Situated in the Boyne Valley area of Meath, Slane Castle, and its 150 acre grounds, is perhaps most famous for its rich history dating back over 300 years and of course the world-renowned Slane Concert series.
There are, however, many other more recent facets to the estate that have been less explored. Not only is Slane Castle and grounds a music and wedding venue but also an organic farm boasting markets, shops, food festivals and a glamping experience. In 2017 Slane Distillery was opened after several years of refurbishments on the buildings, adding another interesting string to Slane Castle bow.
From providing its own produce for diners at the Gandon Room Restaurant in the castle to drinking whiskey at Browne’s Bar, self-sufficiency and sustainability are key themes that strongly run through the estate’s ethos. We spoke to Alex Conyngham (the Earl of Mount Charles), son of Henry Conyngham (Lord Conyngham), about the farm, distillery, renewable energy and the estate’s impact on the environment.
Alex and his wife Carina have always had an interest in all things environmental, both having worked and studied in the renewable energy area, so the progression to using this knowledge to develop the Slane estate was a logical one. In 2010 the couple took on Rock Farm, now a certified organic farm, featuring dexter cattle, rare pig breeds, chickens and a vegetable patch, set in a three acre forest garden.
“When we took it we wanted scale it up so we could feed ourselves better as well produce for those staying with us,” said Alex. Much of the food produced on the farm supplies the restaurant at the castle but it also feeds hungry ‘glampers.’ The farm offers boutique camping, or glamping, itself extremely ecologically sound, between April and November. The current setup is five yurts and two shepards huts, with catering options available.
The farm has not only benefited from the couple’s expertise, but also from the advice of friends, The Slane Food Circle, international organic farmers, the organisation WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), and other volunteers.
“People now look much more carefully at what they consume and how it is produced,” said Alex. “When you look back through history you can see bringing in these new chemicals and pesticides that we didn’t do things the right way – we didn’t have these before.”
Overall the idea initially was to minimise the waste produced by the entire estate. “We intended to do that right from the beginning and then create financial sustainability,” Alex said. “It makes financial sense and economic sense, to reuse and repurpose things that could potentially be wasted otherwise. If it did not make financial sense to do this, we wouldn’t be able to.” The farm is working on producing its own barley, ultimately intended for supply to the distillery.
Rock farm employs a system of biodiversity, allowing for a natural variety of species of plants and animals to exist in the area – whereas modern farming generally is what Alex described as a ‘continuous cropping monoculture’, which in turn depletes the natural organic matter in the soil. Crop rotations – using break crops – enrich the soil and the farm never allows fields to go bare, in order to keep it as fertile as possible. The farm has even planted extra hedgerows to link various areas of the farm and to encourage wildlife. There are even a number of owl and bat boxes.
Slane Castle Distillery was founded in 2009 but has only recently come fully on-stream. No stranger to the whiskey industry, having previously worked internationally for another Irish whiskey brand, it made sense that Alex would co-found the company with his father and then build a sustainable distillery on site. Unfortunately, although trading from 2009, the company’s original whiskey supplier dried up in 2012, forcing them to put the project on blocks. This changed with a new partnership with Brown-Forman in 2017 which allowed them to begin building the distillery onsite.
The sustainability element has most certainly informed Slane distillery’s design, as Alex was very interested in renewable energy and lower carbon emissions, with their ultimate aim being to move towards a ‘zero waste facility’. Using an anaerobic digester to reuse heat and energy, the distillery has reduced the amount of its fossil fuel usage by up to 30%.
“With distilling, we have to use a lot of energy, alcohol, and water, and with that there are bi-products which we can extract extra value and energy from,” explained Alex.
The distillery uses water from the River Boyne and is currently learning how to grow barley in order to supply themselves and cut down on the carbon emissions involved in its transportation. “We still use natural gas – it’s cleaner but there is no way around it,” he said, “but we are well on our way to where we want to be.”
Most of the Boyne Valley area is tied in closely with the Slane estate, generating somewhat of its own ecosystem. “There’s something enriching in the keeping it in the area,” said Alex. “It’s not just about supporting each other – we actually have wonderful relationships and there is a lot of cross selling.” The area in general boasts a healthy range of produce-based businesses with beautiful ciders, beers and cheese all produced locally.
Alex’s attitude towards the estate is the most important aspect of this story – he believes that he is incredibly fortunate to live and work in Slane. His passion for it is clear and he finds it rewarding, having embraced his relationship with the land. “We are protecting the land here at Slane, not owning it,” Alex concluded.