Think castles are inhabited by princess killing witches? Dunsany Castle has a surprise for you…
By Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi
For some reason, throughout history, forests have been given a bad rap. They’re portrayed as places of darkness, where witches and wolves lurk to lure children to their deaths. They’re known to house entities like dwarves, elves or goblins. And if there’s a castle in a forest, you can pretty much bet that it’s inhabited by a tyrant who locks young girls up in towers and demands straw be spun into gold, or a cackling Queen with a poisoned apple in her hand.
This is a place not only of incredible natural beauty, but of peace, goodwill and hope, as I found out first-hand.
Some history about Dunsany
The Barony of Dunsany may sound like something out of a fairy tale, and indeed, the title dates back to the times of those stories – it was created in 1439 under Henry VI. But the predecessors of the current Lord Dunsany were far from tyrannical feudalists; indeed, he can trace his lineage to Horace Plunkett, the co-founder of the Irish agricultural co-operative movement who got farmers to join together to market their own dairy products to better standards than the unhygienic, poor-quality output they previously created, and encouraged farmers to deal directly with companies, guaranteeing fair prices without middlemen absorbing the profits.
This magical place has also been a great source of inspiration to other people who have lived here, such as the 18th Baron of Dunsany Edward Plunkett, an illustrious writer and dramatist mostly in the fantasy genre; the 20th Baron of Dunsany, who was a prominent artist; and of course, to the current Lord of Dunsany, Randal Plunkett, a filmmaker who has gained international recognition for his short films, and who is about to make his feature debut with a supernatural drama called The Green Sea, which was shot on the estate.
In fact, Dunsany has inspired other stories captured on film: the wedding scene of Braveheart was shot at the site’s Church of St. Nicholas, which is now a National Monument, with remnants of lofts, living quarters, and Dunsany family tombs. More films recently, such as Vita and Virginia have been shot at Dunsany, as well as the Green Knight starring Dev Patel, which will be released in 2020.
Exploring the estate with Randal Plunkett
Entering the castle, you feel a veil to the past has lifted as you admire the historical objects surrounding you and marvel at the wondrously varied plants that blanket the estate: three hundred year old elder trees, beeches, redwoods and thistles, for example.
But Lord Randal’s perspective is very much focused on the future. Whilst exploring the grounds together, he described his plans to transform the gardens into a forest that would encourage plant and animal species that are on the brink of extinction to thrive for future generations.
These aren’t the kinds of gardens you’d see surrounding, say, Versailles; on the contrary, Lord Randal intentionally decided to allow the grass and trees to grow unmolested by cutting and trimming. As he told me: “There are very few natural areas left. Nature can always be helped with a helping hand, but the idea that we have to cut it, shape it, think for it, is absurd.”
“At Dunsany, we never mass cut anything, but we will sometimes trim some of the weaker trees, to allow room for some of the stronger ones to grow better. I’ve left everything grow, including the invasive weeds, which have regulated themselves. My belief system is that they will absorb the chemicals and heavy metals out of the soil, that were deposited by farming in the previous years, and over time, as I’ve seen they’ve declined.”
Lord Dunsany used to have farming on his estate, but was adamant in giving it up for the health of our planet: “This would have been a forest, and we are losing all our natural heritage as a result from farming, over-harvesting, having animals in cages destroying the land. I have always wanted preservation, as my father had, and we took a massive loss by deciding to give up farming.”
The noble vegan
The owner of Dunsany Castle is a vegan, for the animals and for the planet, something his ancestors may not have understood: “This used to be beef-fattening land, because the grass is so rich, but I didn’t like the idea of getting to know these animals and then sending them to the slaughterhouse. I didn’t like the cruelty of the animal industry, I knew it wasn’t right and I didn’t like this over-industrialisation.”
But he also believes meat isn’t healthy. He explained: “I also noticed how many injections they had to give to animals because of the problems they had with disease. I felt in my gut that something was wrong and I wanted my own view, and I needed to try to do things differently, and nature proved I was right.”
Today, he tells me that life is thriving here, both for plants and animals. Hares have increased, many birds, and even otters have started to come back. Pointing at an area of flat land we passed through, he says: “This is where the deer have been sleeping. I would like to get one of the universities to help to reintroduce some red squirrels here, because this is where the cultivation of fruit and nut trees comes in. I’m also going to be adopting foxes. Everyone hates them in this area, the same with badgers. I’m not going to protect them from the wildlife, but from humans”
Although it was outlawed in the UK several years ago, there is still an aristocratic tradition of fox hunting, but the current Baron isn’t having it, not one bit: “Every winter I wake up at 5am to patrol around the estate to catch people who come hunting. People aren’t discouraged by the fact it is illegal, but there is no tolerance on my end to prosecute them. We’ll have more cameras installed to protect the wildlife here, there will be no shooting, this is a sanctuary,” he says.
Randal has abolished fencing against animals, and has even given up that most princely of activities – horse riding – since he rejects the concept of animal exploitation in any form. “There are all sorts of alternatives we can use for food, for clothes, for products. I will use what I already had, because I do not believe in waste either. But I haven’t purchased a pair of leather shoes in five years, nor will I buy wool. If there is a bamboo or hemp option I will buy it,” he says.
Beauty and the beasts
Dunsany has today become a safe haven for animals such as farrow hawks, kestrels, pheasants, pigeons, crows, swallows, jay birds, and barn owls. As though from a Disney movie, flocks of butterflies surrounded us on our walk, when we observed a thriving spider’s nests in the grass whilst two deer calmly observed us at a distance. Even endangered Irish species on the brink of extinction such as corncrakes have returned here.
Part of the reason for that is the current lack of pollution. There are no chemical pesticides of any kind permitted on the grounds of Dunsany; the only one that’s used is comprised of a homemade vinegar based blend that’s completely biodegradable: “I first pitched the idea to my workers who were initially perplexed. But then they tried it, and it worked!” says Lord Randal.
The measures taken by the young Lord even seem to defy changes in the climate: the estate no longer floods as it used to, because the land isn’t compressed anymore and its native creatures are allowed to thrive, which creates plenty of holes and oxygen in the soil. Consequently, when it rains, the water dissipates and no longer creates deposits of mud. Randal boasts: “Even during the heatwave we had last year, this was the only place where the grass was still alive. I looked around all my neighbour’s grass, and it was completely burnt. Beyond the surface, you can see moisture underneath. It regulates itself. The place has become a much more healthier garden, it is almost like a savanna and my overall goal is to allow that to happen.”
Plantation plans for the next generations
Randall has a long term plan to continue what he started, as he strongly believes that radical change has to happen, but will do it slowly over time. “I have a five year plan in my mind for the plantation, we are going to plant the first section this autumn. It is going to be traditional Irish species, such as oak, Scots pine, white thorn, holly. Where there’s a field I’ll create a tree line but it won’t be uniform. So birds can come and feed in the field and fly away, the deer can hide and roam about. It will be oaks and beeches, it will take a few days for the planting and probably twenty years for them to be robust, since they will come in small saplings. It’s not about short term, it’s about long term, and the next generations to come.”
As his family motto says ‘Festina Lente’. That means “Make Haste Slowly” and that’s exactly what he’s doing, not only to preserve the plants and animals on his estate, but also to set an example for others, be they film industry leaders, aristocrats or members of the public, like me.
Want to see this natural transformation for yourself? Dunsany Castle and the grounds can be explored, prior appointment. Learn more here. Images by Rafael Kostrzewa Photography