Have you ever dreamed of being hosted by royalty in an actual ancestral castle? Or perhaps you prefer dwelling in an ancient stone tower house of your very own, like Rapunzel? Do you fantasize about wandering through the green vales and misty bogs of Ireland, where cows outnumber people – at least for now? Fancy sipping whiskey with the Jameson sisters?
Siobhan Byrne Learat is here to help make your Irish fairytale dreams come true. Here, she shares just two of her favorite gems, which are genuine restored castles where you can stay at an accessible price: Tubbrid Castle and Belle Isle Estate.
Learat is the owner and founder of Adams & Butler, a travel agency that specializes in making luxury vacations affordable. Learat is both a Travel + Leisure A-List travel advisor and Conde Nast travel specialist who won Best Travel Professional at the last Irish travel trade awards held in 2020.
Although Adams & Butler is a small company of just ten employees, it has been attracting a loyal international clientele for over 18 years, including celebrities such as the Kardashians and Taylor Swift. The company designs unique, authentic, custom travel and cultural experiences in Ireland, the UK, Africa, and worldwide.
“We design itineraries for our clients that others simply cannot, whether around a theme, a private experience, or meeting people who are not normally accessible to the public,” says Learat. “We do stuff that is unique, taking footfall away from over-visited sites and to lesser-known gems, enabling smaller local communities and businesses to survive and thrive. We also strongly believe in affordable luxury and sustainable eco-tourism.”
From a young age, Learat always loved to travel and learn languages. With her family from the age of four, she spent summers in France and Spain, exploring the countryside in a pop-up camper. “There wasn’t a hamlet we didn’t visit over the years,” she says. After college, she married her first husband, a Moroccan man of Berber and Arab descent. They travelled every year with their children throughout his home country, often visiting off-the-beaten spots in Berber country.
After graduating with honors with a BA in Spanish and Arabic, and then completing post-graduate degrees in business, Arabic and Middle Eastern history, Learat started her travel career. Her first job was as director of sales for a hotel that was, she says, “The Bel Air of Dublin and home to Bono of U2.” She went out on her own to set up Adams & Butler in 2002.
Learat later divorced her Moroccan husband and married an African man from the Kenyan Samburu tribe. In 2009, she launched Adams & Butler Africa, designing tailor-made safaris featuring intimate camps and authentic tribal experiences. She also set up a charity, the Nalepo Educational Fund, to provide basic education to the Samburu children in Northern Kenya and to empower their mothers and other young women with essential life skills.
“When I travel, I always try to respect the people that I meet – not only the people who market, sell and own properties, but most importantly the people who work in those properties who look after me. I make sure that I respect the traditions, local cultures and religions of the places where I travel. When local people engage with you and share their own story, it is often life-changing,” Learat says.
Here are two of Learat’s favorite properties in Ireland, each of which affords a magical experience at a price within reach.
1. Tubbrid Castle, Kilkenny
Tubbrid Castle is a single tower that rises from the rolling green hills near Kilkenny. It was built in the mid-15th century on the site of a much older fort. John Campion, its present owner, comes from a long line of Campions who have farmed the surrounding land for generations. His great-grandparents, however, moved out of the tower house around the turn of the 20th century when it began to crumble.
When Campion’s father and his ten siblings were young, they used to race along the tops of the castle walls, 70 feet in the air. By then the tower had lost its roof, and his father began to dream of restoring it. Finally, in the early 2000s, he partnered with his son to begin the immense process of restoration. John Campion hired architects, commissioned archaeological reports and applied for planning permission, and eventually tasked local contractors with carrying out the necessary works. He, meanwhile, worked full-time as a doctor in Dublin.
When the restoration was nearly complete, Campion engaged a local interior designer. He longed to steer away from a dark Gothic look, instead opting for a warmer, Scandinavian approach. Using local materials wherever possible, they crafted an inviting space for guests to stay. Each of Tubbrid Castle’s three floors contains just one room – a bedroom and bathroom on the first floor, a kitchen, dining and living area on the second, and another bedroom with a loft and bathroom on the top.
John and his mother Helen Campion welcomed their first international guests early in 2019, just six months after his father passed away. “While my father didn’t get to see the final fruits of his labor, he knew the restoration was nearing completion,” says Campion. “His final resting place is within sight of the castle he saved from dereliction.”
Those who stay at Tubbrid Castle love sleeping in a four-poster bed under a vast vaulted stone ceiling, relaxing in a deep bath overlooking lush hills, lazing in front of a log-fired stove where the reinstated original fireplace reads 1596, and sipping their morning coffee overlooking the plains where a thousand soldiers once camped.
“There is an Irish proverb, ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine – we live in each other’s shadows, which points to our innate interdependence,” says Campion. “When I encounter a challenge, I look to my networks of friends, family and colleagues. I ask what I can learn from their experience, successes and failures and, if possible, I help them learn from mine.”
2. Belle Isle Estate, Northern Ireland
Belle Isle Estate consists of a 17th century castle and cottages located on a private 400-acre conservation area in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland. The region has a rich history, as the famed Annals of Ulster were written here in the 15th century. Home to many generations of nobles, the property is unusual in that it has been hosting public events since 1760.
These days, Belle Isle frequently is enjoyed by friends and family who rent the entire castle out for private events such as weddings, bachelor/ bachelorette parties, and family reunions. The castle itself sprawls over a large territory and can sleep up to 26 people. It has two separate wings that afford guests plenty of privacy. Each bedroom has its own bath. The setting, upon a lake and surrounded on all sides by water, is peaceful. Visitors can enjoy kayaking, fishing, biking, hiking and many other outdoor activities.
James Hamilton, the Duke of Abercorn, purchased Belle Isle in 1991 and had it fully refurbished before opening its doors to visitors. This was during a turbulent time in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles. Violence frequently broke out between Catholics and Protestants who had different political as well as religious views. Concerned about the suffering of the local children, James Hamilton’s wife Alexandra, the Duchess of Abercorn, founded the Pushkin Trust. Named after the Duchess’ direct ancestor, the Russian writer Alexander Pushkin, the charitable organization supports education and creative learning for Irish children.
The biggest challenge Hamilton has faced is the castle’s remoteness from both the Belfast and Dublin airports. However, this is becoming less of an issue over time. “At the turn of the last century, Fermanagh tourism, which is now buoyant, was still in its early formative years,” he says. “However, thanks to the high level of education here in Ireland, there is now an abundance of young entrepreneurs who have the right positive attitude towards life and furthermore are succeeding. Thus, new innovative products are being formed here, many of which have a global market and are attracting international travelers.”