County Laois, Ireland
+353 (0) 5787 55866 ballyfin.com
Details: $639 to $2,018 per night in low season, and $942 to $2,286 in high season, inclusive of all meals, drinks, and most activities; surcharges may apply for spa services and other activities
Getting there: 90 minutes from Dublin Airport by car service
One of the great tragedies of viewing historical architecture in the modern day is that we rarely experience these buildings as they were intended to be enjoyed. No matter how exquisitely staged, the rooms in former estates like Biltmore, the Hermitage, or Versailles have been denatured for public view: Silk upholstered walls have been girded by guard rails, ornate carpets have been paved in plastic, and the enveloping dimensions of interiors have been reduced to whatever you can glimpse from the viewing corral that bars your entrance into rooms.
The magic of Ballyfin Demesne in County Laois, Ireland, is that it operates as it was designed to in the 1820s, for the sensual pleasure and recreation of its occupants (it is now a boutique hotel). The imposing Georgian house is at once modest (with only 15 bedrooms) and grandly scaled; its massive portico—which looms like a mountain face as one rounds a turn in the drive—is designed to impress, while its lavishly furnished library stretches 80 feet from wall to wall. Still, the enfiladed rooms at Ballyfin connote intimacy, with book-strewn nooks and deep sofas pulled up to homey, peat-scented fires; as when it was built, Ballyfin’s interiors encourage guests to not only look at, but live with, the house’s vast collection of Irish and Irish-themed art.
A little history: In the mid-17th Century, the estate was awarded to Englishman Periam Pole, who had supported England’s war against the Irish Confederacy in the 1640s. But it was not until a century later that any lasting mark was made on the property. Influenced in the mid-18th century by the studied naturalism of Lancelot “Capability” Brown, Periam’s grandson, William Pole, engineered Ballyfin’s picturesque lake and sculpted the Demesne’s acreage into a park with hills, gardens, and trees. Visitors to Ballyfin still enjoy the breathtaking panoramas Pole created.
The Georgian structure that now sits perfectly ensconced in Pole’s park dates from the sale of Ballyfin to Sir Charles Henry Coote, who, at the age of 10, inherited the baronetcy and Irish estate of his cousin, the 7th Earl of Mountrath. The house that Coote built in 1820 would be a testament to his elevated status. Ballyfin’s Palladian grandeur—marked by a central block with its giant order portico, which is, in turn, flanked by planar receding blocks—is simple, confident, and deadly serious. The Coote family’s coat of arms takes pride of place in the central pediment, while, inside, massive columns and almost dizzyingly ornate plasterwork continue an architectural program designed to impress.
For 100 years, generations of Cootes lived and entertained at Ballyfin, employing scores of servants, workmen, and gardeners to maintain the estate. But when the rise of the Irish Free State coincided with the aftermath of WWI and the wane of Victorian power, the Cootes withdrew from Ireland. They sold the estate to the Roman Catholic Patrician Brothers, who turned the property into Ballyfin College. Sadly, the Patrician Brothers could not afford to maintain a house with such a high degree of finish.
By the time the Patrician Brothers closed Ballyfin College in 2001, the ceiling in The Gold Room had collapsed, intricate parquetry had become waterlogged, ornate plaster moldings had crumbled, and the glass conservatory had become a dangerous ruin. Water had started to leech out of William Pole’s artificial lake into adjoining fields. With its roof virtually collapsing, Ballyfin was a frontrunner to become Ireland’s most tragic lost treasure.
Cue Molex Corp Chairman Fred Krehbiel, who, along with his County Kerry-born wife, Kay, set about snatching the estate from certain ruin. Though American-born, Krehbiel’s vision was to restore the estate and operate it as an elite hotel that would showcase Irish country life, using, as a backdrop, his vast collection of Irish paintings, sculptures, and decorative-arts works. Look for fine portraiture reaching back to the mid-17th century, including work from Charles Jervas (1675-1739), Jonathan Richardson (c. 1665-1745), and Sir Peter Lely (1618-1680). Throughout the estate hang paintings of equal and even better quality, curated either for their Irish subject matter or their Irish artists.
Under Krehbiel’s direction, even the Cootes made a return. Having promised copies of the Coote family portraits, a living descendent returned to Ballyfin to install the originals that hang now, as ever, in their rightful place in Ballyfin’s stairwell.
Today, at Ballyfin, under the direction of an Irish staff, guests can fish for pike stocked in William Pole’s restored ornamental lake. With the aid of grooms, guests can ride on horseback (or by golf cart) to Ballyfin’s restored architectural follies, which include a Medieval, faux-ruined tower and a stony, cave-like grotto. Like the Cootes before them, Ballyfin’s guests can shoot at pigeons (albeit clay ones); and, after a day of country pursuits, the on-site spa invites. Cocktails are served in the seating areas that turn the vast library into several cozy, fireside nooks, while dinner, much of it sourced locally (if not actually grown on the Demesne), is served in the glittering state dining room between two large 18th-century canvases by Robert Fagan (1761-1816).
Finally, up the original, ingeniously cantilevered stone staircase, past 200 years of Coote family portraits (and one requisite suit of armor), lie bedrooms as uniquely and comfortably furnished as the state rooms below. Each displays period-appropriate finishes (including some 18th-century wallpapers) and is furnished with antique chests of drawers and easy chairs. Happily, not everything at Ballyfin is antique: You’ll also find luxuriously chin-deep tubs, high-powered showers, and lovely Italian linens that’ll send you swiftly into dreamy sleep.
Julia Sexton is a food writer and rampant traveler who, for this story, happily blew a 5-inch bruise into her shoulder while skeet shooting. Look for her new book, Hudson River Valley ChefÌ“s Table, to be published this spring.