Haven is a Place on Earth
After Ladytown and Gingertown and before Demesne and Borris in Ossory. Past the ‘Squirrels Crossing’ sign next to Deadman’s Inn. Guided by 1,000 flickering lights, all the stars and planets aligning, we finally arrive at Ballyfin. Dawn is gone and noon is soon. Slowly, majestically, breathtakingly, theatrically, on adverb overload those black and golden gates glide back to reveal another world. To quote Elizabeth Bowen in her 1955 novel A World of Love: “a new world – painted, expectant, empty, intense.” A world of everything. She called these estates “house islands” in her 1942 autobiography Bowen’s Court and Seven Winters. Ballyfin’s walled demesne is more like a “house principality” with hundreds of newly planted trees, dozens of revived vistas and tens of augmented avenues. Two butlers and a manageress stand to welcoming attention on the wide steps of the house. Symmetrically. Later she will whisper “it’s because you love heritage” which is possibly the best excuse ever for a quadruple room upgrade. We’ve luxed out! Our car, keys, suitcases, worries disappear. All we are left with is our anticipatory sense of awe and a louche lust for life. And complimentary glasses of Champers.
There are no equals. Parallels don’t exist. Period. It’s Poles apart. Ballyfin loads the super into superlative. It sticks the hyper up hyperbole. Puts the eggs in ecstasy. And then there are those golf buggies lined up above the haha. Aha, pure unadulterated genius! Pray tell, channelling our outer Tamara in a Green Bugatti, how else are we to explore the 250 hectare estate? Zestfully zipping round from tower folly (lake to left) to picnic chalet (lake to right) to stable yard (lake above) to walled garden (lake below) to boathouse (oops lake straight ahead, all 11 hectares of it), Ballyfin is a deliriously glorious and indulgent playground for rich and cultured adults. This world is our oyster and nobody else’s. We’ve checked in; we’ve checked out. Naturally, on cue ducks waddle ‘cross the lawn to the fountain. A duck is the hotel motif. Ballyfin really is a haven for wild animals and Wild Geese and wild guests. On that (latter, louder) note, why does nowhere ever advertise for “noisy rooms”?
In the 1820s, Sir Charles Henry Coote commissioned multigenerational practice Richard and William Vitruvius Morrison to design a new house on his recently acquired estate. “The ubiquitous Sir Richard Morrison,” as Mark Girouard calls him in Town and Country, 1992. “The son went by the rather wonderful name Vitruvius,” Randal# McDonnell, Earl of Antrim, tells us. Absolutely everybody and we mean everybody raves about the result. Frank Keohane, author of the latest addition to The Buildings of Ireland series, Cork City and County, 2020, believes, “… the interiors are furnished to a degree of perfection and luxury that perhaps only the Morrisons could achieve at this period.” The Irish Architectural Archive (Nick Sheaff et al) published in its 1989 thesis on the Morrisons: “The grandeur and variety of the whole conception and the richness and quality of the decoration are unparalleled in Irish county house architecture.” What Francis Scott Fitzgerald calls “honeyed luxury” in his 1992 novella, The Diamond as Big as the Ritz.
Esteemed architect John O’Connell advised on heritage and conservation matters relating to the restoration and rejuvenation of Ballyfin. He relates, “Vitruvius was incredibly inspired by everything he saw, although he was frail – he had weak lungs and died aged 44. Ballyfin vies with Baronscourt in County Tyrone but outstrips it. The Cootes saw Emo Court, the neighbouring estate to theirs, and wanted that. They allowed the Morrisons free rein. Ballyfin is the equivalent of the Czar’s Palace with knobs on, the Villa d’Este of Ireland!” Henry James calls the Villa d’Este one of the “operatic palaces” in The Wings of the Dove, 1902. John notes, “As does happen, the Cootes fell on hard times.” The next owners, the quadruple barrelled Pole-Tylney-Long-Wellesley family, sold Ballyfin to the Patrician Brothers and after a few decades as a college, a shining Knight and a Madam (to borrow the title of an Irish Knight’s spouse) came to the rescue of the fading pile: Chicago businessman Fred Krehbiel and his Irish born wife Kay. Sadly, Mr Krehbiel passed away in June 2021. They were accompanied by a crack team of specialists, all top of their game, to achieve the greatest ever revival of an Irish country house. The nine year rebuilding took several years longer than the original construction period. “Fred and Kay travelled all the time,” remembers John, “and brought to Ballyfin all of their experiences. They bought really good paintings and furniture for the house. There’s a pair of mirrors by Robert Adam in the Saloon. For them, this larger investment was about the apotheosis of the big 19th century house.”
