Randal Plunkett II: Rewilding
by Niklas Göransson
The Right Honourable Randal Plunkett is the 21st Lord Dunsany – a barony which is one of the oldest dignities in the Peerage of Ireland. He speaks of risking home and hearth in the pursuit of radical ideals.
– We live under a strict and tight code, almost like a cult. The first rule is that you never disrespect the family. The other is that we don’t sell what we did not bring; we don’t profit off the accomplishments of our forebears but always bring in something new from our time. So, by simply putting a date on the contribution, we can easily determine who brought or did what. We never try to repeat other people’s history but instead celebrate our own presence.
Randal Plunkett is the 21st Lord Dunsany. His family is seated at Dunsany Castle – an estate that came into possession of the Plunkett dynasty in the year 1432.
– I don’t own this place. Nobody in my family ever owned Dunsany. Part of the duty is that you must always maintain and protect; we are caretakers of history. Every family is a tapestry upon which each member leaves their individual mark. Some marks are bolder than others, but we’re all part of that tapestry. And each of us makes our own imprint through something modern.
My father has a Master of Science in Engineering, so there were presumably some expectations of me. Now, compared to Randal’s pedigree, I feel I got off lightly. Besides one architect and one renowned artist as parents, his family tree boasts decorated war veterans, famous explorers, the inventor of the fantasy genre – from whom HP Lovecraft is said to have drawn influence – as well as the founder of Brazil, a pioneering social reformer, and then an actual canonised saint.
– Bear in mind that those are only the famous ones. Even my non-famous ancestors are quite hardcore. I have one relative who was an admiral and started a highly successful shipping company that transported all the coal to the UK from Northern Ireland. And he was an absolute monster at making money. The first man in Ireland to have an x-ray machine was a scientist in our family. But I don’t regard this as any kind of ‘me and them’ situation – I see us not as individuals but as a collective. So, the strife to achieve is really uplifting for everybody. However, I do feel that I have something of my own: I’m a film director. We’ve never had one of those before.
When Edward Plunkett, the 20th Baron of Dunsany, died in 2011, his estate and all associated responsibilities were passed down to Randal. At the time, he was twenty-eight years old and had just gotten his film career off the ground. On the side of handling his many duties as Lord Dunsany, Randal has kept pursuing this dream. In July 2021, he released his first full-length feature film: The Green Sea, a drama with an eerie and darkly supernatural edge.
– My family is full of high achievers. It’s very sad to find yourself in such company when you don’t think you’ll ever amount to anything. I struggled very badly with dyslexia during my childhood years and didn’t do well in school at all. In fact, I was last in my class most of the time. This incessant drive I have today derives from the fact that I always had to put in much more work to attain the barest minimum. Ironically, this also instilled a mindset of never wasting time. But again, it’s not a competition – we can’t all be saints. Some of us are going to be the discoverers of the fantasy genre, whereas others will simply be good at what they do.
Randal’s great-grandfather, Edward Plunkett – the 18th Lord Dunsany – was an esteemed playwright, as well as an Irish champion in both chess and pistol shooting. He also wrote almost a hundred books, mainly in the genre we now know as fantasy. His most celebrated work is a 1924 novel called The King of Elfland’s Daughter.
– As a filmmaker, I’ve always lived in the shadow of his success. Whenever I mention my vocation, people always say, ‘Would you ever consider making one of your great-grandfather’s stories into a film?’ And for the longest time, I rejected it. ‘Well, no – I have my own things to say.’ But I don’t think like that anymore. As time passes, I find we’re doing many of the same things. Perhaps it’s a family trait? Maybe it’s the genes, or possibly the location. I’ve always believed that if you stay in a place long enough, you will become that place.
Dunsany Castle stands in the village of Dunshaughlin, County Meath, about thirty kilometres northwest of Dublin. It was constructed in 1180 and is said to be the longest-occupied home in all of Ireland. The surrounding estate borders the River Boyne and comprises forests, marshes, and farmland.
– Even my rejection of my role here… at first, I fought it so hard. Which is ironic because I was battling against the inevitable: my duty to Dunsany and my place in its twenty-one generations of history. I also thought I’d never be happy living here but now I don’t ever want to leave. I hated it, but then I grew to love it. And finally, I became this place; now I am what it is.
What would the Randal Plunkett of 2011 have thought if he knew what lay in store?
