Ireland's Country House Hotels
Published: May 2009
By Christopher Petkanas
When it comes to Ireland's country-house hotels, everything old is old again, as Christopher Petkanas is delighted to report.
The big news in Ireland today is hotels that reject the past and embrace the modern, modish—and mediocre. I think it was the fifth time I banged my shin on some overdesigned, underthought bed that turned me against the "hot new crop of hip Irish hotels," as they are creatively marketed. Though crazy/sexy/cool was what I had come to Ireland in search of, with all due respect to Bono, I had to recognize that it is not where the country excels.
Changing gears allowed my black-and-blues to fade to gray and me to discover what Ireland does best: tradition, as these joyously entrenched places—country houses in County Cork and on the Atlantic, a Ring of Kerry cottage, and a town house in the heart of Elizabeth Bowen country —attest. All are highly personalized, one-of-a-kind properties offering great value and an authentic Irish experience, including armfuls of hospitality. The smart money's on Ireland as you've always loved it.
Ballyvolane House, County Cork
If you spend enough time trying to picture a place, even if you are not sure that the place exists, you eventually progress from a broad fuzzy sketch to an almost frighteningly explicit portrait. I know, because for more than two decades I patiently built, in my head, room by room, the Irish country-house hotel I vaguely hoped to one day stay in.
As the years went by and the house filled up with furniture and memories, and the furniture collected ring marks, I was able to conjure, with the mere flick of a mental switch, the most insanely precise details. These included the books on the drawing-room bookshelves, the front-hall flowers, and the fish supplied to the lakes. Yes, my imagined hotel had its own lakes, and why not?My dreamscape was Ireland, wasn't it?
If you have gotten this far without turning the page or going to the refrigerator for some ice cream, I am sure you can guess where this is going: to paraphrase composer Richard Rodgers's wife, Dorothy, one of the great, early domestic-arts celebrators, Ballyvolane House is the hotel in my head, rendered in bricks and mortar. Within easy reach of capacious armchairs that might be considered late for their appointment with the upholsterer (needlepoint cushions ease the hollows), there are enough Maeve Binchy titles to take you through to Saint Patrick's Day, 2008. Set out on a Blüthner baby grand, the flowers are an eccentric mingling of cloth (cloth!) and dried that only a nation of true flower connoisseurs could get away with. Rolling lawns tumble down to two lakes stocked with rainbow trout and surrounded by weeping ash trees, sycamores, cedars, and Scotch pines. Given another 10 years I might have also envisioned the laburnum arbor, the fantail doves, the bluebell walk in May, the walled kitchen garden lush with peas, loganberries, and espaliered trees bearing prized old varieties of Irish apples. Such is the house-party atmosphere that guests think nothing of pitching in and helping shell those peas...in their pajamas.
Built in 1728 in the classic Georgian style, with three stories and an elegant rectangular vestibule centered on a seven-bay façade, Ballyvolane is among the best-preserved 18th-century estate houses in northern Cork. Twenty-six miles northeast of Cork City, it was commissioned by Sir Richard Pyne, Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, using stone from a medieval structure on the grounds, only to be given an Italianate makeover in 1847. A descendant of the judge succumbed then to the demands of Victorian fashion by shaving off the top level and reroofing the place, adding corner pilasters, bold stringcoursing, oak-leaf brackets under the eaves, and a west wing.
The "improvements" have been judged an aesthetic affront since at least 1953. That year, Cyril Hall Green acquired Ballyvolane from Betty Pyne on his return to Ireland from Malaya, where he managed rubber plantations. (Four generations of Greens live on the property today.) Cyril's 36-year-old grandson, Justin, who runs the six-room hotel with his wife, Jenny, harbors an indignation over the alterations that he could only have learned from Grandfather and that is a little difficult to understand for those Ballyvolane guests for whom home is a 325-square-foot broom closet in a vanilla-brick Manhattan high-rise.
