Grand Designs Cloontykilla Castle

The battle for Cloontykilla Castle

Sean Simons had ambitious plans for this Irish folly

By Jason Podesta |

When ex-West End actor Sean Simons decided to take on the ruins of Cloontykilla Castle in County Roscommon, Ireland, his Grand Designs vision didn’t quite turn out as planned.

‘[This is] a story about Irish banksters and the self-destruction of the country’s economy; a story about a childhood dream, toy castles and a man’s charm; and a story about an indomitable building set in one of the most beautiful landscapes on earth,’ said Kevin McCloud.

As a young boy, Sean used to play around the castle and dreamed of one day bringing it back to its former glory. He bought Cloontykilla Castle for £117,000 in 1989.

The 19th century folly was built in 1839 by British architect John Nash. Located on the former Rockingham Estate by Lough Key, the historic building is set in 800 acres of forest and was previously used as a hunting lodge.

It has Irish listed status – the equivalent to the UK’s Grade II listing – which means Sean isn’t allowed to alter the exterior beyond opening up the dummy windows to make them functional.


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A post shared by Sean Simon (@cloontykillacastle)

Grand Designs for Cloontykilla Castle

Sean had some big ideas. He borrowed £1.2 million to begin the project and hired a structural engineer, but chose not to hire an architect.

He wanted to transform Cloontykilla Castle into a lavish Grand Designs home with a basement recording studio and performance space, with no expense spared to recreate the 16th-century baronial look. He even considered turning one of the tower tops into a jacuzzi.

The ground floor was to be a medieval hall spanning almost the full length of the building, with a wooden, carved staircase leading to an open-plan baronial living area with dining room and kitchen.

A spiral staircase would lead to the new flat roof behind the ramparts, which would overlook the loch and 20 landscaped acres. The castle would also have 12 bedrooms.

Unfortunately, Ireland went into recession just as he was getting started. There was pressure from the bank and the quantity surveyor to get the project completed within eight months. Kevin McCloud estimated that the project would more likely take eight years.


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A post shared by Sean Simon (@cloontykillacastle)

A tricky start

Two months in, the delicate job of knocking through the dummy gothic windows was complete and the roof almost finished, so the team started work on the ground-floor bedrooms.

But tension started to mount with the build team as Sean kept changing his mind about details of the project. But it was cashflow problems, caused by the recession, that meant the team had to down tools.

The bank eventually released more funds, but only under tight supervision. And with the project fast-approaching its eight-month deadline, there was a lot still to be done.


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A post shared by Sean Simon (@cloontykillacastle)

Further problems

By August 2010, the ground-floor layout was almost complete, but the 10 bedrooms planned for this floor were reduced to six as the small windows made the rooms feel gloomy and cave-like.

In September 2010, Sean had a new team of builders pull down the bathroom walls and rebuild them elsewhere, without consulting the original team.

The recession hit its peak shortly after, with Ireland’s banks seeking a £40bn bail out. This created further funding issues and, to make matters worse, Sean’s structural engineer, Paul Cuddy, resigned in January 2011.

The bank did agree on a contract to finish the work, but the money never came through and work on the Cloontykilla Grand Designs project came to a halt in July 2012. While the castle exterior was complete, the interior was bare and stud walls were left half-finished.

Grand Designs Cloontykilla Castle

Photo: Channel 4/Fremantle

What happened to Cloontykilla Castle?

Sean continued to push for financing, hoping the bank would honour his original contract. In the meantime, he had drawings made up of how the ample, stately interiors would look.

In June 2020, Sean tweeted that Cloontykilla Castle would be open to guests from March 2021, Unfortunately, the project is still not finished. But Sean’s dream has been in the making for over 30 years, so perhaps this story isn’t over yet.

‘I had to take something from the ruins and make it better, leave it better than what I found it,’ said Sean. ‘And if people did that everywhere, we would live in a better world.’

‘Toy castles are for playing in. Real castles are for fighting for, and Sean is a fighter,’ concluded Kevin. ‘He is this castle’s champion, its defender.’

Watch the Grand Designs Cloontykilla Castle episode on All4 here