Ireland, though somewhat short of sunshine and palm trees, is
awash with the kind of crumbling castle or country house where
you can fish or ride on the estate all day before slumping down
in front of a hissing log fire with a book and a large Jameson's
and pretending to be some tweedy character out of J.P. Donleavy
or Somerville and Ross.
Twenty years ago, you'd have needed an invitation to get to
many of these wonderful places. But as the class known in Ireland
as the Ascendancy looked at their leaking roofs, crumbling stonework,
and weed-thick demesnes and stared ruin full in the face they
suddenly, collectively, hit on a solution to their problems
- bed and breakfast.
Starting with eccentric fry-ups in the early 1980s, these descendants
of the island's once substantial landlords rapidly realised
there was good money to be made from crisp linen and crisper
bacon. Casting aside the old notion that one's name should only
appear in the papers three times, they set about actively encouraging
publicity, forming themselves into a select group called Hidden
Ireland. Then they produced a brochure and even (my dear!) began
to advertise. As the VISA receipts piled up by the hunting crops
in the hall and the bucket was finally removed from the double
staircase, their wives pulled out tattered copies of Constance
Spry and began planning elaborate dinner menus as well.
Now it's hard to find a grand Anglo-Irish house that doesn't
welcome paying guests, for at least part of the year. Well-connected
party animals who used to look forward to month-long sojourns
with those eccentric FitzPs or O'Ds now find themselves
handed a bill at breakfast. And there are plenty of confused
Dublin socialites who wonder whether the cheery invitation 'to
come and visit us in Tipperary' implies the crucial words 'for
When the next history of the Ascendancy is written, the chapter
dealing with this new style of landlord will be full of colourful
anecdotes. The Kilkenny hosts who, when asked for hot-water
bottles by their first American guests, offered them a spaniel
each and were shocked when they left without paying. The family
who couldn't see that they need change their age-old habit of
burning dried cowpats in the ancestral hearth. The hostess who
abruptly cancelled dinner to organise the funeral (and wake)
of a favourite frog.
Hidden Ireland still continues, but its originator, the splendidly
monocled John Colclough, has moved on to set up a new group,
the Friendly Homes of Ireland. Meanwhile country houses that
have been refurbished to the extent of becoming hotels have
found their own little bible - the Blue Book. What follows is
a random selection which covers most of the spread - it is not
in any way a 'best of' selection.
CASTLE LESLIE, CO MONAGHAN
Castle Leslie, just south of the border to the North, has been
in the Leslie family for over three hundred years and is now
run by the charismatic Samantha Leslie, last of a line that
began, apparently, with Atilla the Hun, and includes the Duke
of Wellington, Winston Churchill and George IV's Mrs Fitzherbert
among the in-laws. The huge reception rooms overlooking the
private waters of Glaslough are stuffed with fabulously historical
family titbits, ranging from Wellington's bridle to Churchill's
baby-dress, and including a pen used by Pope Pius IX, which
has, I was told, 'a radioactive effect on visiting Orangemen'.
Winston's cousin, the dapper senior Leslie, Sir John, is on
hand for dryly amusing guided tours.
GRIP FAST, the family motto, is inscribed above the wooden seat
of the grandest lavatory I've ever seen. Hooks in the cloakroom
are still labelled as they were by eccentric Uncle Desmond:
DESMOND, FAMILAE, BORES, while William of Orange watches you
from the wall.
An unconventional restorer, Samantha has done wonders with the
fourteen bedrooms. Each is decked out in a radically different
style, from the Mauve Room, where Queen Victoria's son the Duke
of Connaught stayed, through the Sixties Room, once occupied
by Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithful, to the Chinese Room, where
your reviewer spent a comfy night. Baths en suite are huge and
free-standing, just the kind of tub for a good reflective soak
after a damp Irish afternoon. There are no clocks, televisions,
or phones in rooms, which I found a blessing, but may be inconvenient
Dinner (served in the family dining room by waitresses in full
Victorian costume) is of a high standard, while the ambience
remains relaxed (breakfast till eleven, twelve on Sundays).
