Ballybur Castle: Meet Mhairi Gray
Turning an old Irish castle into a place for people to stay sounds like quite the adventure. Can you tell me how your family obtained Ballybur Castle and how long it took to transform it into the beautiful place that it is today?
So, my dad, Frank Gray was a Scottish engineer who moved to Ireland to marry my mum, Aifric O’Lochlainn, an artist.
It was a romantic dream of theirs to restore it from its roofless state.
They forecast it to take five years but a trip to Africa, rebuilding the Coach-House alongside it and three kids along the way, in addition to lots of other restoration issues, meant it took nearly 25!
It really is a true labor of love as too many times it would have been easier to throw in the towel.
It opened in 2006 to the first guests, really only as people kept asking to stay.
The real thrill for my parents was in the challenge of restoring the place as close to its original glory as possible by authentically using materials of the time.
I took over in 2017 to allow my dad to retire.
When your parents began to rebuild the castle, were there any clues left behind that helped them in their restoration efforts?
Sure. Oliver Cromwell blew the top off Ballybur Castle with a canon during his invasion of Ireland. However, unlike many others he met, we were lucky that he didn’t blow up the stairs rendering it unlivable.
Also, the 57 spiraling steps bring you to the top floor. Because the floor was mainly left intact it meant the floors below survived.
The original beams remain on the ground and 1st floor – 450 years plus.
Unbelievably, there was a family living in its dilapidated state with no running water and no windows up to the 1970s when my parents bought it at auction.
As a child, it must have been fun to explore an old Irish castle that your parents actually owned. Are there any fond memories from that time?
Oh, lots! A favorite hobby of ours was jumping on the collection of Blue Bangor slates intended for the then non-existent roof!!! We would hear a shout and run!
Also, my brother Colm and I played a big part in re-digging the “murder/priest hole,” which had been filled in with clay and dirt over the years.
Can you give us an idea of what a first-time visitor to the castle might expect in terms of what is on each floor?
Ground Floor – Entrance & Kitchen
The ground floor was originally used to store goods, but also people and livestock in times of danger.
Now it has a fully fitted kitchen, with every modern convenience that you would find at home. You can, therefore, cook a medieval feast without the medieval cooking appliances.
Going through the back door, you enter the secluded south-facing patio area with a large fireplace that can be used for a BBQ or open fire.
Garden furniture is supplied.
First Floor – Master Bedroom & Bathroom
The first floor was once used for sleeping and storage.
Now it consists of an immense bedroom with a four-poster bed and niches in the walls for sleeping.
It is an ideal family room or honeymoon suite.
On this floor, there is also a smaller double room and a very elegant bathroom.
The bathroom contains a huge Victorian bath along with all the modern conveniences one expects.
Second Floor – Dining Room
On the second floor, you enter a substantial room with deep niches in the walls which were once used as beds.
During the daytime, these niches were covered by hanging tapestries and the room was used as a living space.
Now, this floor is a huge double-height dining room, complete with a chandelier!
The room has a medieval stone fireplace and a long dining table with church pews seating up to 12 people.
Off this room is a comfortable bedroom containing two single beds and windows overlooking the castle grounds.
There is also a small kitchenette where one can prepare light meals as well as a very elegant shower room with a toilet, shower, and hand basin.
Third Floor – Chapel Room
The third floor, with its vaulted ceiling, is now a bedroom.
Once, this room was the family chapel.
This floor also has a shower room with a toilet and sink. From a little hallway, you can peep through a narrow doorway onto the dining room.
Fourth Floor – Drawing Room & Ramparts
The fourth and top floor, once the state apartment, is now a magnificent baronial drawing-room.
The room has an oak-beamed ceiling (left exposed), a stone fireplace, and a giant chandelier, which all help to maintain a traditional feel.
There are several lounge seats, a table, and chairs, plus a beautifully hand-crafted swing in one of the alcoves.
The four windows, each facing the cardinal points, offer magnificent views.
There is also a secret room, once used as a priests’ hole, or to keep prisoners.
Stairs lead up to the ramparts, where on a fine day you can see Mount Leinster or Slievenamon.
When people think about staying in a castle, they often wonder what it might have been like several centuries ago? Is there a part of the castle that’s a particular favorite of yours or a room that has an interesting story attached to it?
Personally, I adore the chapel room with its intricate hand-finished vaulted ceiling.
The bits of bark used to weave the shape were still visible until we plastered the walls to keep out the dampness. We kept the original shape to it though.
I also love the top floor because it’s just so grand, with the huge roaring fireplace and the swing in the window and views on each side.
It is perfect for curling up with a cozy blanket, a glass of wine, and a friend or two for the chats.
Since budget is the focus of this website, is there an opportunity for readers of my blog to stay in Ballybur Castle that is both affordable and enjoyable at the same time?
If you can get together a group of 10, say for a girly weekend or five couples, you can escape the craziness of city life and explore the beautiful countryside or medieval Kilkenny.
It works out at €113 per person per night to be the King/Queen of the castle for a weekend.
Drive your friends crazy with your Insta-worthy snaps in all the nooks and crannies you explore.
Even though the castle is self-catering, we have lots of local produce and providers who can come in to cook or drop off a meal for you.
What other types of accommodation do you offer?
We actually now rent out the Coach-House alongside the castle which sleeps 15.
For larger groups of up to 25 people, we also offer the whole place and grounds for a weekend for a small wedding/elopement.
Staying in an Irish castle is a dream for many. How do you fulfill that dream for them?
I think that we can achieve that just by restoring such a beautiful building of nearly 500 years old and sharing it with people who have that dream.
Also, we have kept it authentic and affordable, so you don’t need to be a Kardashian to afford a weekend in a castle!
We can do as little or as much pre-planning as you like to cater to all of your needs during your stay. Come and get the full tour directly from us.
What are the other activities you might suggest to tourists who are visiting Kilkenny for the first time?
Ooooohhhh, where to start!!! Well, you are only 8 km from Kilkenny City so I suggest ditching breakfast, fill up with a brunch from Arán café in town.
You could try anything on the menu, from the delicious breakfast sambo to the avocado smash or sizzling eggs, all made with local produce.
I’d then go for a tour of the infamous Kilkenny Castle and browse the shops and jewelers in the courtyard opposite.
Seeing as you won’t need lunch, you can browse the lovely boutiques – highly commended is Folkster and the Wardrobe (Designer Consignment).
Wander all the way down the Medieval Mile with a coffee from Café la Coco to St Canice's Tower, one of the only round towers left intact.
Day 2 would have to be in the environs where there is soooooo much more to explore.
How can people make a reservation or find out more about staying in the castle?
Have a look at our website and book direct, if at all possible, to help out a small family-run business.