Historic homes holding their own
It’s (nearly) always sunny in the pages of Mary Leland’s At Home in Ireland; and there’s a beguiling sense of timelessness to her series of stories about the heritage of houses, from cottages to castles, that cover our country. Drawn from 17 years’ worth of columns from the pages of the Examiner, Leland writes about what she discovered on her trips to explore the histories and inner lives of such places as Hilton Park in Monaghan, Glebe House in Donegal, and the gorgeous Adelaide Memorial Chapel in Carlow.
Featuring more than 100 places, Leland weaves the lives of their owners with those of the people who built them. And so we discover the sad story of Mary Molesworth (16), who was married to Robert Rochfort, 1st Earl of Belvedere, owner of Belvedere House in Mullingar. Mary fell for her brother-in-law, and on admitting her “crime” was locked up in the house, her only possessions being the clothes she stood up in. Incarcerated for 18 years, she was released in 1774, when her husband died.
Eleanor Butler’s story, from the same era, has a happier ending. She fell in love with Lady Sarah Ponsonby of Woodstock House in Kilkenny, and was locked up by her family, but escaped, and the pair went to live in Wales, where they became known as the Ladies of Llangollen. Woodstock itself was burned in 1922, but you can visit the restored gardens and arboretum.
This isn’t a history book, and Leland’s stories are punctuated with mouth-watering descriptions of home-baked bread, cream teas and fine china, freely poured wine with generous hosts, and welcoming beds with damask drapes and linen sheets.
Strangers in their midst
It starts to seem a little too perfect, as the families who have opened up their houses in order to pay the bills (Country House Rescue could learn a thing or two), are unanimous in their delight at having strangers in their midst. At Ballaghtobin in Co Kilkenny, Catherine Gabbett says: “The great thing about this is that you meet people at their best, they become their better selves. It’s a little like being in love: you want to deserve it.” Maybe that’s true, we are, after all, famed for our hospitality in this country, and these are the people who care enough to carry that legacy on to the next generation.
And Leland has made good choices; there’s lovely Ballyvolane in east Cork, where Justin and Jenny Green carry on the family tradition of fabulous food and the warmth of a genuine welcome. Waterford’s Ballynatray is there, available for hire for driven shoots in season, and the Old Convent in Co Tipperary where, again, the food is whispered of in tones of awe. It’s not always clear from the texts which houses are open for visitors, though phone numbers are there for your own research.