Queen of the Castle – An Interview with Caroline Sweeney of Legan Castle Farmhouse
Legan Castle Farmhouse is set in the courtyard of the 16th century ruins of Legan Castle, just outside the picturesque Kilkenny village of Thomastown and 15 minutes from Kilkenny city. Over the past few years, it has earned a reputation as one of Ireland’s top destinations for those seeking to escape to the countryside for good food and pure relaxation. While Ireland has much to offer in terms of self-catering, bed and breakfast and hotel accommodation, there are few places quite like Legan Castle.
On a sunny Thursday afternoon, I visited Legan Castle to chat with Caroline Sweeney, who owns and runs the exclusive guesthouse and to sample some of her cooking.
Born in London to Irish parents, Caroline moved to Kilkenny to pursue her passion for horses and to train as a sports horse coach. Due to a change in circumstances, she was forced to leave her training and found herself living in Thomastown and in need of a new career.
Feeling quite down in herself at the time, Caroline decided to decorate one of the bedrooms in her farmhouse home as a project to keep her occupied. Recognising the possible value of the house, she started a Facebook page and welcomed her first guests to Legan Castle in September 2013.
Things took off pretty quickly after that, Caroline says. “When I first started, the intention was to run the farm house as a luxury bed and breakfast, but I soon realised that guests were looking for more. I started to offer dinner in the evenings and guests began to come to Legan Castle to enjoy the surroundings and spend the entire weekend here; rather than use if for accommodation only”.
Not her first time working in the industry, before starting her own business Caroline had studied hospitality in Westminster College and previously worked in a front of house position in Grosvenor House on Park Lane in London.
Though she says that her work at Legan Castle is much more than just hospitality and encompasses all the things she enjoys doing, “I love looking after people, interior design and cooking and I have an obsessive attention to detail. I like things to be a certain way and I’m very particular about that.”
Caroline laughs on describing Legan Castle as a ‘lifestyle experience’; she says she hates that phrase. But in effect that is what it is.
“Guests come for more than just a bed and breakfast; they come for the relaxed atmosphere created by the carefully designed interiors, the comfortable beds, the garden, the home cooked food.”
For her, a comfortable bed, good quality cotton sheets and duvets should not be compromised on. “Guests always comment on how comfortable the beds are,” she beams.
Well aware that there are plenty of places in Ireland offering high quality accommodation, Caroline aims to set Legan Castle apart by creating a more unique offering. One point of difference is how she accepts only one booking at a time. So, whether you are a party of a two or a party of up to twelve people, yours will be the only party staying at Legan Castle at that time.
“This helps ensure a bespoke service with attention to every detail”. Touches such as prosecco on arrival, fires lighting in the reception rooms, Egyptian cotton sheets and home cooked dinners and breakfasts are all standard at Legan Castle. The entire offering is designed to help guests to relax and switch off; no detail is left unattended.
Her attention to detail didn’t go unnoticed. Within a few months of opening she began receiving return customers, and now some guests are now their fourth and fifth visits booking their next stay before they’ve even checked out.
“Nearly 100% of my guests are Irish, mainly from Dublin. They live in the city and want to escape to the country for the weekend. They don’t necessarily want to do any activities; they come to relax in front of the fire”.
Caroline says that while types of guests want a luxury high-end service they are looking to spend time in a relaxed homely environment too. “By the second day, people are coming down for breakfast in their PJs”.
Food wise, pretty much everything is made from scratch, from homemade granola to sticky toffee pudding. She chooses to focus on local good quality ingredients, and buys all meats and fish in on the day with Kilkenny butchers Grogan and Brown supplying the beef and local Thomastown butchers Prendergasts supplying bacon for breakfasts – whose bacon Caroline says is on another level.
Though she says that she can’t remember the last time she cooked a full Irish. “People are moving away from the full Irish and are looking for breakfasts centered around ingredients like smoked salmon, bacon, eggs and avocado. I like to do things a little different and offer homemade granola paired with fruits such as charred peaches. I recently made a breakfast of black pudding and mushrooms on toast topped with a poached egg”.
Making sure all her guests are catered for, Caroline makes a point of reaching out to her guests prior to their arrival to find out their dietary requirements and preferences, creating a menu bespoke to their needs and likes.
What does the future hold for Legan Castle? Caroline has exciting plans to develop her own kitchen garden that will supply the kitchen with its vegetables. “Guests are more health conscious and like to know where their food is coming from.”
“I also want to develop my garden to provide fresh cut flowers for the house; the idea is to make the Farmhouse as self-sustaining as possible.”
She also sees a local demand for a good quality food only offering and is still trying to figure out how she can meet this demand. “Local people are always looking for something a little different and I’d love to experiment with pop up options such as an all day Sunday brunch. I’m playing around with a few ideas at the moment but I think there’s a definite demand for something”. I’m sure Kilkenny locals will be watching this space with anticipation.
It would be remiss of me not to mention, the other two residents of Legan Caste, Oscar a Weimaraner who has been Caroline’s side kick since he was a pup in 2006. He is best described as a friendly giant with a huge heart. Caroline says that guests adore him. Oscar’s best bud is Wilde, a tabby kitten who Caroline rescued from a cat shelter. And did I mention the Connemara ponies that are resident in the fields surrounding Legan Castle. All in all, a food, and animal, lovers paradise.
For more information visit www.legancastle.ie.Frances Walsh is the creator and writer behind healthy lifestyle blog, The Honest Project. The Honest Project focuses on plant based eating and cooking, using vegetables, fruits and wholefoods. Frances’ interest is in preparing and eating foods that are made from scratch but are practical and easy to make for even the most inexperienced cook.
For more information visit thehonestproject.com.