Thursday 29 September 2016

Peek inside The Truman Show star Natascha McElhone's Donegal hideaway

Ballyarr House Ramelton, Co Donegal, €1.2m

Words by Fran Power

Published 26/06/2016 | 02:30

Natascha McElhone's Donegal hideaway
Natascha McElhone's Donegal hideaway
Ballyarr House

If you wanted to escape the glare of Hollywood where in Ireland would you choose? Well, for actor Natascha McElhone, star of Solaris, Californication and US TV series Designated Survivor, Ramelton in Co Donegal has been a perfect hideaway for almost three decades.

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Her mother Noreen Taylor and stepfather Roy Greenslade bought Ballyarr House, a fine old Georgian property, back in 1989. Over the years it has played host to many a family gathering, including Natascha's engagement party, as well as many Christmas and New Year parties.

It has, says former journalist Noreen, been the "most heavenly place for 26 happy years - a house filled with fun, laughter and memorable parties".

Ballyarr went on the market last year with an asking price of €1.475m. That price has just been revised downwards to €1.2m.

Natascha McElhone's Donegal hideaway
Natascha McElhone's Donegal hideaway
Natascha McElhone's Donegal hideaway
Natascha McElhone's Donegal hideaway
Natascha McElhone's Donegal hideaway

For that, the purchaser not only gets a manageable country property, plus two additional houses on the grounds, but also buys into a chunk of literary history. For Ballyarr House has been the backdrop to a romance that could have featured in one of Jane Austen's novels.

It was once home to an infamous "improving" landlord, Lord George Hill, the fifth son of the second Marquis of Downshire. He was 25 years old when he met Cassandra Jane, the daughter of Jane Austen's brother Edward. He proposed, she accepted. But his mother Lady Downshire intervened and - according to Dr Sophia Hillan, author of May, Lou and Cass, Jane Austen's nieces in Ireland - in a scene that could have come straight from Pride and Prejudice, she forbade the marriage, declaring of her son's choice - "No money: all charms!" As a career soldier, Lord Hill would have been penniless without her blessing.

Eight years passed and Cass was on the eve of marrying another suitor when her aunt persuaded her not to wed the wrong man. With perfect timing, Lady Downshire relented and Lord Hill appeared at Chawton in Hampshire, Jane Austen's home, to renew his courtship.

The marriage took place in 1834 and the couple went to live in Ireland where Lord Hill had purchased land. He eventually owned 23,000 acres that stretched all the way to Gweedore. Unlike most landlords of the time, he chose to live in the area and bought Ballyarr House in 1838. However, his marriage to Cass was to be brief - in 1842, shortly after giving birth to their fourth child, Cass died.

And, in the way of those times, her sister Louisa left the comforts of home and arrived in an Ireland devastated by famine to look after the children and, it is presumed, Lord Hill. Five years later, she and George married. In old age, a third sister, Marianne, or May, joined Lou in Donegal, remaining even after she had died. The two sisters are buried together near Ballyarr, but Cass and Lord Hill are to be found, reunited again, at Letterkenny.

Today, Lord Hill's large estate at Ballyarr House has dwindled to just 14 acres - it is, however, a remarkably pretty 14 acres. The house built in c1780 has had only had a few owners since Lord Hill's stewardship. For much of the 20th Century it was empty, but was bought and renovated in the 1970s. Sadly, one wing was so dilapidated it had to be demolished.

Natascha McElhone's Donegal hideaway
Natascha McElhone's Donegal hideaway
Natascha McElhone's Donegal hideaway
Natascha McElhone's Donegal hideaway
Natascha McElhone's Donegal hideaway

The current owners carried out an extensive refurbishment. "We de-restored it, if you like," says Noreen, and "brought it back to what it looked like in the Georgian times, stripping away the Victorian and Edwardian additions." She found "proper chandeliers", built a conservatory, and added a new kitchen and dining room, as well as another bathroom. They also added energy-efficient touches such as solar panels which mean that for much of the year hot water is free. "It's an economical house to run and quite cosy," says Noreen.

On the ground floor, there is a library, a double-aspect drawing room, a wood-panelled dining room and a kitchen, painted a cheery yellow and featuring that obligatory centrepiece of the country house kitchen, the Aga. Ballyarr has four large bedrooms, all doubles, and a fifth smaller bedroom. The family bathroom has a freestanding bath which commands views out over the grounds. There is also a cellar.

Three of the 14 acres have been planted with 5,000 native deciduous trees under the auspices of the Forestry Commission. The owners have restored the original walled garden which is now, says Noreen, "home to a very happy goat" and "waiting for some keen vegetable gardener." There are extensive lawns, a pond, and fishing rights to the Leannan river, which is well stocked with trout.

The two additional properties on the grounds have rental potential or could be used for staff accommodation and comprise of Ballyarr Cottage, with one bedroom; and Ballyarr Lodge, which has an open-plan kitchen/living /dining space and two bedrooms upstairs.

The couple are downsizing, though they intend to remain in the locality - which means Natascha and her three children will still be able to enjoy all that the area has to offer.

Era: c1780
Size: 465 sqm
Agent: Franklins (074) 918 8000
Viewing: Strictly by appointment
Bedrooms: 5

Natascha McElhone's Donegal hideaway
Natascha McElhone's Donegal hideaway
Natascha McElhone's Donegal hideaway
Natascha McElhone's Donegal hideaway
Natascha McElhone's Donegal hideaway

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