In 1991, Howard Corscadden picked up the Irish Independent and saw a castle for sale.
“It was on the front page of the Property section,” he recalls. “It said: ‘Castle ready to be moved into’. Now, it wasn’t quite ready to move into...”
But he bought it.
Since then, he and his family have spent millions upgrading not just Cabra Castle in Co Cavan, but Bellingham Castle in Co Louth, Ballyseede in Tralee and Markree in Co Sligo as the Romantic Castles of Ireland collection.
The last time we met, in February, Howard was overseeing the completion of a revamped, 280-capacity ballroom at Cabra. Then came Covid.
“Who’d have thought?” he sighed when I called to catch up before Christmas. “The big question will be next March, what level of restrictions there will be coming into next season. Everyone’s on tenterhooks... at the moment, you just can’t plan.”
Howard’s love of castles began with a stint working at Dromoland. His parents and grandparents both owned hotels, and when Cabra came along, they teamed up to invest.
“You could see there was a market for a castle product maybe not charging those prices,” he says. “It gave people an alternative.”
Their collection, along with other reboots like Kilkea Castle, Lough Rynn and Kilronan Castle, created a whole new tier of Irish castle hotels.
Overseas visitors love castles, but locals have responded too.
“People will travel to a castle,” Howard says. “It’s the atmosphere. We have beautiful public rooms, cellars, nooks and crannies, steps up to lovely little seating or window areas where you can sit and read your book.”
All Corscadden castles have open fires and wolfhounds, too. “Things like that make it different to a normal hotel stay.”
Castles are money pits (“You can put an extra zero onto every job you have to do,” he laughs), but the philosophy is clear:
“The day you stop spending is the day you go backwards”. Even this year, with business down 80pc, they’ve been planting trees around Cabra, and plan to add nine new bedrooms to Bellingham Castle by summer.
Covid has throttled tourism, but Howard is confident castles will make a comeback. In a hi-tech world, he says the old-school hospitality, ambiance and personal touch will be a bigger draw than ever.
“If you’re going to celebrate something special, you want to talk to a human being,” he says.
Pandemic supports have helped keep the business afloat, and with many 2020 bookings moved to 2021, this could even be a “bumper, bumper” year... pandemic restrictions permitting, of course.
I’m curious. Would Howard buy another castle?
“I’m always on the lookout,” he laughs. “But the rest of the family might have something to say about that!”