Favourite hideaways of mine in Ireland

I have just returned from a memorable trip to Ireland – my semi-adopted homeland because I was actually born in London. My recently-departed mother and all her family were born and bred in County Laios, set in the Midlands of Ireland. The farm her parents spent their hardworking lives running is still in the family and belongs now to two of my cousins. They were a struggling, hardworking Catholic family.

Until 1922, when the Irish Free State came into existence and British rule over Ireland was drawing to its bitter close, Laois was known as Queen’s County (a nod to British monarchy).

My mother used to recount to me many stories of local Protestants helping the Catholics and vice-versa (lending one another tractors, or a gallon or two of petrol when rationing during the WWII badly hit their agricultural way of life even though Ireland had chosen a neutral position). She told me that the families of the two faiths lived alongside one another in peace. Of course, this wasn’t always the case.

Like most counties in Ireland, Laois has its fair share of grand Georgian or Regency properties built by the Protestant British when they were the landlords of the island while the tenants or farm workers were the less privileged Catholics.

Ballyfin Regency Manor House

Ballyfin, considered the most lavish Regency house in Ireland, is an example. It was built in the 1820s on the site of previous luxury manor houses, by Sir Charles Coote and his wife Carolyn. It stayed in the Coote family until the 1920s when it was bought by the Patrician Brothers, a Roman Catholic teaching order. At this stage, Ireland was taking back its independence from the British and the brothers ran Ballyfin as a school right through to the twentieth-first century. In 2002, a decline in vocations, less brothers to run the school, forced them to sell the estate on.

Today, after nine years of restoration by its present owners, a couple from Chicago with Irish connections, it has been transformed into a sumptuous five-star hotel, Ballyfin Demesne, set in some 600 acres of manicured gardens.
If your budget can run to even a cup of tea there – room rates start from around 850 euros a night – it is worth visiting just to get a sense of its splendour and to imbibe the stories and ghosts from its past. If I were to covet any of it with Big House envy, it would be its magnificent conservatory.
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