In the second volume of his magisterial life of W.B. Yeats, Roy Foster records a visit made by the poet to Markree Castle, County Sligo in late summer 1929. The house was then owned by Bryan Cooper, sometime poet and playwright, and for the previous six years a T.D. in Dáil Éireann. According to Foster, the visit was not altogether a success. Peter Cooper, one of his host’s sons, remembered it as ‘a great nuisance…he was deposited by his long-suffering wife, with instructions not to let him go out in the wet grass in his slippers, and she then disappeared off to Galway with the children.’ Bryan Cooper’s daughter Ursula was, it appears, equally not impressed when Yeats read her a poem he had just written. On the other hand, Bryan Cooper’s wife Lillian was delighted to hear from the poet that he had ‘realised the ambition of my life…as we have always looked on the Coopers and Markree Castle as greater than the Royal Family and Buckingham Palace.’
The first of the Coopers to live in Ireland is said to have been an English soldier who married the famous Máire Rua O’Brien after her second husband Conor O’Brien of Leamaneh Castle, County Clare was killed in 1651. Eight years later, Charles II granted Cooper land in County Sligo which had previously belonged to the McDonagh clan; it was based around a fort guarding a pass on the river Unsin, and this remains the site of Markree Castle. At some point in the 18th century, a classical house was constructed here, of three storeys with a five-bay entrance front (with three-bay breakfront) and the garden side with a single bay on either side of a curved bow. However, in 1802 Joshua Cooper commissioned Francis Johnston to transform the building into a castle. At that time Markree was also greatly enlarged, what had been the main facade extended to more than twice its original length and centred on a curved and battlemented tower; this now become – as it remains – the garden front. The entrance was now moved to an adjacent side, to which Johnston added a porch, while elsewhere an office wing was constructed, joined to the rest by a canted link. Further changes were made by Joshua Cooper’s nephew and heir, Edward Joshua Cooper, a keen astronomer who built an observatory in the demesne. Inside the castle, London architect Joseph Gwilt transformed the office wing into a private gothic chapel. Gwilt was also responsible for redecorating the interiors of the rooms overlooking the garden, in what Mark Bence-Jones described as ‘an ornate Louis Quatorze style; with much gilding and well-fed putti in high relief supporting cartouches and trailing swags of flowers and fruits.’ (These spaces are now used as dining rooms). In the mid-1860s, the next generation to live here, Colonel Edward Henry Cooper, initiated further changes, this time employing James Maitland Wardrop who gave the exterior its present heavily fortified appearance. The entrance was moved once more with the construction of a vast porte – cochère (with billiard room directly above). Inside, a baronial stone staircase leads up to the reception rooms and here a second Imperial staircase in oak, lit by a great arched window filled with heraldic stained glass with portraits of members of the Cooper family and monarchs, leads to a top-lit gallery off which open the main bedrooms. Francis Johnston’s former entrance was turned into a long gallery divided by pairs of marble Ionic columns.
The history of Markree Castle for much of the last century was one of seemingly irreversible decline, personified by the fact that in 1988 it was used for the filming of a television series based on J.G. Farrell’s novel Troubles, and that same year its staircase hall featured on the cover of Vanishing Country Houses of Ireland. Until the last quarter of the 19th century, the castle had stood at the centre of an estate running to more than 42,000 acres, but most of this was sold by Bryan Cooper under the new land acts after he inherited the property from his grandfather in 1902. He then spent much of his time in Dublin, especially in later years so that Markree became only occupied during the summer months. When Bryan Cooper died in 1930, his eldest son Edward Francis Patrick Cooper was left the place; he and his family lived there until 1952 when it became impossible for them to maintain such a large house. As a result, many of the original contents were auctioned, and the Coopers moved into the old service wing, leaving the rest of the building empty. In the early 1980s, Markree was passed to the next generation but the eldest son, Edward, did not wish to live in the house, and eventually it was taken over by his younger brother Charles who had trained in hotel management and therefore decided to turn the castle, by now in very bad condition, into an hotel. He and his wife Mary embarked on a programme of restoration and ran the business until 2014 when, wishing to retire, they put Markree Castle on the market. The following year it was bought by the Corscadden family who already owned a number of other hotels located in historic properties and, after further refurbishment, the castle has been open to guests ever since.