Play The Princess at An Irish Country Estate: Ballyfin
I think every old house has a ghost.
The owners don’t always admit to having hangers-on from the other side, and perhaps they are only vestigially aware of sharing space with a spirit. But open your inner eye when you visit a much-lived-in space, and you may find that there’s a shadow in the room that isn’t yours.
I sensed another presence as I lay in a cloud of bubbles in the deep tub in the Butler Room’s rococo bathroom at Ballyfin. The soap was handmade and redolent with roses and sandalwood, the water was warm and I had had a long day in chilly weather. But just as my lids lowered in bliss, the door to the bathroom whispered open and there he was, -James Butler, the Duke of Ormond.
He was still wearing his armour and battle regalia from his successful leadership of the Irish Loyalists during the mid seventeenth century. His regard was regal, disdainful perhaps, but not unappreciative. He was not a frightening presence, just a tad supercilious.
It is true that the breeze from the open window in the sitting room could have opened the door, and that William Wissing’s portrait of James Butler above the fireplace was in direct sight line of my bathtub, but I know the Duke paid me a visit.
There isn’t a property in Ireland more deserving of interesting ghosts than Ballyfin. Nestled at the foot of the Slieve Bloom mountains in County Laois, the house is today one of the world’s best country manor estate hotels. The restored neo-Georgian estate, voted best new resort in the world for 2012 by the Robb Report, is an hour from Dublin and sits on 610 verdant acres with walled gardens, a large lake, grottoes and riding paths.
The house has been ranked as one of the finest homes in Ireland ever since it was first built, in 1823. It served as the country home of the Coote family until 1923, when it was no longer comfortable to be an Anglo-Protestant in Ireland.
The family sold the property to a Catholic Brotherhood who ran it as a school until they were no longer able to afford the upkeep. It sat in deteriorating condition until 2002 when American Fred Krehbiel and his wife Kay bought the property and began a decade long renovation.
The result is a sumptuous fifteen room hotel, with public rooms decorated with authentic period antiques, gilded ceilings, Chippendale mirrors, significant Irish art and restored parquetry floors. The library, with a large fireplace at either end, is stocked with 18th century books, as well as today’s Irish Times. Each bedroom is different, with massive bathrooms, modern amenities and king sized four poster beds.
The Butler room where I slept is decorated in shades of soft rose and cream, with a venerable tapestry above the marble surrounded bath. The in-room bar is stocked with elderberry water and Riedel glasses, organic juices, mineral water, and locally made treats. Stacks of art book sit on the side table. And, I swear, spirits are lingering comfortably in the corners.
This is a house that has seen everything, - from death to deception, from love to betrayal, from wealth to hardship. There must be ghosts. If not ghosts, then some lingering fog of character that hangs in the air and gives a night spent here a haunting resonance.
Don’t be afraid. It’s just history, reaching out to tap you gently on the shoulder.
If You Go
Rates: 2013: from May to September, from CAD $815 – $2173, per room per night, includes full board, all amenities of the estate, drinks, laundry, unpacking service and wifi.
Ballyfin, County Laois
Tel: +353 (0)5787 55866