Hilton Park, County Monaghan
Photograph by Jace Rivers
Danny Madden is not yet six years old, and already he’s a dead ringer for his great-great-great-grandfather. I spot this doppelgänger dressed up as a hedgehog shortly after he crawls into Hilton Park’s dining room and halts beneath a marble bust of his forebear.
Little Danny marks the tenth generation to have lived at Hilton Park since Samuel Madden snapped up the land in 1734. Like all Big Houses, Hilton Park was built with entertainment in mind. Approached by a mile-long avenue, the three-story sandstone mansion looks like an Italian palazzo stranded in Irish countryside. The house, known locally as “the Castle,” achieves much of its aesthetic magnificence from a Victorian porte cochere, topped by a stone carving of the Madden family crest. The present house hails from 1734; John Madden expanded it significantly in the 1870s. The industrious John also dug a 135-foot well on the grounds, from which the Maddens still get their water.
The dining room ceiling is stuccoed with oak leaves and braided ropes, a tribute to an ancestor who sailed with Adm. Horatio Nelson. At dinner, my wife, Ally, and I sit around a Georgian mahogany table with Karl and Sonja, a visiting couple from Germany, and Johnny Madden, the evening’s host and grandfather of Danny. A wood fire crackles in a Neapolitan marble fireplace. “My antecedents were great fighters,” Johnny says. “Mostly among themselves.” His father lost a leg battling the Germans in World War II, he tells us. Karl says his grandfather tried to kill Hitler. It’s OK to discuss the war these days.
Johnny is an eloquent speaker, holding court on topics from Buffalo Bill to Justin Bieber to the tribulations of a drunken butler who swayed through this very room 12 decades ago. Stick a powdered wig on Johnny’s head, and you might be talking to his ancestor Samuel, who tutored Frederick, Prince of Wales, to become one of the 18th century’s greatest patrons of arts and architecture. In recent years, the sheep-grazed fields at Hilton Park have revived that genteel spirit of cultural advocacy by hosting the Flat Lake Literary and Arts Festival, participants of which have included singer Lily Allen, actor Sam Shepard, and the late Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney.
Thousands of teardrop-shaped humps of earth, called drumlins, mark the landscape here in the north of Ireland, left behind by the last ice age. Local soldiers had barely arrived home from World War I when the politicians drew a line through this boggy frontier to delineate the border between Northern Ireland and what would become the Republic of Ireland. For the most part, the Maddens tended to steer clear of politics. “The only government they were concerned with was here at Hilton,” says Johnny.
Johnny and his wife, Lucy, handed over the reins of Hilton Park to their only son, Fred, and his wife, Joanna, in 2011. Trained as a chef in London, Fred has elevated the house’s culinary reputation with menus like tonight’s scallops atop endive, beef fillet with Jerusalem artichoke, and black currant leaf panna cotta.
After dinner we head down a hall with a vintage harmonium along one side and the heads of slain impala on the walls, to the family living room. As we sprawl upon chesterfields, Fred and Joanna talk about the challenges they face to keep Hilton rolling for another generation. Their sense of duty is absolute: The show will go on.
As we head up a staircase of Riga oak to our antiques-filled but not fusty guest room, one of six at Hilton, we pass rows of books. My wife plucks a title from a shelf and reads from the cover: “The Potato Year: 365 Ways of Cooking Potatoes, by Lucy Madden.” Samuel Madden may have been a bibliophile, but the present-day Maddens take their love of books one step further. —Turtle Bunbury
Six rooms, from $224 per person, including breakfast and dinner, and afternoon tea on arrival.
Ballyvolane House, County Cork
Photograph by Jace Rivers
"Oh, there have been many lively nights around this table down through the centuries,” says our Ballyvolane host, Justin Green, fondly patting the mahogany as dinner is served. My fellow guests at Ballyvolane are a family of five Chinese Americans on a whirlwind tour of Europe in celebration of an important birthday for Kitchi, their matriarch.
