Ireland has always been a riddle. Nothing is as it seems and when it is, it isn’t. From afar, it can seem like a sepia-hued world of thatch cottages, toothless grins and giddy fiddles. Music, alcohol, Catholicism, heartache and a new sense of freedom are woven into a blanket worn by many of the 80 million people worldwide who claim Irish ancestry.
Certainly, there is much to confound. Hills upon which you can park a car, release the brake and stare agog as you roll upwards. A tree that won’t burn. Water that won’t boil. Ancient stone circles wherein your hair inexplicably stands on end as if you’ve just seen a banshee.
If you hitched a ride on the back of one of the black crows that constantly soar through Irish skies, you will espy hundreds of castles and mansions sprawling upon the land below. Some stand discreet amongst stately trees. Others brazenly streak across open parkland, sporting nothing but a fresh, if vulgar, gloss. Still more are crumbling, hollowed, ivy-clad ruins, empty but for the swirling ghosts of those who wined and slept and cackled here in forgotten ages past.
The Big Houses, as these piles are known, include some of the finest architectural gems in Europe. It’s not been easy to keep them going. As the Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen so astutely put it, owning a Big House constitutes ‘something between a predicament and a raison d’être’.
It’s always been a hard call to predict whether the owner or the house will be ruined first. As such, it’s exceedingly rare to find a Big House that is still in the hands of the original family that built them.
As a historian with a particular obsession for Ireland’s hidden heritage, I’ve traversed this country innumerable times on the sniff for Big Houses. And here are five crackers, still owned by the original families, which have opened their doors as places you can stay and enjoy some of the immense peace and opulence that their ancestors enjoyed.
HILTON PARK, COUNTY MONAGHAN
OF DOPPELGANGERS & POTATO COOKING
Danny Madden is not yet five years old and already he’s a dead ringer for his great-great-great-grandfather. I spotted this doppelgängerism shortly after he crawled into Hilton Park’s dining room disguised as hedgehog and halted beneath a marble bust of his aforesaid forebear.
Both child and bust threw an impassive glance my way as I yelped at my fellow diners. ‘Look! Look! They’re the absolute spit of one another!’
I’m not sure anyone else saw the likeness. The conversation that I had interrupted was swiftly resumed. The table was round and we were five. Johnny Madden, this evening’s host, grandfather of Danny. My wife Ally, radiant. And Karl and Sonja, a German couple, who were taking time out from an anti-Euro political party they’d just established in Germany.
‘My antecedents were great fighters,’ Johnny told us. ‘Mostly amongst themselves.’ His father lost a leg battling the Germans in World War Two. It’s okay to mention the war these days. It turns out Karl’s grandfather tried to kill Hitler.
Johnny is marvellously eloquent, a classically educated gentleman. Stick a powdered wig on his head and you might be talking to his ancestor Samuel Madden who tutored Frederick, Prince of Wales, to become one of the 18th century’s greatest patrons of arts and architecture.
Not that Johnny is stranded in the past. In fact, he’s arguably most at ease when watching the Grand Prix on TV. There’s a little more time for such Sunday convalescence since he and his wife Lucy handed over the reins of Hilton Park to their only son Fred and his wife Joanna.
This is the Drumlin Belt, named for the thousands of teardrop-shaped humps of earth left behind by the last Ice Age. It’s also border country. Johnny’s grandfather was not long home from World War One when the politicians drew a line through this boggy frontier to delineate the border between Northern Ireland and what would become the Republic of Ireland.
The Maddens tended to steer clear of politics. ‘The only government they were concerned with was here at Hilton,’ explains Johnny.
It’s still early days for Hilton’s new government but, in between raising Danny and his little brother Otis, Fred and Joanna have dived into the role with gusto.
Fred always knew the day would come when he’d take over. That’s why he trained as a chef with Pru Leith in London. And my compliments to Pru Leith because her protégé whipped us up a three-course triumph. Scallops atop endives, followed by fillet beef with Jerusalem artichoke, sealed with a raspberry leaf panna cotta. It’s a family affair; the endives and the artichoke came direct from a Walled Garden maintained by Fred’s mother and his sister Laura.
