Swiss gold, stories untold, and…Oasis? The History of Skibbereen’s Liss Ard Estate

Posted on: 8th March, 2016

Category: The History Corner

Contributor: Patrick J. Mahoney

Patrick J. Mahoney studied cultural history at NUI Galway's Centre for Irish Studies, and now teaches in the department of history at Sacred Heart University, Connecticut. He is interested in the study of emigrant narratives, and the Irish historical experience as it relates to those in the United States and Britain. This column will highlight the stories of significant people and places with West Cork connections, throughout the world.

Can one put a price on the past? Well, yes apparently, because the Liss Ard estate outside of Skibbereen is now up for sale at the cool price of €7.5 million. However, when viewing historical properties, it’s interesting to think back on the various periods they undergo, and the ever-changing dynamics and purposes of their use. Ghostly intonations of a rich past are abundant in this estate’s grounds. From its original inhabitants, members of the O’Donovan clan, walking around its wooded confines, to the whispered Cold War murmurings of Swiss intelligence officers envisioning the site as a retreat for a Swiss government in exile, to the distinctive first chords of Oasis’s ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’, amplified throughout the air… While this columnist can’t raise the funds necessary to purchase the property and make my own bit of history on its grounds, I can certainly shed a bit of light upon some of the more intriguing historical tidbits about the storied estate for any potential buyers out there.

The estate’s deep roots date back to 1853, when the chief of the O’Donovan clan acquired the land, which then totalled some 300 acres. Shortly thereafter, the property’s ornate Georgian house was built. The family added an additional Victorian-style Lake Lodge in the 1870s, for use as a summer retreat. The family maintained the property until 1924, when Morgan William O’Donovan divided it into six separate lots, which were then sold by auction. Over the next fifty years, the property would change hands a number of times, serving both the public and private interests of its various owners.

Yet, arguably the most interesting bit in the property’s history occurred during the tension-filled days of the Cold War. In the early 1970s, as the world’s superpowers engaged in a game of political and ideological chess that left an air of uncertainty over the rest of the global community, the head of Swiss intelligence, Colonel Albert Bachmann, arrived in West Cork. Bachmann, who had become fond of the region after first visiting in the 1960s, was seeking a suitable location for the Swiss government to operate in exile, should his country fall victim to a Soviet invasion or the effects of nuclear warfare. Acting in his capacity as a government representative, Bachmann purchased what had by then been reduced to a 200-acre estate, complete with its two houses. In line with the rumour-laden tales of the Cold War era, it was purported that upon his acquisition of the property, Bachmann set about putting plans in motion to transfer a portion of Switzerland’s storied gold reserves to specialised vaults in the Liss Ard basement. Additionally, seeking to increase the property’s governmental suitability in case the need presented itself, the main house was kitted out in high-tech computer equipment — some feat for the early 1970s. However, no invasion came, and thus the Swiss government was not forced to operate in Irish exile from their spacious West Cork abode. As a result, Col. Bachmann sold the property in the early 1980s. However, having fallen in love with the region, he spent the remainder of his life in West Cork, passing away in 2011.   

In more modern times, the grounds have served a number of purposes. Following its role as a private Cold War retreat, the property underwent major renovations, and became a country house hotel under the patronage of German European art dealer Veith Turske. Turske also commissioned the renowned American-born artist James Turrell to construct an Irish Sky Garden on the property, from which one might catch a unique glimpse of the heavens from the depths of a manmade crater on the unique West Cork property. In addition to enjoying tourist-appeal, the surroundings of Liss Ard have also been home to Rock and Roll royalty over the years. It has been the site of concerts by the likes of Oasis, Van Morrison, Lou Reed, and Nick Cave, amongst others.

So there you have it, a few brief historical bits on a storied local spot. Happy house hunting, and when settling into your new spacious property, should you find yourself in need of a caretaker or historian, be sure to drop a line to the History Corner!

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