Travel Editor Neil Sowerby completes his Irish jaunt with a cosseted stay in a fairytale mansion, an intrusion on a nightmare setting and somewhere in between a pub lost in time...
THIS is a tale of two great beauties. One a well-formed Regency belle, given a gorgeous makeover and attracting well-heeled globetrotters; the other a tormented Gothic wreck, existing in the shadows and luring mainly film crews.
The first building is Ballyfin Demesne, among the most amazing places I have ever stayed in; the second, the equally amazing Charleville Forest Castle, near Tullamore. Please visit, but you wouldn’t find rest in its haunted turrets, believe me. The pair are under 20 miles apart and both celebrate an Ireland apart from all that commercialised Craic and the Celtic Tiger crash.
Spooky Charleville later. We went on a whim; had to sidle our way in, almost. But we were invited to Ballyfin. It’s an upmarket hotel with 13 bedrooms and two suites, yet it feels like you are the weekend guest of an eccentric chatelaine with, for once, the taste to match the money.
The Demesne’s 600 acres of parkland are snuggled away in Laois, a county unencumbered with spectacular scenery. Even the much-heralded Slieve Bloom Mountains are more like desultory foothills compared with the craggy wonders out to the West. The bright lights of Kilkenny, Waterford and eventually Cork city are down the N7 and few tourists stop en route. We did, on our way to Ballyfin, to visit an old friend – Morrissey’s in Abbeyleix.
This pub was run by the late Paddy Mulhall for decades until he sold it in 2004. The interior has barely changed since we last visited 20 years ago. On that occasion a real live peacock flounced in through the door to the glee of our infant daughters.
It can’t have been that much different when young Paddy arrived in 1934 as an apprentice to his uncles, the eponymous Morrisseys, whose family first ran it as a grocery store in 1775. Today it’s still the same mad melange of shop paraphernalia – from sweet jars to a bacon slicer – alongside every pre-digital example of Guinness advertising ever created. Theme park, national treasure Ireland, yes, but when it’s this authentic (and serving stout) I don’t mind.
We slid into an oaken booth by a primitive stove and sipped the black stuff contemplatively, wheezing occasionally as the peat smoke proved invasive.
The fires were lit, too, in the grand salons of Ballyfin for our arrival. Up the immense drive, past the pewter ripples of the Demesne’s great man-made lake – to be greeted by the house staff, Downton Abbey style, beneath its Ionic pillared portico.
Not much over a decade ago, any arrival would have been hardly as impressive. The 1820 Regency mansion, Ireland’s finest, was in a sorry state. The ancestral Cootes abandoned it for London just before the Great War and the Easter Rising, cannily installing an IRA sympathiser as caretaker to ensure it didn’t go up in flames like so many great houses of the Ascendancy.
Later it was sold and operated as a school run by the Patrician Brothers, a Roman Catholic teaching order, who didn’t have the resources to maintain the fabric. Fred and Kay Krehbiel, a Chicago couple with strong Irish connections, did. The result of a decade’s worth of restoration and countless millions lavished is spectacular.
Take the Gold Drawing Room, where the ladies used to retire after dinner. Wet rot had caused part of the ceiling to cave in. Today the elaborate stucco work and gilt has been restored. The central Rotunda’s intricate marquetry floors were saved by one of the house staff. As they fell apart, she amazingly bagged them away for safety. Now they are back in place.
It’s hard, too, to believe it’s the same Conservatory that in the “before” pictures was a jungle of choking vegetation and rusted arches. It’s reached by a “secret door” behind a bookcase in the 80ft library, which occupies the entire south front of the house. The export restorers, aided by the Irish Georgian Society, have done a wonderful job on Ballyfin.
There’s a water cascade feature which can be viewed from the Conservatory and the dining room. It didn’t exist before the refurbishment. You wouldn’t credit that as it tumbles down from a Grecian Temple. It seems as much a part of the rolling estate as the stone Grotto (in the 18th Century a Hermit was hired to inhabit) or the hilltop Tower Folly (a 19th century project to provide work during the Famine).
You can visit all these by riding round the estate in a golf buggy. This being Ireland and with American ownership you might expect a 9-hole golf course here, but this is a purist restoration project. The estate is kept as it was in previous centuries.
Antique furniture, porcelain and chandeliers may not all be original but they are period perfect. Comfort is a priority for the deep sofas dotting the public rooms. Plumbing is modern; an indoor swimming pool and spa with organic seaweed treatments occupies the modern art-filled former schoolhouse.
In contrast, many of the ancestral paintings that hang above the spectacular cantilevered staircase in the main house have been bought from the last scion of the Cootes.
We were given the Lady Caroline Coote Room, on the first floor, overlooking the lake. What was her boudoir has been reborn as an elegant Empire style bedroom, whose dazzling blue wallpaper transforms it into a seemingly tent-like enclosure. A four-poster, gorgeous textiles and rococo stucco effects on the ceiling all enhanced the “gone to heaven” feeling.
