Ireland fought England for its independence and won it in 1921. Dominion status continued for another 28 years until Ireland became a republic. But the fate of the many English peers and landowners in the new Ireland had probably been decided a century before, during the Great Famine, when the more impecunious landlords and their agents had to exact savage clearances of their estates in order to survive. These events were never forgotten and after 1921, estates that had been the subject of "local agitation" were appropriated and divided for the benefit of small farmers by the Irish Government.
English-owned estates in Kerry, Cork and the west of Ireland, made up of bad to middling land, were often rented in the first instance to agents, who then sub- let to tenants. The result was overcrowding and misery. In counties with better land, such as Waterford, the sub-let farm units were usually larger and more prosperous: such was the case in Lismore. The Devonshire family, a byword for wealth that has run deep and unfailing for generations, were considered "good" landlords. Lismore Castle is simply one of a long list of Devonshire possessions that includes, most notably, Bolton Abbey in Yorkshire, and Compton Place in Eastbourne. Chatsworth House, the family seat, is considered one of England's greatest stately homes. Having come through the War of Independence and then the Irish Civil War with nothing more of consequence to show than a peppering to an upstairs landing by a machine gun in 1922, Lismore Castle, the Duke of Devonshire's Irish holiday home, is today looked upon by the locals no differently nor less calmly than, say, a foreign-owned factory which might give employment in the area.
"The Duke's butler is always from Lismore," murmurs Michael Penruddock, the unflappable English estate agent who resides in a wing of the castle and manages the Duke's interests here, a formidable enterprise: in the mid-18th century there were 40,000 acres in this holding, and the remaining 8,000 acres is still vast by Irish standards. There are 35 people on the payroll.
Just like everyone else these days, even the Duke of Devonshire has to balance the books and so Lismore Castle is up for rent. For a minimum charge of pounds 1,200 a day (which includes breakfast, afternoon tea and dinner), you can be looked after by the Duke's personal staff, play golf on the nine-hole course that is part of the estate, fish for salmon and trout from the Duke's private river banks or, before you retire to the Duke's bedroom, sit at the Duke's desk in his sitting-room and gaze down over the ramparts on to a timeless scene where jousting would not be out of place.
Lismore is in a folded-away part of Ireland that is not immediately obvious from the tour books. This is an untouched valley, a place where every farmer owns a mare and each year breeds her to a good horse and goes to sleep dreaming of a victory at Cheltenham. In nearby Youghal, Sir Walter Raleigh planted the first potato and Spenser wrote The Faerie Queene. It was Raleigh who leased Lismore castle in 1589 from the Bishops of Cork. Thirteen years later he transferred it and its estate for pounds 1,500 to one Richard Boyle. Boyle was then a money-lender; when he died as Earl of Cork in 1647 he was one of the wealthiest men in all Ireland, with property in 16 counties. In 1748, Lady Charlotte Boyle married the fourth Duke of Devonshire and shortly thereafter the castle and its lands passed into the Devonshire family, where they have remained.
The plan of Lismore Castle, four gabled ranges around a courtyard, broadly follows the original plans approved by Lord Cork, and the large, upper garden which slopes steeply above the castle to the west is enclosed by its original walls. But in the intervening 400 years, most parts of the castle have been sacked, torn down, redesigned and rebuilt to the wishes of successive generations. The only building to survive unchanged from the days of the first Lord Cork is the gatehouse, known as "The Riding House", which leads into the courtyard of the castle and which was built in 1614. This entrance is by way of a Romanesque arch, similar to the chancel arch of a church, which is perhaps the only fragment that remains from the abbey founded by St Carthage on this spot in 631AD.
The entrance hall is as impressive as you'd expect the entrance hall of a castle to be. There are tapestries by Teniers, a billiards table, a state-of-the-art CD player and great stands of cut wood to stoke the enormous fireplaces that warm the ducal blood on cool, Irish evenings.
The most extensive transformation of Lismore Castle took place during the ownership of the sixth Duke (1790-1858). A scholarly bachelor all his life, he was patron to both Dickens and Thackeray. He began his restoration work in 1811, employing the architect, William Atkinson, who designed the drawing-room here. But in 1823, when the talents of an under-gardener at Chatsworth named Joseph Paxton became apparent, the Bachelor Duke, as he was known, put him in charge of rehabilitating Lismore. Paxton went on to design the Crystal Palace for the London Exhibition of 1851 and was knighted both by the Tsar of Russia and Queen Victoria; he is responsible more than anyone for creating Lismore Castle as it is today. (He also designed the Presentation Convent in Lismore town; "The nuns dote on him," observed the Bachelor Duke.)
Paxton for architect is a hard act to follow. However, people like the Devonshires are not easily intimidated. The interior of Lismore, including the design of the wallpapers and the furniture, was put in the hands of Augustus Pugin, who was rebuilding the Houses of Parliament at Westminster at the time. John Crace of London attended to the paintwork. The stained glass was placed in the charge of Hardiman of Birmingham. Fireplace tiles were designed, made and installed by Minton.
