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Lord George Augustus Hill + Bunbeg Harbour Donegal

Catsup and Waistcoatings

Salmon leap where the River Clady flows into the Atlantic Ocean. It’s early evening in Ireland’s smallest harbour and the last of the fishermen are tying up their boats. Up on the high street, Milky Chance’s Living in A Haze is blasting from Caife Kitty’s just before closing. A winding lane connects the harbour up to the village. At the village end of the lane past the hilltop lookout tower there’s a petite Anglican church and hall on one side and a cemetery on the other. Alastair Rowan writes in his 1979 Buildings of North West Ulster, “Gweedore Parish Church: tiny tower and hall built as a dual purpose church and school in 1844. Restored as a church only in 1914, when the tower was added. Miniature two light Tudor windows in wood.” The standalone hall was built at the same time as the church restoration.

Séamus and Ann Kennedy run The Clady bed and breakfast. Like most of the buildings at the harbour, it was erected by Lord George Augustus Hill. This Anglo Irish landlord gets a mixed reception from locals to this day, from educating the populace to ripping them off with rent hikes. The Clady was the manager’s house of the adjoining store. Seamus’ family once owned the whole block. The store was sold to a hotel developer last century but nothing came of it. The grain store opposite is also a bed and breakfast. So are the former soldiers’ cottagey quarters. Another lookout tower on top of a hill overlooking the harbour has been extended to form a new house. Harry Percival Swan writes in Romantic Stories and Legends of Donegal, 1965, “’World’s smallest harbour’: this claim has been made for the small harbour of Sark, Channel Islands. But Bunbeg Harbour, Gweedore, is a toy by comparison.”

Lord Hill published a didactic travel guide in 1846: Facts from Gweedore with Useful Hints to Donegal Tourists. It contains a wealth of detail – his Lordship did the granular. “In the year 1838, and subsequently, Lord George Augustus Hill purchased small properties, situated at Gweedore, in the parish of Tullaghobegly, County Donegal, which in aggregate amounted to upwards of 23,000 acres; the number of inhabitants therein being about 3,000; nearly 700 of whom paid rent. The district extends for some miles along the northwest coast or corner of Ireland, and the scenery is of the very wildest description; the Atlantic dashing along those shores in all its magnificent freshness, whilst the harsh screeching of the sea fowl is its continual and suitable accompaniment. The coast is studded with numerous little islands, and when the ocean is up, or ruffled, it may be seen striking against opposing headlands or precipitous cliffs, with a force and effect that is grand beyond description; the waves forming into a column of foam, which is driven to immense height, and remaining visible for many seconds, until the feathered spray becomes gracefully and gradually dispersed.”

“It is now 15 years since Lord George Hill commenced the attempt to ameliorate the condition of the people of the Gweedore district; during which period he has been on the most friendly terms with them; and although the changes made upset all their ancient ways of dealing in, and parcelling out, land, they seemed, very early in the transaction, to have understood that Lord George’s object throughout, was to endeavour to put them in a way of doing better for themselves, and not with a view of taking their land from them, or driving them out of their own country. These innovations, however, alarmed the neighbourhood, and an appeal was made by a tenant to his landlord, ‘Not to bother his tenants as Lord George Hill had done!’”

“The land is never let, sold, or devised by the acre, but by a ‘cow’s grass’. This is a complement of land well understood by the people, being in fact the general standard; and they judge of the dimensions of a holding by its being to the extent, as the case may be, of one, two, or three cow’s grass, although a cow’s grass, as it varies according to the quality of the land, comprises for this reason, a rather indefinite quantity. Thus the townlands are all divided into so many cow’s grass, which of course have been cut up ad infinitum.”

“In 1839, a corn store, 84 feet long by 22 feet wide, having three lofts and a kiln, was built at the port of Bunbeg, capable of containing three or four tons of oats. A quay was formed in front of the store, at which vessels of 200 tons can load or discharge, there being 16 feet of water at the height of the tide. A market was thus established for the grain of the district, the price given for it being much the same as at Letterkenny, six and 20 miles distant. There was much difficulty in getting this store built; even the site of it had to be excavated, by blasting from the solid rock, and there were no masons or carpenters in the country capable of erecting a building of the kind.”

