Live your Down­ton Abbey fan­tasy.

Ciara Rickard takes a trip back to the ro­man­tic era with a stay at an Ir­ish man­sion that has fam­ily ties.

Elle (Canada) - - #Storyboard - By Ciara Rickard

the feather in my hair is a foot high and the sleeves on my corseted gown are vo­lu­mi­nous enough to hold a lit­ter of kit­tens, yet I’ve quite for­got­ten about feel­ing ridicu­lous. In fact, my out­fit feels more ap­pro­pri­ate in this 19th-cen­tury set­ting than the leop­ard-print skirt and over­sized knits in my suit­case.

It’s din­ner­time at Bal­lyfin Demesne, Ire­land’s best­p­re­served Re­gency man­sion and now a luxe ho­tel, and I’ve raided the pe­riod-cos­tume closet along with the other guests. I might look like Keri Rus­sell in Austenland, but this is not a Pride and Prej­u­dice theme park. I have not, thank­fully, been paired up with an ac­tor beau, and dres­sup hour is op­tional—although it is a lot of fun. “We want guests here to ex­pe­ri­ence life as it might have been 100 years ago if you came to stay with a grand fam­ily,” says Jim Reynolds, the ho­tel’s manag­ing di­rec­tor.

That feel­ing be­gins at the prop­erty’s gates. At the end of a long drive­way, in a pretty wooded set­ting, the enor­mous stately and el­e­gant house looms up sud­denly. Smart­look­ing staff are lined up along the front steps to greet me, as they do all guests. (“Just like Down­ton Abbey!” I think.) Af­ter re­ceiv­ing a warm wel­come, I’m ush­ered into a beau­ti­ful hall lit with a roar­ing fire. Tea is of­fered, and it’s quickly de­liv­ered with but­tery-soft cook­ies.

Built in the 1820s, Bal­lyfin, in County Laois, started life as home to Sir Charles and Lady Caro­line Coote, one of many wealthy English fam­i­lies who lived in Ire­land in that era. They owned much of the lo­cal area and col­lected rent from ten­ants—na­tives weren’t al­lowed to own land at that time. But with the ar­rival of Ir­ish in­de­pen­dence in 1921, the Cootes, like many res­i­dent Brits, re­turned to Eng­land. The prop­erty was then used as a school for boys un­til it was bought in 2002 by Amer­i­can busi­ness­man Fred Kre­hbiel and his Ir­ish wife, Kay. To­gether, they painstak­ingly re­stored the house over the course of nine years.

Tow­er­ing ceil­ings, enor­mous fire­places, faux-mar­ble col­umns (they used faux be­cause it was more ex­pen­sive than real mar­ble when the house was built—and that meant it was bet­ter) and an­tique fur­ni­ture truly make me feel like I’m in another era. The 15 guest rooms are lav­ish and in­di­vid­u­ally dec­o­rated: Canopy beds, beau­ti­ful fab­rics, deep bath­tubs and mas­sive win­dows with stun­ning views are all Lady Mary-wor­thy.

Many touches, from old leather-bound books in the li­brary to in­tri­cate replica rugs, lend au­then­tic­ity—I’m half ex­pect­ing to see Lady Coote sashay into the draw­ing-room as I re­lax with a glass of wine be­fore din­ner. Op­u­lence was the or­der of the day back then, and the Cootes could af­ford it: “Any­thing they wanted, they could have—money was no ob­ject what­so­ever,” says De­clan, one of the won­der­ful but­lers.

Among the fam­ily’s prized ac­qui­si­tions is a stun­ning mo­saic floor that orig­i­nally came from a 2,000-year-old Ro­man villa; two cen­turies af­ter be­ing trans­planted to Bal­lyfin’s en­try hall, the tiles are still in per­fect con­di­tion and give the room an ex­otic air. Less ex­otic, but still charm­ing, are neat rows of welling­ton boots, large um­brel­las and rain­coats laid out for guests (be­cause this is Ire­land—it will rain), and I avail my­self of these when I head out to en­joy some of the out­door pur­suits on h

of­fer—ac­tiv­i­ties suited to the aris­to­cratic life­style of which I’m now hav­ing a taste.

