Behind the doors of Big Houses in Ireland's Ancient East
Make yourself at home in the castles and mansions of years gone by this summer.
The popularity and stories of the big houses of Ireland’s Ancient East have endured. While the lords and ladies may have long since left these rooms, the mark they have left behind has refused to fade.
Opening the door, these beautifully maintained and restored houses transport you to another time. One of dimming candle light, of laughter and entertaining by a roaring turf fire, of elegance and grandeur so distinctly of another age. Stories of scandal and drama, conflict and war, opulence and wealth, make the people who lived in these houses still so appealing.
When it comes to the stories of these houses, the ink has yet to dry. Add your chapter to the pages of history in the big houses of Ireland's Ancient East this summer, just step inside.
Longueville House, Mallow, Co. Cork
To the north of Cork City, you will find the 500-acre Longueville House and Estate. The stately Georgian country house is a listed building, dating back to 1720. The house was taken over by the O’Callaghan family in 1979 and opened as a guest house. The 20 rooms are each decorated in a traditional country house style with views of the Blackwater Valley and the sprawling gardens – the perfect treat for a grown-up getaway.
After waking up to the chirps of the garden songbirds, head downstairs for breakfast in the President’s Restaurant where half of the dining area extends into a Victorian conservatory, bringing the outdoors in. This also extends to all the food served at Longueville House, the estate has always been self-sufficient and that hasn’t changed, all of the vegetables and herbs are grown in the Kitchen Garden with guests treated to organic summer fruits around this time of year. Meat and game on the menu come from the estate farm while fresh salmon is caught in the Blackwater River.
What better way to finish your evening meal than with a glass of Longueville Apple Brandy? Apples are harvested from the 25-acre orchard on the estate then pressed on site and fermented for two to six months creating Longueville House Cider, the perfect refreshment on a hot summer’s day served over ice. To make apple brandy, the cider is double distilled in 30-year old copper pot stills before being put in French oak red wine casks for four years to allow the brandy to mature. Interested in the story behind the cider and brandy? Longueville House offer talks and distillery tours for visitors.
While foodies will be in their element at Longueville House, there is plenty more to do outside in the grounds. Thanks to the proximity to the Blackwater River, both guests and visitors can spend the afternoon flyfishing under the tutelage of expert guides. Feel free to bring your own rods if you are experienced but Longueville House can provide all the equipment you’ll need for an afternoon at one with nature. The river has an excellent brown trout and salmon population with fishing season running right up until September.
In a nod to the heritage of the house, Longueville House also offers falconry experiences. You first get acquainted with the birds by holding several species of owl, falcon and hawk. Then after popping on a glove, you can fly the hawks and become a falconer! Find out more about activities at Longueville House here.
Fota House, Carrigtwohill, Cork
Nestled in the grounds of Fota Island sits Fota House. Built in 1820 by John Smith Barry for entertaining his guests. Stepping inside, the laughter and hubbub that filled these rooms all those years ago comes to mind. The house was built in a regency style and is complimented by an equally impressive garden that has over 1000 different species of trees and shrubs brought back from hunting expeditions in the Orient, South America and the Pacific North West during Victorian times. This foreign flora has flourished at Fota, creating a garden like no other in Ireland.
While you can admire the exterior aspects of the building and amble around the gardens for hours, the best way to understand how this remarkable estate came to be is by taking a guided tour. The guides bring the essence of the house back to life by regaling visitors with anecdotes about the masters and servants who have lived there over the years. They explain the most interesting features of the décor in the lavish principle rooms and Victorian boudoir before bringing you through the more modest service wing and quarters of the butlers, cooks and maids of the residence.
While the kitchens of the service wing have long closed their doors, Fota House still serves up some lovely tasty treats outside in the garden during the summer – don’t worry if in typical Irish summer style it starts to rain, you can take your afternoon tea indoors and enjoy a bite to eat in the Billiard Room. Make sure to try their famous brown bread – visitors often ask the chef for her secret recipe!
With blossoming gardens and changing seasons, Fota House is a great place to visit any time of year but why not plan your trip to coincide with one of the many events that take place at the house during the summer? Fota House will be playing host to musical acts, theatrical adaptions of Peter Pan and Jane Eyre as well as a 5k fun run inflatable obstacle course at the end of July. Check out the full programme of events here.
Curraghmore House and Gardens, Portlaw, Co. Waterford
Curraghmore House is one of the most historic properties in Ireland, having first been built in Portlaw over 800 years ago by the La Poer family, descendants of whom still live there today. Now inhabited by the 9th Marquis of Waterford, the house remains in private hands but being as special as it is, the family have opened it up to the public for tours. The castle tower, first built by the La Poers in the 12th century, has since been encased by a Victorian mansion, a building you will not see the like of anywhere else. You can walk around the house and grounds throughout the summer from Wednesday to Sunday each week while guided tours of the estate are available at 11am and 2pm.