– The 2011 Randal would perhaps not have seen this coming in exactly the manner it did, but you don’t embark on a journey knowing where it will end: that’s something you must discover for yourself. You might have a general idea, but the route is likely to change along the way. Even if you arrive at your destination, it won’t be what you expected. That’s how I feel about my current path: I still don’t know where it will take me. For example, ten years ago – when I was having steak for breakfast and eating raw eggs – I never thought I’d become a vegan. But my views have changed as things changed; I decided a long time ago to try something different. I wanted a new reality.
Three years after Randal took over, there were major upheavals at Dunsany. The estate has 1,700 acres, 950 of which are tenant-run tillage farms. The remaining 750 – managed directly by the Plunketts – were traditionally dedicated to animal agriculture and forestry. Seeking to return the land to its origins, Randal got rid of all livestock and banned timber harvesting.
– We no longer cut down anything around here. When a tree has fallen by its own accord, we might collect about fifty per cent. The other half must remain. We take a little of what we need but always leave something behind. I believe that’s the right ethos for a place like Dunsany. And this feeds into the notion of me as a caretaker of the land. Because the land was here before the castle – before the family – and will remain here long after we’re all gone. So, am I a steward of the castle or the domain? This land has as much history as the bricks in the castle wall: the environment tells its own story. And that’s also under my protection.
Randal has financed this undertaking himself, using income from tillage and the Dunsany film production facilities. At first, his mother was aghast – thinking her son had lost his mind and joined some kind of sect. Personally, I’m more curious about what their accountant had to say.
– The estate accountant couldn’t comprehend what I was talking about. I told him, ‘From now on, we will no longer do these things.’ He asked, ‘Okay, what are you doing instead?’ And I said, ‘Well, we’re not really going to do anything.’ He looked baffled, ‘What do you mean you’re not going to do anything?’ I explained, ‘I’m leaving the land to be preserved. We’re actually going to be spending money.’ So yes, he was… shall we say, a bit taken aback.
One can only imagine – especially considering that the Dunsany estate had been losing money for a long time.
– You see, when bleeding capital, you’d normally try to increase revenue until you break even. You don’t take away more of your income for some lofty, idealistic view of wildlife. Now, for those who think that being a lord means that you have endless piles of money lying around… regrettably, this is untrue. In fact, people who live in castles are often in very difficult situations because these things are monstrously expensive.
Taking Dunsany as an example: a 12th-century stone castle with four stories containing everything from a library and grand dining hall to military memorabilia would presumably be sheer murder in upkeep.
– Although castles are lovely to look at from the outside, actually living in one is terribly uncomfortable. They’re cold and require constant work. There’s a lot of cleaning and other necessities, and everybody overcharges you all the time. Not to mention electricity… you know, my bills are probably up to seven or eight times higher than the average electric bill. Living in a castle doesn’t necessarily mean you make more money.
What about your farmlands?
– The farm brings in some revenue, but I probably make very little once all the employees have been paid. And nobody is getting rich making independent films with an avantgarde style and heavy metal thrown in. But the truth of the matter is that some things are worth more than money. Besides, it’s the struggle that defines you. At first, life was very difficult – especially for my mother. And then came the hay crisis.
Poor weather conditions during the summer of 2012, coupled with a prolonged cold snap in the spring of 2013, resulted in a near-catastrophic fodder crisis in Ireland. Despite the large amounts of hay and other feed being imported from Northern Ireland, the UK, and France, an estimated 23,000 livestock had to be slaughtered early or face starvation.
– I have roughly 150 acres of grasslands around my castle. Some crazy farmer pulled up and tried to engage me in conversation. He offered to pay us 35,000 euros if I’d let him harvest all the grass in Dunsany. Honestly, our situation was so grim that I had to give this some proper thought. My mum and I had a tenant who wasn’t paying us, and we were in dire straits financially. We had bills we couldn’t pay. We sat in the cold kitchen, and I told her: ‘No, we can’t do it.’ And she looked at me with desperate eyes; ‘But we have so little money. How are we going to pay for this?’ And I responded, ‘The moment we cut that grass, we’ve abandoned the project. And compromise is precisely what this place is not built on. We’ve always maintained full tunnel vision – unflinching, never looking away. If we stop now, we’ve just wasted our time.’
How did that go down?
