Get into some great houses for Heritage Week

Go on, go on: play ‘Game of Thrones’ at Castle Ward, or have a cup of tea at Father Ted’s House. Some of Ireland’s finest big houses are open to the public this week

 

My favourite moment in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice comes when Elizabeth Bennett gets her first look at Mr Darcy’s gaff – the enormous and beautiful Pemberley: “To think I could have been mistress of all this,” she muses and promptly starts to think better of the man she formerly considered odious.

If Mr Darcy is surprised to find her rooting through his ancestral rooms, he hides it well; but possibly he isn’t. Visiting big houses was as common and enjoyable a holiday occupation in the 19th century as it is today.

In the 2005 film of the book, with Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen, Chatsworth House took on the role of Pemberley. If you happen to find yourself in Derbyshire, you too can “do a Lizzie Bennett” and visit. It’s open to the public until November 4th this year, and while it is absolutely lovely, before anyone carries their fantasies too far, the Devonshire heirs of marriageable age are spoken for (chatsworth.org).

Closer to home, a number of great Irish houses are opening their doors for Heritage Week, starting today.

Alongside the obvious places such as Castletown House (castletown.ie), Russborough House (russborough.ie) and Malahide Castle (malahidecastleandgardens.ie), here are a few to whet your appetite for greatness.

Huntington Castle, Clonegal, Co Carlow

This 17th-century castle has been added to and remodelled over the years, and is still lived in by the descendants of the original Esmonde family. Includes: granite keep, a temple to the goddess Isis (added in the 1970s in what was once the dungeons), ghosts, gardens, an adventure playground, tea room and gift shop. Open daily throughout August, although do check the website as they close for special events. Admission €9 for tour of house and gardens – and if you fall in love with the place, enquire about rates, because they also do a very good, nay, grand B&B. huntingtoncastle.com

Belvedere House, Mullingar, Co Westmeath

The story of Belvedere reads like an 18th-century melodrama of passion, jealousy and tragedy. The Earl of Rochfort not only imprisoned his wife, Mary, for three decades, believing her to be unfaithful; he also built a folly, known as the Jealous Wall, to block the view of his neighbouring brother’s house. You can still see it today, alongside lovely lakelands, walled gardens and a gorgeous fairy garden which kids will adore. There’s a café and shop too. Open year-round. €8/€4. belvedere-house.ie

Wells House, Gorey, Co Wexford

Getting a bump perhaps from Ireland’s Ancient East is the newly opened Wells House. A brilliantly restored Victorian house and formal gardens, it was designed by Daniel Robertson, who also created the gardens at Kilruddery and Powerscourt. You can see his original drawings on display in the house. Includes woodland walks, an adventure playground and a living history tour with a cast of guides in period dress. Plus practice archery and falconry (booking essential), eat cake in the charming cafe and visit the craft shops in the courtyard. Lovely. Open year-round. €8 per car. Tours cost extra. See website for times and prices. wellshouse.ie

Swiss Cottage, Cahir, Co Tipperary

The Romantic movement in the 18th and early 19th centuries saw a fashion for the wealthy building stylised rustic cottages, also known as cottage ornés. Almost too cute to be true (you’d almost expect Snow White or Heidi to appear), this is one of only a few to survive in Europe. Designed by John Nash for Richard Butler,

it has a thatched roof, spiral staircase and elegantly decorated rooms, including some of the first commercially produced Parisian wallpaper. Open until November 1st. €4/€2. swisscottage@opw.ie

Castle Ward, Downpatrick, Co Down

Lord Bangor and his wife, Lady Ann Bligh, had very different tastes, but they came up with an elegant solution at Castle Ward: one side is done in the lofty Palladian style, while the other is all Victorian Gothic. Outside there’s horse riding, cycling, archery, a farmyard with mini-tractors for the kids, and if that wasn’t enough, Game of Thrones fans will recognise it as the set for Winterfell, the Whispering Woods, Robb Stark’s Camp, and the site of the Baelor battle. Open year-round. £8/£3.80. nationaltrust.org.uk/castle-ward

Glebe House, Letterkenny, Co Donegal

Set beside Lough Gartan, and just alongside the stunning Glenveigh National Park, this is one for art lovers as it was the home of landscape and portrait painter Derek Hill. It’s a charming Regency-style house, but the real beauty is the decor and art collection. Includes William Morris textiles, Islamic and Japanese art, plus works by Picasso, Kokoschka, the Tory Island Painters, and photos of the rich, famous and infamous who came to stay. Open until

October 1st. €4/€2. glebegallery.ie

Drishane House, Skibbereen, Co Cork

Built by Thomas Somerville in 1780, Drishane was the family home of Edith Somerville, half of the Somerville and Ross duo who wrote the ever-wonderful Irish RM books. You don’t have to be fans of the series to enjoy a visit, as the gardens are gorgeous, and the house is full of family memorabilia. It’s still in Somerville hands, and you also get to enjoy the glorious West Cork coastline en route. Open throughout Heritage Week, but do phone ahead to be sure. 028-36126.

€10. drishane.com

Dunsany Castle, Co Meath

Home of the Lords of Dunsany, this is one of the oldest continuously inhabited buildings in Ireland. They started work on it in the 12th century, and while these days it’s mainly maintenance, they’ve more or less never stopped. Tours last almost two hours and you’ll discover family and castle history, plus explore the art collection, and see treasures relating to figures from Irish history. Also includes: Saint Nicholas Abbey, farmyard, stableyard and walled gardens. Take away a little castle magic of your own by browsing and buying at the Dunsany Home Collection Boutique which is onsite. Open until August 31st

. €15/€10 /under-12s free, but phone ahead to confirm, 046-9025169. dunsany.com

Bantry House, Bantry, Co Cork

With glorious gardens and spectacular sea views, Bantry House was built around 1700, and in 1750 was bought by Richard White, whose family still own it. It was the second Earl of Bantry and his wife

who made the most of the temperate Gulf Stream climate and took inspiration from their European travels to develop the gorgeous terraced gardens. There’s a special Heritage Week event on August 28th, as part of the Ellen Hutchins Festival, celebrating Ireland’s first female botanist. One wing has been opened as a salubrious B&B. Open daily throughout August, and Tuesday to Sunday until October 31st, but check in advance as the house closes for private events. €11/€8. bantryhouse.com

And from the sublime to the deliciously ridiculous, what about taking tea at Father Ted’s House? It’s actually the home of Cheryl and Patrick McCormack in the Burren, Co Clare. Advance booking essential. fathertedshouse.com

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