Although I’ve never shot a gun in my life, I spend an en­joy­able hour try­ing clay-pi­geon shoot­ing; af­ter some coach­ing from the ca­pa­ble and very pa­tient head but­ler, Lionel, I even­tu­ally man­age a sat­is­fy­ing hit on one of my tar­gets, square in its cen­tre. Next is a gourmet pic­nic lunch—de­liv­ered and set out by staff along­side a wood­burn­ing stove—in a rus­tic cabin with sweep­ing views of the prop­erty. And when the sun breaks through the rain clouds in the af­ter­noon, I seize the op­por­tu­nity to go horse­back rid­ing around the prop­erty’s lake and through the blue­bell-car­peted woods.

But it’s not just the chance to feel like El­iz­a­beth Ben­net (af­ter she mar­ries Mr. Darcy, of course) that has me ex­cited to be here. I have a con­nec­tion to the area: My mother is from a town only 20 kilo­me­tres away from Bal­lyfin, and her fa­ther grew up even closer to the es­tate in the late 1800s. (“Your grand­fa­ther would have paid rent to the Cootes, so you have a stake in the house,” jokes Reynolds.) My mom im­mi­grated to Canada when she was in her late 20s; Toronto ended up be­ing the last stop on her pur­suit-of-ad­ven­ture tour (through a nurs­ing ca­reer that took her to var­i­ous cities in Europe, North Africa and North Amer­ica) af­ter she met my dad. Most of her fam­ily are still in Ire­land, so we have made many fam­ily trips over the years—I have happy mem­o­ries of play­ing with feral kit­tens at my un­cle’s farm by day and lis­ten­ing to ghost sto­ries by night—but I had never heard of this grand house, just a short drive away.

My god­fa­ther, Des, was a board­ing stu­dent at Bal­lyfin when he was a boy in the late 1960s—and he de­scribes it as a world away from the com­forts now en­joyed here. “We ate the same meal five nights a week: ground beef in gravy and pota­toes,” he tells me. “And some­times it got so cold, the pipes would freeze. Life there was tough—but you came out pre­pared for any­thing.”

Today, Bal­lyfin is cozy, de­spite its vast­ness, and the food is so good it makes me re­think things I thought I didn’t like. (As it turns out, monk­fish is de­li­cious.) Chef Ryan Mur­phy is de­voted to us­ing all of the ho­tel gar­den’s bounty, which in­cludes ev­ery­thing from car­rots and onions to ap­ples and kale. From af­ter­noon tea by the fire to pre-din­ner bub­bles with a harpist play­ing softly in the back­ground, ev­ery mo­ment feels quite per­fect.

I can’t help but think of the stark con­trast be­tween my ex­pe­ri­ence here and the hum­ble life my an­ces­tors lived as lo­cal farm­ers when the Cootes owned the area. What would my grand­fa­ther think if he knew that, only two gen­er­a­tions later, a mem­ber of his fam­ily would be a pam­pered guest at his land­lords’ grand es­tate? Ire­land has come a long way since then and has been re­claimed by its na­tive peo­ple. But the legacy of the An­glo-Ir­ish is places like Bal­lyfin, bring­ing peo­ple to­gether in a cel­e­bra­tion of his­tory and lux­ury— surely a sil­ver lin­ing. ■

Bal­lyfin Demesne sits on 250 walled hectares; the writer donned pe­riod cos­tume for her last evening at the man­sion (be­low right).

From top: The Gold Draw­ing Room; the flower gar­den; the Lady Caro­line Coote room; one of the lovely guest bath­rooms; the 2,000-year-old Ro­man mo­saic floor in the en­trance hall

The orig­i­nal can­tilevered stair­case; blue­bells in the woods on the prop­erty

(above, right)

Left: Pa­trick McEvoy (the writer’s grand­fa­ther, with her grand­mother Mary) grew up on land that be­longed to the Coote fam­ily (be­low, in 1903).

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