– She tried to argue with me for a little longer but finally relented. ‘You know what? Okay, you made the decision. I agree; I’ll back you.’ But it was hard to say that to an elderly woman who couldn’t even pay her phone bill. And she said, ‘Well, if we can’t afford the lights, we’ll just have to sit here in the dark.’ The truth is that I’m willing to go further for what I believe in than the average person, and that’s what I mean when I say we’re a bit like a cult. That’s also why, historically, the estate has done as well as it has.
Have you been forced to make any concessions since?
– None. My focus is uncompromising, and it is fixed on the environment, the world I live in, and my people. And whether they hate or respect me for what I’m doing… this has never been about them; it’s about those who haven’t been born yet. And future generations might have a better opportunity at life because of some of the things we do today. At least I’d like to believe that.
There is a term for what Randal is doing: rewilding. It’s a conservational approach which seeks to let nature repair itself without human meddling. Or ‘enabling natural processes to shape land and sea, repair damaged ecosystems and restore degraded landscapes’, to quote The European Rewilding Network.
– My project differs from many others in that we lack commercial motivation. I make no revenue from tourism, nor do I want to. I have nothing to sell. I’ve even turned down money on many occasions. It’s not that I love being poor so much, but the thing is that money tends to change one’s focus. The power of being completely independent means that I have no vested interest in the outcome of scientific studies. Some of the other rewilding projects have animals, and they tell me there is research indicating that keeping cattle or horses or whatever is ‘good for the land’. But then they’re offering commercial pony rides or selling gourmet beef; they need it to pay their bills. And that’s what makes Dunsany a unique specimen in terms of rewilding.
Randal’s initiative was not off to a spectacular start; rather, it went the way many of his detractors predicted. The first year, the once-treasured grass-rich beef-fattening land morphed into a botanical hellscape of foul-smelling noxious weeds known as ragwort, or stinking willie.
– I refused to use chemicals, so the ragwort had to be pulled by hand. Now, I have 150 acres of grassland just around my house, and you can easily find thirty or so of them growing in one square metre. Ragwort has deep roots and is hard to pull, so you must be fairly strong. Your hands wear out fast, let me tell you. I went so far as to hire a man for an entire summer just to pull ragwort. Polish guy, lovely fellow… but he believed the earth is flat and that the moon is a lamp. It’s these kinds of colourful individuals that rewilding brings into my life.
More drastic measures were required to clear the weeds that had overgrown monuments and stonework on the property. One should have been a fly on the wall when Randal announced to the Dunsany workforce that they were about to tackle the worst ragwort and thistle infestation in all of Ireland with a homemade biodegradable concoction.
– I told them, ‘Right, we’re no longer using pesticides. You will use vinegar.’ I mean, I had one guy nearly drop his cup of tea. ‘Vinegar? You do know we’re not talking about salted chips here?’ Because in Ireland, people sometimes put vinegar on their French fries. ‘Where would we even get it?’ So, he had to drive down to the local fish and chip shop to ask where they bought theirs.
Restaurants purchase entire vats of vinegar, which is then diluted and put in little containers.
– So, he travelled to the next county to buy industrial-grade vinegar from some dodgy guy behind a strange building site. And all the while, he didn’t think for a second it was actually going to work. Our first few attempts proved him right because we tried it on wet grass, where it’s ineffective. But finally, we got both the mixture and the timing right, and that did the trick. He was like, ‘Hm. Alright, fair enough.’
It’s almost like a film cliché, with the young vegan lordling who’s lived in a city all his life telling seasoned professionals how they should tend to the land. If these men were employed in a horticultural capacity, I’m assuming they had extensive backgrounds in managing vegetation.
– Um, yeah – the guy I mentioned is as old-school Irish as you can get. He’s worked on farms all his life. These guys are so used to chemicals that they don’t even bother wearing gloves or masks when spraying the pesticides. They practically wipe their faces with it. Imagine that kind of Irishman suddenly being told we were now ‘rewilding’. None of them even knew what the hell that meant. Nor did they understand it. They thought I’d gone mad because all they could see were the weeds.
I wouldn’t be shocked if neighbouring farmers uttered a smug comment or two during the peak of the Plunkett ragwort inferno. If not directly to him, then at least among themselves.
– Oh, everyone had an opinion – and they all wanted to share theirs with me. ‘You should get some sheep.’ ‘The grass must be cut every two years, or it’ll go out of control.’ ‘It needs to be rolled.’ ‘What you ought to do is buy some chemicals.’ I heard it all; I listened politely, smiled, and went, ‘Thank you. I’ll consider that.’ As for feedback: I was called ‘stupid moron’ with some regularity. I also got named Randal the Vandal of His Land, because both my great-grandfather and grandfather were some of Ireland’s biggest farmers. And in the days of Horace Plunkett, Dunsany became the most sophisticated farm in the country.