Lord George Augustus Hill’s store, Bunbeg, Gweedore, is now supplied with the following articles for sale at very reasonable prices: ironmongery, drugs, groceries etc. Awl blades. Beams. Bellows. Bridles. Brushes. Candlesticks. Canvas for sails. Cart chains. Combs of every kind. Delft of all description viz cups and saucers, jugs and mugs, basins, dishes, plates, pots and pans. Files of every kind. Fishing hooks. Fishing lines. Funnels. Glass viz window, looking glasses, bottles. Heel ball. Hemp. Hinges. Iron viz horse shoes, nail rod, hoop, pots and pans, kettles, saucepans. Italian irons. Knitting needles. Knives viz dinner, pocket. Leather of all kinds. Locks of all kinds. Nails of all kinds. Oakum. Plaster of Paris. Pickles. Raisins. Rice. Rhubarb. Redwood. Rotten stone. Resin. Slates in variety. Sugar viz moist, loaf, candy, barley. Molasses. Manna. Nutmeg. Oils viz boiled, raw, sperm, castor. Ointment. Paints viz black, white, green, red. Pitch. Pepper viz cayenne, black, white. Plasters viz blistering, adhesive, diachylon, cantharides. Salt. Saltpetre. Senna. Shumac. Spermaceti. Spirits of hartshorn. Spirits of turpentine. Sulphur. Tar. Teas viz bohea, congou, hyson. Treacle. Turmeric. Umber. Varnish. Vinegar. Whiting. Barley. Scotch. Biscuits. Coffee. Flour viz American, Sligo. Split peas. Bath brick. Blacking. Blue stone. Candles. Congreve matches. Soap. Soda. Starch. Mustard. Tobacco of all kinds. Tobacco pipes. Servant’s friend. Account books. Children’s books. India rubber. Ink. Lead pencils. Sealing wax. Writing paper. Wafers. Reaping hooks. Ropes, new and old. Sandpaper. Shoes. Shoe heels. Shoe hairs. Shovels and spades. Shot. Spouting. Timber. Wheelbarrows. Allspice. Alum. Arrow root. Bitter aloes. Brimstone. Camphor. Carraway seeds. Cassia liquor. Catsup. Cinnamon. Cloves. Comfits. Copperas. Cream of tartar. Epsom salts. Fuller’s Earth. Fustic. Ginger. Glue. Indigo. Madder. Lozenges viz peppermint, cinnamon. Liquorice. Logwood. Blacklead. Lampblack. Lint. Meal. Woollen and drapery goods viz rugs, quilts, sheets, drawers, flannels. Calicos plain and printed. Moleskins. Fustians. Cords. Chambray. Checks. Shirting. Merinos. Orleans cloth. Jeans. Handkerchiefs. Muslins. Shawls. Laces. Ribbons. Hats. Caps. Pilot cloths. Waistcoatings. Stocks. Unions. Cravats. Bodkins. Tapes. Threads. Pins and needles. Cottons. Buttons. Twist. Sewing silk. Spools. Pipings. Stay laces. Scissors. Thimbles. Knives.”

On a wall in the staircase lobby of The Clady is a framed 2018 article from The Guardian newspaper by the late great journalist Henry McDonald. “Mornings in Donegal can be so beautiful they take the breath away. National Geographic Traveller concluded at the start of December that Donegal was the ‘coolest place on the planet’ to visit. The magazine predicted big things for a county often overshadowed by better known counties such as Kerry, and cities such as Dublin. 10 miles west of Killybegs – on the Wild Atlantic Way, a coastal strip that runs for 1,600 miles along Ireland’s western seaboard – the narrow coast road passes homes where sheep wander into front gardens. There are stunning vistas of rugged, bucolic coastal inlets. In the 6th century, Irish monks sailed from here to take Christianity to Iceland.” Donegal continues to inspire writers down the ages. And disco boys too.

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Lavender’s Blue + Kinsale West Cork

Apples of Gold in Settings of Silver

“The town of Kinsale is a large stinking filthy hole… I was glad to leave so vile a place…” So complained the Reverend Richard Allyn in his 1691 journal. Clearly not a fan. Things have somewhat improved in the intervening centuries. In fact Kinsale is the poster girl for West Cork – it’s bigger, brighter, busier and (running out of alliteration) richer than the stiff competition. There are three independent book shops: Bookstór, Write On and Kinsale Bookshop.

