My favourite room: Heirs and Graces
Owning a stately home might seem idyllic, but, as Simon O'Hara and his partner Christine McCauley will testify, it's also a huge undertaking just to keep the show on the road. Edited by Mary O'Sullivan. Photography by Tony Gavin
Those of us who grew up in relatively ordinary suburban semi-ds have probably, at some stage, fantasised about living in a stately home -- particularly after watching a series such as Downton Abbey.
Who hasn't thought they'd be right at home with all those sweeping staircases, lofty ceilings, marble mantlepieces and four-poster beds?
The downside is that the upkeep, even in current times, is pretty onerous. There are huge maintenance costs for the basics, such as the grounds, the windows, the carpets and the curtains.
However, these are the things that big-house dwellers, such as Simon O'Hara, who lives at Coopershill in Riverstown, Co Sligo, accept as part of the deal and, in Simon's case, there was even an upside -- his partner, Christina McCauley, mother of their two-year-old son, Finn, jokingly explains that she first came to Coopershill to clean the carpets.
"I'm quite good friends with Lindy, Simon's mother -- I knew Lindy first. My father has a contract cleaning business, and he was coming to do the annual clean, and I came with him. We got on well," Christina explains, adding that, at that stage of her life, she had already studied business and had worked for 10 years in London, before deciding to give it up and come home to do the Ballymaloe cookery course.
"Lindy heard I was doing the course, and rang my dad and asked would I be interested in coming to work here after I'd finished it. I was delighted, because I thought I'd have to stay in Cork to get work experience. So it worked out for myself and Lindy," Christina adds.
Because, of course, that's another aspect of having a big house -- you have to find ways of making it pay its way and, in the O'Haras case, opening Coopershill as a guest house was the obvious thing to do.
Accessed via a mile-long avenue, the house boasts magnificent grounds, which include deer pastures and ancient woods, its own river and bridge, while the house itself -- Georgian in style -- is full of delightful spaces, furnishings and very special woodwork reminiscent of its era. Add excellent cuisine to the package and it's the way to go.
Simon's grandmother started their hospitality business by taking in guests back in the late Sixties; she took in families during the summer months. The family have actually lived in the house since the mid-18th Century, and both it and the family share a fascinating history. The house was built for Simon's great-great-great-great-grandfather, and Simon is the seventh generation of the family to live here.
The family name was originally Cooper; the house was built by Arthur Cooper, and the first occupant of the house was his son, Arthur Brooke Cooper. He married Jane Frances O'Hara, and the next occupant of the house was their son, Charles William Cooper. At the time, the head of Jane O'Hara's family was a bachelor, and he offered to leave his estates to Charles William -- provided he change his surname to that of his mother, O'Hara. Needless to mention, Charles William didn't hesitate. The house, though, is still called Coopershill, and Cooper is a family middle name, so it's not completely gone. Simon didn't actually grow up in the house, he explains, and his accent is very cosmopolitan, with a hint of British.
"When I was a child, my grandparents were living here. They had been tea planters in India but had come back," Simon explains, continuing with the story of both his upbringing and that of his father.
"Dad was in the army and my mother was a nurse. Dad was born in India and went to boarding school in England. At one stage, he didn't see his parents for three years, as it took so long to travel on the ship back to India. My mother was born in Kenya. They met when Dad was training the Kenyan army," Simon explains, adding that he had quite a peripatetic childhood.
"We lived in Jordan, Portugal . . . we moved every two or three years, so I went to boarding school in England. Coopershill was the one constant. We always came back for Christmas. Then my parents moved back when I was 16."
Simon went to university in England and, afterwards, got a job in British Telecom. That didn't suit him and, when he was 25, he took himself off to Africa and trained as a safari guide.
During the five years he spent in Africa, he met his ex-wife and her family -- all from Mexico -- and he ended up going to live in Mexico City.
"It was an important part of my life. My son, whose name is Kian O'Hara Zapata, was born -- he's now 12," Simon says. "I set up a travel company. I was sending wealthy Mexicans on luxury honeymoons to Africa, and organising British tours to Guatemala and Belize, but my marriage didn't last. We had an amicable separation and divorce, and I came back here. I was working in Boyle, but my parents were struggling with all the work and I began helping them here at the house."
When his parents came back in the late Eighties, initially they ran the farm and started a large herd of fallow deer. When they took over the house, they added three more guest bedrooms to the original five, and raised the standard of accommodation and cuisine on offer.
They still look after the farming end of the business, while Simon and Christina run the house. In the normal course of events, Simon, as the middle son, would not inherit the house, but his elder brother, Paul has declared he has no interest in taking over the estate. Simon also has a younger brother, Sean, who lives in Northern Ireland.
"Paul works for a bank in Hong Kong and he's married to an English girl," Simon says. "He comes back a couple of times per year to see Mum and Dad. He's not making a fortune, but he has a nice expat lifestyle -- skiing in Japan, diving in the Philippines. His wife didn't want the big house and, yeah, he's renounced his right to the estate. He's a really good guy."