Sir Horace Plunkett was the younger brother of John Plunkett, the 17th Baron of Dunsany. He is known for many things, but perhaps foremost as an agrarian reformer and founder of The Irish Agricultural Organisation Society.
– So, these guys could barely fathom that some dickhead, heavy metal-listening rich boy was going to lay complete waste to prime land by simply abandoning it – and this at a time when farming was such a lucrative venture. I also received a few even less-savoury remarks, commonly featuring the C-word or calling me ‘British’. But ‘moron’ was the most frequent. I was starting to think I’d go down in history as Randal Plunkett, the 21st Moron of Dunsany. But you know what? I’ve got a big, thick skull. I was able to ignore them… because I knew the truth! Not really, I still don’t know the truth, but I did have a spider-sense of sorts. A feeling. After that first year, I gave up entirely on controlling the weeds and let nature take its course.
The second year was even worse. The third reached disastrous levels. At this point, Randal risked being fined by the local council; under the 1936 Noxious Weeds Act, landowners in Ireland are bound by law to actively prevent the spread of invasive plants. But come the fourth year, it wasn’t quite as bad. By the fifth, the weeds were almost gone. And from year six and onwards, they disappeared entirely except for a few problem areas.
– There are two locations which are still not entirely clear. Ironically, one is a former tillage field where they sprayed a lot of insect repellent and anti-fungicides. The other used to be an animal pen; there is this one spot with loads of thistles, and that’s precisely where the sheep were given their injections. So, over the years, there must have been a build-up of antibiotics in the soil.
Randal has since formulated a theory about weeds. He believes they are a reaction to the soil being doused in chemicals and drained of minerals – that they absorb the heavy metals and other pollutants from the earth.
– It’s a lot like acne. When you have a poor diet, your skin gets red and spotty. And that’s what happens to the soil. Grass plantations need to grow. They need to be eaten and then returned to the earth. We must have a complete circle of life. You can’t always be taking and never leave anything behind; constantly adding one set of chemicals and taking out another. Everything is a balance of compounds and nutrients, so what eventually happens is an offset of that delicate equilibrium, which necessitates a counterbalancing. You’re into weightlifting, right? Hit the bench every day but never do your back: what will happen?
Without stability muscles, one would be prone to shoulder injuries. Of course, the same applies to focusing on the upper body and constantly skipping leg day.
– Whatever you push to the front has to be compensated by the back. Otherwise, you’re going to have problems somewhere in the chain. And that was my exact reasoning: that these weeds were a reaction. Nothing in nature is uniform. Yes, you have invasive plants that’ll take over – but in any natural environment, there will always be corrective measures. You’ll have certain kinds of trees mixed in with other trees. The wilderness grows in unison, as do we. If things don’t fit, problems will arise. And that’s what happens when the chain breaks: it’s a symptom that lets us know something is amiss.
As such, Randal theorises that – similar to how acne is a superficial indication of an imbalanced diet – the first thing one notices with depleted or contaminated soil are all the plants people despise the most, such as ragwort and thistle.
– The weeds are merely a response to land that’s been compressed and poisoned. Their roots break up the soil, and their flowers allow for pollination. I believe they absorb the excessive chemicals and nutrients in the land. Over time, as those excesses begin to reduce, you’ll see something else coming up – and that’s what happened here. We now have many different types of grass growing on the front lawn. We have wildflowers, ferns, and clovers. There are no constants; the environment is always changing. Anything that remains stagnant is going to go bad, including water. And that’s the thing: the plants are just one part of the rebalancing act.
Did your workers eventually come around?
– They might not do it at home, but as time passed, they could see its beautiful sides. It was hilarious to witness because they simply could not believe their eyes – that the weeds were vanishing right before them. Then they started noticing all the animals. One of my guys said, ‘You know what, Randal, when you started talking about this, I didn’t believe a word. But actually: respect. We now have naturally occurring plants at Dunsany I’ve never seen in my life, and there are animals here I haven’t seen since I was a boy.’ And that’s how I conquered the old geezers of Dunsany.
Do you think plants possess some form of what we traditionally regard as sentience?
