Conolly’s vision will reinvigorate Drenagh

CONOLLY McCausland is obviously a man who is passionate about the Limavady area that his family has inhabited for many centuries.

He is a man whose family tree can be traced back almost exactly 1000 years, since an ancestor left Ulster and fled to Scotland after a village-full of Vikings were caught by surprise and slaughtered.

That branch of the family eventually returned to Ulster after a gap of 12 generations and has played a significant part in local, provincial and Irish history ever since.

Conolly’s pride in his own roots, and in the country estate at Drenagh that he calls home, is matched by his love of the folklore and history of the wider Limavady area.

Showing guests around the ample gardens, he chats knowledgeably as he enthusiastically paints a colourful picture of Drenagh’s past, and his vision of the future is equally well-informed and impressive.

It is this love of the past, this knowledge of what shaped local history, that is now helping him shape Drenagh’s future.

He readily acknowledges that the old-fashioned country estate that he has been describing can no longer work, and that building upon the diversification begun by his parents 20 years ago is required to guarantee its future.

Such diversification led his mother and stepfather into the business of offering accommodation at the top end of the market in 1991. But even more needs to be done.

Drenagh is one of a kind, a powerful, historic and even awesome relic from a past where remoteness was a way of life, but which can no longer stand aloof in a bustling, invasive modern world that allows little room for sentiment.

Fortunately, the man at the forefront of Drenagh’s development is a visionary one, a man who wants to marry the glories of the past to the best that the future can offer, using the most modern of technology while never destroying the atmosphere, or damaging the physical and spatial presence that makes this estate so special.

So while guests may arrive on the front lawn by helicopter, once the whirl of the blades is silenced, they find themselves in a home and gardens that could be occupying any period of history over the past few hundred years.

Drenagh is a Grade 1 listed building set among more than 1000 acres of land, in the shadow of the great cliffs of Binevenagh Mountain and the Mussenden Temple.

The present house was designed by Charles Lanyon and was the architect’s first major commission. It was completed in 1835 and has been the home of the McCausland family since. There are terraced gardens in the Italian style, an arboretum, and a fountain inspired by one at the Villa d’Este, near Rome. Lady Margaret McCausland, daughter of Earl Mount Edgecombe, embellished the botanical beauty of its park with a pink and blue English garden and an all white moon garden.

Drenagh’s accomodation is flexible, with varied terms. It can sleep 16 guests in the main house, then a further four in the Clock Wing Tower, and 8 in the Clock Tower and Nursery. In the main house, there is a morning room, library, drawing room, two dining rooms and billiard room, games room, a home cinema, an indoor pool, spa facilities and a children’s nursery.

But, eager to keep developing the potential of the estate, Conolly is now taking bookings for weddings and, judging by the success of a wedding fayre organised by a company just before Christmas, he could be inundated with requests.

“We didn’t expect so many people at the first wedding fayre. We thought there would be around 100 people but there were over 450, maybe 500 people. There were so many people that everything was crammed. The organisers underestimated the demand.”

The magnificent Georgian estate is now available as an exclusive wedding venue, with functions taking place either in a marquee in a wonderful walled garden, or in the house.

Conolly says: “By opening Drenagh for Exclusive Weddings in 2012 we will provide a world class venue in a magical private setting. Small intimate weddings for up to 60 guests can take place in the house or for the Big Event a Marquee Wedding can be arranged in the Walled Garden for up to 200 guests.

“The romantic Moon Garden and the elegant Morning Room provide somewhere inspirational for ceremonies. We would encourage brides to come and experience the splendour of this magical place. To step beyond tradition and sample something totally bespoke.

“For marquee weddings, we are £48 a head but it is a very different experience, it’s not conveyor belt. You get what you pay for,” he observes.

“It’s the walled garden experience. You have a private drive. You won’t see anyone else. We have the marquee, catering and that’s the basic package.

“Every single bride wants something different. The house, that’s different again, that’s the top end. It is not as big as the marquee, it hosts a maximum of 60 people, and it starts at £75 a head. That’s a very different thing.”

