s mission, visit .

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