– I don’t necessarily feel that they have our version of sentience, but there are definitely reactions. And I’m not entirely sure those reactions finish with death. Take trees: their existence has many chapters, of which death is just one. That’s why we don’t ever knock ‘em down. Dead trees become symbiotes to other lives. Just as they in life are home to many different species, their death provides a habitat. We see life above ground, but we don’t always look below. And I think that’s a very short-sighted human view. We perceive our surroundings only through a limited scope. Our perceptible idea of the nature of what we call ‘life’ isn’t applicable to trees. It takes something beyond our understanding of life to comprehend what they do. There is a lot of mystery in the plant kingdom.
In 2017, researchers at Aarhus University in Denmark discovered that trees have a pulse; it’s just so slow that no one noticed before. So, just like the human heart expands and contracts to send blood coursing through our veins – a tree trunk does the same, pumping water from roots to crown. In addition, the same research team demonstrated how certain trees such as birch conserve energy by entering a nocturnal state similar to mammalian sleep.
– It’s narrow-minded to regard trees as objects; they are not. Plants are not objects: they communicate. Even the way trees insulate each other… for instance, the hawthorn protects slower-growing trees. It’s hardy and spiky and thrives in the shade. It creates a flower, attracting pollinators. It produces a source of food, which draws in animals. Now, deer and hares – to take two examples – can damage oaks, which grow extremely slowly. The oak is the most glorious of trees but it’s also the one with the highest failure rate. The way an oak survives in a forest is between trees. The hawthorn wraps itself around the oak and protects it from predators.
Why would the hawthorn do that?
– This is not known. According to our traditional understanding, it should try to out-compete the oak which, over time, will oversize the hawthorn. So, ultimately, it sacrifices itself for the life of the oak or ash or birch. The lone tree is a human invention; these park-like arrangements don’t occur naturally. Trees feed off each other, and to do that, there must be a mutual understanding. And if such an understanding exists, it’s not too far off to suggest they can communicate. This reasoning goes back to the philosophical aspects because straight scientific knowledge has never been where I focused.
There is actually scientific research to back that up. As it turns out, forests are entwined in a sort of hive mind: linked through a network of fungi connected to the roots. Previously assumed to compete for sunlight, different species of trees have been shown to share their resources. The same subterranean grid warns surrounding trees if bark-eating bugs have been detected in the vicinity. Notably, this is a collaboration across organisms as fungi are not part of the plant kingdom; DNA-wise, they are closer to humans than any form of vegetation.
– The interesting thing with fungi is if you look at the American Indian culture, they often use psychotropic mushrooms as a means of opening the mind. And that’s something I noticed after working with them. Magic mushrooms actually cured me, because I used to have a bit of manic depression. Many of the concepts we’ve discussed this evening derive from understandings gained during altered states of consciousness. Now, without sounding like a bit of a cliché – it’s not so much that they changed me. Rather, the experiences allowed me to think outside the perceptions of my reality.
Can you elaborate on that?
– I think it helped a lot with my understanding of, shall we say, the forces which govern our world. There are artificial structures we have become so accustomed to that we no longer see them – but they are very much formulated to keep us in line. Um, I’m not saying they are imposed on us in some weird lizard-people way but rather as perceptions of a mindset. And I believe things like magic mushrooms can grant us temporary respite from limitations, during which we become far more sensitive to the world around us. Now, not all such experiences are pleasant. I mean, let’s be honest; there’s a lot of fear involved. There are all kinds of profound sensations… nothing raw is merely good or bad. It just is.
After being almost completely halted in the wake of the wild Timothy Leary-era of the 60s, studies into psychedelic compounds for medicinal use against depression, PTSD, and the like have resumed in recent years. As a result, psilocybin – the active ingredient in psychotropic mushrooms – has now been decriminalised in several states in the US.
– They provide a wake-up call: an electrical pulse to the part of our brain that remembers being forest people. And I think that has a lot to do with it. I strongly believe that everybody should experience something like this. Regrouping your mind is important because it’s so easy to fall into the trap of the rat race. But you see, structures creep up on you. Even when you think you’re being open and unbound, they keep building… until you wake up one morning and find yourself completely tied in knots. And it’s in these moments such unadulterated rawness is required. There are many ways to accomplish this, but I think mushrooms and the like are a gentle nudge in the right direction. I’ve had a lot of good experiences with those things, and being exposed to them solidified my philosophical ideas.