The long rays of an Irish summer sunset dapple the red, shamrock-patterned walls of the dining room. Through broad windows, we glimpse Friesian cattle grazing in buttercup-filled meadows and, in a distant haze, the rippling hills of East Cork. “Ballyvolane” translates as “place of the springing heifer” and, sure enough, a young cow performs a dutiful skip.
Originally built for Sir Richard Pyne, a lord chief justice of Ireland, and completed in 1728, the wisteria-draped Ballyvolane got an Italianate makeover in 1847 and is now a flagship of Hidden Ireland, a group of family-owned Irish castles, manors, and mansions that have opened their doors to paying guests. One of the quirky pleasures of Hidden Ireland hospitality is that all guests dine together.
Kitchi’s family turn out to be great fun. It’s the last night of their grand tour, and the banter runs ceaselessly. We contrast the lives of the Chinese and Irish emigrants who built North America’s railroads. We compare Oliver Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland with China’s Cultural Revolution.
Justin gamely fields questions and spins fresh ones back. Alongside his wife, Jenny, he’s racked up nearly 20 years of looking after guests at hotels and resorts in Hong Kong, Dubai, and Bali, before returning to southwest Ireland to take on the family home in 2004. In addition to the six cozy guest rooms in the main house, the Greens offer furnished luxury tents for rent on the estate grounds in summer. This evening, while Justin hosts the table, Jenny is cooking in the kitchen.
Twelve-year-old Toby Green, the eldest of their three children, has already built up an impressive international network of younger Ballyvolane guests. “He has pen pals all over the world,” says Justin.
As the evening draws to a close, Kitchi gives her verdict on the trip: “For me, the big highlight has been … feeding the piglets this morning.”
The piglets are five saddlebacks that snuffle in a stable adjoining the main house. With their mother and some Muscovy ducks, they are the principal beneficiaries of any excess scraps from the Ballyvolane kitchen.
In fact, the kitchen has vaulted Ballyvolane into the upper ranks of Ireland’s places to stay. Homegrown or locally sourced ingredients drive the menus, including the succulent halibut we are eating, recently hooked by a fisherman on the Beara Peninsula. All fruits and vegetables come from a three-acre garden bordered by 14-foot-high sandstone walls. Orderly rows yield asparagus, sea kale, spring onion, rainbow chard, beetroot, and potato. And rhubarb—which Justin so deftly converted into a rhubarb martini when I went for a stroll before dinner, passing under a glorious arch of laburnum that leads to terraced gardens and a croquet lawn with a dovecote at its center. The ground beneath rolls out a seasonal carpet—snowdrops in February, then daffodils, bluebells, rhododendrons, azaleas, and camellias over the ensuing months.
The following day, Kitchi tells me she feels as though she has “just stayed with friends.” Justin isn’t surprised. “The advantage of opening up only a handful of bedrooms is that you can give guests your complete attention,” he says.
With that, he sits in front of a Blüthner baby grand and starts playing an old Percy French music hall tune. Silhouetted between Ionic pillars and classic statuary in a hall the color of burnt orange, he’s still playing when the next guests arrive. —Turtle Bunbury
Six rooms, from $130 per person, including breakfast. “Glamping” in a bell tent, from $102. Dinner: $75 (book in advance).
Clonalis House, County Roscommon
Photograph by Jace Rivers
It's not the sort of rock you’d ordinarily look at twice. A misshapen chunk of limestone, weighing maybe 300 pounds, sits near the front door of Clonalis House, a 45-room Victorian Italianate villa built in 1878 on a 700-acre wooded estate in northwest Ireland.
But step back a thousand years and this was one of the most important rocks in Ireland. It’s the Inauguration Stone, upon which some 30 O’Conor kings were crowned. As kings of Connaught, they ruled over a realm that ran from the Irish midlands to the Atlantic coast. The last “high king” of Ireland was an O’Conor, and should the kingdom of Ireland ever be resurrected, the O’Conor don—the present head of the family—is considered the presumptive claimant to the throne. Pyers O’Conor Nash, the owner of Clonalis, is not the O’Conor don. But his uncle was. This same uncle, a Jesuit priest, bequeathed him Clonalis in 1981.
