The Irish Country House
The Irish countryside is littered with the ghosts of the Great Houses of the past. County Laois’s award winning Ballyfin is a gem that has been brought back to beautiful life.
Whether it was war, shifting politics, or a gentle decline into poverty, Ireland has its share of the ruins of once-great country houses. Some are now exquisitely atmospheric, as photographer Tarquin Blake shows in his Abandoned Ireland series of books and images. Once, on a walk with Blake in West Cork, we dived down an overgrown lane, and climbed through a hedge to discover the haunting and, quite possibly, haunted remains of what must once have been a truly grand building, now almost completely forgotten.
Other Great Houses have seen a better fate. In some cases, such as with Castle Leslie in County Monaghan, the original families have continued to love and care for them down through the generations. In others, new and visionary owners have brought them back to vibrant life and, if we’re really lucky, they have turned them into hotels so that, perhaps for just one night, and maybe for longer, we can enjoy them to the full.
Such was the case with the Merrion, when the four townhouses on Merrion Row were bought, lavished with painstaking care and architectural attention, and returned to the elegantly welcoming spaces we know today. Something similar happened with Ballyfin. Built in the 1820s, what is now Ireland’s finest country house hotel sits on lakefront land that had been settled since ancient times. It was once home to the O’Mores, the leaders of the “Seven Septs of Laois” – the county having been divided into seven ruling dynasties.
Later, the Pole family settled here, becoming the Wellesley-Poles when William Wellesley inherited the Pole estates at Ballyfin. In one of those lovely historical connections, William was elder brother to Arthur Wellesley, who was born in what is now the Merrion Hotel. Arthur would later go on to win glory as the Duke of Wellington at the battle of Waterloo… So in that sense, the Wellesley brothers make Ballyfin and the Merrion into sister spaces.
Today’s house at Ballyfin was built in the 1820s for Sir Charles Coote, whose family would go on to live there for one hundred years. The architects were the famed Sir Richard and William Morrison, and in the house’s heyday, a large team of servants catered for the family’s every whim and need. In her book, Life in the Country House in Georgian Ireland, Patricia McCarthy describes a world in which guests sized up one another’s drawing rooms, ate vast feasts, drank epic quantities of fine wines, and where men might resort to chamber pots secreted in the dining room panelling, rather than abandon the table.
Mrs Delaney, that great chronicler of life at the time, wrote that “you are not invited to dinner to any private gentleman of a thousand a year or less that does not give you seven dishes at one course, and Burgundy and Champagne.” Meanwhile, an innovation at Barbavilla in Co Westmeath had a trapdoor to the cellars, directly under the dining room. When a visitor ‘‘saw the good beer rise from under ground up to his nose, [he] cried out, good God did you Ever see the like!”
The Cootes and their guests would counterbalance any feasting by spending time walking, fishing, boating, horse riding and falconry, all of which are available as activities to guests at Ballyfin today. Ballyfin became a school around the time of Irish independence, but more recently underwent similar levels of lavish but sensitive restoration as the Merrion, opening as a hotel in 2011. It was necessary too, as one of the drawing room ceilings had collapsed, and dilapidation was creeping in from all sides.
The restoration of Ballyfin took nine years. Longer than it took to build the house in the first place. And once the plasterwork, inlays, gilding and stone were completed, antiques were sourced, including Irish mahogany, French chandeliers; plus a wonderful collection of Irish art to join the ancestral Coote portraits on the walls.
Regency houses were made for entertaining. Given the time it took to travel any distance – when horse power really meant horse power – visitors outside the cities would stay, often for extended periods, but the houses were also all about show. Ballyfin has State Rooms, a huge Saloon, and an eighty-food Library. And that’s before you get to the Gold Drawing Room, or the delicious conservatory. Now guests at both the Merrion and Ballyfin can enjoy the same generosity of hospitality as all those years ago – though this time with proper plumbing.
Ballyfin comes to the Merrion in January 2020, when acclaimed Ballyfin Chef, Sam Moody, brings a special tasting menu to the Merrion’s Garden Room Restaurant over five days from January 29th to February 2nd. Discover more by clicking here.