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Ballintemple: Ancient World, Ancient Fish

Sir Richard Butler’s successful restoration of his family’s ancestral riverside estate at Ballintemple, County Carlow, has earned his small stretch of the River Slaney a well deserved alphabetical placement between Ashford and Ballynahinch Castles in the highly elite Great Fishing Houses of Ireland. The project, commenced four years ago in conjunction with Robin Eustace Harvey, involved restoring both river banks, rebuilding the weirs and creating twenty four salmon pools.

Ballintemple started life as a sanctuary for members of the Knights Templar on leave from the Crusades. The estate formed part of William Marshall’s vast inheritance through his marriage with Strongbow’s daughter in the late 12th century. 500 years later, the land was granted to Sir Thomas Butler of Cloghrennan, a first cousin of the “Great Duke” of Ormonde. Sir Richard is the thirteenth generation in descent from Sir Thomas. His forbears generally played a modest role in the affairs of state. Perhaps the most notable family member was Piers Butler, sometime Senator of South Carolina and co-signatory of the U.S. Constitution in 1787.

One hundred years ago the Ballintemple estate amounted to some 7000 acres, upon which Sir Richard’s grandfather developed his passion for breeding Aberdeen Angus and Clydesdale shire-horses. He married Alice Mease, a granddaughter of the American actress Fanny Kemble. On moving to the ancestral manor house at Ballintemple, the well-travelled Lady Alice described the estate as “one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen … in the spring the woods are literally carpeted with bluebells, the bluest and largest I have ever seen, often having fifteen bells on one stalk”.

The burning of Ballintemple House in 1917, attributed to a plumber’s blow-lamp and dry-rot filled rafters, was a great loss to Carlow’s architectural legacy. The shell was later demolished and only the 19th century classical portico now remains. The Butler family then relocated to England where Sir Richard’s father, Sir Tom Butler, served as Resident Governor of the Tower of London. Subsequent confiscation’s and compulsory purchases by the Irish Land Commission whittled the Butler estate down to a few acres when Sir Richard inherited the property.

Sir Richard Butler, a former director with Chase Manhattan and founder of the Pestalozzi Children’s Trust, could never shake off his desire to return to his Irish homeland. His family likewise continue to view Ballintemple as an intrinsic part of their heritage. Over the past decade, Sir Richard and his neighbour Robin Eustace Harvey have been steadily resurrecting the estate. An ancient wood of some 20 hectares running along the riverbanks has been designated a Special Area of Conservation by Duchas. Sir Richard’s eldest son Tom has created an exceedingly nutritious 10-hectare organic farm while Tom’s Canadian wife Pam (aka Kamala Devi) runs a popular yoga retreat at Ballintemple during the summer.

The reopening of the Ballintemple fishing beat in 2003 met with widespread approval by fishermen and conservationists alike. The Slaney is one of Ireland’s longest rivers, wending its way 120 kilometres from the Glen of Imaal in the Wicklow Mountains south through Carlow and Wexford and into the sea at Wexford Harbour. It offers salmon in spring and sea trout in summer.

Traditionally regarded as the Queen of Ireland’s salmon rivers, the Slaney was badly sabotaged by pollution and netting in the last century. A conservation group is presently bidding to buy out the netters down in Enniscorthy. Historical records suggest that in 1928 the average weight of salmon caught at Ballintemple was 16.5 lb. Today, the average is closer to 9lb although fish weighing upwards of 20lb have been caught in the past. The Ballintemple beat runs for 3 kilometres on the opposite bank to the wonderful gardens of Altamont, encompassing 24 pools with such names as Ladies Pool, Rhododendron Walk, The Hazels and the Sheep Wash. The Butlers also have rights to two other private beats, giving an additional 3 kilometres.

The number of rods at Ballintemple is limited to six a day to avoid over-fishing. Along the banks, one finds seasoned veterans from far and wide – Chile, Mongolia, Iceland and the Rocky Mountains. Some have been standing there since first light. Others will remain until the rooks in the trees above signal the last gasp of twilight. “That’s the joy of fishing”, explains a contented Canadian who looks set to stay the night. “You just never know when you’ll get a bite”.

It is not surprising that Ballintemple ranks so high on the fisherman’s circuit. The setting is second to none; a lush, primordial rising woodland populated by kingfishers, otter and the incorrigible black mink. The ancient river rushes through an open break as it has done since the end of the last Ice Age. And the sprightly salmon, another illustrious ancient, continue to make their astounding journey from the distant depths of the Atlantic to the shallow gravel beds of the Wicklow Mountains. Listening to the soft burble of the Slaney waters, one is carried back through the course of time to an age when, perhaps, veterans of the Crusades ambled along these same riverbanks, their feet carpeted in bluebells and wild daffodils.

Those seeking to enjoy the immense tranquillity of this lesser known corner of Ireland might wish to rent Ballintemple Lodge or one of the beautifully restored Victorian work cottages situated adjacent to the river. Experienced ghillies are also available.