Dr James Reilly chuckles like "Bottler" as he recalls the first night he slept in "The King's Bed" at his newly-acquired country mansion. And, no, not a king-size divan from 'Harvey Norman' but a royal, carved-oak, sleigh bed made for King George IV's visit to Ireland in 1821.
The deputy leader of Fine Gael recalls he "jumped into the bed, punched the air and said 'Feck you, Your Majesty; Paddy is back.' " Now that's catharsis. There's nothing quite like a deep feather mattress to ease the aches and pains of 800 years of oppression.
Dr Reilly wasn't the only "Paddy" to buy a former Anglo-Irish "Big House" during Ireland's "Celtic Tiger" boom. And he isn't the only one repenting at leisure, either. Fast forward 15 years to 2016 and Dr Reilly and his wife Dorothy have abandoned their gentry dream and are selling Loughton House, a 13-bedroom, 1,393sq m (15,000sq ft) Georgian pile on 82 acres outside the village of Moneygall, Co Offaly.
Moneygall used to be the "middle of nowhere". Now it's a short hop from the M7 Dublin-Limerick motorway and a services area grandiosely named the Obama Plaza – in honour of the US president who, most improbably, discovered his Irish roots in the village which he memorably visited in 2011.
The estate is for sale by private treaty through estate agents Ganly Walters, with an asking price of €2.75 million.
Separately, Sheppard's Irish Auction House has just announced the auction of the contents of the house – art, antiques, antiquarian books and collectibles – in a huge, on-site auction at the end of September.
Dr Reilly and his wife bought some of the contents – assembled by previous owners over two centuries – when they bought the house and have since added to the collection by buying at auction and from antiques dealers. But now they are downsizing and moving back to Dublin, where they also have a home. Loughton House was built in 1777 and its former owners included the 1st Baron Bloomfield, who helped to defeat the Irish rebels at Vinegar Hill; his son, the second Lord Bloomfield who served as a British ambassador to Russia in the 19th century; and Theodora Trench, who left behind cartes de visite listing her "town" residence as Onslow Square, South Kensington.
Speaking to The Irish Times, Dr Reilly said they had bought Loughton House – “a phenomenal place” – in 2001, when he was a GP in north Co Dublin, “as a project” and their “dream was to restore it”. But little did he realise then how his life was to change radically.
In 2007, Dr Reilly was elected as a Fine Gael TD for Dublin North (now the constituency of Dublin Fingal) and in 2011, was re-elected, entered government and was appointed to cabinet as, firstly, minister for health and then, following a mid-term re-shuffle, minister for children.
There was, suddenly, much less time to devote to country life and his ambitious plans for Loughton. Last year, he decided to put the house on the market [it’s still unsold] and didn’t change his mind even after losing his seat in the general election in February. He was subsequently elected to the Senate , and is also “going back to be a GP in Dublin”, but Dr Reilly said he was “determined” to win back his Dáil seat at the next general election.
Despite his central involvement in the affairs of State in recent years, he has managed to undertake considerable restoration work in Loughton House – mainly at weekends.
He “shovelled tons of earth from the basement”; planted 8,000 trees; and converted an old coach house into a reception room that can seat 100 people with a view to developing a commercial venue for weddings.
He believes, in retrospect, that the project he undertook was too daunting and that “the house needs a commercial aspect” and has “great potential as a wedding venue”. But that’s now a decision for the new owners. He says he’s sorry to be leaving and will miss chopping logs, which he describes as therapeutic for “anger management”.
But, he adds ruefully: “I’m very proud of the fact that we left it in a much better state than we found it and have preserved its integrity”.
Dorothy, a former make-up artist with RTÉ Television, "loved the house" and will also miss country life – although not the pine marten that devoured her ducks and chickens. She recalls being startled one morning when a group of US Marines turned up at the house looking for the airstrip. She wasn't aware that the previous owner , retired British army major Guy Atkinson had created a long-forgotten airstrip on the estate which the Americans had spotted by satellite. They were scouting for a landing spot for President Obama's helicopter. In the end, because there were "too many trees" at Loughton House, Marine One – as the aircraft is known – landed on the GAA's hurling field. She proudly shows off the walled garden which "was a jungle" when she arrived and is now partially back to its 19th-century glory and points to a vine that is still producing grapes almost 150 years after it was presented to the second Lord Bloomfield by Queen Victoria as a wedding present.
She said she and Dr Reilly had done most of the restoration work on the house themselves and that “James is great with a wheelbarrow” and had scooped “12,000 cubic feet of soil out of the basement by hand” before re-laying stone slabs. But there’s still a lot of work to be done. A forlornly empty swimming pool, installed by the previous owner, badly needs a Rio Olympics-style refill to keep the recovery going.
The house is full of memories of the old order – now destined to go under the auction hammer. In the hallway, a wooden oak trunk – now used for logs – is stencilled with the name of "Lieut Col J.W. Atkinson, Royal King's County Regiment". A framed photograph of the 1863 Eton College Shooting Eleven includes Benjamin Trench [of Loughton House]. In the mahogany-panelled library, a random sheaf of yellowing letters includes one from Rudyard Kipling dated August 1st, 1916, and the shelves display a vast array of books including, serendipitously, First Aid to the Injured and Sick: An Advanced Ambulance Handbook, published in 1915. In a store room, steamer trunks and leather suitcases bear labels recalling voyages to exotic destinations like Fiji and Baghdad. Auctioneer Michael Sheppard says "Loughton House is chock-a-block with everything associated with an Irish country house including its original archives and library".
Sheppard’s catalogue will be published shortly – highlights will be previewed on the Art, Antiques & Collecting page – and three days of viewing for the auction will begin at Loughton House on Saturday, September 24th. More than 2,000 items will go under the hammer in the four-day sale from Tuesday, September 27th to Friday, September 30th.
Entry to both viewing and auction will be by catalogue only – priced at €20 to admit two people. And remember, please, no jumping on ‘The King’s Bed’.