The only possible downside of this place is its location, right
on the border with the North - and in Monaghan, which is hardly
the most scenically dramatic of Ireland's counties. On the other
hand, the estate is entirely self-contained, Glaslough is one
of the best pike lakes in Ireland, there are tennis courts to
play on and a sunken garden to lounge about in, and if you want
a scenic drive, the Mountains of Mourne, just over the border,
are spectacular and all-but tourist-free.
Castle Leslie, Glaslough, Co. Monaghan, Ireland (+353-47-88109)
ARDNAMONA, CO. DONEGAL
Set in steeply sloping gardens on the brackeny shore of exquisite
Lough Eske, Ardnamona genuinely lives up to its description
in the Irish Topographical Dictionary as 'one of the most picturesque
domains in rural Ireland'. Besides a forest of rhododendrons,
there is a near-jungle of exotic plants collected by one-time
owner Sir Arthur Wallace from such places as the Imperial Garden
at Peking and the palace gardens in Kathmandu.
Now refurbished by Kieran and Amabel Clarke, Ardnamona is one
of the Hidden Ireland stable and the sort of place where you
feel more as if you're staying with the family than in a hotel.
Kieran is a Donegal man who met his English wife while working
as a piano-tuner in London and a great conversationalist.
In addition to the usual breakfast, Amabel provides good, straightforward
country house fare for dinner, or if you want something more
elaborate they will direct you to the local swanky restaurant
at Harvey's Point.
Having spent the afternoon reading quietly on the jetty, I made
the mistake of leaving the gate to the horses' field open. Trestle
and Debbie later joined us while we were having a post-prandial
Jameson's in the kitchen and had to be led back home in the
moonlight. It was hardly a scene you'd have found in an English
country house hotel.
The big plus here is the easy access to Donegal, surely one
of the world's great scenic secrets. Tucked away like a giant
balloon behind Northern Ireland the county has largely avoided
the over-touristification of parts of the south. From Ardnamona
you can reach the coast in half an hour, and what a coast it
is, two hundred miles of spectacular mountains, cliffs and beaches,
with Atlantic surf all the way.
Ardnamona, Lough Eske, Co Donegal (+353-73-22650) In Hidden
GLENDALOUGH HOUSE, CO KERRY
A small Victorian manor house in the heart of Co. Kerry, Glendalough
is five miles inland from the (in)famous 'Ring of Kerry'. A
hundred coaches a day thunder along this over-stressed road
in season, crammed with package tour Americans marvelling at
the scenic splendour of their roots.
Here though, on the shores of moody Lake Caragh, you wouldn't
know such a tourist-fest existed. Behind the lake are the shimmering
green mountains known as Macgillicuddy's Reeks - great walking
Josephine Roder-Bradshaw is an impeccable hostess and an excellent
cook with the highest standards (no farmed smoked salmon, for
example), so you really have no need to stir from the log fire
in her long drawing room (help yourself to drinks from the tray)
or the sunny conservatory that leads out to the terrace above
her steeply-sloping garden. If you need variety there are at
least two similar lakeside establishments within a ten minute
walk. I tried Carrig House, where a stocky lady pianist trinkled
me through four courses of good (if a trifle saucy) French fare.
Frank Slattery, the courtly owner and maitre d., is Irish charm
Glendalough doesn't have a vast demesne to roam, so this is
not really a place to hang out, more a relaxed base for exploring
Kerry. If you do feel obliged to do the celebrated drive round
the Ring, get up early and go anti-clockwise, ahead of the hordes,
who don't stir from Killarney until they've had a chance to
buy a pottery leprechaun or a Celtic love flute at the very
least. Or else head in on the back roads into the centre, where
there is hardly a tourist to be found, even in high season.
Forty minutes up the road is the less-crowded Dingle peninsula,
and an hour or so south brings you to the altogether wilder
Glendalough House, Caragh Lake, Co. Kerry (+353-66-69156) In
Hidden Ireland brochure.