"But it was so beautiful before!" Justin told me. Over tea he softened and admitted that Ballyvolane is still very beautiful and that the untutored in any case find it hard to see how the place could be yet more so.
Drawing on his experience as general manager of Babington House, one of the new wave of loosened-up English country-house hotels, Justin is gently taking Ballyvolane to the next level. He is planning on adding a cricket pitch (there's already a croquet lawn), a swimming pool, and a tennis court. Bathrooms will be fitted with antique cast-iron rolltop soaking tubs. One thing he knows enough never to change are the guest rooms, which have the loveliest, most peaceful garden views and are enduringly furnished with an organic assortment of wing chairs, alabaster lamps, sofas that are models of shabby chic, and Turkish rugs layered over fitted carpets. It's a look you've seen a thousand times in those wonderful books on Ireland's great country houses by Desmond Guinness, founder of the Irish Georgian Society.
Dinner is a communal affair, served at a double-pedestal table in mirror-finish mahogany, with saltcellars and pepper mills at each place setting and, at the center, a silver trophy cup and candelabra attended by crystal elephants and horses. The food is as true to place as the floppy sofas: Ballycotton Bay crab with grapefruit, roast pork loin with apples and buttered cabbage, rhubarb bread-and-butter pudding. The table talk is of fishing, fishing, and fishing. Many guests are impassioned anglers, there to cast their luck on the Blackwater, the finest salmon river in Ireland and one of the best in Europe. Like their pal the Duke of Devonshire, the Greens manage some of the river's most populous stretches, which by dessert you will be calling "beats."
Castlelyons; 353-25/36349; www.ballyvolanehouse.com; doubles from $168.
Iskeroon, County Kerry
You can "do" the Ring of Kerry a thousand times and Iskeroon will never reveal itself. Hidden 2 1/2 miles below the coastal road at the bottom of a steep, skinny lane bedeviled with switchbacks, the most adorable B&B in Ireland does not believe in signs, and why should it?Iskeroon's worldly (not sugary) brand of adorableness and utterly secluded seafront location ensure that it never wants for business. It's the kind of place where people have standing reservations for the same room for the same dates year after year. What that means for you if you've never stayed there is that your only hope of getting in is if...somebody dies.
An hour from Kenmare, in what connoisseurs of the Ring consider the prettiest pocket of the Iveragh Peninsula, Iskeroon was built in 1936 to accommodate overflow guests of the Earl of Dunraven and his American wife, Nancy, who summered in a 19th-century house a few hundred yards up the shore. (Yes, these are the same Dunravens whose family owned Adare Manor in County Limerick, before it was sold to Floridians from Palm Beach and became a luxury resort.) Nancy Yuille, as she was known before she married, put her famously green thumb to work at Iskeroon, where foxgloves and the rare Kerry lily grow wild and in abundance. The nearly four-acre subtropical garden of tree ferns, palms, hydrangeas, and arbutus she bravely planted among the husky limestone outcroppings terminates in a private jetty, where you can help push off David O'Hare as he heads out to trap lobsters in Derrynane Bay.
O'Hare, a television producer who takes a briskly laissez-faire approach to running Iskeroon with his equally unbothered wife, Geraldine, has known the property intimately for years, having spent all of his boyhood summers at his grandfather's place up the road. Today he turns out the scrambled eggs with smoked salmon, silky as charmeuse, and meltingly good banana-walnut bread that make breakfast and afternoon tea before a peat fire such long, lazy affairs. The O'Hares' management mode, by the way, is completely welcome. Their B&B is the opposite of those life-sucking ones where you feel as if you're always being spied on, and you worry that a few crumbs on the floor or mud on the mat might get you thrown out.