Christina had come to work for Simon's mother, Lindy, at Coopershill nine years ago, just before Simon took over. By the end of the first season, they were an item. "I think Lindy was pretty pleased we got together," Christina, who is one of eight children, says with a smile. She adds: "I was always quite independent. I had my own place up to a couple of years ago."
Their toddler son, Finn, is the first male child to be born in the house since 1830.
After the first season at Coopershill, Christine went to work for a pastry chef in Sligo, which, she says, was a great experience for helping her to pick up speed in the kitchen.
She'd be the first to declare that there's a huge chasm between her own place and, indeed, between the large family home in which she grew up with her seven siblings, and Coopershill. She is, like Simon, enormously mindful of the heritage that it carries. "It is a responsibility, having been given to us in such a good situation," she says. "You don't want to be the people to let it go."
The house, which is part of Ireland's Blue Book: Irish Country Houses, Historic Hotels & Restaurants, is open to guests from April to October.
"We're very concerned that people enjoy themselves," Christina says. "I suppose we invest time, emotion, and our taste in the house; we want them to have a great time here. When there's a good crowd, they entertain each other. What we love is a mix of Irish guests and anyone else. Americans come to meet Irish people, and they love when there are Irish guests here."
And, if there are no Irish guests, all of the staff are Irish -- something that Simon is very proud of. "The ladies who work here chat to the guests and bring them out of themselves," he says.
The couple also do house parties, when large groups -- a minimum of 12 people, a maximum of 16 -- take over the house, and Christina does all the cooking, which she loves, though there are some tasks she is less than fond of.
"I remember the mid-term test in Ballymaloe was bread rolls and, after it, I never wanted to see a bread roll again! They laughed when I came here, because I've been making 40 bread rolls a day ever since. An eight-year sentence of bread rolls!" she laughs.
Where possible, the food is organic and local, and much of it is courtesy of Christina's sister, whose day job is teaching gardening skills to people with special needs, but she devotes one day a week to the gardens at Coopershill.
"She gets me to shovel shit," laughs Christina. "Last St Patrick's Day, we planted potatoes -- we have enough potatoes to support the house; we have all our own rhubarb, herbs, salads and beetroot."
A stay at the house includes breakfast, afternoon tea and a four-course dinner. Venison, of course, is a house speciality.
"It's very popular. It has less fat than salmon. Forget the cream sauce," Christina laughs, "and there's no foam."
The people who come for house parties vary. "We might have a family group for a parent's 50th, or a second wedding, which the couple want to keep small. In March, we're having a group who want to wear 19th-Century costume all weekend. We don't know what we'll have to wear," Simon says with a laugh, but he's game to sport whatever is required.
Obviously, the house is only taken over like that about half a dozen times a year, and so they have a relatively quiet time from October to April. During that time, they look after internal repairs, updating the rooms and doing marketing. "It's nice in winter," says Simon. "Some days, if it's sunny, we might go and cut firewood. If it's a rainy day, we'll do something inside."
The house is three storeys high, over a basement, and is about 20,000 square feet, but, while the rooms are extremely spacious, there are not that many. A lot of square footage is taken up with the superb staircase, where the walls are lined with artefacts found on the estate, including a 5,000-year-old paddle.
The State has a way of claiming such things, but Simon's ancestors got over it. "The O'Haras had a torc -- a gold neckpiece -- and my great-grandfather took it to the curator of the National Museum, who asked him, 'Where did you find it?'" Simon says. "Quick as a flash, my great-grandfather answered, 'It was never lost'."
The O'Haras eventually sold it to the National Museum.
The basement is made up of a snooker room, cold rooms and store rooms, while the ground floor comprises the dining room, drawing room, study and kitchen. Above that are the bedrooms, which all have their own bathrooms, and all the beds but one are super-kingsize -- something the Americans expect. What they don't expect, but get, is always either a four-poster bed or a half-tester bed.
The kitchen used to be in the basement, but Simon's grandparents decided the food was getting cold on its journey to the dining room, so they put a kitchen on the ground floor. His great-grandmother, who was still alive at the time, was so disgusted that she disinherited Simon's grandfather from getting certain funds. "It would mean the cook was on the same level as the family. That wasn't done. To her, it meant a terrible loss of face," Simon says. She wasn't the only odd ancestor. "The front door is the tallest in Sligo," Simon explains. "The reason is Arthur Cooper liked to ride his horse into the hall."
Fortunately for Coopershill, and its future generations, Simon and Christina seem to be two lovely, normal people, determined to make it work.
"Like anything, it's daunting if you think about it too much," Christina says, adding, "We both feel privileged and we love it."
- Coopershill House, Riverstown, Co Sligo, tel: (071) 916-5108, or see www.coopershill.com, or email firstname.lastname@example.org