So too did dinner, which is included as part of the obligatory all-in package (see Fact File). The chef, Ryan Murphy, a New York expat and former exec head chef at Salford’s Lowry Hotel, has a precise touch in the kitchen. A simple lunch of soup, chicken and pannacotta was exquisite, but the real occasion here is in the evening. Pre-dinner drinks, with lavish top-ups of complimentary champagne beneath twinkling chandeliers, are served from 7.30pm.
The temptation is to continue with the bubbly can continue throughout the dinner. I’d recommend exploring the wine cellar – the sommelier’s happy to show you around – and then one of its cannily selected bottles, perhaps from their selection from 14 French vineyards set up by 18th Century Irish exiles – known as “The Wild Geese”.
Ballyfin is a wonderful place to stay, though its price makes it very much a special occasion place. Few places with such aspirations, though, carry it off with such a smile and sense of occasion.
Some 20 miles to the north of Ballyfin, on the outskirts of Tullamore, lies a very different house, again under loving stewardship but without the resources. Lost in its primordial oak woods, Charleville Forest House was a job to find. Then at the end of a pitted track, through a sinister gateway, the great grey pile rears up at you – a magnet for ghost hunters and film crews.
The druids were here first, then the monks, then the O’Molloy clan. It was an Elizabethan plantation, fought over bloodily. Eventually in the early 19th century, a new Earl, Charles William Bury, built himself his dream house on the 5,000 acre estate. Gothic with a capital G. His descendants, often living beyond their means, added flourishes when they could to its turreted grandeur (William Morris designed the dining room ceiling). There was always a debauched swagger about the place; Lord Byron held many parties here.
But from 1912 it was abandoned; by 1968 the roof had been removed. Then an American (again), Bridget Vance bought it and the Charleville Trust, a volunteer restoration project was formed. We were lucky on our arrival to bump into Trust co-ordinator Dudley Stewart. He ushered us through the teeming chaos of a crew transforming it into the French King’s Palace for a movie about Mary Queen Of Scots. Location income is vital. Recent films shot there include Becoming Jane and Northanger Abbey and it has featured in countless Most Haunted investigations.
We can understand all the spooky stuff as Dudley leads us to the top of the winding tower stairs and points to a spot where the Castle’s most famous ghost, little Harriet plunged to her doom. She’d been sent upstairs to wash her hands and, on her way back, chose to slide down the balustrade but lost her balance. Some have seen a little girl shimmering in her blue chiffon dress, many others felt a rush of chill air as her spectre passes.
Have you encountered Harriet, Dudley? He coughs and points out to us some original stained glass.
If you enjoyed this read about Neil’s visits to Castle Leslie
Staying at Ballyfin:
From May through to September (inclusive), €600 is the rate, per night, for the single room while the starting rate, per night, for a double is €975 (these rates apply right across the week)
During October, November and December 2013 the all-inclusive bedroom rate, per night, is €475 for a single (just one room of this type) and then starts at €800 for a double (Sunday-Thursday) while on Fridays and Saturdays the corresponding rates are €580 and €915, respectively.
These nightly room rates are based on double occupancy (other than for the one single room) and are inclusive of Irish breakfast, lunch on arrival day, tea, coffee & homemade cookies & cake, a pre-dinner drinks reception, dinner, use of most on-site recreational facilities (equipment supplied) VAT and gratuities.
Demesne facilities offered include biking, boating and canoeing on the lake, coarse fishing, tennis, croquet, lawn bowls, hurling, Gaelic football, American football, badminton, picnics and horticultural demonstrations. Archery, clay-pigeon shooting, falconry and horse-riding can also be arranged. Inside the house can be arranged wine tasting, whiskey tasting, cookery demonstrations, history tour, traditional & classical music, Irish folklore story-telling. Our history tour was given by one of the staff, who used to be a pupil at the Patrician Brothers’ school.
To contact Ballyfin, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 00 353 (0)5787 55866. For more details visit www.ballyfin.com.
To find out more about Charleville Forest Castle and check visiting hours and tickets: www.charlevillecastle.com.
Fir more information about holidays and visiting Ireland see www.Ireland.com or call 0800 039 7000.
The Gathering Ireland 2013 is a showcase celebrating the best of the country’s culture, sport, music and food with a host of festival, gatherings and parties taking place throughout the year. To find out more visit http://www.thegatheringireland.com
Neil Sowerby flew from Manchester to Dublin with Ryanair. www.ryanair.com.
and chose car hire from Hertz http://www.hertz.co.uk. It takes under an hour and a half to drive from Dublin Airport.
Manchester Airport parking:
Neil Sowerby left his car park in T1 Long Stay. Here are all the options:
VIP Valet – drop and collect your car right next to the terminal and get fast tracked through security. Your car is parked on site.
Meet and Greet – drop your car off with staff next to the terminal and collect on your return. Your car is parked on site.
Multi-storey car park at T1, 2 and 3 – ultra-convenient multi-storey car parking right next to the terminal. Park and walk under cover to reach the terminal.
Long stay car park at T1, 2 and 3 – ground surface car park offering free, regular 24 hour bus transfers direct to the terminal.
Shuttle Park – secure parking at great rates for cost-conscious travellers. Free, regular 24 hour bus transfers direct to the terminal.
JetParks – low-cost parking option run by Manchester Airport, fully manned 24/7, parking from £2.99 per day. Visit this link
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