Sunday 18 August 2019

Blue Sky Thinking: Meet the young families bringing new life into Ireland's Blue Book

For most, a stay in a Blue Book property is a special treat full of character and charm. But for some, the stylish hideaways are home. Regina Lavelle talks to three couples bringing up young families in notable period properties

Lou and John Mathers of Newforge House, Co Down
Lou and John Mathers of Newforge House, Co Down
DJ and Colette Kellett and thier 7 month old daughter Fearne, at their home, Enniscoe House in Crossmolina, Co. Mayo. Photo : Keith Heneghan
Ireland's Blue Book
The De Mays: Ann and Chris Woody with their children Millie, Pippa and Nina.

Regina Lavelle

Over its 45 years, Ireland's Blue Book has come to be a definitive resource for guests looking to stay and eat at the finest country house hotels, castles, manor houses and restaurants all across Ireland.

From its start in 1974 with just 11 properties, the Blue Book has grown to include 54 members notable for their character, charm and authenticity. 

Six new additions mark the 2019 edition, including two available to rent. Among the newcomers are Ballyfin Demesne in Co Laois, the Regency mansion where Kim and Kanye honeymooned in 2014, Derry's Bishop's Gate Hotel, Butler House in Kilkenny and Cahernane House, open after a €6.5m renovation earlier this year.

The last two newcomers are Dunowen House, Co Cork, an 18th-century house and former home of Jimi Hendrix's bass guitarist, and The Hideaway at Dromquinna Manor, a luxury glamping retreat on Kenmare Bay, Co Kerry.

So if your home really is your castle, how do you balance work, family and the complexities of running a period property? We asked three young Blue Book families how they are breathing new life into the brand.

The Mathers, Armagh

Newforge House.jpg
Newforge House, Co. Armagh. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile

Built in 1785, Newforge House in Magheralin, Co Armagh, came into the Mathers family in the 19th century. John (45), and 41-year-old Louise Mathers (photo above) and their children Theo (11) and Mia (9), are the sixth generation to live at Newforge, which first opened to the public in 2005.

"When my father lived at Newforge it had no bathroom at all," John says, recounting the challenges of turning a centuries-old house into a working business. "When we moved here from across the field, I was around eight. By then, it had 10 bedrooms, one awful bathroom and no heating. My brother and I shared a room - and shared a bed in the winter to keep warm. It was a great place to grow up, but none of my generation were going to take it on because the running costs were so high and it required so much modernisation.

"Before we opened, we rewired the whole place, installed central heating, recarpeted, made curtains, installed bathrooms and I did all the tiling, restoring furniture and redid the kitchen. I'm confident that early decisions like not trying to install 'period' bathrooms were correct. I didn't want anything to be a pastiche, the whole point was keeping it understated."

The arrival of their first son while living in the basement to "keep costs down" was a tough time. "We had eight tricky months there with Theo before we were ready to move. Being in the basement flat made it feel like work was literally on top of you all the time. Sometimes when I was serving upstairs I could hear him crying underneath and I would almost feel like banging on the floor."

Now, however, things are much easier. "Since I'm the chef, my day starts around 7am and I finish when everyone has gone to bed. Lou does all the baking, all the breads and all the shortbreads for tea and coffee and for the rooms. And she does all the desserts. We don't have any commis chef, it's just us. And it's not like my commute is brutal... I can pop back to the house for lunch and I'll try to pop back for tea with the kids, too.

"Newforge isn't swanky, but it is very comfortable, very welcoming, and you'll have a lovely dinner with good locally sourced ingredients. I make sure that all the staff know the guests' names - they're the details that make the place.

"I've always loved my gin and tonic, but I feel throwing out tonic water is a terrible waste. So I blitz my tonic to take out the bubbles and use the tonic cubes in the drink. These are the touches I think our guests enjoy. They look for authenticity. Modernisation has to come with respect. It can't be utilitarian. That's what the Blue Book offers - escape."