Of course, John led the brilliant restoration of Fota in County Cork, another Morrison house. Ballyfin is hewn from local Clonaslee sandstone. We recall Oscar Wilde in his 1882 essay The House Beautiful: “The use of the natural hues of stone is one of the real signs of proper architecture.” The reconfigured 20th century wing, part hidden from the avenue by an enormous holm oak tree, is of reconstituted stone. The entrance front of the main block is dominated by a three bay giant Ionic order portico; the rear, by a four bay pedimented breakfront. No boring white window frames here: dark stained timber window frames offer a monochromatic sharpness to the exterior as precise as an architectural print. It was Dorinda, Lady Dunleath, who first alerted us to the aesthetic superiority of dark window frames, referencing the National Trust village of Kearney a few kilometres south of Ballywalter Park on the Ards Peninsula, County Down. Five blind windows perfect the symmetry of Ballyfin’s façade.
A bookcase in the Library is jammed full of awards. Relais and Châteaux Garden Trophy 2014. Relais and Châteaux Heritage Trophy 2017. AA Hotel of the Year 2019. Travel and Leisure World’s Best Hotel Awards 2017, 2018, 2019 and… surely 2021! There have been successful Irish country house hotels before, but when it comes to Ballyfin, there have been no prequels. We idly wander through the chain of reception rooms; in The Diamond as Big as Ballyfin “the upholstery consisted of 1,000 minute and exquisite tapestries of silk, woven with jewels and embroideries, and set upon a background of cloth of gold”. Oscar Wilde again, “And now books: an old library is one of the most beautifully coloured things imaginable; the old colours are toned down and they are so well bound, for whatever is beautiful is well made.” One stack of books, a snoresville of Parliamentary Debates, isn’t what it seems: the titles are merely book spines concealing a jib door into the Conservatory. Marlfield House in Gorey, County Wexford, finally has some competition; talented architect Alfred Cochrane’s glass act being the defining country house transparent moment of the 20th century. Some visual jokes are more recent like the suit of armour sporting Vilebrequin boxer shorts on a half landing.
The vastness of the estate swallows everyone up. Deep in the Irish midlands, we’re lost below the shadowy climbs of Slieve Bloom. John observes, “Jim Reynolds designed an incredibly well prepared landscape in the context of John Sutherland’s 19th century parkland.” This includes the extraordinary cascade flowing down the hill from John’s Claudian temple to the terrace in front of the garden elevation of the main block. “Claude Lorrain was a great 17th century French painter who created huge enigmatic landscapes embracing the whole of the Greek and Roman worlds,” John reckons. “The Claudian landscape became the ideal 18th century English landscape – spare, Protestant-like.” Only at pre dinner drinks will we meet the Irish, American and French occupants of the other 19 guest rooms. Thankfully everyone has rigidly stuck to Oscar Wilde’s maxim: “People should not mar beautiful surroundings by gloomy dress…”
The hotel years. What gives? Nothing. Not us. We’re staying put. Or rather going Coote Suite tout suite. Holed up in the Sir Charles Coote State Room thank you very much, which we’re reliably informed is the only ground floor suite in the main house (the Viceroy Room is 20th century). And boy, do we only do main house. It’s taken us quite a few generations to escape the servants’ wing and we’re certainly not voluntarily returning there anytime soon. Ballyfin mostly doesn’t do modern, phew. An ancient stone sphinx guards our bedroom window (not that we’re completely averse to night time visitors). We’re in the noisy room (us, not the environs). How many doors does a suite need? There’s the jib door below the flying staircase landing pushing through the wall thickness to the main bedroom door; curved doors to the cloakroom and bathroom lobby; then a cast iron door creaking into the bathroom. “This bedroom was Sir Charles’ office and the bathroom was his gun room,” explains John. “The arrangement was very strategically planned so that he could watch over the avenue and the yard.” The ceiling is a riot of much arching, apsing, cornicing, coffering, coving, dentilling, detailing, resetting and vaulting. A handwritten card from General Manager Peter White is propped on top of the Fornasetti set of drawers. The fourposter is a plotted knotted tented oriented plateau of impossible indelicacies! Elizabeth Bowen’s A World of Love is relevant, “The fourposter, of a frame immense, was overdraped with more of the damask stuff…” A huge marble bath with bronze lion head taps (Drummonds naturally, a reminder of home) overlooks the lower ground floor courtyard with its ever flowing fountain. Draped over the bath are the heaviest white towels and bathrobes imaginable.
