Escape to Ireland

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Dotted across Ireland are grand houses built by the recipients of land handouts when Oliver Cromwell dispossessed the original Irish owners and rewarded his own officers. The new landlords evolved into a class of their own, the Anglo-Irish, and as they prospered the architecture of their homes reflected their growing self-confidence. Standing outside one such home, Longueville House Longueville House in County Cork, the self-assurance finds expression in the stone parapets, the pillared porch and the handsome hall door with its fan-light. Step inside, wandering into the dining room and sitting room, and you gaze up at beautifully plastered and decorated ceilings, admire a marble Adam mantelpiece featuring a relief of Neptune in his chariot and spot huge old brass locks still in the mahogany doors. A conservatory of curved ironwork adorns one side, added in 1866, completing the sense that the Anglo-Irish had set down  roots and intended to stay. Complementing one another, the exterior, interior and the grounds of Longueville House are electric with high-voltage evocations of a past age which now seems more orderly than our own.

The house is now a small hotel with a superb restaurant and the property is back with same the family clan whose forebearers were originally deprived of it by Cromwell back in 1650. The wheel had come full circle when the present owner’s grandfather bought the property in 1938, the Anglo-Irish having by then dwindled in size and significance.

A short stay provides blissful and pensive relaxation in an Irish country house setting. There are no televisions or clocks to remind you of the larger world and your grasp on the present slips away amidst the furniture and accoutrements of a Georgian age. A nostalgic mood is sustained by the elegant affair of dining in  the sublimely hushed Library Room of Longueville House and rarely will you enjoy such a pure field-to-fork policy in the  sourcing of food. The menu relies substantially on home-grown and home-reared produce, including a potent house-made apple cider, and for dinner there is a choice of a three-course meal or a tasting menu (with or without selected wines).

An equestrian centre, fishing on the Blackwater River that runs through the grounds and clay pigeon shooting are activities readily available for guests at Longueville House but I was driven by remembrance of times past to seek out the ruins of another Anglo-Irish house in the vicinity, just outside the village of Kildorrey. The Bowen family was descended from one of Cromwell’s men granted land in North Cork and their grand house, Bowen’s Court, was inherited by the novelist Elizabeth Bowen in 1930. She loved the house, had spent her childhood there, but lack of money forced its sale in 1960 and the new owner demolished it.

What remains of the Big House are basement ruins and the ivy-mantled walls of what was once a one-acre walled garden – its now blank space a sad epitaph  to the novelist’s memory in her book Bowen’s Court of a house with “rows of dark windows set in the light façade against dark trees has the startling, meaning and abstract clearness of a house in a print, a house in which something important occurred once, and seems. from all evidence, to be occurring still”.

My journey to Bowen’s Court concluded by collecting from a nearby house  an ancient key that opened the door of the tiny and now disused  church of St Colman that stands close to the ruins. A superb and rare example of an early 18th-century Church of Ireland church, it holds memorabilia about Bowen’s Court and its air  of desolate emptiness bespeaks the reality of a time lost to history.

I took off to visit Cashel in County Tipperary, a town that nestles itself below a limestone outcrop – the Rock of Cashel – that rises over 60m above the plain like the Acropolis of Athens. The Rock was the seat of local kings for centuries and after being given to the Church in the 12th century a cathedral and chapel were built. The cathedral  was set alight in 1495 by the Earl of Kildare because, as he humorously explained to an irate Henry VII, he thought the archbishop was inside.

What survived intact is Cormac’s Chapel, the earliest and most elegant Romanesque church in the country, with a host of architectural details that prove how remarkably open to European art Ireland was at this time. What has also survived is the house built in 1730 as an archbishop’s palace and which became a distinctive hotel in the early 1960s. Little has changed over the succeeding decades so while you can’t expect wi-fi in bedrooms or breakfast before 8am you will be delightfully surprised by the early Georgian staircase with barley sugar banisters, a walled garden with literally laid-back mulberry trees (planted in 1702) and a private walk up to the Rock.

The restaurant menu at the Cashel Palace Hotel confirms the feeling that time has slowed down, with starters like chicken liver pate and a side plate of mashed swede, broccoli and a roast potato that seems to arrive regardless of what is ordered. It’s a gas, right down to the homemade pavlova and vanilla and coconut rice pudding with strawberry jam. Needless to say, this is the place to sample Cashel Blue, a contender for the best blue cheese produced in Ireland.

The postcard-pretty village of Adare, only an hour’s journey time away, offers a dramatic change of style. Cashel town centre is nondescript while Adare is blessed with handsomely restored thatched cottages, boutique designer shops, good restaurants and the astonishing Adare Manor. A BBC research team in search of scenes for a new dramatisation of a Jane Austen novel would revel in seeing the austere but stunning exterior of Adare Manor and its extensive grounds. It would serve for Darcy’s residence, Pemberley and the interior confirms the period drama feel – coffered ceiling, Pugin fireplaces, swags, an old library lined with faded volumes, wainscoted dining room.

Tearooms and restaurants fill Adare village and I plumped for The Wild Geese with its cosy, sofa-filled sitting room where a pre-dinner drink can be enjoyed while considering the menu. All the ingredients are sourced locally – seafood from West Cork and Kerry, meat from Limerick, goat’s cheese from Clare – and the dining room has a homely ambiance that suits perfectly the enjoyment of good food. If you feel like dressing up to the nines there is a fine dining restaurant at Adare Manor but The Wild Geese’s informal village setting better suited my mood than the splendidly decadent  elegance of a mock castle. I slept the night in Adare Manor, knowing it was time to also put the past to bed.

Next morning, ready for a complete change of scene, a 90-minute drive brought me to Ballymaloe House  just east of Cork city. Where Longueville House is earthy and rustic, Ballymaloe is sedate and genteel, bordering on the twee, so the best of both worlds can be enjoyed.  And what both country houses offer is an elegant and leisurely dining experience with a menu  based on locally sourced and home grown food. Plus  a welcoming feel where maybe not everyone knows your name but nonetheless a place where you find it natural to enter into conversation with fellow guests.

There are some smart designer outlets in the neighbourhood of Ballymaloe and there is a grand surprise at suddenly finding yourself on the Irish  coast. The sea beckons and I feel drawn to travel westwards to the Atlantic seaboard and the peninsulas of West Cork and Kerry. But that must wait for another time.

by Sean Sheehan