DUNBRODY HOUSE, CO. WEXFORD
Once the home of the Marquis of Donegall, Dunbody was recently
bought by Kevin Dundon, one-time head chef of Dublin's famous
Shelbourne Hotel, and his wife Catherine, an efficient chatelaine
with a keen eye for detail.
Kevin's food, served in an airy dining room with windows overlooking
the lovely surrounding gardens, is state-of-the-art, and he
uses plenty of fresh fish from the nearby Wexford coast. Indeed,
after five months touring the country, eating everything from
amuse-bouches in Dublin to bangers in Ballinasloe, I would rate
Kevin as one of Ireland's best chefs. Breakfast is the usual
Irish feast (with both black and white pudding), accompanied
by drinkable coffee, which is still something of a rarity in
this country of tea imbibers. The rooms are large and comfortable
and mostly have a deeply relaxing view over the garden.
Though very different from the spectacular mountainscapes of
the West, Co. Wexford has its own gentle rural charm. There
are some fine beaches within fifteen minutes of Dunbrody (Baginbun
is a particularly pretty little cove) and you'll be unlucky
to hear English or American voices ringing down the sands. Most
of the holidaying Brits speed past to West Cork, while the Americans
head like lemmings for Co. Kerry. (The immediately local area
is historically interesting, as fifteen minutes away lies the
'creek' where the Normans first landed - the formal start of
the '800 Years of Oppression'.)
This is also the 'sunny south east' and statistics bear out
that you're more likely to get sun here than elsewhere on the
island. True to form, the two August days I spent here were
perfect, so my memories are of snoozing over a book on the terrace,
while Gin and Tonic, Kevin and Catherine's two labradors, romped
beside me in the ancestral fountain. The elderly Marquis still
lives in a house in the grounds and may occasionally be glimpsed,
poking around the blue hydrangea beds with a stick.
Dunbrody Country House & Restaurant, Arthurstown, New Ross,
Co. Wexford, Ireland (+353-51-389600) In Ireland's Blue Book.
CULLINTRA HOUSE, CO KILKENNY
More farmhouse than grand manor or castle, Cullintra is in the
heart of wonderfully empty walking country, which is as yet
barely visited by tourists and holidaymakers. There's a good
hour or so's walk right at the back of the house up Brandon
Hill, and a short drive will bring you to the Blackstairs mountains,
from the top of which you can get views right across southern
Ireland. The history-rich but rather twee town of Kilkenny is
half an hour away. This would also be a good stopping off point
if you're heading further west, being less than an hour from
Cullintra's owner, Patricia Cantlon, has lived here all her
life. She offers a genuinely eccentric Irish welcome. Dinner,
which starts sometime after nine, is an elaborate group affair
both served and hosted by Patricia. An adventurous cook, she
will expect you to stay up, conversing with the other guests,
till well after midnight. I can't say I went a bundle on the
meat balls and spaghetti in sweet and sour sauce, but the fresh
raspberries were delicious and the selection of Irish cheeses
a revelation, since I hadn't then heard of Cliffoney, Carrowholly,
or Cashel Blue.
There was a long pause between main course and pudding during
which Patricia vanished entirely, returning to announce that
she'd been 'talking to a fox'. Selected guests were then introduced
to said animal, who was feasting on leftover meatballs by the
Rooms are comfortable enough, but in no way grand (mine was
an attic garret) and guests share a common bathroom. If you're
staying more than a night there's an 'art-studio' at the back,
complete with a piano (topped by a stuffed sheep) and tea and
coffee-making facilities. At dusk, a young woman appears and
discreetly lights the two candelabra.
There is no hurry for breakfast. Patricia never stirs before
nine. In the summer, if you stay a couple of days, she may take
you for a swim in the nearby Blackwater River, just down from
the impossibly pretty village of Inistioge. On my second evening,
I ended up sitting on the bank holding her mobile booking phone
while Patricia floated Ophelia-like downstream with the current.
Cullintra House, The Rower, Inistioge, Co. Kilkenny (+353-51-423614)
(not before 10 a.m.) In Hidden Ireland brochure.
Mark McCrum's account of his recent journey round Ireland, The
Craic, is published by Gollancz (£11.99).