The house and gardens are full of surprises. At the heart of the house is the Norman keep of the castle first built on the land before being surrounded by the Victorian building. In the accompanying rooms, you can see some of the finest examples of neo-classical design in Ireland. The history of this place extends beyond the house, King John’s Bridge has been a crossing point of the River Clodagh since 1205 and is considered to be the oldest bridge in the country. After taking tentative steps over this ancient bridge, your eye will immediately be drawn to the imposing 55-metre tall sitka spruce tree looming over St John’s Bridge. This tree was first planted in the 1830s and is one of the tallest trees on the island.
You could spend hours strolling through the arboretum and woodlands that surround Curraghmore House, admiring the native bluebells and strong beech trees. While aimless wandering is part of the magic of Curraghmore, make it your business to stumble upon the Shell House, hidden in the shrubbery not far from the main house. Catherine Countess of Tyrone, one of the former owners of Curraghmore, made this marvel with her own hands in 1754, taking 261 days to complete. The walls are adorned with lucent sea shells from all around the world. Catherine tasked sailors on ships departing from the Georgian harbour in Waterford with bringing her back exotic shells from their journeys and the result, still after all these years, is spectacular. Check it out here.
All the best of country living is captured at the Waterford Country Fair taking place at Curraghmore on Sunday June 11. Over the course of the day, visitors will have a chance to try loads of different country pursuits with everything from stalls selling artisan products and local crafts to pony club games and jousting on offer. You can even step back in time with the medieval living village. Have a look at all that is happening for the Country Fair here.
Huntington Castle, Clonegal, Co. Carlow
Step into an age of aristocratic grandeur at the Huntington Castle and Gardens at Clonegal in Carlow. The castle is a quirky, wonderful building with sumptuous interiors and sprawling gardens that feature cut lawns, ponds and a collection of great Irish trees. Take the famous Yew Walk under the gently curving boughs of a collection of ancient trees down to the ornamental lake and see one of the earliest examples of a water turbine house in Ireland. The house and gardens were the setting for Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and display all the grandiosity of the age depicted in that epic tale.
The castle was originally built as an army garrison in 1625 in the valley between the counties of Wexford and Carlow before falling into the hands of the Esmonde family. Each generation of the family has left their mark on the building in their own unique way. Tours of the castle run during the summer and start on the hour from 2pm to 5pm every day. These tours are guided by the current owners of Huntington for a real insider's experience. While there is something interesting to spot in all the rooms in the castle, what lies beneath in the dungeon is a real curiosity. In the 1970s, the dungeon, old kitchen and well were converted into a temple dedicated to the Goddess Isis. The temple is a shrine to various goddesses and zodiac signs including the sacred well of St Brigid. Prepare to be amazed!
Walking through the gardens at Huntington Castle, you never know who you might run into! Two potbellied pigs, named Boris and Hamlet, have made the gardens their home and have free run of the castle grounds. The castle tearooms are open every day during the summer months and they really know how to do afternoon tea. Your tea and coffee are served in vintage cups and saucers accompanied by scones and treats from the nearby award-winning bakery, Sugar and Spice in Bunclody. For a Huntington getaway, stay in a room in the castle or book one of the beautiful self-catering properties on the estate.
Borris House, Borris, Co. Carlow
Against the spectacular backdrop of Mt Leinster and the Blackstairs Mountains sits Borris House. Few houses in Ireland can claim a provenance that dates back to the royal families of ancient Ireland but Borris House was the seat for the High Kings of Leinster. The house remains in the hands of the McMorrough Kavanagh family, it is still a living house and working farm even after hundreds of years. It is surrounded by acres of gardens, enclosed by the River Barrow which runs alongside the estate.
The house is open for tours at 3pm from Tuesday to Thursday all through the summer. While the opulent rooms still hold their 15th century charm, it’s the stories that the guides recount about the Masters and Ladies of the house that really capture the imagination from Lady Harriet to Arthur Kavanagh. After hearing about the stories of old and walking through the lush gardens, you will feel like you are transported back to another time.
Everything in the house harks back to another era like the original paintings that adorn the walls or the quaint vintage furniture which has stood in the rooms for decades. A special feature of this house has to be the faithfully restored Victorian laundry complete with wooden sinks, early irons and mangles – a chance to see what life was like for a Victorian laundry maid. Next to the laundry is the lace garden, a garden landscaped to mirror the delicate patterns of the eponymous Borris Lace, made on the estate in the 1800s.