The Kellets, Mayo

DJ and Colette Kellett and thier 7 month old daughter Fearne, at their home, Enniscoe House in Crossmolina, Co. Mayo. Photo : Keith Heneghan

DJ (40), his wife Colette (32), and their six-month-old daughter Fern, are the 13th generation of the Kellett family to live at Enniscoe House near Crossmolina in Co Mayo. Built in 1790, the six-bedroom house underwent extensive restoration in 1983 - a project steered by DJ's mother Susan - after which it opened to the public, joining the Blue Book in 1984.

"When Mum [Susan] took over, Enniscoe House still had the original wiring from 1954, the plumbing was shot and the whole complex needed re-roofing as the house had become quite rundown. Eventually she realised that the house had to earn its keep," DJ says. "Starting out, she didn't have much money, so all the restoration has been piecemeal. When we close in the winter we do one major restoration project. Last winter it was the sitting room, which took three months to complete with the new guests arriving as we were finishing.''

Now the business has new recruit Fern, the order of their day has changed somewhat. "We had Fern in April. The priority was to keep the house going but learn how to be parents as well," explains Colette. "Fern is the luckiest child because she's so privileged to grow up in a wonderful place. Everyone lends a hand."

Having children around guests is very much following in the manner of DJ's own upbringing. "Some of my earliest memories are of guests in our sitting rooms. And some of those guests come back every year. We know them so well and it's always a pleasure to see them back. And we try to remain true to the integrity of the house. So any modernisation or redecorating projects try to stick to the traditions of the house and to appreciate its history."

For example?

"We don't have TVs. We don't have tea or coffee in the bedrooms. You can have tea or coffee in your room or sitting room but it will be taken to you. There are no newspapers. Our bathrooms are up to date but we'll never offer the mod cons of a hotel because we aren't one. We're a historic house that does accommodation."

DJ trained at Ballymaloe, but explains that menus at Enniscoe are limited, with much of the produce coming from their organic garden. "We change the menu every day, according to what's available. We have very good local butchers and fishmongers and buy as we need it.

"We're small enough that we can assure quality. People ask why not add more bedrooms, but we want to maintain the standard. And that's what the Blue Book guest wants. They want to be assured of the quality, to know that the standard will be maintained and the guest will have a unique experience."

The de Mays, Cork

The De Mays: Ann and Chris Woody with their children Millie, Pippa and Nina.

Situated on the beautiful inlet of Dunmanus Bay in West Cork, and centred on a Georgian courtyard, Blairscove House is run by Ann (33) and Chris 'Woody' Woodward (31).

Originally built over 250 years ago, the house was acquired by Ann's grandparents in 1972. With twins, Millie and Pippa, arriving three years ago, and more recently 10-month-old Nina, this is the third generation of De Mays to live and work in the house.

Hailing from Germany, it wasn't long after Ann's grandparents bought Blairscove as a holiday home that her parents Sabine and Philippe moved in and started a B&B in the main house. In 1981, they renovated the 250-year-old barn into a restaurant and moved the guest accommodation around the courtyard.

In 2014, Ann and Woody moved back from Australia to work in the family business. "We were lucky that when we came the big restoration projects had already been done," says Ann. "My mother did a lot of the design work herself, and she's done a really lovely job of keeping the integrity of the building but modernising the interiors. We'd describe them as tastefully modern."

Taking on the house wasn't a step they took lightly: "We did try out working together before we committed to the house. We worked together in Australia to see if we could do it but now we have a great marriage," Woody says.

"The hardest part was working alongside my parents and trying not to offend each other," says Ann. "We had to bring the property into the 21st century. The restaurant opened almost 40 years ago so we wanted to introduce some new ideas. We introduced a cocktail bar after seeing a small one in operation at a local wedding." Other modern essentials introduced by Ann & Woody include biodynamic wines and WiFi.

Simultaneously working and raising three young children means Ann and Woody have raised teamwork to a new level of precision. Starting at 6.45am, they swap childcare duties throughout the day, allowing for Woody to contact suppliers and consult with the chefs about the menus, and Ann to get office work done, all in time for the staff, chefs, and children to have a 5pm family meal before the children go up to bed while the restaurant starts its evening service.

"We're cognisant of the standard we need to live up to. You never want to hear that it was better in your parents' day - the Blue Book is the membership you never want to lose."

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