Candlelit dinner is served in the Dining Room. Wow! Weyhey! Yeah! Suddenly, unexpectedly, the cascade beyond our window erupts and alights in a flow of waves and an impossibly surreal pyrotechnic display of Jamesian Catherine wheels. The John O’Connell Claudian Temple is ablaze! Nymphs and dervishes, thankfully no banshees or hobgoblins, flitter across the shadowy striped perfected lawn. A custom designed pescatarian tasting menu, sealed with fresh (mind your own) bees’ wax from the far side of the Kitchen Garden wall, guides us along the gastronomic voyage of a lifetime. There will be no sequels. In something akin to our 55 a day, breathe in: Chilled Apple Gazpacho (garden mint, apple compressed in lime); Lightly Cured Trout (garden turnips, lemon, hazelnut); Salad of Ballyfin Seasons; Cod Cooked in Rapeseed Oil (black olive, saffron, fennel); Roast Garden Swede (lentils, herb purée, black garlic); Cashel Blue (onion and sesame sable, Ballyfin honeycomb); Vanilla and Mascarpone Parfait (toasted macadamia, honey truffle). Breathe out.
Wild Geese Wine is a speciality of the Dining Room. Ballyfin abounds with informative historical snippets and the Wine List is no exception. “Many émigrés achieved fame and distinction fighting in the armies of France and Spain, others as scholars in Irish colleges from Rome to Prague to Seville. Others, still, entered the wine trade in Bordeaux and established great châteaux many of which still bear their names.” John Gebbie summarises the Flight of the Earls, as the enforced emigration is called, in his 1968 Historical Survey of a Parish of Omagh, “The O’Neill lands of this and other parts had become forfeit to the English king, James I, by the flight of the O’Neill leader, Hugh, to Italy, 1607, with consequent abandonment of his estates. These lands, together with O’Donnell’s, were a matter of 800,000 acres. (The six escheated counties thus involved were: Donegal, Derry, Tyrone, Fermanagh, Cavan and Armagh).” Louie Cullen writes in The Irish Brandy Houses of 18th Century France, 2000, “Irishmen were prominent in the trade of Spain and France in the 18th century; Irish names still survive in streets, trading houses and châteaux… wine châteaux carry the names Lynch, Kirwan, MacCarthy and Boyd.”
The tune “What a Wonderful World” floats through the light air. A bowler hatted musician is in his element showing off his talent on the ivories in the adjoining Saloon. “Hallelujah” follows our favourite “Moon River” then comes the Downton Abbey theme. A “rococo harmony” straight from The Diamond as Big as the Ritz delights. “Music, plangent and unobtrusive…” To recycle Henry James’ character Densher’s phrase in The Wings of the Dove, how “delightfully rococo”. Each piece is imbued with novel meaning and nuanced memory. We’re up for him playing the Victorian hymn “I’ve Got a Mansion Just Over the Hilltop” although we’d like him to skip the line “I’m satisfied with just a cottage below”. Min Hogg, Founding Editor of The World of Interiors, once shared she was fascinated by properties “from palaces to pigsties”. We’ll settle for the former. Min did tell us Irish country houses held a special place in her heart; she was a member of the Irish Georgian Society. Long after our stay at Ballyfin, like Francis Scott Fitzgerald’s character John, we “remembered that first night as a daze of many colours, of quick sensory impressions, of music soft as a voice in love, and of the beauty of things, lights and shadows, and motions and faces”.
