Subsequent generations of Cootes were more congenial. In the grand entrance hall is a splendid Roman floor mosaic brought back from a Grand Tour taken by the ninth baronet and his wife, Lady Caroline, a niece of the Earl and Countess of Meath. (No relation, apparently, to the disreputable Countess of Westmeath. However, another of Lady Caroline’s uncles was “Buck” Whaley, a notorious gambler, wastrel, and anti-Catholic zealot.)
During my visit in January, afternoon tea—a sumptuous affair with fruitcake and raspberry jam—was served in the library, an 80-foot-long room with a fireplace at either end. A bow window in the center offered a glorious view of a grand Italian marble fountain, lined up with the center of the window. When the Krehbiels first saw it, the fountain was two feet off center. “Someone said, ‘You shouldn’t move it. It’s so wonderfully Irish,’ ” Reynolds told me. “But Fred is Swiss,” he added drily.
To the left of a fireplace, a hidden door behind a bookcase swings open to reveal a spectacular curvilinear glass-and-steel conservatory with Roman statuary, wicker furniture, and potted palms. Neglected by the monks, the frame was severely corroded and had to be dismantled and shipped, piece by piece, to England for restoration. Meryl Long, a recent visitor, remembers her father, Richard Guinness, describing his astonishment at finding bananas growing in the conservatory in the early 1920’s—an almost inconceivable luxury in Ireland at the time.
Alas, Reynolds has no plans to revive the cultivation of bananas. But he has planted a kitchen garden to produce fresh vegetables. And he has introduced free-range chickens to supply eggs. The hotel’s chef, Fred Cordonnier, was previously in charge of Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud at the Merrion hotel, Dublin’s only Michelin two-starred restaurant; at Ballyfin he will apply his French technique to the local bounty, whether a porcini risotto with slices of Jerusalem artichoke or tender lamb from the Slieve Bloom mountains. “They graze on heather and wildflowers,” says Cordonnier, explaining that this gives the meat its delectable flavor.
And then there are the grounds. Ballyfin sits on 600 acres, with a vast lake in front of the house and a network of diverting walkways to a rockery with ferns, all modeled on the style of Lancelot “Capability” Brown. Outdoor activities include boating and fishing on the lake; tennis; bowling; croquet; and bicycling on more than six miles of paths. For those who wish to venture beyond the property’s 4 1/2-mile stone-walled perimeter, there is horse trekking in the Slieve Blooms, as well as outings to Birr Castle, with its famous arboretum and gardens, and the Lutyens gardens at Heywood, in Ballinakill. The Heritage golf course, designed by Seve Ballesteros, is 20 minutes away.
Will Krehbiel’s spectacular gamble pay off? With Ireland’s economy still in disarray, no doubt Ballyfin will have to look abroad for much of its clientele. That said, the hotel’s central location—halfway between Dublin and Shannon—makes it an ideal stopping point for travelers bound from the capital to the southwest coast.
“We’re certainly not going to get a return on our investment,” Krehbiel says, though he betrays not a hint of regret.
Ballyfin, Co. Laois; 353-57/875-5866; ballyfin.com; doubles from $1,330, including all meals.