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.

There are lots of stunning places where you can stay, and even though Leland says it’s not a guide book, it works as a guide to those places that haven’t had their historic rear ends violated by contemporary bedroom wings, or walled gardens flattened for car parks and golf courses. I could happily weave an itinerary from the edges of Ireland – Ulusker House in Adrigole, Co Cork, to Rathmullen House in Donegal, staying in stunning places, and without a whiff of a corporate chain along the way.

Some of the stories present more questions than they answer: Why shouldn’t you bring burgundy to the dinner table (Hilton Park)? What did the Toler-Aylward sisters do to be famous (Shankill Castle)? And did any of these brave and resourceful owners ever feel like giving up as ceilings crumbled and dry rot threatened to destroy?

I start to wonder further . . . Leland’s travels take in the period of Ireland’s rise and fall, so, feeling like a forensic detective, I look to see was this piece written when times were good? Did this starry-eyed couple take on their massive challenge as things fell apart? It’s only there in hints and whispers. The individual chapters are undated, but flipping back to the contents pages, I discover dates.

Present chaos

At Carrig House in Killorglin (2000), there’s mention of “site notices or signs of a plot for sale, with collies panting like auctioneers at each sign post”. At Ballinacurra in Midleton (2006), owner Allan Navratil speaks of government policies that encourage people to leave the land, though Leland reminds us that this “is not what I came for. I came for a house on a site occupied since the late 12th century.”

And it’s true, there are some places, some traditions that will outlast even the present chaos, and for anyone who ever looked at a captivating castle or has been fascinated by something of a certain scale on the property pages, this might just be the book to inspire a whole new adventure.

* At Home in Ireland, by Mary Leland, Cork University Press, 304pp, €30