After dinner we sprawled upon Chesterfields in the family living room, talking with Fred and Joanna about the challenges they will face to keep Hilton rolling onwards for another generation. Little Danny marks the tenth generation to have lived here since Samuel snapped up the land in 1734. Their sense of duty is absolute; the show will go on.
Like all Big Houses, Hilton Park was built with entertainment in mind. Approached by a weaving two-mile avenue, the three-storey sandstone-hued mansion achieves much of its aesthetic magnificence from a Victorian porte-cochere, a sort of architectural umbrella added by a wise-thinking ancestor to keep newly arrived guests dry. In recent years, the surrounding fields have hosted the Flat Lake Literary and Arts Festival with Lily Allen, Sam Shepard and the late Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney amongst those on the bill.
Bedtime beckons and we plunge into deep baths before flopping onto the four-poster. There are hot water bottles in our bed and a pitcher of Wild Elderflower cordial by our side. And books everywhere. The Maddens have always been voracious readers. As I drift off, my wife plucks a book from the shelf by Lucy Madden and reads aloud. It’s called ‘The Potato Year – 365 Ways of Cooking Potatoes’.
TEMPLE HOUSE, COUNTY SLIGO
OF ANCIENT KNIGHTS & FALCONRY
Roderick Perceval offers a tip about the flusher in my bathroom. It has a 30-second time delay, gallantly designed to enable ladies to exit the room before the sound of rushing water disrupts their serenity. ‘That’s the Victorians for you,’ says he. ‘But there’s no waiting about if you want a bath. We’ve a zingy high pressure system and deep, deep water reserves.’
As I unpack, I note the water reserves are being usefully topped up once again. We’re less than 15km from the Atlantic Ocean and rain seems to be a constant this week. But from my bedroom, the drizzle looks impeccably romantic.
My bedroom, aptly called the Castle Room, beholds a ruin in three parts. Or rather three ruins, united as one. The oldest is a castle, built eight hundred years ago by the most westerly branch of the Knights Templar. It stands upon the banks of the reed-fringed Temple Lake, which sweeps into the distance like the ocean itself. There’s pike a-plenty in the 200-acre waters and Roderick occasionally rows his guests out for some fishing. ‘We promise lots of enthusiasm but very little expertise,’ he forewarns.
Towering uncertainly behind the lakeside castle is the remaining gable of a forty-foot tower, its ivy-encrusted walls built by the O’Hara family in the 14th century. Wrapped around both castle and tower is a third ruin, a redbrick manor built in 1627 for a Catholic gentry family called Crofton whose sons and daughters once gazed from these hollow windows.
The Percevals came into these lands when they married the Crofton heiress 360 years ago. Like the Maddens, they were part of a closely related network of families, mostly English in origin, who dominated rural life in Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Built in 1820, the limestone mansion that Roderick and his wife Helena call home is one of the most colossal houses in Ireland. Determined to preserve this historical relic, these youthful incumbents welcome paying guests to the fold.
Tonight it’s a couple from Ohio, tracing an Irish ancestor. Last night, they had six Dutch nutritionists bound for a seaweed bath. Roderick dispatched them to an eagle sanctuary en route. ‘Have you ever had a falcon land on your hand?’, he wonders. ‘Life is never quite the same again afterwards.’
On Sunday, they’re expecting a group from Brittany in France eager to analyse County Sligo’s megalithic splendours. We are on the cusp of another world here. From my bedroom, I can just make out the rumps of the 5000-year-old Carrowkeel tombs silhouetted the horizon.
Temple House has been Roderick’s home since his birth forty-four years ago. His complete sense of ease is contagious. He urges visitors to treat the house as if it is their own, to roam amidst the farm buildings, meadows, gardens and ruins as they wish. He sometimes asks them to be on standby lest he needs another pair of hands on the farm. During lambing season, many’s the guest who have unexpectedly found themselves out in the fields, feet encased in Wellington boots, ushering sheep from one pasture to another.