Kinsale’s architecture breathes colour. Every other building is brightly painted – no Farrow and Ball Elephant’s Breath here. It’s pointless being subtle against a usually grey sky. Burnt terracotta, highlighter pen pink, ochre yellow, pig’s blood, salmon pink, swamp green, turquoise sea blue, or “Duck egg blue” or “Tuscan yellow” as Mrs O’Driscoll (formerly Mrs Doyle of Father Ted) observes in Graham Norton’s new television detective series Holding set in West Cork. Bruno’s Italian Eatery (with scarlet red doors and window frames) wears its heart on its (unusually white) walls. A Christopher Morley quote “No man is lonely while eating spaghetti; it requires so much attention,” joins one from Sophia Loren, “Everything you see I owe to Spaghetti.” The tiniest dormers imaginable peep out from the slate roof above.

Frank Keohane notes in his 2020 Pevsner series architectural guide The Buildings of Cork City and County, “Kinsale has a large number of high quality houses, many featuring 18th century first floor oriel windows… the medieval street pattern very much survives, with streets creeping along the hillside at different levels.” He comments on one of the most historic buildings in the town, “Market and court house (former). Market Square. Completed by 1707, perhaps to the designs of Edward Bridges, architect and burgess of Kinsale, and possibly incorporating the remains of a market built circa 1610…” ‘Dutch Billy’ gables are hung with Cornish style weather slates.

Another impressive public building is positioned high up overlooking the marina. According to Walter’s Way 2015, “The Municipal Hall was rebuilt in the late 1920s having been burnt during the Civil War in 1922. Prior to that it was The Kinsale Club, the social hub for the British Soldiers stationed in Kinsale. In front is a lovely bowling green, with a magnificent view over the harbour. The Municipal Hall later became the offices of Kinsale Town Council.”

Frank states, “Municipal Hall (formerly Assembly Rooms). The Mall. A pretty affair in pasteboard Gothick, described as ‘recently built’ in 1837. Two storeyed. Four bay front, the outer bays advanced and raised above the centre to give the impression of towers. Big pointed windows look out over the harbour. Coursed rubble sandstone, articulated by string courses and tall shallow arched recesses to the end windows. Burnt in 1922, interior reconstructed in 1928 in a nondescript manner – adjoining bowling green laid out before 1656.” It bears more than a passing resemblance to Hillsborough Fort in County Down.

Founded in the 12th century by Anglo Normans, Kinsale soon became established as an important port trading in wine and salt, a taste (pun) of things to come. It’s now as famous for its restaurants as for being the starting point of the Wild Atlantic Way, a 2,500 kilometre touring route of oceanic coastline. Cherry blossom floating down the pavements in the spring breeze, like yesterday’s confetti, adds to the colour of the town. Kinsale is like a snow cooled drink at harvest time – it’s refreshing.

On a peninsula south of Kinsale, high on a hill across the River Bandon, lies Castlelands Graveyard. Collins, Keohane and White are popular surnames on the gravestones. One inscription reads, “Here lyeth the body of Cornelius Raily who departed this life August 15 1801 aged 42 years. God rest his soul.”

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Lavender’s Blue + Mizen Head West Cork

Sweetie Darling

Charles Haughey, thrice Taoiseach, and his lover girl Terry Keane were well known patrons of the arts in the closing years of the 20th century. Rather more obscurely, Charlie was once shipwrecked in heavy fog off Mizen Head. “We were sailing our former boat Taurima back to Howth at the end of September 1985 after she had spent most of the summer around the Blaskets. As night fell, a thick dense fog came down reducing visibility to zero. Due to a malfunction of our radar system, Taurima went on to the rocks at Mizen Head… She went down very quickly – in about five minutes – but we had time to send out a May Day and launch the life raft and small dinghy which was kept aboard.”

Things went from the their worst to not so bad. “Our May Day was picked up by the Shannon Marine Rescue and Coordination Centre, Valentia Radio and the lightkeepers in the Mizen Lighthouse. The rescue services went into operation immediately and both the Valentia and Baltimore Lifeboats were launched… I shall always remember the warm friendly atmosphere aboard the lifeboat; her crew were just marvellous. Listening to their good natured banter, repartee and wit, it was difficult to remember that they all have their services voluntarily and had been dragged from their homes or their socialising in the early hours of Sunday morning and put to sea.”