A hundred and fifty years ago, the Duke of Devonshire was as wealthy, relative to the rest of humanity, as someone like Bill Gates is today. Maybe in 150 years one will be able to rent Gates's fabulous new house in California, built without sparing any expense and incorporating at every turn the philosophy of its owner; today the opportunity to live within the walls built to the personal order of one of the wealthiest men of the 19th century still exists in Lismore.
To have so much money is quite beyond the understanding of most people - but what, apart from a castle, does it get you? Famous friends and influence, for one thing, judging by the guest book in Lismore. James II stayed here for a night after the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 (the Earl of Cork must have been hard pressed to keep the conversation light that evening). In the middle of the last century, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and Lord Cardigan, hero of the Charge of the Light Brigade, were guests: the Bachelor Duke put on great parties for them, with boat races on the river, fireworks in the evening and dancing to the music of "Messers Richards and Sons and their powerful and brilliant Rock Bell and Steel Band".
In this century, King Edward VII stayed at Lismore in 1904. So did John Betjeman and Anthony Eden in 1938, and for Christmas 1941, Harold and Dorothy Macmillan, and Lucien Freud, and in November 1946, Kathleen Hartington (nee Kennedy) and her sister Eunice (who gave her address as Palm Beach, Florida). Kathleen's husband, the present duke's elder brother, had been killed in action in 1944; her own brother, John F Kennedy, also saw action but survived. Fred Astaire, whose sister was married to Lord Charles Cavendish, the duke's uncle, crops up as a frequent visitor. "Back again!!!" writes Fred in the visitor's book after spending three weeks there in August 1964.
So how exactly does one adapt from the everyday to the extraordinary - even if only for an expensive weekend? The most recurring word that comes to mind in these lofty settings is "privilege". Famous and influential friends, devoted staff, a castle utterly self-contained with views over its battlements to its own hills and valleys uncluttered by other people's houses.
Yet despite the size of the drawing-room, its massive fireplace, its distractingly amazing view a hundred plunging feet above the Blackwater (James II is said to have "started back" from the overhanging window) and the intense difficulty of coming to terms with the fact that all this is someone's summer house, it is still a comfortable place to sit. The Flemish tapestries in here are by Leyniers, the desk by William Vile, cabinet-maker to George III. To the side of this room is a smaller sitting- room ("smaller" being entirely relative at this stage).
The dining-room is reached through the hall, up stairs and west. Despite its furniture by Pugin, its Van Dyck (Moses in the Bull Rushes), its oils by Gaspar Dughet and its watercolours by Samuel Cooke, this is the least inspiring room in the castle. The colours are weak, the furniture heavy to the modern eye. In this room too hangs the portrait of the man who began all this: the first Earl of Cork. No amount of effort on the artist's part can disguise the gleam of acquisitiveness in the old adventurer's eyes.
Beyond the dining-room is the banqueting hall, an amazing, church-like place complete with minstrels' gallery and Pugin fireplace. Today a ping- pong table has pride of place in the centre of the floor. Toilets are being installed nearby so that the banqueting hall can be hired out for functions.
Apart from the main rooms, if you wander off the beaten track you discover a warren of bedrooms, bathrooms, butler's stations, sculleries, pantries, passages, warming-rooms, ironing-rooms, cubby-holes and doors that reveal flights of hitherto unconsidered stairs leading to further stone-flagged passages, with rows of doors containing further rooms and servants' stations, some of them leading off to more stairs...
The bell-board inside the butler's pantry has little portholes which tell the butler who's summoning him: "His Grace's Bed Rm", "His Grace's Sitting Rm", "Her Grace's Bed Rm". Exactly how many rooms are there in Lismore Castle?
This question took Mr Penruddock a little time to answer, but he made a brave stab. "I should think in the region of 150, give or take," he replied.
The gardens are divided into lower and upper. The camellias, magnolias and rhododendrons that grow in the lower garden do so thanks to the great quantities of peat brought on carts from the nearby Knockmealdown mountains. The spectacular avenue of yews, 180ft long, is believed to have been planted in 1707. The upper garden's central walk is aligned on the spire of the Church of Ireland cathedral in Lismore. The western perimeter of this garden ends in the Broghill Tower, named after one of Lord Cork's sons who defended the castle during a siege in 1645.
"There's a cannon-ball lodged somewhere in here," Mr Penruddock tells me, as he feels around in the darkness of the Broghill Tower. Eventually, he gives up. "The duchess knows where it is," he murmurs, leading me out and back down the garden as a light, gauze-like mist begins to settle over Lismore.
! To inquire about renting the Castle, ring Mr Penruddock on 00 353 58 54424 or fax on 00 353 58 54896