Tuesday 19 November 2019

Seeing what the Butlers saw


When I first heard of the Butler Trail, I immediately thought of a choc fest, but that's totally down to my corpulence and love of food.

The real Butler Trail is nothing to do with chocolates and is all about a substantial part of our heritage.

There are times when I wonder if the money I spent on my three kids' education was a spectacular waste, especially when I hear them inquiring as to whether our native Cork's neighbouring counties are at the other end of the country. So I decided to take my daughter on a three-night break to Co Tipperary and a bit of culture, whether she wanted it or not. Three days of putting up with her mother and history. She would put us both in the same category -- old.

The Butler Trail is a journey that links the history and architecture of the Butler family, who had a huge impact on the lives of the people of South Tipperary from the 1300s. We began our adventure in Carrick on Suir, a market town that was once the gateway to many other towns.

After a satisfying repast at the buzzing Carraig Hotel in the centre of town, Tom Walsh, a local guide, took us on a walk though the streets and many laneways of this historic town. In 1799 the population of Carrick was double what it is now and many people lived in the laneways, all aptly named -- for instance Oven Lane where communal cooking took place. But the piece de resistance of Carrick is Ormond Castle, the first home of the Butlers.

It's a beautiful Tudor manor house with an Elizabethan facade and opulent state rooms, where some of the most glorious plasterwork abounds. The Elizabethan part of the castle was added by Black Tom Butler, the 10th Earl of Ormond, who had a very close relationship with Elizabeth the First ... Fifty Shades of Black... if you get my drift. And then it was on to the second leg of our trip, via the Dove Hill Design Centre for a spell of retail therapy, and Clonmel, the biggest inland town in the country.

Once a walled town, Clonmel boasts a West Gate, which is still intact -- it and the Main Guard preside over the town. The Main Guard is now an exhibition centre, but was built by James Butler in 1675 as the courthouse for Co Tipperary. In 1810 the ground floor was converted into shops and a pub and was subsequently boarded up until its recent very impressive restoration.

After a stroll around the town and a spot of lunch at Hickeys Bakery, established since 1900 and renowned for its barmbrack, it was time for more retail therapy. My daughter managed to find a pair of shoes that she loved for €10 and a dress for an upcoming wedding. Now she was beginning to enjoy spending time with her mother.

We spent our first night indulging my love of food in Befanis Mediterranean and Tapas Restaurant in Clonmel, where we had wonderful steak and salmon and laid our heads down in the four-star Minella Hotel on the banks of the Suir River.

My daughter got up early next morning for a swim and a lounge in the spa pool. Before leaving Clonmel, we visited the Apple Farm, where Con Haas, whose parents came from Holland in the 1960s and set up the farm, proudly showed us around. We traipsed through acres of apple trees, plum trees, strawberries, raspberries and the biggest cherries I've ever seen.They make the most amazing juices and sell them in the shop along with jams and, of course, fruit

And then it was time for the town of Cahir, which is steeped in Butler heritage. We stayed at the charming Cahir House Hotel, which was once the town house of the Butlers and took a tour of Cahir Castle with Geoff, one of the guides.

A well-preserved fortress from the 13th century, it was renovated and extended by the Butlers in the 15th and 16th centuries. It remained in the Butler family until 1964.

Another Butler building in the town is the Craft Granary, a showcase for local artists and potters. Once it was a mill owned by the Butler family, who provided much employment for the area in bygone days. And then it was on to the real gem of the Butler edifices and the Swiss Cottage, just outside Cahir. I can't believe I have never visited before. Margaret, the guide, having regaled us with tales of her boarding school days, proudly showed us around the refurbished idyll. It was built by Richard Butler, first Earl of Glengall as a hunting and fishing lodge and fashion designer Sybil Connolly, who designed for Jackie O, was responsible for the restoration of the rooms.

The attention to detail includes tracing the wallpaper to Houston, Texas, where they sourced the original pattern. The thatched roof and balconies made from tree trunks give it a distinct resemblance to the kind of house Hansel and Gretel visited in the woods. Tipperary is not all about history; we took time out to do a spot of angling with Kevin Rowe, of Cahir Anglers, whose love of the sport is evident. He proudly showed us the best spots along the river and the areas specially designed for wheelchair users. Needless to say I caught nothing, but I now know the basics.

And then it was on to Cashel and our last night at the historic and wonderful Cashel Palace Hotel, once home to the archbishop and a beautiful example of a Queen Anne-style building. We took a tour of the imposing Rock of Cashel and paid a visit to the Bolton Library, which houses the second oldest collection of antiquarian books in Ireland, collected by Archbishop Theophilis Bolton in 1730. It also boasts the smallest book in the world. The early bird at Chez Hans (my daughter thought it was Sheehans, my pronunciation must leave a lot to be desired) renowned restaurant was sublime.

Goat's cheese tart, ratatouille, basil pesto with aged balsamic, followed by crispy duck confit, scallion mash, roast shallots with a port and orange sauce. Divine. And then on to the Bru Boru Cultural Centre and an evening of music, song and dance.

A great mix of history, culture ceol agus craic and my daughter and I managed not to have a major fight.

And, after all, it's not a long way to Tipperary.

Getting there

www.discoverireland.ie/thebutlertrail; www.opw.ie; www.hotelminella.ie; www.cashel-palace.ie; www.cahirhousehotel.ie

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