Head Chef Sam Moody runs the kitchen at Ballyfin; he cuts the mustard and knows his scallions: “The best meals start with the best ingredients and breakfast is no different. For 150 years or more the apple trees in our orchard have provided their fruit for the house. Apples are collected and pressed each autumn for you to drink throughout the year as Ballyfin’s famous apple juice. Some chickens are lucky enough to call Ballyfin Demesne home; you can stroll up to the top walled garden and collect a few eggs for breakfast and we will happily cook them. Honey is produced by our busy bees in the quiet northwest corner of the estate. Bernd Schuh looks after our bees and extracts the honey for you to enjoy.”
A breakfast menu snippet reads, “The popularity of blue and white china across the globe in the 1700s could not be ignored. America and Europe were flooded with imports from China that were incredibly popular. It was in 1784 that Josiah Spode I perfected the process of under glaze printing on earthenware with tissue paper transfers made from land engraved golden plates. Initially the designs were sympathetic reproductions of the Chinese porcelain that had been incredibly popular during the 1700s but soon Josiah launched original designs such as Willow, circa 1790, and Blue Tower, 1814. Our breakfast china has been selected for Ballyfin as a china typical of the period when the Cootes first welcomed guests to the house.”
The back stairs that once threaded together the service and polite rooms of the house now provide access to the basement bar and swimming pool in the rejigged 20th century wing. “The Ballroom above the swimming pool was the old refectory of the college,” relates John. “It is wide and long with a low ceiling so to foreshorten the space I have advised painting murals in the ceiling roses.” As Oscar Wilde taught, “About the ceiling: the ceiling is a great problem always – what to do with that great expanse of white plaster.” A snippet in a glass cabinet along one of the later wing corridors informs us, “This is part of the large collection of silver assembled by the Coote family over two centuries. The earliest piece here is a London coffee pot dated 1704 with the crest of the Earl of Mountrath. The latest is a cigarette box of 1907. The silver along with all the contents of the house left Ballyfin when the family departed in 1923. Since then much of the silver has been dispersed. Happily contents of this cabinet returned to Ballyfin in April 2014 when it was disposed of by Sir Christopher Coote. The oak iron bound silver chest in which the silver was stored is now in the Library.”
Another corridor snippet reads, “This piece of Bog Oak was found buried in a peat bog in County Offaly. Preserved from decay by the acidic and anaerobic bog conditions, it could be around 5,000 to 8,000 years old.” These remnants of history along the corridors are counterbalanced by more than a generous helping of modern art cool. Vying for attention are Irish and international paintings: ‘The Divination of Ugber’ by John Boyd (born 1957); ‘Lewis Mumford Says’ by American artist Blaise Drummond (born 1967); ‘Abstract Composition’ by Mainie Jellet (1897 to 1944); ‘Patient’ by Brian Maguire (born 1951); ‘Burning Building’ by Stephen McKenna (born 1939); ‘Bellacorick’ by British artist Hughie O’Donoghue (born 1953); and ‘Untitled’ by Ross Wilson (born 1957). We raise our filled flutes to Oscar Wilde’s observation that there is “nothing in life that art cannot raise and sanctify”.
And now for a vignette of Ballyfin style service. Barely have we gingerly opened our bedroom jib door than the butler comes running. It’s 7am on a Sunday morning. “Coffee?” Now that’s called mindreading. Especially when it means a full pot with plain and lemon shortbread served next to the specially lit fire in the Saloon. What Princess Michael wants, Princess Michael gets. We’re reminded of the composer Samuel Barber’s 1952 experience of Glenveagh Castle in County Donegal: “Joy of joys, peat fires are burning in every room… they call it turf… and burning it has an ineffable perfume, at least for me.” Forget spoons and mouths, we were born with silver trays on our knees. It does result in us being more stuffed that the Entrance Hall taxidermy for our 8am full omelette (salmon and whatsoever things are lovely) breakfast served once again in the Dining Room.
“Even the bill is beautiful at Ballyfin!” smiles the receptionist waving us off and it really is gorgeously presented and amplified by an embarrassment of party favours for the road. Let’s hope our bank manager concurs. The only peccadillo is this: every hotel from henceforth will be an anti-climax. For haven’s sake there absolutely are no equals. There were no prequels; there will never be any sequels. Right down to the three enigmatic cherry tomatoes. Ballyfin isn’t cheap but shrouds have no pockets. The 2020s are the new 1820s and Ballyfin is the only place to sizzle this season. It’s not just the fires that are roaring in these hallowed rooms.