This story is recorded in a 1994 framed copy of the Sunday Independent on the wall of the meteorological lodge at Mizen Head. On the edge of the world, followers of the Shipping Forecast will know Mizen Head falls under Fastnet. The other sea areas around Ireland in an anticlockwise fashion are Shannon, Rockall, Malin and Irish Sea. Frank Keohane opens his 2020 epic book The Buildings of Ireland: Cork City and County, “Cork is the southernmost and largest county in Ireland…” This is the Very Wild Atlantic Way. Marine mammal spotting – for those strong enough to hold onto binoculars in the ever prevailing winds – includes Risso’s Dolphins (March to May), Minke Whales (March to November), Basking Sharks (April to June), Common Dolphins (April to December), Humpback Whales (May to December), Atlantic Sunfish (June to August) and Fin Whales (June to December). Stormzy. Stormby. Stormy.

Sharon Townshend, châtelaine of The Castle at Castletownshend, a few kilometres west of Mizen Head, describes it well, “At Ireland’s most southwesterly point, cross the iconic Mizen Bridge to the signal station and enjoy the spectacular sea views out to the Fastnet Lighthouse. The Mizen Head visitor centre with a café and gift shop is positioned hight on a cliff and exhibits all sorts of maritime paraphernalia, the station keeper’s living quarters as well as an amazing photographic collage of the wildlife and underwater life.”

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Ballyshannon Donegal +

Sights and Thoughts

In England, thanks to Pall Mall the noun “mall” (rhymes with “Al”) conjures up images of grand boulevards lined with majestic buildings. In America, it’s an out of town covered shopping centre (rhymes with “all”). In Ireland, it’s something else altogether. While alumni of University of Ulster may remember The Mall as being the wide corridor linking the main lecture theatres of the Jordanstown campus, it is more recognisable as a street name in town centres.

The Mall in Ballyshannon is definitely at the lower key end of the Irish variety. It begins to the west of Upper Main Street with a variety of late 18th century and early 19th century townhouses and, passing Mall Quay, gradually peters out further to the west into a semirural lane looping round the Erne Estuary.  Parallel with The Mall to the north is the even more informal Back Mall. The arched laneway abutting Dorrians Imperial Hotel at the most easterly end of Back Mall is a nerve wrecking few millimetres wider than the average car.

Clinging to the edge of the island of Ireland, Ballyshannon is steeped in history. The name comes from Béal Átha Seanaidh meaning “The Mouth of Seannach’s Ford”. Seannach was a 5th century warrior. The town’s existence was formalised by Royal Charter in 1613 but archaeological digs have revealed it dates back thousands of years. In 1423, Niall Garbh O Domhnaill Chieftain of the O’Donnell Clan built a castle in the settlement, long demolished. Ballyshannon was the scene of a siege and defeat of the Crown forces by Red Hugh O’Donnell in 1597. It was created a Borough by Royal Charter in 1613. Ballyshannon was the birthplace in the 18th century of politician William Connolly; Elizabeth Dixon, Mary Shelley’s grandmother; and Mathilda Thornley Blake, Bram Stoker’s mother. So two links to gothic horrors: Frankenstein and Dracula.

The town is built on a hill rising up from the north bank of the River Erne. A smaller portion of the town lies to the south of the river including a series of distinguished villas backing onto the Erne Estuary. The oldest surviving building is the long low former Barracks dating from 1700. This is a well disguised (being converted into miscellaneous shops) relic of a colonial past. Main Street splits into Upper Main Street and Castle Street to form a loop round the town centre.

One of the most prominent buildings in Ballyshannon, highly visible in long distance views of the town, is the former bank with a clock and bell tower on Main Street. It reaches the equivalent of eight storeys in height: a skyscraper in relative terms for County Donegal. Scottish baronial crow step gables – a little bit of the Highlands on the Wild Atlantic Way – add more drama to its silhouette. Opened in 1878, the building is constructed of rubblestone with cut ashlar details. A single storey wing in a surprisingly neoclassical vein fronts Castle Street. Paired Corinthian columns in front of corresponding pilasters frame entrance doors and support a pediment flanked by an arch headed window on one side and an archway on the other.

