Women take the lead in the Big House revival

 

Their houses are big, historic and challenging – but they are determined to keep them open for business. Three young women explain why theyve become the chatelaines of their family homes

SOPHIE SHELSWELL-

White acknowledges that the management of Bantry House in Co Cork is not something she can dip into and out of as the mood takes her. “It’s a commitment for life, forever. It’s not something I can take lightly – and I didn’t take it lightly,” says Shelswell -White, who is also the mother of a new baby boy.

Historic and huge, Bantry House is where she grew up. It was here that Richard White, later the 1st Earl of Bantry, raised the alarm at the arrival of a French invasion fleet (which included Wolfe Tone) in December 1796. The house he enlarged and aggrandised was first opened to the public by Sophie’s grandmother Clodagh in 1965 and ever since there’s been a public footfall through both house and grounds.

It is now a central venue for the West Cork Chamber Music Festival, established there by Francis Humphreys and the Vanbrugh String Quartet; it hosts the Masters of Tradition festival and is also used by the West Cork Literary Festival. Its gardens, now supervised by Lorna Finnegan and John Albrow, were successfully and beautifully steered through an EU restoration programme by Sophie’s mother, Brigitte, while both Brigitte and her husband, Egerton Shelswell-White, introduced bed and breakfast accommodation to the unused wings of the house.

With an open season stretching from March to October that’s a lot of organisation for a 30-year-old mother to take on. Did any of her siblings want the job instead? “There was no competition for taking over but equally there was no discouragement,” she says. “They just wanted to be sure I was doing it for the right reasons, not just out of a sense of duty.”

Although Bantry House, originally dating from the 1740s, was re-designed to be the focus of an Arcadian landscape, for two of the worst Famine years half the local population was on poor relief largely financed by the Bantry estates, and it was only after this that the grandiloquent Baroque character of the house was established by the second earl. Today some of the chief attractions of the property include the remaining art works, stained glass, the Italian plasterwork and the suites of fine reception rooms, hall and library.

Having completed a degree in tourism and marketing Sophie spent a couple of years travelling before returning permanently to Bantry, in the meantime refurbishing the accommodation and facilities as well as preparing the gate-lodge for private rentals. Now planning a series of new events (with special attention to the 65th anniversary on St Patrick’s Day) she insists that Bantry House, with a programme which is already unique, doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not.

“It’s not total luxury, it’s a very old house, still family run; it’s just elegant, relaxed and welcoming.” She admits that she wouldn’t be human if she were not a little bit daunted at times by the magnitude of the task she has taken on. “But I don’t feel there’s a great weight on my shoulders. I’m the 10th generation of the family in this house and I don’t want mine to be the generation that drops the ball”.

FRANK and Rosemarie Kennan are so synonymous with Roundwood House in Co Laois that it’s easy to understand their daughter Hannah’s belief that when she went off to university she would never come back. But come back she has, with her two small children and husband, Paddy Flynn, the Galway musician, with whom, eventually, she plans to introduce art and musical events at this lovely house, built between 1738 and 1748, possibly by Francis Bindon. “The idea was that one of us would be involved when my parents wanted to retire, but by then all the rest of the family were on very definite career paths. Frank and Rosemarie insisted that when the time came we were to regard Roundwood simply as a property and nothing more – they didn’t want any of us to feel under pressure. If we did decide to take over, it was to be for the right reasons. It’s not the kind of thing you can do just to keep everyone happy. Paddy and I took about a year to think about it, we didn’t even say anything to anyone until we were sure.”

Roundwood House and its remaining 18 acres of woodland and pasture passed through various hands, including those of the Georgian Society, before the Kennans decided to restore it both as a family home and a business 30 years ago. “I grew up with guests in the house, that’s always been the norm for me. But it’s a very special place, there’s a strong personal tie and it’s hard to regard it just as a business. My parents put every penny they had into restoring and refurbishing it, and now that they have moved out (to the coach-house) it’s still a family environment and our guests seem to like that.”

There’s a lot to like at Roundwood House, from its double-height balconied hall to its restored outbuildings. After three years in charge of what is at times a hectic schedule, with five-course dinners prepared by herself and Paddy every evening of the season, 32-year old Hannah has the confidence to say that yes, they are in it for the long haul.

THERE’S rather more than a late Georgian house at Glanleam on Valentia Island in Kerry, where Jessica Kreissig is evolving as the senior partner in what has been a long collaboration with her mother, Meta. Connemara ponies, a large flock of sheep, ducks, geese and a garden noted for its rare or unusual shrubs and the quality and variety of its trees take up most of the 192-acre estate.

Once the seat of the FitzGerald Knights of Kerry, subsequently of their Spring Rice descendants and then of the Mount Eagles of Brandon, Glanleam has been home to Jessica since she was born on what she calls “the mainland” or Cahirciveen. Her mother, a textile designer from Cologne, had bought the property in 1975 and settled there finally in 1991, opening to the public a couple of years later. Like Bantry, Glanleam is a place of marvellous vistas, in this case across the Iveragh peninsula with the Kerry mountains ringing every view.

There was no family feud when Jessica, who studied Hotel Management in Ireland and subsequently qualified as a homeopathic therapist, became more involved in running the house, kitchen and gardens.

“My brother is established in Germany, and I think it was always recognised that I had a plan to come back here. Yes, I’m in it for the long haul, but it all seemed to happen just naturally.” The other thing that’s happening naturally is the way in which the wilder paths of the five kilometres of woodland walks surrounding the house are revealing ancient secrets. The spiritual atmosphere of Glanleam has always been obvious to both Meta and Jessica; an old healing well has been uncovered and a local diviner has found two more “energy ponds” on the land, all Druidic links which Jessica is including in the healing and relaxation programme she has created for guests. “We are developing these aspects – people seem to benefit from them and it is part of what we offer here.”

Further developments in the gardens have been assisted by the South Kerry Leader schemes. There is also self-catering accommodation in a restored boathouse and a gardener’s cottage and in the time she can find from caring for the house, her husband and their month-old baby daughter, Jessica still works in the kitchen at Glanleam. “Mum and myself do the cooking: we’re a very good team when we get together – we really are!”