The Festival of Writing and Ideas -- Possibly the most stunning (with a dash of adorable) #litfest I've ever encountered. I'm so impressed and excited by Ireland's current literary climate and community. #carlow #ireland #borrishouse #mountleinster #blackstairsmountains #riverbarrow #writersofinstagram
For hundreds of years, Borris House was the focus for the social life of the local community and very little has changed. Every year, the estate hosts the Festival of Writing and Ideas in June where the ‘who’s who’ in the world of culture and the arts are invited to Borris House for a weekend of dialogue and discourse in the relaxed and casual atmosphere of the Carlow countryside. Taking place this year from 9-11 June, speakers include Florence Welch, Roddy Doyle, Jeffrey Eugendies, Mary Robinson, Dominic West and Stephen Rea. With a line-up like that, tickets have been selling out fast. Check out the full programme and book tickets here.
Russborough House, Blessington, Co. Wicklow
While you may be captivated by the unspoiled views of the Wicklow Mountains and Blessington Lakes, the real appeal of Russborough House is what goes on within the gates of the estate. The impressive house was built 275 years ago using locally sourced granite. The house has really stood the test of time but it has seen its fair share of drama with two forced occupations, two fires and four robberies. Many eclectic characters have lived in the house but the most memorable would have to be Sir Alfred and Lady Beit. Known for their Gatsby-esque parties, the colourful couple welcomed celebrity guests like Jackie O and Fred Astaire to Russborough House.
Uncovering the history of Russborough, is quite literally like a treasure hunt. Alfred Beit started the DeBeers Diamond Company in the 1880s and died the second richest man in the world. The centre of the maze on the grounds is shaped like a diamond in his memory. The maze was planted in 1989 and has a statue of cupid in the middle as a point of reference – to make sure you don’t get lost! There are also 10 stone carved lions dotted around the estate for you to spot on your visit. You can take a tour to understand its long history and get to know the many characters who have made Russborough their home. The tour includes a visit to the private auditorium in the house which has now become a 3D cinema where you can watch films captured by Sir Alfred, of his adventures all around the world and life with Lady Beit back at Russborough House.
To this day, there is always something going on at Russborough House. In partnership with the Royal Horticultural Society of Ireland, the Russborough Garden Show will take place on the 29 of July where gardening enthusiast from all across the country will descend on Blessington for demonstrations on flower arranging and talks from award-winning landscape gardeners with stalls selling flowers, plants and bulbs. For a really different experience, book the sheepdog demonstration which runs on Saturdays and Sundays. You will get to see a real master in action with Michael Crowe commanding the dogs just with a whistle but this demonstration is interactive so be ready to get stuck in!
As if that wasn’t enough, the National Bird of Prey Centre opened on the estate just last summer and is home to over 40 different Birds of Prey including the recently re-introduced golden eagle, white tailed sea eagle and red kite. Your ticket entitles you to an expert guided tour introducing all the birds as well as a handling session with their hand-reared owls. The estate also features the work of several Irish artisans, showcasing crafts ranging from stonemasonry and blacksmithing to woodturning and weaving. Check out all the artisan crafts here.
Castletown House, Celbridge, Co Kildare
When it comes to Castletown House in Kildare, the 18th century palace has a commanding presence. It is the first and biggest Palladian-style house in Ireland, the flower dappled long grasses of the Celbridge countryside are dominated by its grandeur. The house was built by the Speaker in the Irish House of Commons, William Conolly, for entertaining his political colleagues and adversaries. He became the wealthiest and most powerful politician in Ireland at the time and poured all his resources into Castletown, a house which oozes opulence, spurning the ravages of age with its timeless appeal.
Just like many of the other historic houses in Ireland, you can take a guided tour of the house and grounds or explore the estate at your leisure. At Castletown, you can take a guided tour with a difference by downloading the Castletown House app. The app is free and comes loaded with an audio tour which shows you round the house, narrating the story behind the Lords and Ladies as well as the historical importance of the property. The house was auctioned off in the 1960s and all of the original artefacts and portraits were stripped from Castletown and sold on. In a remarkable feat, the Guinness family purchased and recovered many of the pieces, returning them for display to their rightful home.
In keeping with its artistic heritage, the second floor of the house acts as a gallery for different exhibitions over the course of the year. Until September, the gallery is housing a collection of photographs of the Hollywood starlet turned aristocrat, Princess Grace of Monaco. To celebrate the exhibition, Castletown is running its very own mini Grace Kelly film festival with her movies Rear Window, Dial M for Murder and To Catch a Thief being shown over successive nights in the month of August. The fun isn’t just for the adults. The Big Brick exhibition has taken over the Farm Yard on the estate, showcasing some of the world’s most famous buildings like the Taj Mahal and Tower Bridge made entirely out of Lego!
