Hail the hostess and her unflappable historic house
Kate Sweetman is adept at providing dinner for large numbers in her historic banqueting room, but an order of rare beef for 120 almost threw her off her stride. Edited by Mary O’Sullivan. Photography by Gerry Mooney
As anyone who owns an old house knows, the main personality trait required is unflappability. Broken slates, cracked gutters, leaks, dry rot, electrical problems - these are all everyday occurrences, and one has to learn not to panic, realise the house was there long before you were born and will be there long after you're gone.
Not all old-house owners manage to assimilate that philosophy, but Kate Sweetman certainly has. Kate has unflappability in spades, and seems to have always possessed it - to the extent that, when she bought her magnificent nine-bedroomed Georgian home - Annesbrook in Co Meath - she did so without ever having clapped eyes on it. And she had only set out to buy a little country cottage for weekends.
At the time - 1975 - Kate was living in California, where her then husband worked for the IDA and was running its San Francisco office. The couple had gone there soon after they married - they had met through their Sunday walking group - and, after about five years in the States, Kate decided she'd like them to come back.
"It was a great experience. We had a marvellous time there. Coming back was a culture shock. You know - the way in America everything works and, when people say they'll do something, they just do it. But you get to the stage where you have to make a decision: stay or come back. All my family were here and I wanted to be near them," Kate explains.
Before going to America, she and her husband had lived in a small terraced house in Dublin 6, which they had kept, but, while abroad, they decided it would be nice to have a little house in the country for weekends. Kate was originally from Kells, so Meath was a potential location.
"We were looking for a cottage on one acre, and we asked David, my brother-in-law, who was involved in auctioneering, to keep an eye out. This place came up for sale; it was an executor's sale," Kate says. "1975 was the year of the oil crisis and nobody wanted houses like this. Anyway, we bid and we were the second highest bidder, so we forgot about it. Then we got a phone call from David, saying, 'if you want the house, it's yours', so we bought it, sight unseen," she explains, laughing at the memory, adding that she felt her brother-in-law wouldn't have walked her into anything.
Nor did he. However, the house was not for the faint-hearted. As well as the house, there were eight acres to be looked after. The upside was the house was in great structural order and the family decided to live there full time. "In the 60s, George Allen, brother of the Ballymaloe Allens, lived in the house and he did a lot of work on the roof," Kate says. "He put in electricity, too, which was great because, up to then, there was none."
Decoratively, though, it was a different story. "There were all these mad carpets and awful curtains - but easy to change," Kate says cheerfully, before going on to admit that she only got around to changing the stairs carpet a couple of years ago, while some of the less-garish ones still remain.
Kate was in her early 30s when she moved to Annesbrook, but at no stage was she fazed by the enormous challenge she and her husband had taken on. "I was not really daunted at all," she says. "I was brought up in a biggish house. When you're young, you'll take on anything. I'm still a bit like that. When you live in a house like this, you have to be." In the beginning, they used it purely as a family home - and what an idyllic childhood home it was for Kate's children, now all in their 30s.
Acres of walled gardens and woodlands to explore and call their own, magical outbuildings to play house in, not to mind all those bedrooms - one for each of the two boys and two girls and still plenty left over.
Then Kate felt she could put the house to good use. Before her marriage, Kate - who had gone to boarding school at Mount Anville, but hated school - had only ever worked at "bits of jobs", but she is extremely resourceful.
"After a while, I started doing B&B, but I was working when the kids were on holiday in the summertime and it was mad, so I gave that up and I did turkeys for a bit," she says. When she split up with her husband in the early 80s, it became necessary to do a rethink.
"I had to do something in order to keep the show on the road, so then I joined Hidden Ireland and took in guests. I did that til I was 60 or 65, and then I thought, 'this is for the birds, I must live a bit now, go to the odd party'," the youthful seventysomething says with a twinkle. However, after taking some time off and "living a bit", Kate is now back, full of energy, with plans to make the house pay its way again, fully supported by her children, Hugh, Sadhbh, Shane, Gwynne and other family members, including her niece, Caroline. She often hosts theatre nights - offering some 70 guests a drama and dinner. She thinks nothing of cooking for large numbers.
"I once made rare roast beef for 120 people for a 40th-birthday party. It was a bit of a misunderstanding. I told the husband, whose birthday it was, I would cook for 120 once it was something out of a pot. Then the wife got involved, and said she wanted rare roast beef and roast peppers, and, instead of saying I couldn't possibly do that, I went along with it. It was a bit of a nightmare, but everyone said it was delicious," she says.
Kate lets the property for house parties and she is planning to offer it for hire for DIY weddings. Her enthusiasm is fuelled by the fact that the house is so unusual, on several counts - not least its age. "The oldest part of the house, which was a farmhouse, is mid to late 1600s. Somebody came from Australia - Fays - and told me their family had been put out in the 1600s. I think it was all to do with William of Orange. They were pretty miffed about it, even still," Kate explains with a laugh. Then there's its unique historical significance. Ireland is full of Georgian houses, but few can boast that parts of the house were actually built for King George IV himself - at the time, he was the Prince Regent.
"He was on his way to Slane to visit his mistress, Lady Conyngham; he was stopping here for lunch," Kate says.
Nowadays, if you are expecting celebrity visitors, you make sure to have plenty of flowers, food and drink. In the early 19th Century, it seems you rebuilt parts of your house, or at least the then owners of Annesbrook felt that was necessary. To their solid, but simple farmhouse, they added the formidable stone portico to the front and an enormous dining room to the side.
Both of these features have been restored with the help of the Georgian Society, The Heritage Council and Meath County Council, and now look almost as good as the day they were built.
The sad part? George never entered the house. Never mind. Kate is ensuring that anyone can come and enjoy a house considered fit for a king, whether they're royal or not.
For further information on Annesbrook, see www.annesbrook.com