Esteemed architect Fergus Flynn Rogers more or less single handledly turned around Carlingford back in the day. Everywhere you look in the village there’s one of his motifs: a plate glassed Diocletian window here; a sky high metal framed corridor there. He possesses a crucial and unnerving handling of materiality, at once immediate and sympathetic. Between Carlingford and Newry lies the village of Omeath.
Former resident artist Anne Davey Orr explains, “Omeath was the last Irish speaking area on the east coast. It was where people from Falls Road Belfast came for their summer holidays – hence the caravan parks.” Meanwhile, lucky roadside donkeys chomp on apples from a Ballyfin goody bag.
Staggered up a hillside, an architectural beauty parade of picturesque cottages clinging to the gradient, a Georgian house doubling as a petrol station, a boutique hotel boasting a celebrated chef, and an improbably vast château like a granite mirage on the horizon, Borris in County Carlow is a cut above the average Irish village. With a County population of 50,000, one third that of the smallest London Boroughs, driving around Carlow is a breeze.
Borris House is a mostly 1830s Richard and William Vitruvius Morrison confection: neoclassical innards under a Tudoresque skin. The original Georgian box swallowing up an older castle is decorated outside with battlements, finials, cupolas and hood mouldings, some ogee shaped.
On the 650 acre walled estate stands Ireland’s tallest broadleaf tree. It’s a 144 foot high hybrid black American poplar down by the River Barrow. The estate once covered 35,000 acres before being broken up in 1907.
Current owner Morgan MacMurrough Kavanagh says, “A two storey wing with a walkway over the kitchens used to connect the main house to the estate chapel so that the family could enter straight into their first floor gallery seating. My grandmother demolished that wing. Anglican church services are still held in the chapel every other Sunday.”
“Riddled!” shrieked the 5th Countess of Clanwilliam, after years were already gone since irony, when faced with the prospect of sharing her matrimonial home Gill Hall with more ghouls than an episode of Rent-a-Ghost. “Simply one damned ghost after another!” A card game later, or so the rural myth portends, the lucky Earl won neighbouring Montalto House from a gentleman surnamed Ker. “Phew!” she exclaimed, sinking into a sofa in the first floor Lady’s Sitting Room with its Robert West stuccowork of scallop shells and a brush and comb and a cockerel and fox. The only spirits ever at Montalto are the Jameson bottles rattling on drinks trolleys. Over a wee dram, it’s worth catching sight of the resident albino hare in the 10 hectare gardens on the 160 hectare estate. His son the 6th Earl, in between sewing tapestries, demolished the ballroom and a chunk of the servants’ quarters, shrinking the size of the house by a half. Under the ownership of JP Corry, a famed timber merchant, the east wing and rear apartments also had to be chopped following a calamitous fire in 1985.
Country houses form distinctive works of architecture, with appropriately furnished interiors, and considered as part of a demesne, conceived in all its complexity as a picturesque ensemble of gardens, woods and buildings, they represent what is justly described by John Harris in The Destruction of the Country House as ‘the supreme example of a collective work of art’. But whatever else a country house may symbolically constitute, it was always conceived to be decorated and furnished quite simply as a habitation, and it is that incomparable sense of home that the restitution, restoration and refurnishing of Montalto has sought to preserve for today and tomorrow. The Earl of Moira commenced construction in 1752 by which time a prosperous Irishman could have confidence that his home would remain his castle without having to look like one.
A sense of order framing majestic comfort prevails indoors with eight pairs of Doric columns guarding the entrance hall, sentinels in stone. It’s flanked by the dining room and library. Straight ahead the staircase leads to the long gallery, of more than average beauty, an axis in ormolu, a spine of gilt. Trompe l’oeil and oeil de boeuf and toile de jouy abound. The interior, like beauty, is born anew every hundred years. Montalto is a sun, radiant, growing, gathering light and storing it – then after an eternity pouring it forth in a glance, the fragment of a sentence, cherishing all beauty and all illusion.