CORK, Ireland — A multiturreted fortress dating to the 12th Century, Lismore Castle is high above the Blackwater River in County Waterford.
To a 20th-Century visitor, Lismore (which means great fort in Gaelic or Irish) epitomizes the most romantic moments in Irish history, when knights in shining armor were at their noblest and boldest.
This bastion is the Irish home of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, whose official residence is Chatsworth in England. Until recently the 8,000-acre estate was off-limits to the passing traveler, but times have changed.
Due in part to the high costs of private castle-keeping, Lismore is now one of at least half a dozen family-owned castles that take paying guests on a weekly rental basis. It's an Irish twist to the old concept of leasing a vacation home abroad.
If you have always dreamed of living like a king or queen in a castle, this idea may be for you.
Range of Accommodations
Some castles provide a full complement of staff--butler, chef and housekeepers. Others are rented on a self-catering basis (you do the cooking and housekeeping).
Accordingly, rates vary from $400 to $9,700 a week for the run of an entire castle. From 6 to 12 people can be accommodated in each castle, an ideal arrangement for families, several couples or groups of friends.
We recently sampled some Camelotlike experiences starting with Lismore, the bench mark of this group of rental properties.
Crossing an ancient seven-arched bridge to the castle's front gate, we inched up the long driveway into the massive quadrangle. Although we tried to arrive without fanfare, the noise of our car doors resounded in the courtyard like a hundred horses in formation.
The butler promptly appeared to make us feel "at home." As our bedazzled faces probably revealed, home was never like this.
Antiques and Heirlooms
Ambling through the castle's halls and hollows, we saw many antiques and heirlooms, tapestries and hand-carved furniture.
Hundreds of watercolors of the castle fill the walls, along with old prints and family photographs, all depicting life at Lismore through the centuries.
The lore of Lismore goes back to 1185, when Prince John of England erected the first castle here on the site of an earlier episcopal palace. In 1589 it was presented to Sir Walter Raleigh but he never lived here, preferring to stay at his seaside home in nearby Youghal.
People who did make Lismore their home, however, include Richard Boyle, known as the Great Earl of Cork, and his 14 children. His son Robert, born at the castle in 1626, was a philosopher and the "father of modern chemistry." Through the ages, guests have included at least three English kings, and Fred Astaire.
If you rent this castle you'll enjoy full use of the candle-lit dining room, stained-glass ballroom, drawing room with ever-glowing fireplace and a well-stocked library (books from botany to Buddhism). All of the bedrooms have views of the river or countryside.
Lismore's grounds include well-tended gardens, orchards, a vinery, nine-hole golf course, tennis courts and a private stretch of salmon and trout waters along the River Blackwater.
If you catch a fish the chef will either cook it for your dinner or smoke it for you to take home.
For sightseeing, Lismore is within an hour's drive of Waterford, Cork, Blarney, Cashel and Tipperary.
Two other castles, Glin in County Limerick and Mallow in County Cork, also are rented with full-time staffs. On the shore of the Shannon River, Glin has been home to the Knights of Glin for more than 700 years, and Mallow, a secluded estate on a bank of the River Blackwater, is the Irish residence of a successful American.
Ireland's storied castles also come in smaller sizes and without a staff. A good example is Carraigin Castle, a restoration of a 13th-Century ruin set on a rural seven-acre estate next to a wildlife sanctuary on the shore of Lough Corrib in County Galway.
Somewhat modest but still authentic, Carraigin (which means little rock in Gaelic) is the home of an Irish-born stockbroker who lives in London. The structure can best be described as an enormous rock in the form of a fortified house with six-foot-thick walls, whitewashed inside and out.
Instead of regal heirlooms, its furnishings are an eclectic blend of tapestries, batiks, sheepskin coverings on wicker chairs and rockers, electric wall fixtures and knight- like figures hung above the huge open fireplace.
Do It Yourself
If you rent Carraigin you'll have to cook and serve your own meals, but the kitchen is equipped with all modern conveniences. Carraigin offers opportunities for long walks in the countryside, boating on the lake or bird watching from the castle battlements.
It also is a convenient base for day trips to Galway, Connemara, the Aran Islands and County Mayo. At night we enjoyed playing tapes of medieval music and concocting banquets for two in the great dining hall with its cathedral ceiling.