Long before armchair renovators began tuning in to the TV show Build a New Life in the Country, Ireland’s ruling class was peppering the landscape with massive country homes and château-style castles surrounded by ornate gardens.
It’s a rich architectural legacy, remnants of an age when getting away from it all was easy – if you had it all to begin with.
“No streak of Puritan modesty restrained [those]for whom these houses were being built,” note the authors of Irish Houses & Castles. “Local rivalries, jealousy, and family pride had their effect on the architecture – people were ruined in the attempt to outbuild one another.”
Having it all during Ireland’s home-and-garden building boom of the 1700s and 1800s meant being a member of the English-Protestant aristocracy in a country where almost everyone was Catholic and relegated to tenant farms and wee, thatched cottages. To Irish nationalists, these grand homes were symbols of British oppression, and a few became the target of IRA attacks during The Troubles. Today, they’re a major tourist draw. The government owns and operates dozens of estates and many of those in private hands are open to the public.
So whether you want to escape into the plush world of the landed gentry or to see tangible evidence of the injustices of Irish history, here are four houses and a castle worth checking out. A driving tour of the lower half of the island, starting and ending in Dublin, will take you to the doorsteps of all five.
This temple-fronted, neo-classical gem west of Dublin might have fallen into ruin if not for the vision of a retired British major-turned-stockbroker, Cholmeley Harrison. He spent an estimated £4-million ($6.3-million) making it look as it did when architect James Gandon – creator of Dublin’s elegant Custom House – designed it in the 1790s as a hunting lodge for the Earl of Portarlington.
The house had been converted into a Jesuit seminary when Harrison bought it in 1969. He followed original blueprints found at an auction and even dispatched workers to Italy to find marble to restore the rotunda. He donated the estate to the Irish government in 1994 and lived onsite, in a private suite, until his death in 2008 at age 99.
Think your guests are fussy? The Herberts, who built this Tudor-style estate overlooking one of the picturesque Lakes of Killarney, spent six years and a hefty chunk of change to prepare for a visit by Queen Victoria and her entourage in 1861. Her Majesty wound up staying just two days.
The 65-room house was sold at the turn of the last century to the Guinness brewing family, who used it as a hunting lodge – and plenty of stag heads line the entrance hall. The house and its surrounding 4,400 hectares were donated to the people of Ireland in the 1930s, giving the newly independent country its first national park. Some of Victoria’s attendants were so taken with the scenery that a nearby outlook is still known as the Ladies’ View.
This brick-trimmed homage to Georgian symmetry boasts an unparalleled collection of European art and furniture, including tapestries reputed to have been made for Marie Antoinette. The climb up the 100-step staircase in the rear terraced garden is rewarded with a spectacular view over the rooftop to the ocean and mountains beyond.
This property on Ireland’s west coast has been in the White family since the middle of the 18th century and in 1946 became the first private manor in Ireland to be opened to the public. Bed-and-breakfast accommodation is available in the main house, and the gatehouse has housekeeping suites.
The house was the backdrop for a turning point in Irish history – the first Earl of Bantry organized local defences when a French fleet, carrying Irish rebel leader Wolfe Tone, entered the bay in 1796. Storms prevented the invaders from landing and an adjacent museum displays artifacts recovered from one of the sunken ships.
When Edward VII visited in 1904, he asked about the people lining up to greet him. Told they were the Butlers, so the story goes, the king responded, “Well, why aren’t they serving the bloody drinks then?”
These Butlers were descendants of the earls of Ormonde, the family that called the castle home from the 14th century to the 1930s. Sporting round towers at three corners (the missing wall and tower were lost in a siege in 1650), it’s the showpiece of a city renowned for its medieval architecture and its namesake beer.
Castle and family alike fell on hard times in the 20th century. The 24th Earl of Ormonde, noting there were “already too many ruins in Ireland,” turned it over to the city in 1967 for restoration. Highlights of the tour are rooms recreating the castle’s Victorian splendour and the Long Gallery, where artworks are displayed under a vaulted, wood-beamed roof.
If you’re a movie buff, you’ve seen a lot of this 1740s mansion and its immaculate gardens, located just south of Dublin. Powerscourt was the backdrop for Barry Lyndon in 1975 and The Count of Monte Cristo in 2002.
The house was gutted by fire in the 1970s and has been only partially restored, with shops and a restaurant on the main floor. The real draw is the setting overlooking cone-shaped Great Sugar Loaf Mountain and gardens modelled on those at Versailles.
An hour-long walk of the grounds snakes through a Japanese garden, skirts a lake and fountain facing the house and passes a cemetery where headstones mark the resting places of family pets: dogs, cats and even Eugenie, a beloved Jersey cow.
If you go
These estates offer self-guided or guided tours. Admission runs from €3 to €10 ($4 to $14), with cheaper tickets for seniors, students and children. Family rates are available and tea rooms offer light lunches.
Location: 2.5 km from Emo, County Laois
House open daily Apr. 1 to Sept. 29, gardens open year round, www.heritageireland.ie/en/midlandseastcoast/emocourt
Location: Killarney National Park, County Kerry
Open year round, muckross-house.ie
Location: Kilkenny City
Open year-round, www.kilkennycastle.ie
Location: Bantry, County Cork
Open daily March 15 to Oct. 31, bantryhouse.com
Location: Enniskerry, County Wicklow
Open year round, powerscourt.ie
Special to The Globe and Mail