The café Tête à Tête on The Diamond in the lower end of the town centre serves the best halloumi and sourdough in the northwest. Chef Guillaume Lamandais and his wife Iwona bring a little bit of Brittainy to the Wild Atlantic Way. At the upper end of the town centre, straddling the hilltop, is Abbey Arts Centre which houses a film club. Upcoming attractions are Arracht directed by Tomás Ó Súilleabháin (the 1845 Great Hunger of Ireland); Redemption of a Rogue by Philip Doherty (a modern Irish take on the prodigal son story); and English director Ben Sharrock’s Limbo (a fictional Syrian musician on a Scottish island awaiting an asylum claim).

When it comes to ecclesiastical buildings Ballyshannon doesn’t do wallflower architecture. This is the bold and proud northwest. It is a strategic location in south Donegal close to Counties Fermanagh and Leitrim and in more recent times the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The Church of Ireland is spectacularly positioned to the west of Main Street high above Erne Estuary with far reaching views of Tullan Strand to the west and Ben Bulben Mountain in County Sligo to the southwest. The former Presbyterian Church, now vacant, is lower lying on The Mall. To the east of Main Street, St Patrick’s Catholic Church looks down on the town. All of them grey in hue, St Patrick’s wins the award for architecture as topography. Surely it was hewed and chiselled not designed and built.

Alistair Rowan writes about all the churches in his 1979 Buildings of Ireland: Northwest Ulster, sponsored by Lord Dunleath’s Charitable Trust. “St Anne, Kilbarron Parish Church (Church of Ireland). 18th century, rebuilt in 1841 ‘in the Saxon style of architecture’ by the Reverend Tredennick to designs of William Farrell. A big five bay two storey hall with a high roof that dwarfs the west tower to which it is attached. This is probably a remnant of the old church of 1745… Farrell’s church is in ashlar sandstone with the windows recessed between flat strips of masonry, a sort of economical Norman originated by Smirke.” The church isn’t dissimilar from William Farrell’s Church of Ireland in Pettigo of three years earlier.

St Patrick. A long stone church set sideways to the ridge of the hill. Primitive Norman detailing. Seven bay two storey. In the middle of the north side is a big square tower and spire, inscribed ‘Dan Campbell, Builder, 1842’. J J McCarthy added the polygonal chancel in 1860.” And finally, “Presbyterian Church. Jumbled Nonconformist Gothic. A three bay hall in stone with Y traceried windows, built for Dr James Murphy about 1840, and extended in a T plan at its west end.”

Camlin Tower is a distractingly striking landmark on a bend on the Belleek road just outside Ballyshannon. It is a battlemented gate tower attached to a grand gated archway which opens onto a lane leading to… a derelict cottage, a barn and a field full of shire horses. Camlin was once the seat of the Trendennick family from Bodwin, Cornwall; they bought the estate from William Connolly in circa 1718. The big house was rebuilt in 1838 to the design of John Benjamin Keane. It was a two storey five bay Tudor Gothic building similar to the same architect’s Castle Irvine in County Fermanagh. The estate was sold to the Land Commission at the turn of last century. The house was erroneously demolished as part of the mid 20th century Ballyshannon Hydroelectric Scheme works. It was thought the house would be submerged by the new reservoir but the water level never did reach the ruins.

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Tullan Strand Bundoran Donegal + Lavender’s Blue

A Fantasia in the Icelandic Manner on Irish Themes

The Wild Atlantic Way lives up to its name. Next stop the Faroe Islands (800 kilometres to the north) then Iceland (1,100 kilometres northwest). The only access to its golden strand is down a rocky precipice before crossing a rivulet. The tide dramatically swoops in by dozens of metres every few seconds. Horses majestically gallop through the low waves with a backdrop of the shadowy Wardtown Castle. Raven haired surfers adventurously ride the crashing white waves. High above the beach, fairy bridges and a wishing chair are more than the stuff of legend. The outline of buildings follows the silhouetted mountainous scenery. Everything and everyone are all about wild abandon.


Ox Mountains + Gleniff Horseshoe + Aughris Head Sligo

Spinning Round the Moon 

Yeats Country. The land of William Butler is Irish countryside at its most majestic. And dramatic. And awesome. And elemental. And poetic. The place names themselves carry a lilt, from Doonbeakin to Emlymoran.

The great poet may have immortalised Ben Bulben Mountain but there’s so much more countryside besides. At Drumcliffe, a tavern, café and shop cater for profane needs and then the spirit is lifted – once the church, grave and round tower have also been visited – by nature at its wildest. It ain’t called the Wild Atlantic Way for nothin’.