The house can also be rented and is proving popular especially for American guests. With the exposure given by the opening of the Causeway Centre, the Irish Open golf championship at Royal Portrush, the Titanic Quarter in Belfast and Londonderry’s success in becoming the first ever UK City of Culture next year, Connolly and his staff can look forward to becoming even busier over the next few years.

A number of bookings have already been secured for this year, which could present a problem except for the fact that Connolly is determined that even a firm verbal agreement, before a wedding deposit is paid, will be honoured. As a result he is prepared this year to lose out on a week’s accommodation rental, which would have brought in five times more money than the wedding for which he is awaiting a deposit.

“One has to be professional about this,” he says. “I know they are keen.”

The clock tower can be rented as accommodation, or clients may take over the whole house, during which time Connolly, his wife Sheelagh and four children move to their holiday home in Co Donegal. The children - all girls - are aged 10, nine, and there are five-year-old twins.

To take over the whole house, means retaining the house-keeper, butler and cook. There is plenty to do in the area; clay (or skeet) shooting, archery, horse-riding, fishing, hovercraft driving, canoeing, sky-diving and sand yachting but just about anything can be arranged.

“The house-keeper will look after any whim, for example a round of golf at Royal Portrush.”

Helicopter flights may also be arranged to pick up guests arriving at City of Derry airport (and others besides) and set them down on the lawn outside the main house. Alternatively, a limousine can be despatched to bring them to Drenagh.

Connolly himself was not involved in the first move towards diversification, which began in 1991 when his mother and step-father began rentals through an agency called Hidden Ireland, which comprised a group of large country houses. He took over in 1997 and was able to indulge another talent.

“Both of them were very keen cooks. My mum inspired me.”

His love of cooking led to Connolly appearing on the popular TV cooking programme, the Hairy Bikers, where he treated the biking chefs to one of his mother’s specialities from her homeland.

He himself was once a keen biker - owning a 1000cc BMW - but that particular hobby was ‘banned’.

“It was a magnificent machine,” he sighs. “I was told to get rid of it when the children came along. I used to go on road trips and really wanted to go to the Skull Splitter festival in Orkney, but I never made it.”

The grounds are a working estate when the house is not rented out.

“It encompasses everything from farming to leisure and managing the forestry. Leisure is a new side to the modern estate. We are looking at opportunities to add to what we do,” explains Connolly.

“We also have a property portfolio. We have to squeeze it until the pips squeak and that means looking at every possible avenue. We have a planning application in for a wooded caravan park, based on the French model.

“We are looking at renewable energy programmes as well.”

Drenagh is such a stunning building, set amid such magnificent scenery that it would easily lend itself to a TV period drama or even an epic movie.

And it seems that this particular act of diversification may not be that far into the future. Conolly, who has an extensive love for, and knowledge of, local history and myths, was recently promoting Drenagh in the US, and recounting a tale that could rival Romeo and Juliet as one of the great, tragic love stories. It was the tale of two bitter enemies - Danny McQuillan and Baldearg (O’Donnell) whose armies fought until they surveyed the battlefield and together saw several of their children lying dead. One of McQuillan’s sons had been having a secret love affair with Baldearg’s daughter, Laura.

When he was killed in battle, and Laura found his slain body, she dropped down beside him and also breathed her last.

As the enemies gazed at the scene, they “looked at their dead children and said; ‘That’s enough’.”

Pointing at an aged local map, Conolly adds: “There are grave pits all through here and one was opened up in which there were hundreds of bodies. A broadsword was turned up.”

He believes it can be found in the vaults of the Ulster Museum.

Of course, no true Irish film can be complete without a touch of folklore and myth stirred into the pot.

“There was a producer staying with me last weekend and we are putting the story together and she wants to bring in myths and legends. She wants to bring in the trickster element of the fairy folk. I’d like to think it could become a major thing. I just love the idea of something very local and something very Irish. It’s not going to be slapstick, it will have humour but it has to be dark and intelligent.”

He admits: “I’m fascinated by local history; there’s a lot to be found out.”

The estate appears to be in the best possible hands, and the current inhabitants of Drenagh, it would appear, for all the exciting events of its past, may find that the most dramatic times are yet to come.