Hundreds of mansions were burned during the Irish War of Independence, and the Civil War that followed it. Temple House narrowly escaped. A Republican burning party was making its way up the tree-lined avenue when halted by some older members of the community who reminded them about Jane Perceval. Jane was the châtelaine of Temple House when the Great Famine engulfed Ireland in the 1840s. Every day, she brought soup to her incapacitated tenants until she herself caught ‘famine fever’ and died in 1847. Such was the respect she earned in the locality that, seventy years later, the burning party about turned and went home.
After Jane’s death, the family sold the estate and it was assumed the Perceval era was over. But then Jane’s third son Alexander became a successful merchant in Hong Kong, returned with a fortune, repurchased the family estate and trebled the size of Temple House itself.
Roderick and Helena are under no illusions about the difficulty of keeping Temple House afloat. In the absence of any incoming oriental riches, their focus is on keeping the house hip and the activity constant. For those who like shooting and fishing, the Perceval family home comes complete with a thousand acre playground.
CLONALIS, COUNTY ROSCOMMON
OF HIGH KINGS & CIVIL WARS
It’s not the sort of rock you’d ordinarily look at twice. A misshapen chunk of limestone, weighing maybe 300lb, sitting near the front door of Clonalis, silent but for a lonesome snail arduously trekking down one of its mossy grooves.
But step back a thousand years and this was one of the most important rocks in Ireland. It’s the Inauguration Stone upon which nearly thirty O’Conor kings were crowned. As Kings of Connaught, they ruled over a vast realm that ran from the Irish midlands to the Atlantic coast. The last High King of Ireland was an O’Conor and, should the kingdom of Ireland ever be resurrected, the O’Conor Don – the present head of the family – is considered the presumptive claimant to the throne.
Pyers O’Conor Nash, the owner of Clonalis, is not the O’Conor Don. But his uncle was. Indeed, it was this same uncle, a Jesuit priest, who bequeathed him Clonalis in 1981.
The O’Conor’s have always had a strong sense of duty. That’s why Pyers ditched his job as a high-flying London financier and came home to take on the two-storey Italianate villa with his wife Marguerite and their two small children.
On he night my wife and I made our debut waltz into the marble-pillared hall of Clonalis, we were the only guests. You’d forgive us for thinking otherwise. Eyeballs, everywhere, watching. I counted at least 120. Mostly oil, sometimes water-colour. Fortunately I’m a sucker for ancestral portraits.
‘They keep me company when I’m alone’, concurred Marguerite, while we sat in the library, warming our wintry hides by an ingenious tripartite marble fireplace.
There’s certainly no shortage of company in the dining room where a dozen ancestors gaze out from the red walls, some stern, others kindly. I try not to talk too much history as we dine but, while avoiding eye contact with the portraits, my pupils alight on some curious marks on the wall with a note beside it. My wife knows I won’t concentrate until we’ve read the note. It explains that the marks were left by an exploding cannon shell fired at the house during a Civil War shoot out in 1922.
What’s a guy like me to do? I yield to history. And I am rewarded accordingly. The O’Conor’s have a museum in the house. I expected rather dull land deeds and a few fossilized horseshoes. I didn’t expect King Charles I’s death warrant, albeit a facsimile, complete with the signature of ‘O. Cromwell’. Nor did I anticipate the harp of the celebrated 18th century blind bard Turlough O’Carolan or a copy of the Old Testament from 1550.
The O’Conor family remained defiantly Catholic throughout that long stretch of Irish history when all the power was in Protestant hands. The most striking legacy of that grim age is a chapel, tucked into the back of the hall, with the original 18th century altar at which the O’Conor’s secretly worshipped when practicing Catholicism was a criminal offence.
It takes me a while to get to bed. Portraits keep arresting me. I offer my condolences to Phelim O’Conor, who perished horribly in battle seven hundred years ago, and I have a particularly good tête-à-tête with Hugo O’Conor, founder of Tuscon, Arizona.
Our bedroom is as big as a squash court. It beholds the parklands where a solitary Limousin bull grazes. In the morning, the orange glow of the rising sun rebounds off his tan hide and makes me think of the ancient legends and a vanished age in which the O’Conor’s ruled the kingdom of Connaught.
(€85 – €99; www.Clonalis.com)
BALLYVOLANE, COUNTY CORK
OF SADDLEBACKS & SPRINGING HEIFERS
‘Oh, there have been many lively nights around this table down through the centuries’, says our host Justin Green, fondly patting the mahogany as dinner is served. Our fellow guests are a family of five American Chinese on a whirlwind tour of Europe in celebration of an important birthday for Kitchi, their family matriarch.
The long rays of the Irish evening sun dapple the family portraits and red shamrock patterned walls around us.[i] Through broad windows, Frisian cattle graze upon green pastures. The Irish for ‘Ballyvolane’ translates as ‘place of the springing heifer’ and, even as we gaze, a young cow performs a dutiful skip.
The wisteria-clad house was built in 1728 for Sir Richard Pyne, a Lord Chief Justice of Ireland. Various descendants substantially altered the house in the early 19th century, giving it a distinctly Italian ambience.
Ballyvolane is a flagship of Hidden Ireland, a group of family-owned Irish castles, manors and mansions that have opened their doors to paying guests. One of the quirky pleasures of Hidden Ireland hospitality is that all guests dine together and you never quite know who they will be.
Kitchi’s family transpire to be great fun. It’s the last night of their Grand Tour and the banter is ceaseless. We contrast the lives of the Chinese and Irish emigrants who built North America’s railroads. We compare Oliver Cromwell’s beastly conquest of Ireland with China’s Cultural Revolution.
Justin gamely fields questions and spins fresh ones back. Alongside his wife Jenny, he’s racked up nearly twenty years of looking after guests at hotels and resorts in Hong Kong, Dubai and Bali. Before he returned to take on the family pile in 2005, he ran Babington House, the supremely chilled Soho House country club in Somerset, England. This evening, while Justin hosts the table, Jenny is backstage in the kitchen, cooking up the dinner.
Twelve-year-old Toby Green, the eldest of their three children, has already built up an impressive international network from younger Ballyvolane guests. ‘He has penpals all over the world’, marvels Justin.
As the fun draws to a close, everyone inhales as Kitchi prepares to give her verdict on the European trip.
‘For me, the highlight of everything has been … feeding the piglets this morning’.
The piglets are five saddlebacks that snuffle in a stable adjoining the main house. Alongside their mother and some Muscovy ducks, they are the principal beneficiaries of any excess scraps from the Ballyvolane kitchen.
Food is one of the key reasons why Ballyvolane is in the uppermost ranks of Ireland’s places to stay. Everything is homegrown or locally sourced, right down to the succulent halibut we dined upon, hooked by a fisherman on the Beara peninsula a day earlier.
All fruit and vegetable comes from a three-acre garden, bordered by 14-foot high sandstone walls. Row upon row of asparagus, sea kale, spring onion, rainbow chard, beetroot, potato.
And rhubarb. Such as the rhubarb which Justin so deftly converted into a rhubarb martini when I went for a stroll before dinner. A glorious arch of laburnum leads out to terraced gardens and a croquet lawn, with a dovecote at its’ centre.
Running alongside the walled garden is a woodland of beech, oak and horse chestnut. The ground beneath is an rotating carpet – snowdrops in February, rolling through daffodils, bluebells, rhododendrons, azaleas and camellias over the ensuing months.
When she sets off the following day, Kitchi tells me she feels as though she has ‘just stayed with friends’. Justin isn’t surprised. ‘The advantage of having only a handful of bedrooms is that you can give guests your complete attention.’
With that, he sits in front of a Blüthner baby grand and starts playing an old Percy French music hall tune. Silhouetted between ionic pillars and classic statuary in a hall of burnt orange, he’s still playing when the next guests arrive.