Tullynally Castle, Castlepollard, Co. Westmeath
Three generations of the same family still live in Tullynally, it has been a family home for the past 350 years and was the seat of the Earl of Longford. The name Tullynally comes from the Irish “Tulaigh an Eallaigh” meaning “hill of swans”, so named because the castle over looks Lough Derravaragh, the lake from the famous Irish myth “The Children of Lir”. Tullynally was once a Georgian mansion before being renovated into the Gothic Revival castle it is today.
The castle itself remains a family home and is not open to the public every day. Heritage guide Bartle D’Arcy runs “Life Behind the Stairs” tours every Sunday at 3pm where he recounts the lives of the servants of Tullynally, bringing you through the kitchen, butler’s bedroom and laundry before taking you downstairs to the previously sealed basement rooms. Tickets for the tour include entrance to the gardens.
The real draw of Tullynally has to be gardens. There are 12 acres of gardens that have been lovingly maintained including Chinese and Tibetan planted gardens and a walled garden. While strolling along the pretty walled garden, your solace might be interrupted by the rowdy neighbours! A herd of llamas have joined the family at Tullynally. Stop by and pet the llamas – sure to be a hit with young kids. Before setting off on your walk of the gardens, pick up a treasure trail map from the Tea Rooms. Children can find their way through the grounds by spotting various attractions and surprises along the way.
Ghan House, Carlingford, Co. Louth
Tucked away on the edge of Carlingford Lough in Co. Louth, the location of Ghan House must be the envy of all other country houses across Ireland. With unspoiled views of the lough on one side and the majestic Mourne Mountains on the other, the surroundings alone make Ghan House a must-see. First built by Dublin-based politician William Stannus in 1727, it has a real feel of a proper country getaway. The house fell into disrepair after years of neglect but was brought back to its former glory by Joyce and John Carroll in the 1990s. The guesthouse has just twelve bedrooms, each with a unique perspective of Carlingford Lough.
Ghan House has received countless accolades over the years including notably, Ireland’s Blue Book and a double AA rosette for its renowned restaurant. Guests dine in the drawing room of the house with uninterrupted views of the gardens and Mourne mountains. Ghan House prides itself on using local produce and ingredients in its restaurant, so much so that the menu is informed by availability and the changing seasons.
The shellfish like oysters, mussels and lobster comes from the lough while the famous local Cooley lamb and beef are grazed on the slopes of the mountain. The house has an underground tunnel connecting the kitchen to a former local bakery, monks would make the bread at Ghan House before delivering it to the bakery through the tunnel. In respect of that tradition, all the bread served in the restaurant is made fresh in the kitchen.
Ghan House first opened as a cookery school in 1993 and cooking is still at the heart of this Georgian house. While the cookery school is no more, guests and visitors can book private cookery demonstrations and hands-on masterclasses run by the chefs at Ghan House. You can choose a demonstration or half day lesson with either lunch or dinner included in your very own private dining room. If you would rather leave the cooking to the experts, there is also a wine tasting course or afternoon tea experience on offer.
Castle Leslie, Glaslough, Co. Monaghan
Set on over 1000 acres of woodland, gardens and lakes, Castle Leslie in Monaghan is the definition of grand. The castle has been run by the Leslie family since 1665, originally called Glaslough Castle and Demense, named after the lough which fronts the castle. Everything here is luxurious and stately from the incredibly popular Snaffles restaurant to the plush guest rooms and the classic and time-honoured estate activities. When it comes to Castle Leslie, expect a touch of class at every turn.
Castle Leslie has fashioned itself as the ultimate country escape with all you would ever want at your fingertips. While you will no doubt be mystified by the sumptuous setting of the castle, it is the restaurant that has been lauded by critic after critic. Snaffles restaurant is the fine dining experience you would expect from a country house with the locally sourced ingredients calling the shots. If you hadn’t heard, gin is in and Snaffles has an extensive gin menu to tempt their guests. After a day of estate activities, you might be after something a bit more relaxed. Drop into Conor’s Bar for a drink and some pub grub.
A break at Castle Leslie might be a chance for you to settle your mind and unwind in the Monaghan countryside but there are so many activities to keep you entertained, taking its cue from the spirit of old-fashioned hospitality. The estate is equipped with its very own equestrian centre where visitors can try out their extensive courses from cross country jumping to dressage. Don’t worry if you are just a beginner, they offer lessons and hack sessions for novice riders. There is also fishing, clay pigeon shooting and falconry. If you prefer an afternoon away from the great outdoors, book a treatment in the onsite spa. You can even chill out in the hot tub overlooking the stables.
Take the time to lose yourself in the big houses of Ireland’s Ancient East this year and you’ll discover a story over 5000 years in the making, through periods of prosperity, stagnation, of war and endeavour, the great Irish estates and their spectacular gardens will welcome you with open arms.