The house the earl built is a modest, low-slung, single-story cottage clad in stucco. The current color is a warm face-powder pink, which gives it a slightly Caribbean allure, set off rather daringly but winningly, I think, by navy trim. The blessedly un-twee interiors are done in what might be called the International Beach House Style, which is to say colorful, casual, comfy, and forgiving. The breakfast room, three guest rooms, and sitting room march along in single file on the seaward side of the cottage, with the result that they all have sensational water views. The Irish are exceptionally well traveled in their own country, and everyone I talked to who knew Iskeroon said it has the best views their land has to offer. (A fourth accommodation, an airy open-plan apartment for two with kitchenette in a renovated shed, is great for longer stays but does not face the bay.)
All guest rooms have dedicated baths. Beguilingly adorned with seashells, paper lanterns, and jagged-tiled mosaics, they're two paces across the hall that slices through the body of the house. Did the words across the hall just give you the shivers?Well, if you're the type of person whose modesty does not permit being seen in public in a bathrobe for even a second, then I'm afraid this B&B is not for you. Iskeroon is not luxurious, it's not perfect, and it's not meant to be. What it is is romantic, an elemental wind-tossed place that makes it easy to fall in love with nature, the sea, someone, yourself.
Caherdaniel; 353-66/947-5119; www.iskeroon.com; doubles from $173.
Moy House, County Clare
Irish country-house hotels do not all come in the same flavor. Those who find the Ballyvolane model a bit too intimate and lacking in infrastructure thank heaven for Moy House, which is run more like a traditional, nearly full-service hotel. Guest rooms are visited twice daily by housekeepers who know their business. Meals are served by earnest young waiters from the neighboring town, not, as elsewhere, by the poor overtaxed mistress of the house, who squeezes putting her children to bed between the savory and the pudding. And it is possible for two sets of guests to take tea in the drawing room without having to greet each other—and without seeming rude for not greeting each other.
After the stimulating but exhausting social obligations of Ballyvolane, and the toxically stultifying atmosphere of even the bar at the $500-a-night Park Hotel Kenmare in Kenmare, I have to say I was ready for Moy House, which exudes a light, professional air of detachment. I'm not saying detachment is what you want in every hotel everywhere all the time. But if that is what you're in the mood for, it can be a wonderful thing. As general manager Bernie Merry puts it: "At Moy House we don't ignore you—but we don't fuss over you, either."
While a lot of stately homes in Ireland overlook lakes or inlets, this one sits bang on the Atlantic in Lahinch, on a 15-acre expanse of open rippling pasture and mature woodland. (Forgetting your mac, wellies, and walking stick will not get you out of a long, damp trudge: there's a supply of them in the entrance hall.) Only 300 feet stands between the hotel and Liscannor Bay, which wraps north to the historic Lahinch Golf Links—the St. Andrews of Ireland—and the Cliffs of Moher. The Aran Islands are just over the promontory, with ferries shuttling day-trippers between Doolin on the mainland and Inis Mor and Inis Oirr. Moy House is also just 45 minutes from Shannon Airport, making it a perfect place for beginning or ending a trip. Oh, to wake up on the last day of vacation, not have to drive 150 miles, and not have to throw the car keys at the rental agent in a photo finish!
Built in the 18th century by a minor nobleman, Moy House may not be the loveliest house in County Clare from an architectural point of view, though you may find it impressive in a fort-like, defensive, Wuthering Heights sort of way. Six of the nine accommodations give directly onto the water and are the ones you want. Carrowgar has not one but two deep, cushioned window seats; beautifully worn original wide-plank floors; and a sumptuously curtained mahogany canopy bed. It will make you feel grand, if not like a grandee. The same cheerful ignorance of contemporary design extends to the drawing room, which is decorated with waffled chenille upholstery, a pair of dainty Waterford chandeliers, and orchids in footed brass cachepots. Sound grannyish?It's not. The effect is fresh and relevant. Moy House is not a museum piece.
The newly arrived Philipe Farineau presides with promise over a kitchen that is more ambitious than you might expect for an establishment this size. He offers a $61 four-course menu, featuring four well-judged choices for each course, including soup, even in summer, when guests start the day with porridge, vanilla cream, and berry compote and finish it with lobster bisque, or prawn consommé, or a nice old-fashioned cup of cream of celery, brightened with curry. Anyone who thinks all that hot food is crazy has never been to Ireland in July.
