"It must be one of the oldest houses," says Jonathan Irwin. We're standing outside Griesebank House, painted a sunny yellow, a lovely foil for the tall, castellated mill building, now a rather romantic ruin, next door.
A plaque on the house’s façade says it was built in 1700 and was home to the Shackleton family, forebears of polar explorer Ernest. Once inside, those with a sweet tooth might be more excited by the fact that, in 1992, it was in this kitchen that Irwin’s wife, Mary Ann O’Brien, made the first batch of her global brand, Lily O’Brien’s Chocolates.
“Mary Ann hadn’t been well, and we’d gone to South Africa, where she’d met a chocolatier . . . She came home, and made a batch of things, and well, they all sold,” Irwin says.
Now the company, named after one of the couple’s daughters, employs 150 people.
It is a gorgeously welcoming kitchen too, warmed by a range in an alcove and opening on to a den with an open fire. There’s a door to a sheltered patio that in turn leads out to the gardens.
It’s easy to imagine batches of chocolate being tasted and tested as children, ponies (there’s a stable in the gardens) and dogs looked on.
“It’s surprising that it was chocolate,” says Irwin. “Maybe that had something to do with the house: it’s a Quaker house and chocolate – the Frys and Cadburys – is a Quaker thing.”
Ballitore was the first Quaker village to be built in Ireland or England, and both Edmund Burke and Paul Cullen, Ireland's first cardinal, were educated there.
“Is it fanciful to say that the fabric of a house holds the memories of the people who lived here?” asks Irwin. “I think here, the Quakers were good people, and the memories are very happy ones, I know mine are. I adore it.”
Nevertheless, Irwin’s own story has been touched by tragedy. The couple’s son Jack was born severely disabled and died at the age of 22 months.
“He only lived a short time, but look what he drove me to do,” says Irwin, speaking of the Jack and Jill Foundation which provides funding to families of children with brain damage who suffer intellectual and physical developmental delay.
Their current fundraising drive costs just €16 (the price of an hour of nursing care for a child) and invites you to literally or metaphorically climb a hill. “It doesn’t have to be a real hill, maybe just something you’ve been putting off. Well, now’s the time,” says Irwin.
There’s a study to the right of the entrance hall and a semi-separate wing, built for Irwin’s mother to the rear.
“We thought it was going to be a granny flat, but it’s almost bigger than the house,” says Irwin. It’s a slight exaggeration, but the two-bedroom addition is spacious and has its own kitchen, pair of en-suite bedrooms and elegant drawingroom, which has its own terrace. In total there’s 602sq m (6,488sq ft) of accommodation.
Back in the older part of the house, the drawingroom is upstairs, although because the house is built into a bank, there’s a door directly to the gardens. “This used to be the former front door,” says Irwin. “And in 1798, they used this room as a field hospital.” Were they sympathisers, I wonder. “I don’t think they said ‘please’ in those days.”
Upstairs again is the master bedroom with a large en suite. There’s also a dressingroom here that could serve as an eighth bedroom or nursery.
Up yet again – if ever a house could be said to ramble, it’s this one – there are three more bedrooms, although the largest, a great space up in the eaves, was always the children’s playroom.
It’s a very comforting house, with thick walls and the proportions are welcoming rather than deliberately grand.
Out in the gardens, the views are lovely vistas across lush fields. It’s an hour from Dublin, but a world away.
“Legend has it there’s a camel buried somewhere in the grounds,” says Irwin. “I wonder how that came about.”
Griesebank is for sale for €750,000 with Jordan Auctioneers.