Half a century ago the composer of Adagio for Strings, American Samuel Barber, visited Yeats’ grave. He memorably found it “far from nowhere; there was not a sound, only swallows darting”. That serenity persists. Sheep take priority on the road laneway which winds and twists through the Ox Mountains around the dark waters of Lough Easkey. The mountain ringed valley of Gleniff Horseshoe, behind the distinctive escarpment of Ben Bulben, is where weather meets topography. A mist descends, cloaking the mountain tips of Benwisken, Tievebaun and Truskmore, and threatening to engulf the entire valley.

Seen from the coast, Ben Bulben shrinks to a distant bulge on the horizon of the golden strand of Aughris Head. Not every beach has a thatched 17th century pub but that is one of the many joys of this stretch of the cool west coast.

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Sweeneys + Castle Grove Ramelton Donegal

Weathering Well 

Castle Grove Ramelton © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Maidin mhaith. Tiree, Stornoway, Lerwick, Wick Automatic, Aberdeen, Leuchars, Boulmer, Bridlington, Sandettie Light Vessel Automatic, Greenwich Light Vessel Automatic, St Catherine’s Point Automatic, Jersey, Channel Light Vessel Automatic, Scilly Automatic, Milford Haven, Aberporth, Valley, Liverpool Crosby, Valentia, Ronaldsway, Malin Head, Machrihanish Automatic. For the uninitiated that’s the pure poetry of Radio 4’s shipping forecast, a rhapsodic melodic episodic late night cruise circumnavigating the coastlines of the British Isles. Gotcha. The penultimate location, Malin Head, is the exposed most northerly point of Ireland teetering on the tip of the Innishowen Peninsula in view of the Aurora Borealis. The ultimate location in this neck of the island is Castle Grove. Unlike windswept Malin Head, next stop Iceland, this timid estate lies huddled off the Wild Atlantic Way in the sheltered mid southwest wiggle of Lough Swilly, the waterspace separating the peninsula from the mainland.

Castle Grove Garden © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

A mile long drive sweeps through 350 acres of bucolic parkland as composed as a Derek Hill landscape; a wave of anticipation rises, then behold, a house kinda four square, an abiding place of great and unsearchable things. Like two faced Clandeboye, the principal elevations stand proud at right angles to one another. Face to avenue, face to sea. Castle Grove isn’t like Edward Lovett Pearce’s poppet of Palladian perfection Bellamont Forest, Ireland’s Mereworth (currently on the market for less than £1 million, 1,000 acres included, the price of a two bed flat in Battersea), designed to be seen from every angle including a drone. Nope, it’s country house front, farmhouse back. The four bay façade with central Tuscan porch qualifies Castle Grove as an older rural cousin of Belvedere House, Drumbo, a “middling sized house” splash in Charlie Brett’s Buildings of North Down. Precious cornerstones, sure foundations.

Castle Grove Lough Swilly © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Subsumed within its solid footprint dwells an older house dating back to 1730 and 1695. A radical makeover brought Castle Grove bang up to date for the swinging 1820s. As the Groves went up in the world, onward marching in the direction of the neoclassical vanguard, so did the height of their windows and ceilings. The resultant idiosyncrasies only add to the house’s charm. Four of the windows on the south facing entrance front are higher outside than in, highlighted when the shutters are pulled and a dark gap appears above them. A shuttered cupboard in the Samuel Beckett Room was once a window on the original east elevation. The shutters are set at a cute acute angle on one side of the dressing room (now en suite) windows of the replacement 1820s east elevation, maintaining symmetry. As do the two blind windows An antique porch astutely fills the vacancy of the central axis on the entrance front. A conservatory, the 19th century equivalent of today’s cinema room, was added to the side. Castle Grove now looks like “a beautiful Regency house” says leading heritage architect John O’Connell. It is a country house repurposed, just, as an airy hotel and restaurant. The eponymous erstwhile owners the Groves are long gone. The hospitable able hosts the Sweeneys are here to stay. Breezily braving the elements alone with nature – and paying guests.

