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Rest on Erin’s literary laurels

Turtle Bunbury – The Australian, December 04, 2010

PERHAPS it was the remote setting on the westernmost shores of Europe. Or the ever-changing terrain: ancient waters, squelchy bog, volcanic rock, lonesome field, drizzle-drenched town.

When the European continent was overrun by barbarian hordes 1500 years ago, Ireland alone was hailed as civilisation’s beacon, the island of saints and scholars.

Ireland’s literary heritage is exceptional. The Emerald Isle has fielded the likes of Jonathan Swift, Richard Sheridan, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde and James Joyce. Ireland boasts three Nobel prizes for literature (W. B. Yeats, Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney) and three Booker Prize winners (Anne Enright, John Banville, Roddy Doyle).

Colm Toibin and Sebastian Barry recently scooped best novel and book of the year at the Costa Awards. (And Derry-born Maggie O’Farrell won the Costa Novel Award in 2010).

From Dublin’s Trinity College to the Bog of Allen, you will not travel far in Ireland without stumbling on a locality with important scholarly roots. Here are five places where you can rest comfortably on your literary laurels and ruminate on the landscapes and daydreams that have inspired Ireland’s writers.

Hilton Park, Clones, County Monaghan:

The rolling drumlins and stony grey soil of Co Monaghan has long played muse to Irish scribes, with recent local heroes including the alcohol-fuelled poet Paddy Kavanagh (Raglan Road), the award-winning master storyteller Eugene McCabe (Heaven Lies about Us) and the extraordinary maestro of the macabre, Pat McCabe (The Butcher Boy, Breakfast at Pluto).

Another celebrated visitor to Co Monaghan was Swift, dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, author of Gulliver’s Travels and one of the most outspoken and inventive writers of his age. Swift’s preferred port of call was Hilton Park, a sumptuous 18th-century lakeside mansion near Scotshouse. The Madden family has lived here for nine generations and among its ancestors is Samuel Madden, who tutored Frederick, prince of Wales, to become the greatest royal patron of the arts and architecture in Britain since Charles II.

Hilton Park maintains its erudite links by hosting the annual Flat Lake Literary and Arts Festival in June.

Organised by McCabe and screenwriter Kevin Allen (director of the hilarious black comedy Twin Town and brother of Keith Allen), the Flat Lake’s roll of honour includes Heaney, Alexei Sayle, Neil Jordan, Edna O’Brien, Lily Allen, Mundy and Australian sculptor Jonathan Leahey.

Along with Ballyvolane House in Co Cork, Hilton Park is one of the flagships of the Hidden Ireland group, an impressive portfolio of 34 country mansions, medieval castles and exquisite townhouses. More:;;

Lisnavagh House, Rathvilly, County Carlow:

Elizabeth Bowen made her name with novels such as The Death of the Heart and The Last September, which captured the twilight of Ireland’s time as a British colony. In many ways, Bowen, who was born in 1900, and her cousin Hubert Butler, the venerable Kilkenny essayist, represented the last embers of the Anglo-Irish era.

The spirit of Bowen and Butler lives on at Lisnavagh, where Jessica Rathdonnell, goddaughter of Bowen and niece of Butler, has created an extraordinarily beautiful garden oasis that flows seamlessly around a magnificent Victorian mansion.

The first Lady Rathdonnell was an intimate of Jane Austen and today, 200 years after Austen was busy with her quill, it is easy to conceive of pretty girls with mud-splattered hems and carefully tied bonnets trotting between the splendid beeches and oaks that tower over 324ha of rolling farmland.

In the 1940s, Evelyn Waugh, fresh from the success of Brideshead Revisited, became so enamoured of this “large, prosaic early Victorian baronial” pile that he ordered stationery with the house’s name on it. “A pretty name – Lisnavagh – with the accent on the last syllable,” he wrote.