HUNTINGTON CASTLE, COUNTY CARLOW
OF GODDESSES AND DUNGEONS
The Egyptians should have given the game away. There’s a pair of them painted on the door, walking their funny walk. I’d passed them several times but failed to notice the handle. Alex Durdin Robertson pushes the secret door open and turns to me with a mischievous smile. ‘Come on down.’
When you find yourself in a 17th century castle like Huntington, you’re entitled to expect a dungeon, with maybe a few rusty iron chain-loops dangling from the damp stone walls. What you wouldn’t necessarily anticipate is a temple dedicated to Isis, the ancient Egyptian goddess of motherhood, magic and fertility.
But that is precisely where Alex has led me. For the next thirty minutes, I amble uncertainly around a kaleidoscope of incense-scented mayhem where golden centaurs and exotic urns sprawl alongside zodiac drapes and musky shrines to the Virgin Mary, Lakshimi and a host of other feminine icons. ‘My great-aunt Olivia had a powerful dream that God was a female,’ explains Alex. ‘She interpreted it as a vision, my grandfather agreed and together they set up the Fellowship of Isis in 1976.’
It’s extraordinary, of course, but Huntington has always had an otherworldly ambience. Just over a hundred years ago, shortly before Olivia’s birth, a meteorite fell to earth and landed near the avenue. It reputedly glowed for weeks, providing a warm perch for crows who, as any Isis devotees will tell you, are the avian messengers of Morrígan, the ancient Irish goddess of battle and strife.
The first glimpse of the Jacobean castle comes moments after one turns off the main street of the pretty village of Clonegal. Framed by a majestic avenue of French lime trees, the fairytale fortress is surmounted by battlements with a heraldic Irish flag flapping atop. This was the view that first grabbed Stanley Kubrick’s attention when he zeroed in on Huntington as a location for his epic, ‘Barry Lyndon’.
The original tower house was built in 1625 for Sir Laurence Esmonde, an ancestor of Alex, who was amongst the most influential landowners in south-east Ireland. He covered the costs by placing a toll on a nearby bridge across the River Slaney. And for any trouble-makers who didn’t want to pay, the dungeon was also his idea.
The Blue Room where I sleep is a haven of soft cloth and warm wood with a magnificent four-poster at its centre. Change the light bulb to an oil lamp and it could be 1625. Above the fireplace, a painting of a Spanish flower girl smiles down. Alex tells me that some guests have looked into this painting and beheld the face of a Bishop Leslie who died of gout in the castle several eons ago.
I salute the Bishop in my bedtime prayers to the goddess Isis and I sleep deep and well.
An pre-breakfast stroll takes me to a splendid parterre garden designed by an ancestor who was fortunate enough to have been exiled to 17th century Versailles. I wend my way along a tunnel of inter-twining yews, planted over 500 years ago, and fetch up in an enchanting old world woodland, divine peace save for the burbling of a stream and the chatter of birdsong.
Alex pops his head in the dining room door moments after I have forked in the last of my scrambled egg. He’s been up for hours, helping his wife Clare get their two toddling sons ready for the day ahead.
‘Let’s go see the champions’, he says. I assume he means the pot-bellied pigs, Boris and Hamlet, each as grey as the turrets above us. But it transpires the champs are over a dozen oak, hickory and buckeye trees, hailed for girth and height alike, that stride across a paddock.
A flock of Lleyn sheep graze beneath the trees. As we walk and talk amongst them, it is clear that for Alex, life is all about his wife, his two sons and keeping his castle going for another generation. ‘Inherit, improve and pass on’, says he. ‘That’s the unofficial motto. It’s a lot of work but that’s okay if you don’t mind working.’
In 2022, the RDS Library Speaker Series invited Turtle Bunbury to converse with Professor Terence Dooley, who offers a unique insight on the subject of the burning of the big house. Terry’s book ‘Burning the Big House’ (and a coinciding exhibition at the Irish Architectural Archive) was the culmination of ten years of research work as Curator and Director of the Centre for the Study of Historic Irish Houses and Estates (CSHIHE) at the School of History in Maynooth University.