Castle Grove Gate © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Tráthnóna maith. The eclipse has come and gone; spring equinox is here. Snowdrops have disappeared, daffodils are in full bloom, primroses on their way. It’s time to talk to Mary Sweeney, châtelaine of Castle Grove since 1989. She and her husband Raymond bought the house and estate from Commander Peter Colin Drummond Campbell and his wife Lady Moyra Kathleen Hamilton, the Duke of Abercorn’s sister. Commander C inherited it on the death of Major James Grove. Incidentally (there are always lots of incidents in life) Lady M was one of Queen Elizabeth II’s five Maids of Honour at her Coronation. “The land steward and housekeeper kept Castle Grove in good shape. For the first year we lived in the house and opened it as a B and B. We wanted to develop it but not spoil it. The house, it was a real challenge. We wanted to keep the characteristics, the symmetries. We again looked and looked at it. In the end we pushed the entire house back into part of the rear courtyard. The stable wing was already lofted so we retained its front and added a corridor behind linking it to the main house. We didn’t want guests having to go out in the rain. The bedrooms in this wing are just as big as those in the main house. We reroofed the conservatory. We never demolished a wall in the original house. Instead we adapted windows as doors or indoor mirrors. I feel a great obligation to maintain Castle Grove.” This is not Grand Designs or Changing Rooms. This is heritage. This is history. This is Hibernia.

Castle Grove Ramelton Pets Bruce and Dusty © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“When we applied for a dining room addition the planning officers wanted it to be a conservatory. But that part of the house faces northeast and rarely gets direct sunlight! It took a year to resolve, to get our sympathetically designed extension approved. We didn’t want the corner sticking out in views from the driveway so it’s chamfered. We turned the original sideboard recess into double doors under a fanlight. A local carpenter built the doors to match the 1820s double doors between the two main reception rooms. The fanlight is based on the one between the entrance and staircase halls. The original dining room is now the Red Drawing Room and next door is the Yellow Drawing Room. The marble fireplace in the new dining room is a replica from my old home. I jokingly asked Portadown Fireplaces if they could remake it based on a photo and sure enough they did!” The house is filled with modern Irish paintings. Appropriately there are seascapes and mountainscapes aplenty. “Buying paintings from young artists exhibiting their work on the railings of St Stephen’s Green in Dublin in summer stemmed our interest. Artists like Maurice Wilks, Liam Jones, Brendan Timmons. Derek Hill gave us his oil painting Donegal Late Harvest. Derek brought many guests here. Really such a humble man and so friendly.” The house is filled with antiques. “We have some stories to tell about auctions! Newark Antiques Fair is good. So is the Mill at Ballinderry. The bed in the George B Shaw Room came from Seventh Heaven outside Chester. The beds are unbelievable there! That bed was made for Archduke Ferdinand of Austria. When we bought the four poster in the Jonathan Swift Room we used saddle soap and toothbrushes to carefully clean it before using French polish. Beds and food – they’re so important!” As for the chandeliers, Sia would swing from them.

Castle Grove Ramelton @ Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Saol maith. It’s time to talk to Mary’s daughter Irene who is managing reception (the former flower room). “The weather is unpredictable in Donegal or perhaps that should be predictable – it rains a fair bit! Donegal may be right off the Atlantic but we’re very inland here. The house has a warm, loving presence. It’s a very welcoming atmosphere. Whether this is us as a family, or the building, I’m not sure. The Groves were extremely good landlords, especially during the famine when they fed and educated local children in the long barn. Perhaps this generosity and goodwill has over the centuries seeped into the walls. There’s houses before you know the history, they’re chilling…”

