Roger Hermiston and Eileen Wise set off back in time on an Ireland travel yarn to unearth echoes of Raleigh, Cromwell and De Valera, as well as an invaluable Blue Book.
Ireland drew us back once more. Not just for the breath taking landscape, the villages seemingly untouched by modern civilisation, and the warmth of the people’s welcome, but also the unique feel of tranquillity you get the moment you step on Irish soil. As Yeats wrote, ‘And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow, dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings…’
We decided to indulge ourselves. On previous visits we’ve enjoyed great food and accommodation from the most modest B & B to the grandest castle. This time, we took as our Ireland travel guide, the exclusive Blue Book, founded in the 1970s and the perfect compendium of fifty of the most elegant country houses, captivating boutique hotels and designer lodges. Along the way we would, as we always like to do, seek out unusual sites and stories to enhance our knowledge of Ireland’s history.
A smooth crossing on Stena Line’s Fishguard to Rosslare ferry enabled quiet preparation in the very comfortable Stena Plus lounge, where we consulted our map and fleshed out our itinerary. Then, on disembarkation, it was top down on our trusty Audi A4 and away we went on a circular journey that would whisk us through five counties on Ireland’s lower half in ten days.
But before we hit the Blue Book establishments, we stopped first at Kilmokea Country Manor and Gardens. Situated on Great Island, Campile, County Wexford, this is an elegant, comfortable family-run luxury B&B – formerly a Georgian rectory – accompanied by seven acres of quite astonishing ‘Heritage Gardens’ by the side of the River Barrow.
Mark and Emma Hewlett have built on the dedicated work done by previous owners Colonel and Mrs Price, who introduced 130 different species of sub-tropical plants and wonderful organic vegetables. The result is a magical space – one of the gardens is called the ‘Fairy Village’ – where productions of Peter Pan are held in the summer, and where children can play hide and seek and – in classes – learn how to build dens and make fires.
Legend has it that Sir Walter smoked the first ever cigarette in the garden of his temporary Youghal home
Next we headed west along Cork’s coast, driving past the greenest of pastures, then through undulating headlands before reaching gentle inlets and finally the historic town of Youghal (pronounced ‘Yawl’).
Here the English historical presence is writ large, through the association of Sir Walter Raleigh and Oliver Cromwell. Raleigh was briefly mayor in the late 16thcentury, living at the still intact Myrtle Lodge, an extraordinary, grey, quite sinister-looking triple-gabled three-storey house with six chimneys. Legend has it that Sir Walter smoked the first ever cigarette in the garden of his temporary Youghal home.
No house is associated with the austere Cromwell. He and his army of 10,000 were billeted here in 1649 whilst they set about quelling the Irish rebellion – including, most shamingly, the massacre at Drogheda.
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Our Blue Book host in Youghal was Aherne’s Townhouse, conveniently situated close to the medieval walls, the splendid Collegiate Church of St Mary and the Raleigh house. The family Fitzgibbon – brothers John and David, and their wives Katie and Gaye – run a cosy, welcoming hotel, where the residents rub shoulders with locals in the bar before settling down in the restaurant, where the most magnificent seafood is served.
From Cork we continued our Ireland travel north, first stopping at the Donkey Sanctuary in Liscarroll – where we was tempted to bring home to Suffolk a lovely, friendly jenny called Allegra as a companion for our Yollo and Bruno. Then once into the more benign countryside of Limerick, we went to pay homage to one of Ireland’s greatest sons, Eamon de Valera – patriot, scholar, statesman.
In Bruree, De Valera’s boyhood home is excellently preserved – a modest, three-roomed, slate-roofed labourer’s cottage, with a half acre of land. The poverty of his upbringing is in stark contrast with the opulent surrounds his great political adversary Winston Churchill enjoyed in his youth at Blenheim Palace.
The Mustard Seed at Echo Lodge was our temporary home in Limerick, nestling in the heart of the Golden Vale and overlooking the rustic village of Ballingarry. We revelled in our accommodation, a stylishly appointed ground floor suite, complete with private sitting room, kitchenette and two ensuite bedrooms. The food, prepared by head chef Angel Pirev and sous chef Mike Madden, was to die for – pan-fried trout, blue mussels, horseradish-pickled scallops, succulent beef sirloin. All the while attentive manager John Edward Joyce engendered the perfect country house-party atmosphere.
We left the calm of Limerick to head up to the Wild West coast of County Clare and the town of Lahinch, home to a glorious links golf course. Opting to take our exercise instead on the nearby beach at Quilty, we enjoyed the wind in our faces and the taste of the salty sea air. At adjoining Spanish Point back in 1688, ships from the Armada, blown off course, were shattered on the treacherous cliffs; surviving sailors were promptly executed by Irish lords, by command of Queen Elizabeth I.
Moy House was our haven here, out on a headland with glorious views to the Atlantic, with six doughty Connemara ponies grazing away peacefully in a field in the foreground. The story goes that back in the 19th century the architect’s plans for Moy got muddled up with those for an Italian Riviera villa – hence the somewhat incongruous, if splendid, Mediterranean feel to the house.
The welcome is warm here, the rooms elegant and spacious, and the food is divine. Matthew Strefford’s superb six-course tasting menu would have sent us marching to the beach for another bracing walk had it not been for the need to head back south to County Kilkenny for our fourth Blue Book destination.
Mount Juliet in Thomastown is a truly lavish country house estate overlooking the River Nore, featuring a luxurious manor house, a Jack Nicklaus designed 18-hole championship golf course and – separately from the hotel – the world famous Ballylinch Stud.
A visit to the stables of the latter brought us a meeting with a progeny of one of the greatest race horses of them all, Frankel. A century ago, Ballylinch was the home of arguably the fastest horse in the history of sport, The Tetrarch; his grave lies within the stable walls.
Aside from the golf – a beautiful parkland course lined with gorgeous beech and oak trees – there was plenty of scope to work off the splendid meal in the graceful Lady Helen Restaurant with a long walk, even a spot of archery. In addition guests can watch – and engage with – magnificent birds of prey, in displays from Hawkeye Falconry.
The fifth and final Blue Book outing took us the short distance from Thomastown to Dunbrody Country House in Arthurstown, County Wexford. Set in three hundred acres on the scenic Hook Peninsula, Dunbrody has its own spa, and a renowned cookery school. Its owner Kevin Dundon is Ireland’s equivalent of Jamie Oliver, a regular host and guest on Irish TV and radio.
Our Ireland travel saga almost completed, we enjoyed a quite superb meal in the Harvest Room restaurant, while a couple of our fellow diners posed for selfies with Kevin – such is his fame locally. After a good night’s sleep on a supremely comfortable bed of goose and duck feather pillows, it was 6am and the early morning call to summon us to our ferry and back home – to reality.
To start your Ireland travel yarn, take the Stena Line from Fishguard to Rosslare from £79 single for car and driver.