Pyers eventually left his job as a high-flying Dublin financier to take on full-time management of Clonalis with his wife, Marguerite, and their three children. A grand piano and gilded mirrors in the drawing room provide a taste of the Hibernian opulence echoed in the four guest bedrooms upstairs.
I’m a sucker for ancestral portraits, and I could barely walk a foot along Clonalis’s marble-pillared hall without stopping to consider Phelim O’Conor, who perished horribly in battle 700 years ago, or Hugo O’Conor, founder of Tucson, Arizona. “They keep me company when I’m alone,” Marguerite confides, as we sit in the library warming ourselves by an ingenious tripartite fireplace, with compartments each for logs and peat.
The O’Conors also maintain a small museum in the house. I expected rather dull land deeds and a few fossilized horseshoes. I didn’t expect King Charles I’s death warrant, albeit a facsimile, complete with the signature “O. Cromwell.” Nor did I anticipate the harp of the celebrated 18th-century blind bard Turlough O’Carolan or a copy of the Old Testament from 1550.
A chapel is tucked into the back of the hall, with the original 18th-century altar where the O’Conors secretly worshipped at a time when practicing Catholicism was a criminal offense.
My guest room turns out to be as spacious as a squash court, with a four-poster at its center fit for royalty. A crystal decanter full of sherry waits upon a walnut desk. The bedroom windows look over the parklands where a solitary Limousin bull roams. In the morning, the glow of the rising sun rebounds off his tan hide and makes me think of a vanished age in which the O’Conors ruled the kingdom of Connaught. —Turtle Bunbury
Four rooms, from $129 per person, including breakfast. Dinner: $68 (book in advance).
Huntington Castle, County Carlow
Photograph by Jace Rivers
The pair of Egyptians painted on the door should have given the game away. But I’d passed them several times without noticing the handle. Alex Durdin Robertson pushes the secret door open and turns to me with a mischievous smile. “Come on down.”
When you find yourself in a 17th-century castle like Huntington, you’re entitled to expect a dungeon, with maybe a few rusty iron chains dangling from the damp stone walls. What you wouldn’t necessarily anticipate is a temple dedicated to Isis, the ancient Egyptian goddess of motherhood and fertility.
But that is precisely where Alex has led me. For the next 30 minutes, I amble uncertainly around an incense-scented array of golden centaurs and exotic urns placed alongside zodiac drapes and shrines to the Virgin Mary, Lakshmi, and a host of other feminine icons. “My great-aunt Olivia had a powerful dream that God was a female,” explains Alex. “She interpreted it as a vision. My grandfather agreed, and together they set up the Fellowship of Isis in 1976.”
Huntington has always had an otherworldly ambience. As family lore goes, just over a hundred years ago, shortly before Olivia’s birth, a meteorite fell to earth and landed near the avenue of French lime trees that leads to the Big House. The rock reportedly glowed for weeks, providing a warm perch for crows which, as any Isis devotee will tell you, are the avian messengers of Morrígan, the ancient Irish goddess of battle and strife.
Set in the Slaney Valley at the foot of the Blackstairs Mountains, the Jacobean castle is located just off the main street of the winsome village of Clonegal. Battlements surmount the fairy-tale fortress, topped with a heraldic Irish flag. This was the view that first grabbed filmmaker Stanley Kubrick’s attention when he zeroed in on Huntington as a location for his 1975 film Barry Lyndon.
The original tower house was built in 1625 for Sir Laurence Esmonde, an ancestor of Alex who was among the most influential landowners in southeast Ireland. He covered the costs by placing a toll on a nearby bridge across the River Derry. And for any troublemakers who didn’t want to pay, the dungeon was also his idea.