Castle Grove Estate © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Castle Grove Donegal © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Castle Grove Entrance Hall Cornice © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Castle Grove Yellow Drawing Room © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Castle Grove Yellow Drawing Room Cornice © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Castle Grove Chandelier © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Castle Grove Red Drawing Room © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Castle Grove Fireplace © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Castle Grove Bed © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Castle Grove Stool © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Fenja, No. 69 Cadogan Gardens (not to be confused with No.11 Cadogan Gardens and not especially chilling) was a flouncy 1980s London hotel. Its 14 chintzy bedrooms were named after English artists and writers like JMW Turner, JS Sargent, Rossetti, Jane Austen. “Our main bedrooms are named after Irish writers including WB Yeats, James Joyce, Oliver Goldsmith, Oscar Wilde. There are 15 in total, eight in the main house. The exception is the Daniel O’Connell Room. He actually stayed in the house. Daniel wrote back to the Groves after his visit, referring to his ‘answer to the Irish problem’. Mr Grove introduced him to the House of Lords. General Montgomery also stayed here. Mrs Grove invited him from Dublin to stay. We can accommodate 120 guests for a wedding in our Michelin recommended restaurant. Or 150 if the adjoining Red Drawing Room is used too. The bar was once a breakfast room and the TV room a library cum office. We still use the original kitchen. We grow organic vegetables, fruit and herbs in our four acre walled garden.” Here are some incidental stats. The George B Shaw Room measures 14 feet wide by 18 feet deep by 10 feet tall. The wall between the entrance hall and Yellow Drawing Room is 2.5 feet deep. The Yellow Drawing Room mantelpiece projects by a foot. The George B Shaw Room bed is seven feet wide (double queen size?). Then there’s the Yellow Drawing Room cornice. Why have one cornice when you can have five? Reeding, ribbons and garlands, egg and dart, Greek key, squiggle. Not so incidentally, Castle Grove is three miles from Ramelton, Ireland’s most beautiful Georgian town.

Castle Grove Bedroom © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Irish economy has sailed through pretty choppy waters of late but at Castle Grove the outlook’s bright. Now for a Grove family tree, or perhaps that should be sapling. William Grove, High Sheriff of Donegal, built the 1730 house. His son Thomas was also High Sheriff but died heirless. William’s second son James married Rose Brook. William’s sister Dorothy Grove married John Wood of the 9th Light Dragoons in 1802. They lived in Castle Grove. Their son James Grove Wood was born a year after they married. He became High Sheriff and a barrister. James married Frances Montgomery of Convoy House which is 20 miles south of Castle Grove, close neighbours in gentry terms. The 1806 building accounts of Convoy House record estate leafage of 300 Alders, 200 Scotch Firs, 200 Beech, 300 Larch and 200 Ashes. Their daughter Dorothea Alice married Rev Charles Boyton of Derry in 1871. Dorothea Alice’s brother John Montgomery Charles was born in 1847. Yet another High Sheriff, he was land agent of Convoy House for three years starting in 1890. John married the daughter of Major General William Gabbett, East India Company’s Artillery. John and Lucy’s children included Lucy Dorothea and her older brother James Robert Wood Grove. He was born in 1888, joined the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in 1908 and served in the First World War. James married Eileen Edmonstone Kirk of Thornfield House, County Antrim. They were the last of the line to live at Castle Grove. Finally, some mouth watering early 19th century recipes from the Grove family archives. Lots of sic. Strangely, none of them are served anymore. Oíche mhaith. 

Castle Grove Ramelton Bedroom © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

‘”Marrow Bones

If too long to serve undivided saw them in too; cover the open ends with a lump of paste and a cloth floured and tied close. The paste must be removed before being sent to table. Boil 1½ and 2 hours according to size. Put a ruffle of papar round each & serve in a napkin, with very hot toast. The marrow is spread on very hot toast & seasoned with pepper & salt.”

Castle Grove Lady @ Donegal County Council Archives Office

‘”Raisins Chutnee

Raisins cleaned & minced 2 lbs. Sugar 3½ lbs. Salt 8 ozs, green ginger 8 ozs red pepper 2 ozs garlic ½ ozs. These with the exception of raisins & sugar to be separately well pounded then mixed. Add to them the raisins & sugar & lastly 1 bottle of vinegar. This quantity will make nearly 4 bottles. Fill & leave them in the sun in India but at home cook for about an hour.”

Dorothea Alice Wood Grove October 1861 @ Donegal County Council Archives Office

“White Milk Soup

1 onion. 1 carrot. 1 turnip. 3 cloves stuck in the onion. A little stock made of rabbit vial, fowl or mutton (best of the three first). Put the vegetables in the stock & boil for an hour and a half to two hours. Strain salt through a verry fine hair seive. Then warm 1 pint of new milk and add all these together. Season with pepper and salt. This soup must be made just before using as it will not keep – the vegetables turn the milk sour.”

Convoy House Entrance © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“To Prevent Bed Sores

10 grains of the nitrate of silver, to 1 oz of water, to be applied by means of a camel hair brush over every part exhibiting the highest appearance of inflammation, 2 or 3 times a day, until the skins has become blackened, afterwards only occassionally [sic].”

Ramelton Donegal © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley