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Ireland's Country House Hotels

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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