For the Best Accommodations in Ireland Look to the Blue Book
By Patricia Keegan
Like hidden gold at the end of the rainbow, standing nobly in the hushed corners of Ireland’s countryside, these are the magnificent family estates aptly known as Irish Country Homes. Splendid, gracious and welcoming, they have the power to raise us above the clackety clak of a noisy world, to land on a cushion of refined ambience so surreal it’s like wandering through the pages of a Jane Austin novel.
For a traveler with a compelling desire to make a visit to Ireland a truly memorable experience, Ireland’s Blue Book is a dependable guide.
As a native who returns often, I have found Blue Book properties to be representative of an historic Ireland with deep, enduring ties to the soil. With the ruins of Irish castles still prominent on the land, some properties reach back centuries to the time of Irish Kings. Some were built by Britain’s landed gentry who did what they pleased with Irish property. Others were owned by Irish families who put their lives on the line to protect their land.
On a recent visit to the northwestern Counties of Mayo and Sligo, I added three more Irish Country Homes to my travel collection: Coopershill House, near Riverstown in Co. Sligo, Enniscoe House, in Crossmolina, Co. Mayo, and Stella Maris, in tiny Ballycastle, Co. Mayo.
COOPERSHILL HOUSE, Riverstown, County Sligo
Finding the exact location of these lovely Irish Country Homes is always an adventure that promises a major reward at the end of the journey.
As the long shadows of evening fell before us on a quiet country lane, with a gas tank running low, my sister and I were relieved to see the Coopershill House sign. A few minutes later, we turned into an impressive, open-gated driveway and drove still further, passing through a forest with a canopy of dense trees, we came upon a fenced deer farm. We were beginning to think we might be lost, when, through a clearing in the distance, I spotted a magnificent, white Georgian style mansion. There it was! My heart leapt at the sight. Tired and cold, I had visions of the warmth and wonders that might lie under that impressive roof.
My reference book tells me that in the 1750’s current owner Brian O’ Hara’s Great-great-great Grandparents, Arthur and Sarah Cooper, built the mansion. The story goes that after engaging an architect and builder, the couple stood on a hill and placed two buckets of gold sovereigns on the ground, instructing them to build a grand house on the spot. Completion took a tumultuous 19 years.
No sooner had I pulled into the driveway, parked the car and opened the trunk, when we were greeted by handsome Simon O’ Hara, young heir to Coopershill, who now manages the estate. With a handshake and charming Irish smile, he picked up our suitcases, transporting them lightly up the steps into a grand vestibule with high ceilings and an air of spacious elegance. I stood for a moment as my eyes rested on landscape paintings, family portraits and antique furnishings. A staff person passed through a doorway, wafting a tantalizing aroma of dinner preparations. I found additional warmth in an enthusiastic greeting from two black Labs who seemed beside themselves to see us, rolling over and wagging their tails. As Simon introduced the Labs as Samson and Delilah, along came the most winsome, appealing, and bedraggled little waif of a dog, Gus, who looked as ancient as the hills of Ireland. This rather lucky stray wandered onto the estate and was invited to stay. With his curiously independent and affectionate ways, Gus is the one who steals the hearts of guests.
A wide, mahogany staircase lined with historic photographs, stag heads, and small paintings brought us up to our room on the second floor. Vast and welcoming, the lamps were already lit at the bedside tables. From two massive casement windows, I could see across the treetops, where low lying clouds veiled the peak of a single, brooding mountain silhouetted against the white light of evening.
A high, canopy bed, covered with a gold-threaded, down duvet, stood in the center of the room, adorned with a mound of decorative pillows. An antique lamp hung from the 14 ft. ceiling, its light reflecting in the oval mirror of a beautiful old dressing table. A standing carved wardrobe was large enough for an entire season of attire. An extra twin bed, small and cozy, was aligned with the corner. A bright, cheerful marble bathroom with the same marvelous casement windows and a modern, smooth functioning shower added to the comfort of our home for two nights.
Just below me, the gardens, still moist from a recent shower, shone in a deep soothing green. Spread beneath my window were long rows of lettuce, cabbage and other vegetables along with a splash of color from dahlias in full bloom. And I was only catching a glimpse of the 200-acre estate.
In the evening guests gathered in the drawing room for a pre-dinner cocktail by a roaring fire. We felt fortunate to find a group of friendly natives from County Kildare who were celebrating a reunion with their American friends, Craig and Kate, from Woodenville in Washington state. Welcoming us into their group, we felt an immediate camaraderie and the famous Irish craic began. This banter is one of Ireland’s many attractions.
Tonight, some American guests talked about where they had been, what they had seen, and their impressions of Ireland. A couple from Ohio, in Ireland just two days, were brimming over with tales of their experience.
“I loved the Cliffs of Moher, Ireland is breathtaking at every turn and I am really surprised at the friendliness of the Irish people,” exclaimed Catherine. Dan was impressed with the landscape and history of County Sligo. They were looking forward to seeing more of Yeats country and were already making plans for a second trip to Ireland.
At breakfast the next morning, I wasn’t surprised to suddenly hear the 10 Irish friends burst into some Abba songs. It could have been inspired by the re-vitalizing morning feast known as an Irish grill. Coopershill again is a winner for the quality of it's home grown products.
Much of this wonderfully relaxed ambience can be attributed to the warmth of the O’Hara family’s down-to-earth attitude. For some, living in Coopershill might create a comfortable cocoon of splendid and enviable isolation, but Simon O’Hara likes to travel. He has lived abroad, both as a child and as an adult. He is interested in world affairs and keeps abreast of all the nuances of American politics. Artistic and intellectual, Simon, a genuine host who enjoys meeting people, is destined to carry on the tradition of Coopershill hospitality.
If a guest, by chance, meets Simon’s father, Brian O’Hara, in just the right mood, he can regale you with a stimulating account of all the relatives lining the walls, and a fascinating history of ownership of this fabulous property. Listening to him, you find the ingredients for a great novel: a microcosm of Irish history, British domination, bigotry, betrayal and family feuds.
Simon’s mother, Lindy O’Hara, is the fulcrum keeping it all together. A strong and charming woman, she can prepare an unforgettable five-course dinner with the casual aplomb of an expert juggler. Tables are adorned with fresh flowers, candles, Beleek china and Waterford crystal. Guests have a guarantee that the meal, served next to a blazing fire, is both delicious and nourishing, with ingredients fresh from the garden. Lindy’s flaky apple tart, topped with a generous dollop of fresh cream, was simply delicious. Dessert is followed by a fine selection of Ireland’s renowned cheeses, along with port wine. Diners can then adjourn to the drawing room for a night cap or a coffee or tea.
Guests take full advantage of the many walks, nearby trout stream fishing and tennis courts in fair weather.
A two or three night stay at Coopershill is restorative in unexpected ways. This elegant and charming atmosphere, surrounded by history and gentle countryside, offers a stepping stone back into an era when Ireland was all green serenity and the world was less stressful. This lovely Georgian estate is a treasure for both Irish people and visitors. Through the lens of my Irish heritage, I felt enormous appreciation for the O’Hara family's protection of the timeless character of their home, encompassing the best of Irish hospitality under one roof for all to enjoy.
For more information on Coopershill House visit Coopershill.com.
Call their US representative at (800) 323-5463, or dial direct at (011) 353-7191-65108.
Cover photo by Shadowgate