The Blue Room, where I sleep, features oak paneling, intricately embroidered crewelwork curtains, and a 17th-century four-poster. Change the lightbulb to an oil lamp, and it could be 1625. This is one of just three guest bedrooms, pitched within a warren of creaky corridors, dark alcoves, and zigzag stairwells bedecked in oriental oddities, chain mail suits, and faded tapestries.
Alex pops his head through the dining room door moments after I have forked in the last of my breakfast of scrambled eggs. He’s been up for hours, helping his wife, Clare, get their two toddler sons ready for the day ahead.
“Let’s go see the champions,” he says. I assume he means the potbellied pigs, Boris and Hamlet, both as gray as the turrets above us. But the champs turn out to be over a dozen oak, hickory, and buckeye trees, hailed for girth and height alike. A flock of Lleyn sheep nibble the grass beneath.
As we walk and talk in the arbor, it is clear that for Alex, life is all about his wife, his two sons, and keeping his castle going for another generation. “Inherit, improve, and pass on,” he says. “That’s the unofficial motto. It’s a lot of work, but that’s OK if you don’t mind working.” —Turtle Bunbury
Three rooms, from $109 per person. Dinner: $54 including bottle of wine (book in advance).
Temple House, County Sligo
Photograph by Jace Rivers
Roderick Perceval occasionally rows his guests out on reed-fringed Temple House Lake for some pike fishing. “We promise lots of enthusiasm but very little expertise,” he warns. But the real catch here lies on the banks of the 200-acre lake: the romantic ruins of an 800-year-old castle built by the Knights Templar, rising up through the morning mist like a panorama from Celtic mythology. Behind the lakeside castle stands the remaining gable of a 40-foot tower, its ivy-encrusted walls built in the 14th century. To top it all off, a third ruin wraps around both castle and tower, a redbrick manor built in 1627 for a Catholic family.
The Percevals came into these lands in the northwest of Ireland when an ancestor married into the family 360 years ago. They were part of a closely linked network of families, mostly English in origin, that dominated rural Irish life in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Built in 1820, Georgian-style Temple House is one of the largest in Ireland. Roderick and his wife, Helena, have opened up six rooms to paying guests, including my Castle Room, with its view of the 5,000-year-old megalithic Carrowkeel tombs on a far hilltop, and the appropriately named Half Acre room, with its small annex “where husbands sleep if they’ve been naughty,” suggests Roderick.
Forty-four-year-old Roderick has lived at Temple House and its thousand-acre estate most of his life. His sense of ease is contagious. He urges visitors to treat the Big House as if it were their own, so I do. I roam around the farm buildings, meadows, gardens, and ruins. The Atlantic Ocean draws surfers to its shores just nine miles from here. County Sligo’s pastoral idyll especially inspired poet W. B. Yeats, who immortalized this part of Ireland in poems like “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” and the play The Land of Heart’s Desire. In the evening light, the Temple House trees appear at their best, particularly a copse of beech planted in 1798. Roderick regularly adds new saplings. “Every generation has to leave its mark,” he says.
If he needs a hand on the farm, Roderick sometimes invites guests to help. During lambing season, some visitors have found themselves out in the fields in Wellington boots, ushering sheep from one pasture to another.
After asking “Have you ever had a falcon land on your hand?” Roderick sends me to an eagle sanctuary on the edge of the estate. “Life is never quite the same again afterwards,” he says. I’m treated to an hour-long flying demonstration by regal eagles and owls. The falcon sweeps by my outstretched arm and opts instead for the hand of a teenage boy whose eyes duly widen. —Turtle Bunbury
Six rooms, from $95 per person, including breakfast. Dinner: $64 (book in advance).
Travel Photos From Your Shot
Browse Stunning Images of These Natural Marvels
Shop National Geographic
Special Ad Section
Watch as Nat Geo photographers reveal what drives them to create iconic images.