Castle Keepers: Meet the Sole Couple that Lives and Works in this 800-Year-Old Hotel in Ireland

The Ashford Castle in Ireland | Image credit: File Photo

The Ashford Castle in Ireland | Image credit: File Photo

Ashford castle was turned into a luxury hotel in 1939; past guests have included US presidents and celebrities such as Barbra Streisand and Brad Pitt.

  • CNN
  • Last Updated: June 25, 2020, 3:05 PM IST
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Laura Jamieson and Michael Smith fell in love while working in an 800-year-old castle. But they never expected to live at their place of employment.

But that's exactly what they've been doing since March 25, when, as a result of the coronavirus, they packed up their belongings and moved into Ashford Castle, a five-star-hotel on the northern shore of Lough Corrib in County Mayo, Ireland.

"Who else can say they spent lockdown in a castle?" says Smith, 28, the estate activities manager.

Temporary digs

In the real world, the couple, who've been dating for a year and a half, live in a flat in Cross, a tiny village about five kilometers from the castle.

Nothing prepared them for moving into the former country estate of the Guinness family, with a 32-seat cinema, two gourmet dining rooms, a spa, wine-tasting tunnels and 83 guest rooms.

It was transformed into a luxury hotel in 1939; past guests have included US presidents and celebrities such as Barbra Streisand and Brad Pitt. Pierce Brosnan, who shot an episode of the TV series "Remington Steele" at Ashford, returned to marry Keely Shaye Smith here in 2001.

Both Smith and Jamieson, who is in charge of guest services, were surprised -- and thrilled -- when general manager Niall Rochford asked them if they might consider moving in for a spell. They suspect it's because they complement each other as a team.

"She does everything so well on the inside and I have a lot of experience on the outside and on the grounds, so it was almost perfect yin and yang," says Smith. "We balance each other. So I have to believe that's one of the reasons they asked."

Having fun yet?

Was it scary at first being the sole occupants of a place so big? Slightly.

For starters, there was the Dessert Fiasco.

"We've got a five-star kitchen, but between the two of us we're a two-star chef," says Smith, who grew up in Perthshire, Scotland. "Both of us have a sweet tooth so we tried banana bread. That was a disaster. When you set off a smoke alarm in the house, it's just in the kitchen. But when you set it off in a hotel the whole place goes off."

Then there was the Ghost of Ashford Past -- or at least, the one in their heads.

"The castle dates back to 1228, and we're staying in the Victorian wing," says Jamieson, who has been at Ashford for five years. "You have all these paintings of the owners through the ages. You almost feel like you're in somebody's house and they're watching you."

Her boyfriend has been amusing himself by jumping out in front of her "to make sure she's on her toes."

"It's worn thin pretty quickly," Smith admits.

A day in the life of castle living

A typical day finds them awake by 8 a.m., when they stroll around the 350 acres of gardens and private woodlands and then head into the local for a coffee. It's a regular eight-hour workday, replete with Zoom meetings and greeting colleagues who have come to the castle for a few hours. They might stop by the stables or the falconry school to see the hawks and owls.

Then the fun really begins.

As part of their additional caretaking responsibilities, they must vacuum floors, dust the Waterford crystal chandeliers, and run showers in each of the guest rooms. The true calorie burn comes from the 160 toilets they flush every day -- just to keep everything in working order.

"It's been good exercise for us," says Smith, who estimates that they log between 25,000 and 30,000 steps on an average day, which could last until 7 or 8 p.m.

Once a week, they hold date night in the 32-seat cinema, which "looks like something out of the 1920s," says Jamieson.

They bring in candy, popcorn, some wine and pretend they're at a cinema, rather than in their own private movie theater. The first film they watched was John Ford's "The Quiet Man," starring John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara, which was filmed at Ashford.

They've also enjoyed "Game of Thrones" and "The Greatest Showman" -- "things that are worthy of being on the big screen," says Smith.

The couple met three years ago, when Smith first started working at the hotel. Jamieson was working in different departments, wearing a different uniform in each, and she soon caught Smith's eye -- although he was confused whether she was one person or a set of sisters. "But I managed to narrow it down," he says, and finally worked up the nerve to ask her out.

The couple has decamped into a luxurious state room in the original wing of the castle (circa 1228), with antiques, tapestries, Connemara marble, Murano glass chandeliers, an antique grandfather clock, 15-foot ceilings and magnificent views of the lake.

Before moving in they bought a Polaroid camera to document their experience. "We have been creating a memory book for ourselves," says Jamieson. "This isn't real life. It makes us look fancier than we are."

The hardest part, they say, has been not being able to see their friends and family in person. But they FaceTime with them, usually from a different part of the property for a virtual tour.

Laura Jamieson and Michael Smith fell in love while working in an 800-year-old castle. But they never expected to live at their place of employment.

Michael Smith is from Scotland and Laura Jamieson is Surrey in England, but they fell in love across the Irish Sea.

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Imminent 'eviction'

The Castle is scheduled to reopen on July 2. Right now, they are unsure when they'll be evicted. "We're avoiding asking the question," says Jamieson.

Although the castle is set to reopen on July 2, the couple is not sure when they'll be asked to leave.

Beyond the novelty of playing Eloise, they've learned a lot about themselves as people and as a couple. "We are a relatively young couple and it's been the craziest experience," says Smith. "I'm not saying this is a Disney story. I'm sure there are time she wants me to go to the other side or send me to the dungeon. But we haven't had any fights or got sick of each other.

But, he adds, "she could change her mind any time soon."

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