The Rathdonnells continue to live at Lisnavagh with their children and grandchildren nearby. The big house, built in 1847, features eight large bedrooms and is available to rent, as are several beautiful cut-stone granite cottages.

Lisnavagh House is considered one of the most romantic wedding venues in Ireland and has received excellent accolades, including a gold-star rating for the most comfortable beds in Ireland from The Irish Times.

It is one of 10 Irish mansions to appear in the new coffee-table book The Irish Country House by the Knight of Glin, James Peil, and photographer James Fennell. More:

Castlecoote House, Castlecoote, County Roscommon:

In the 1750s, the two most beautiful women in London were said to be Elizabeth and Maria Gunning, Irish sisters who were raised in the splendid Palladian mansion of Castlecoote. Painted by Francis Cotes and Joshua Reynolds, their gorgeousness was such that they managed to score a duke and an earl respectively.

Elizabeth enjoyed a long, illustrious life, becoming patron of witty Irish poet and playwright Oliver Goldsmith, who is perhaps best known as author of She Stoops to Conquer.

A copy of Reynolds’s portrait of Goldsmith gazes from the library wall at Castlecoote today.

The inimitable and much respected entertainer Percy French, who lived nearby, often performed his songs and recitals in the drawing room.

French’s most famous song, Are Ye Right There, Michael?, was a gentle parody of the painfully slow state rail system. The rail company sued French for libel; he arrived late for the hearing and explained to the judge that he had travelled by the very same railway. The case was thrown out.

Completely restored by the present owners, Castlecoote now hosts the annual Percy French Summer School, keeping his cheerful legacy alive.

The three-storey house boasts five wonderful bedrooms, comprising the suites and bedchambers where the Gunning sisters once slept.

Another local literary figure was Douglas Hyde, an exceptional scholar of the Irish language who founded the Gaelic League and served as the Republic of Ireland’s first president. More:

Lissadell House, Ballinfull, County Sligo:

Last year, Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen played a series of concerts in Dublin, vowing it would be his final tour. This year, Irish music promoter John Reynolds lured him back by offering him the chance to play an outdoor concert in the splendid gardens of Lissadel.

Cohen could not resist an invitation to perform in the landscape that had inspired Yeats, one of his greatest inspirations.

Yeats was a regular visitor to Lissadell, home to the celebrated Gore-Booth sisters whom he memorably described as “two girls in silk kimonos, both beautiful, one a gazelle”. Constance, the elder sister, married a Polish count, Casimir Markievicz, and went on to became one of the leaders of the ill-fated Easter Rising of 1916. She was also the first woman elected to the British House of Commons.

The surrounding countryside is filled with names that anyone familiar with Yeats would recognise from poems such as The Lake Isle of Inisfree and Under Ben Bulben.

Bram Stoker’s mother also spent her childhood in these parts and her memory of a deadly cholera plague in Sligo in the 1830s would later inspire her son to write Dracula. More:

Mount Vernon, Flaggy Shore, New Quay, Burren, County Clare:

Every writer needs a hideaway but few retreats are as delightful as Mount Vernon, a Georgian seaside villa on the edge of the Burren.

The house was once the home of Hugh Lane, an art specialist whose impressionist collection now forms the nucleus of Dublin’s Municipal Art Gallery. Lane was among the more than 1000 killed when a German U-boat torpedoed the trans-Atlantic liner Lusitania in 1915. Mount Vernon passed to his aunt Augusta, lady Gregory, whose husband had been an extremely successful governor of Ceylon.

Gregory was one of Ireland’s leading literary patrons and co-founder of the Abbey Theatre. She frequently summered here before giving the house to her artist son Robert as a wedding present. During World War I, Robert was killed while flying a plane over France, prompting Yeats’s poem An Irish Airman Foresees his Death.

Mark and Ally Helmore, present owners of Mount Vernon, run it as a guesthouse, offering visitors the opportunity to sleep in the same five generously proportioned and exceptionally well decorated bedrooms where the likes of Yeats and Shaw once slept. More: