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When Defiance Is
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One Hundred Years
  Of Total Confusion


IRISH COUNTRY HOUSES

(Conde Nast Traveller - 1999)
Five of the best ...


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 FitzP—s or O'D—s 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 free'.

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 for some.

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 Ireland brochure.

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 country.

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 personified.

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 Beara Peninsula.

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 Rosslare.

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 kitchen door.

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).
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