By Rose Shepherd
If you fancy a restful, convivial, self-indulgent or sporty and restorative country-house weekend, look to Ireland for the perfect place for you. Many of Ireland’s historic ‘big houses’ – survivors of a bygone age and of the vanished way of life so emotively evoked by Elizabeth Bowen in her novel The Last September – welcome paying guests. Most of these open their doors from April until late October, so now is the time to book a spring, summer or autumn break. Some of these grand mansions are ancestral homes in long-time ownership; some have been taken on by enterprising hosts. All have hospitality in their DNA. Here are some of our favourites.
The archetype of its kind and the stuff of legend is Georgian Ballymaloe House in Shanagarry, Co. Cork, which, from modest beginnings, has built into a veritable brand. The Ballymaloe story began in 1964, when farmer’s wife and mother of four Myrtle Allen opened The Yeats Room restaurant in the family dining room, hung a notice on the gate, and became an unwitting pioneer of farm-to-fork dining. In its 60th year as a business, the wisteria-draped Georgian house thrives as a hotel and restaurant, with a cookery school, café/kitchen shop, tennis court, pool and five-hole golf course. It is a dream destination, an experience, and is known the world over.
No less an experience, though a very different one, the Castle Leslie Estate in Glaslough, Co. Monaghan, is surely one of Ireland’s most characterful hotels. Set in 1,000 acres of parkland, with three lakes and an equestrian centre, this Scottish-Baronial-style Victorian pile is filled with Grand Tour treasures, portraits, trophies and memorabilia. The family trace their recorded history back to the 1060s, when one Bartholomew Leslie rescued Margaret, future Queen of Scotland, galloping away with her on the back of his horse, after which, it seems, the pace only hotted up. Castle Heritage Rooms, resplendent with antiques, all have a story attached – of Spitfire pilot, swordsman, sculptor, spy. Horse-riding, carriage-driving, fishing and falconry are all on offer. You can picnic on the estate, curl up by a blazing fire, dine in Snaffles Restaurant or Conor’s Bar. Breakfast, as you’d guess, like Leslie family lore, is unstinted, and is served until 11am.
There is great fun to be had, too, at Roundwood House, Mountrath, Co. Laois, a Palladian villa in native woodland, home to Hannah and Paddy Flynn and their two daughters. Hannah’s parents, Frank and Rosemary Kennan, bought the house in 1983 to rescue it from demolition, and ran it as a small hotel. It was Frank who established the extraordinary library in the old coach house, with some 2,000 volumes devoted to the progress of civilisation. Filled with antiques, but in no way stuffy, a little scuffed around the edges, Roundwood House has a happy, lived-in feel. Paddy, with chef Ted, cooks a nightly four-course menu of local produce, and the pair of them will serenade diners at the end of the meal. Here, too, breakfast is served until 11am, with eggs from the resident hens and ducks.
If 11am is too early for you, breakfast can be taken ‘any time before noon’ at dog-friendly, Italianate Ballyvolane House, Castlelyons, Co. Cork, where third-generation owners and experienced hoteliers Justin and Jenny Green preside over a veritable house party. You can spend your day fishing or wild swimming in the lakes, playing croquet or table tennis, following jogging trails, or help to feed the pigs, donkeys, ducks, hens and bantams. At night guests mingle over cocktails and tipples before a communal dinner cooked by the house chef, with abundant home-grown and foraged produce.
Susan Kellett and her son DJ, heirs to the family seat, are your hosts at Enniscoe House in Castlehill, Co. Mayo, which stands in wooded grounds on Lough Conn, against the dramatic backdrop of solitary Mount Nephin. Interiors are filled with antique pieces, portraits and shooting trophies. The drawing room is a sea of comfy sofas around an open fire, with the original Adam fireplace, faded from blue to a shade of mushroom. At night, guests chat over aperitifs before sitting down to a dinner cooked by Susan with produce from the walled organic garden.
Over the border, at classically proportioned, Georgian Newforge House, Magheralin, Co. Armagh, sixth-generation owners Louise and John Mathers are dedicated and generous hosts. Standing in extensive mature gardens on the edge of a small village, the house has six spacious bedrooms, named after former matriarchs and mixing good antiques with modern comforts. An inventive and enthusiastic chef, John cooks a set-price, four-course, seasonal dinner, served at 8pm, at separate tables. Fruit is from the orchard, eggs from the hens, while breakfast brings an award-winning Ulster Fry. Despite the peaceful location, the MI is just two miles away, with easy connections to Belfast International. Your dream Irish country-house getaway could be closer than you think.