STANLEY BROWNE, the improbable 20th-century American lord of a 16th-century Irish castle and corportate dropout par excellence, relaxes in his drawing room with a brandy and an after-dinner cigarette and discusses the politics of corporate smoking:
"One of the reasons I left my company was all the gentlemen who sat around smoking stinking cigars, saying, 'Stanley, have a cigar; until you learn to smoke a cigar, you can't be successful here.' They stuck cigars in my face for 20 years."
Successful he was, though, despite his aversion to cigars, rising through the ranks of W. Clement Stone's giant, Chicago-based Combined Insurance Company of America, to become one of the multinational's senior executives in Europe, based in London.
But four years ago at age 41, disenchanted with the demands of top-echelon corporate life -- especially the near-constant travel -- he broke ranks and opted for life as the proprietor of 400-year-old Killoskehane Castle in County Tipperary, Ireland, with eight bedrooms for paying guests.
Killoskehane, near the village of Borrisoleigh, was built in 1580 by Theobald Walter Butler of Kilkenny's powerful Butler clan. The oldest part -- a fortified tower block house with six-foot-thick walls -- was completed in 1600, and "the rest of the place was stuck together about 1730," Browne says. It was captured by Oliver Cromwell in 1651 and thereafter met a checkered fate of alternate elegance and neglect.
Among its inhabitants were the Willingtons, in-laws of the first governor-general of Canada, and the notorious Sir John Carden, nicknamed Woodcock for his agility at dodging the bullets of his unhappy tenants. Edward Downs Martin restored the castle in 1865, and although it survived the Irish Civil War in the 1920s, it fell into disuse until the Brownes bought it, sight unseen, in 1977 and began a painstaking restoration and a totally new way of life.
The first guest arrived in December 1978, and Killoskehane's prices -- about $33 per person per night for room, breakfast and dinner, or $18.75 for room and breakfast only, inclusive of Ireland's 18 percent value-added tax -- haven't risen since that time. "Our philosophy is that if we can keep our prices down, we can keep our rooms full," says Browne, "though I don't know how much longer we can hold out without an increase."
Instead of raising rates, the Brownes have "figured out more and more ways to save money." They raise their own hens and lambs and grow their own vegetables, although they lost an entire crop, including eight tons of potatoes, in the summer of 1981, an unusually wet year in Ireland.
Browne also switched from coal to logs to fuel the new central heating system he installed in the castle. He himself annually hauls 80 tons of wood, purchased from the Irish Forestry Service, from a mountainside 14 miles away, a 90-minute tractor trip with each load. "If we used oil," he says, "I'd have to double my prices."
Eldest son Lee, 19, manages the books, helps mother Sally Ann in the kitchen and oversees the dining room; he's attending hotel and catering management school this year. Fourteen-year-old Stuart saved enough money in three years in tips from tourists and from bringing in hay for a neighbor, to buy the 1952 tractor and rebuild it. "If it wasn't for the boys, we'd be out of business," says Browne.
Seated beneath an oil portrait of Sally Ann -- painted 20 years ago as Stanley's incentive award for selling insurance in Missouri -- the Brownes recall the trauma of what they call their corporate divorce. "It was worse than getting a real divorce," says Stanley (adding quickly in Sally Ann's direction that "of course, we haven't had a real divorce.") "I was a hired gun, hired to make money," he recalls. "I don't mean I was a sacrificial pig -- I had all the privileges, and I can't say I didn't like being whisked by helicopter to Ashford Castle (one of Ireland's most exclusive and expensive hotels) for a few days of fishing and all that--but I had no time for the family."
With both the Brownes becoming increasingly unhappy with their London lifestyle, Stanley recalls that "subconsciously I knew I was about to leave in 1976, so I put out some feelers for a large country house to buy. We had no Irish roots, and I was not specifically looking for a castle in Ireland -- it could have been a French chateau or a manor house in England."
Shortly thereafter, in March 1977, a friend who ran an Irish company called unexpectedly one night. " 'I have just the place for you,' he said, and told me about Killoskehane. I knew the area because I had driven every mile of it mapping out the insurance territories, but I couldn't get over to see the castle because I was flying to Sarasota, Florida, the next morning for a board of directors meeting. I called another friend, the property manager of the Bank of Ireland, and asked him to go out and appraise the place. Two days later, I bought it over the phone from Florida."
When Stanley returned to London, the Brownes flew to Ireland to see just what they'd bought, and found themselves the proud owners of a semiderelict castle on 14 completely overgrown acres in the foothills of the Slieve Bloom Mountains of central Ireland.
The acquisition and renovation would ultimately cost close to half a million dollars -- "everything I have," says Stanley -- and require 35 tons of cement, 22,000 slates for a new roof, 18 tons of lead and eight miles of scaffolding. (Stuart recalls races with Lee up and down the scaffolding, hideouts in secret escape tunnels and card games in turrets 90 feet above the hotel.)
Only the most vital repairs, necessary to make the castle minimally habitable, had been completed when the Brownes finally arrived for good in August of 1978.
