A plan to transform Northern Ireland’s largest — and arguably most impractical — castle into a series of luxury homes has run into a stone wall.
It’s the latest setback for the future of the 150-room Gosford Castle in Co Armagh, which has had a somewhat embattled history since it was built in the mid-1800s.
The Norman revival pile in Markethill, our largest Grade A listed building, was erected by the second Earl of Gosford, Archibald Acheson, and completed in 1850.
It has never seen a shot fired in anger, but has been under constant siege from the slings and arrows of fortune ever since.
By 1921 the Acheson family were in such dire straits they were forced to sell off its contents and in the Second World War it was commandeered as a PoW camp.
It was sold off after the war and ended up with the Forestry Commission, and during its comparatively short life has also been a hotel, a barracks and a restaurant.
During the Troubles it was pressed back into use by the Army, but by 2002 it was in such a bad state of disrepair it was getting to the stage where it would soon be beyond saving.
Following negotiations in 2006, a local developer and specialist architects, in partnership with the Northern Ireland Heritage Service, put forward a proposal to restore the castle. The plan was to turn the building into 23 separate residences and it was sold to Gosford Castle Developments Ltd (GCDL ) for a knock-down £1,000 in January 2006, although the repair bill was estimated at £4million.
Under the terms of the arrangement half of any profits from the apartment scheme would go to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.
Now the company may be forced out of business after losing an £80,000 legal battle
The firm unsuccessfully defended a claim by a construction company for bonus payments on work on the residential project.
Although the economic downturn has prevented full completion of the project, bonuses of around £200,000 were paid to the builders on finishing 10 homes.
The development has been “dormant” since 2010, with no further progress on sales and heavy bank debts, and doesn’t have the cash to pay the builders.
In the High Court on Tuesday, Mr Justice Weatherup put his final order on hold until full details of Gosford Castle Development Ltd’s financial circumstances are disclosed.
However, the judge recognised the potentially fatal consequences for the defendant company.
“He (the developer) is waiting for better times to emerge,” Mr Justice Weatherup said.
“That may be some considerable time, but I'm satisfied from what I have heard the defendant company does not have £80,000 to pay the plaintiff, which is the sum due.
“Enforcement against them may force the whole project into liquidation.”
Mr Justice Weatherup said he was minded to put a stay of enforcement on his order, but recognising the potential impact on the plaintiffs, he also asked for details of their financial situation.
Their lawyer told the court he also wanted to interrogate GCDL on its finances and level of bank debt, claiming that the Gosford Castle scheme involved an entitlement to Heritage Fund grant.
It was argued the developer could “mothball” the scheme because so little outlay was involved, and as yet the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has received “zero” profit.
Belfast Castle, built as a family home, is owned by the City Council and caters for wedding and other functions, as well as having a restaurant and bar and museum. It served as a military headquarters in the Second World War.
Upton Castle in Templepatrick, Co Antrim, has seen its grounds used to build small luxury housing developments. And Shane’s Castle, also in Co Antrim, has been used to stage concerts and other events.
Glenarm Castle in the Glens of Antrim holds fairs and welcomes visitors on certain days.
Possibly the most radical change of purpose of any fortified building is Tandragee (right) in Co Armagh, which houses the Tayto crisp company.