A Brief History of Liss Ard Estate

Liss Ard Estate was built in 1853, a year after the Irish famine, by the O’Donovan’s, an Anglo-Irish family from Co. Limerick. The estate was originally over 3,000 acres. Today the estate’s remaining 163 acres include the Manor House, adjoining Mews, Gate Lodge, Tower Lodge and Lake House, a 2.2 acre walled garden and the 40 acre Lake Abisdealy.

Glen Teigh (Lake House) was built in the 1870s as a summer residence for the family, taking advantage of the lake views.

Unusually the walled garden walls were extended to 4 meters (13 feet) high, from the original height of 3 meters (10 feet). This was designed as a deterrent to keep local people from stealing produce.  

1910 – 1950: the majority of the large mature trees were planted. The estate’s most notable trees are the Monetary Cyprus and the Cedar of Lebanon ‘cedrus libani’, estimated to be about 160 years old. Native to the mountains of the Middle East, they can grow up to 24 meters (80 feet) and spread to 15 meters (50 feet) wide. 

A fun feature of the estate is the Ha-Ha wall to the side of the manor house. A sunken wall that creates an optical illusion of a continuous landscape while creating a barrier to prevent cattle from trespassing close to the property and bothering residents. First recorded in France in the early 18th century it very quickly became fashionable in English country estates. The name derives from the French reaction to the discovery of the optical illusion as they exclaimed with surprise and delight ‘Ah-Ah’. 

In 1924 The O’Donovans sold Liss Ard estate including the 3,000 acres of land and retired to Devon in England. 

John and Mary-Ellen Connolly bought the estate in 1924 and raised their 4 daughters there until just after the second world war in 1947. John refused British Prime Minister Churchill’s request for wood for the war effort in the early 1940s, thus preserving trees for future generations to enjoy. Mary-Ellen was an avid gardener and developed the walled garden, including the extensive glass houses on the south facing wall, growing edibles and cut flowers for the estate and also supplying local nurseries with plants. 

1947 – 1970s: the estate changed hands several times operating as a hotel, restaurant and outdoor persuits centre. 

The charismatic character Albert Bachmann first visited Ireland in the late 1960s due to his interest in horses and soon fell in love with the country. Born in Zurich in 1929, a journalist, who during his military service in Switzerland trained as a spy and quickly rose to the rank of colonel. By 1975 Bachmann was head of the private intelligence agency and the commander of the ‘Stay behind programme’ made up of elite army members trained to stay in Switzerland in case of invasion from Soviet states. During the mid 20th century cold war period Bachmann felt that there was a very real threat of invasion to Switzerland due to its strategic position in central Europe. 

1972: Bachmann built cottages on Tragumna beach 2 miles from Liss Ard. Significantly he built 8 cottages: the Swiss Government consists of a federal council with the 7 members serving as collective heads and 1 leader. 

In 1976 Bachmann purchased Liss Ard as a front for the Swiss government and ran it as an equestrian center and country hotel. The estate was bought by the Swiss government as part of the long term strategy of the highly secretive ‘Stay behind organisation’. Due to the prevailing South Easterly winds in the event of chemical fallout from the Soviet block Ireland would be the safest place in Europe and as the most westerly country in Europe, West Cork was seen as an ideal location for a safe house for the Swiss government in case of invasion or nuclear attack.

In the 1980s the house was resold and in 1989 a German art dealer Veith Turske ran the estate for Swiss investors. 

1990: Redevelopment of the estate began including woodlands, flower meadows and ponds. The property was extensively renovated.

In December 1989 James Turell first visited. Turske invited him to the estate as an artist in residence. Turell moved into Liss Ard Estate in 1990 and lived on the estate for almost 2 years with his young family. He soon started drawings for his Irish Sky Garden. 

Turell was born in 1943 in Pasadena California to Quaker parents. He had a pilots license by the age of 16. A life long pacifist, his art studies were interrupted in 1966 when he was arrested by the American government for flying young American men to Canada to avoid the draft to fight in the Vietnam war. He spent a short time in prison. 

Turell is most known for his work in the light and space movement. Developing art as experiential rather than one dimensional pieces. Difficult to describe, as it’s necessary to experience the Irish Sky Garden. The Crater was completed in 1992. 

Turell was inspired by the ring fort on the estate and Irish heritage sites. Lois Ard (Liss Ard) or high fort is an early medieval example of a ring fort built during the time of cattle herders and includes a great example of a subterranean or underground passage.  

The Irish Sky Garden has a portal entrance that leads through a dark, 32 meters long passage to steep steps leading up to the crater itself. As you enter the crater the 50 meter by 25 meter elliptical shape frames the sky, while flat acoustics deaden all external sound, creating an otherworldly, almost ethereal atmosphere. At the center of the crater is a plinth, made of Kilkenny granite, designed for 2 people to lie foot to foot with heads laying on the neck rests affording them impeded views of the ever-changing Irish sky.