Lahinch; 353-65/708-2800; www.moyhouse.com; doubles from $309.
Creagh House, County Cork
This is one for lovers of distinguished houses with multiple literary pedigrees and triumphant restoration sagas. In Bowen's Court, the chronicle of her nearby family estate, the formidable Elizabeth Bowen quotes from her great-aunt Sarah's diary of 1876: "Miss Evans was married in Doneraile Church to Captain Anderson. There were six bridesmaids. The dejeuner was at Mrs. Creagh's. There were over 200 guests." A granddaughter of the man who built Creagh House married William Makepeace Thackeray and cited the place in her letters. And as Doneraile's parish priest, Canon Patrick Augustine Sheehan tended a garden that bordered Creagh and now belongs to it. Sheehan—famous for his tediously sermonic novels and improbable published correspondence with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.—called the garden his "grove of academe." Travelers who know what they're looking for can still detect an air of bookish devotion.
In acquiring Creagh as a home for themselves—and from the beginning earmarking three of the largest and finest bedrooms for paying guests—Laura O'Mahony and Michael O'Sullivan did more than save a literary landmark; they rescued an 1837 Regency building celebrated for having perhaps the largest, most elaborately embellished reception rooms of any town house in Ireland outside Dublin. The previous owners had been virtually living in one room. Does that say to you that the place was falling apart?It was. The walls wept with humidity. Hundreds of bird's nests clogged the chimneys. The plasterwork in the drawing and dining rooms—each measuring 20 by 30 feet —was crumbling.
Eight years after they moved in, Laura and Michael's diligent restoration of the plasterwork continues apace. Handmade custom molds are regularly commissioned to replace the dozens of intricate components that make up the cornice. "It's incremental and possibly endless," says Michael, co-chair of Hidden Ireland, a first-rate group of historic private houses that, like Creagh, offer lodgings. "Last year we did the baskets and griffon wings. This year we did the flowers that go in the baskets and the griffon feet." They all look as if they were piped on by a master pâtissier armed with a canvas sleeve, a palette of nozzles, and a million gallons of buttercream.
Happily for guests, no part of Creagh, which sits squarely on Doneraile's main street, is off-limits. It's all as much for you as it is for the hosts and their scampering, completely precocious three-year-old daughter, Alice. ("Now give me your hand, please," Alice gurgles, "and I'll show you the house.") Like the rest of the place, the entrance hall has the kind of reassuring familial feel that big-deal decorators can only dream of conjuring. It's stuffed with an irresistible jumble of mounted animal heads, embroidered bell pulls, beautiful old maps, and a constellation of giant gold-glass ornaments that must have gone up one Christmas and been deemed too pretty to ever be taken down. Trumpeting cherubs perch on pilasters flanking the front door, but don't try this at home—unless you have a house with Creagh's bones and bloodlines to pull it off.
Since, as Michael says, he was born without the benefit of a silver spoon ("I'm lower working class"), maybe there's hope for us all. He is erudite, gregarious, utterly natural, and loves a good joke. A visit to Creagh House is repaid many times: by a regulation supper of roast lamb and boiled vegetables with him and Laura in that awesome pastry of a dining room; by a night or week under their roof; and by the town of Doneraile itself. Thirty miles north of Cork, Doneraile, population 800, is on the slow road to gentrification, with antiques shops jostling claustrophobic pubs of nearly archaeological interest.
"Doneraile main street, wide, with colour-washed houses, starts uphill...from the Awbeg bridge," wrote Elizabeth Bowen. "The houses are backed by demesne trees; near the bridge stands the urbane Protestant church. In the great days of the Doneraile neighbourhood the line of gentlemen's carriages outside this church on Sundays used (they say) to be a mile long."
The carriages are gone, but you can book a room at Creagh House.
Main St., Doneraile; 353-22/24433; www.creaghhouse.ie; doubles from $181.
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