"Necessity is indeed the mother of invention," says Stanley. "We'd put every cent we had into buying this place and laying out a renovation plan that was mostly do-it-yourself. There was no way I could sit around like the lord of the manor, although when I arrived I didn't know a chimney stack from my backside." He bought and borrowed how-to books, talked to professionals, learned virtually every skill necessary to restore the castle except electrical wiring. He and the boys also cleared the fields.
The morning following our post-dinner conversation, Stanley drove me to the nearby Castle Ottaway, a four-story castle that was burned in "The Troubles" of 1922, for a lesson on castle reconstruction from the inside out. Ottaway, an overgrown ruin of mossy stone and charred timbers, is accessible through a fence, covered with ivy, crumbling into history. We scrambled and clawed our way inside. "That's how your room looked four years ago," he said, pointing to the roofless battlements silhouetted against the sky.
Killoskehane escaped the same fate, total destruction, only because the republican fighters used the great house as a rendezvous base, a fact not openly discussed in the local community. Other local castles and houses of the Anglo/Irish ascendency were not so fortunate, including the large castle at Fishmore three miles away, which was also burned in the civil war.
Climbing out of Ottaway's ruins, we managed to get into a painful encounter with a patch of stinging nettles, recalling to Stanley his costly early research into Killoskehane's history. The summer after the Brownes arrived in Ireland, he was poking around an old graveyard near Borrisoleigh, looking for people connected with Killoskehane. "I looked up to squint at a weather-beaten stone and tumbled backwards into a whole ravine of stinging nettles. I was impaled. I couldn't move. When I finally did get up, I made a beeline home to the bathtub. And since then I made sure I learned to recognize dockleaf," the antidote that nearly always grows where nettles grow.
Despite a painful beginning, he's become an expert in local history and geography, and acquired two minibuses which he and Lee use to take castle guests on custom-designed tours. Besides day excursions to such Irish tourism highlights as medieval Kilkenny, Holy Cross Abbey or Blarney Castle, Killeskehane's guests can get deep into wild, spectacular countryside that normal tourists almost never see.
"I can show them more in less time, because I've learned as much as I can about this area, and I know where I'm going," Stanley says, "but my biggest challenge is getting people to think of Tipperary as a tourist destination, as a place to be based. We're outside the normal tourist circuit, but we're close to everything."
(In fact, Killoskehane is a perfect base for a spur system of sightseeing or simply relaxing in Ireland. Dublin is only an hour and 25 minutes away by train from the nearby station in Templemore. The Rock of Cashe, one of Ireland's premier historic sights, consecrated by St. Patrick and seat of the kings of Munster and the last high king of Ireland, warrior Brian Boru, is nearby in County Tipperary.
There are 20 golf courses within an easy driving radius, plus fishing for trout, pike, eel and salmon in Lough Derg and nearby rivers. (Borrisoleigh (pop. 600) in Killoskehane's back yard, is proud to be known as the drinkingest village in Ireland, with lively nights of song and camaraderie in its nine pubs.)
For the Brownes, London's glamor has been replaced by Irish country house comfort, a pony trap for bumpy rides, a dog named Judy and a horse named Billy that has been known to appear inside the castle. There's a 1905 Bechstein grand piano in the drawing room, marble fireplaces, antiques like the massive Gothic bed hand-carved for Sir John Carden, climbing roses and a fragrant herb garden, superb views over the pastoral, ever-green countryside in the shadow of Devil's Bit Mountain. There are also some firm ideas about hospitality and elegance, Killoskehane fashion.
"They certainly do things in style," a fellow guest, Judy Thomas of Toronto, had remarked earlier in the evening as we sat in the oak-paneled dining room with a blazing fire, the crystal service and gleaming silver all mirrored the length of the great room, dining on homemade pa te' and rack of lamb with rosemary from the castle garden. "This isn't dinner, this is an event," said Thomas. Her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Cyril Brown, agreed, calling their stay at Killoskehane the highlight of a two-week trip in Ireland.
Sally Ann had arrived in the dining room a few minutes earlier with hot bread, her trademark. The Brownes -- Stanley cooks when Sally Ann is away, and insists the only thing he can't tackle is hollandaise sauce -- have built a reputation already for excellent cuisine based on fresh local produce, with multiple choices for each course. Stanley blends his own sherries and presides over a 3,000-bottle wine cellar collected over the last 20 years. They are assisted in food preparation and serving by several teen-age girls from Borrisoleigh. There are always traditional American holiday feasts at the castle on occasions like Thanksgiving.
The Brownes have researched pre-1860 cookbooks and housekeeping records in an effort to present traditionally authentic cooking. Despite the availability of locally oak-smoked salmon, for example, Stanley drives twice weekly to Galway for peat-smoked salmon, because it's traditional.
"We're not promoting a hotel image -- we're promoting an elegant country home as it operated 100 years ago," he says. "Our guests really are our guests. We meet each night in the drawing room before dinner for drinks, and retire there after dinner for coffee and conversation. I spent too many lonely nights in commercial travel to set up a hotel where nobody talks to one another."