We’d been talking about the literary genre of the family saga for most of the drive from Dublin to Ballyfin – is it, we wondered, the midlist author’s last resort when seeking commercial success in a publishing industry and from a readership that can’t get enough of the things? By the time we made it to the imposing gates of the old demesne in County Laois, we’d stopped talking and started shouting, engaged in a family saga of our own. How could such an epic delay have been caused by our missing a single turnoff in the Bentley Flying Spur we were test driving (where better to drive it to from Dublin than to the most luxe hotel in the Republic?)? And how, having left Dublin just after lunchtime, was it dark already?
The décor at Ballyfin is not for all tastes, but your mother will probably love it. Unless your mother is Rei Kawakubo
The Bentley Flying Spur has bacchanalian amounts going for it, once you’ve worked out what’s what on its starship-like dashboard. Sitting in the passenger seat (I can’t drive, I’m from London), I obsessively stroked the cross-hatched stitching on the blue leather trims, fiddled with the entertainment systems and adjusted my seat back and forth in ever more plush configurations. Here was a tactile, sensual, beautiful piece of art on wheels, with an engine that we would, sadly, never get an opportunity to test to its full menacing abilities. But the satnav was like all the rest: a fairweather little tart, at times ruinously difficult to interpret.
So – two unnecessary tolls and 40 infuriating minutes later, we were back to contemplating family sagas. Ballyfin is a 19th century architectural statement on the concept of dynasty. I’m usually ready to stage a fainting fit out of sheer boredom when someone at a hotel tries to tell me the history of the property while orienteering me from reception to breakfast buffet, but at Ballyfin I couldn’t get enough. The 1AD ancient Roman floor mosaic in the arrival hall is, I soon discovered, typical of the spending and tastes of the young couple who were the first of the Coote family to live here. They didn’t just want the best for the house they had commissioned. They wanted the extraordinary.
With the landed gentry of Ireland hit by major financial turmoil circa Independence, the house passed from the Coote family to a religious order who kept it ticking over as a school for many years, until it was bought on something of a whim by Fred and Kay Krehbiel in 2002. The Chicago couple, with industrial-deep pockets, wanted somewhere they could hang their art in an Irish rural idyll.
There is some interesting art, good art and terrible art
“Cost what it may” was, apparently, the Coote family motto; it must have been the watchword for the Krehibiels’ restoration, too. For the stairways, they wrangled family portraits back from Cootes who had them in their current England countryside home; they filled the walls with lush golden textiles and crystal; and they shopped like crazy at auction houses for opera-scale mirrors and furniture to bring the house back to life.
To offset some of the cost, and to give the house purpose again, they decided to open it as a hotel with 20 rooms. There is some interesting art, good art and terrible art. There’s a giant library with lighting salvaged from the Royal Academy, and a fake bookcase concealing a secret door into a glass conservatory. When I visited, it was freezing, so I gravitated more towards the overstuffed sofas and numerous open fires, where I sleuthed to identify the very fancy couple who had just checked in (Colin Farrell’s brother and his artist husband, apparently – thank you, Instagram).
With the Bentley parked up, I instead took a golf cart ride around the 10 miles of pathways in the grounds (very pretty, albeit Baltic-cold in early spring), swam in the indoor pool, and then retired to our bedroom, with its Bob Guccione-meets-Babs-Cartland four-poster bed and handpainted trompe l’oeil walls with trellis and flora. The décor at Ballyfin is not for all tastes, but your mother will probably love it. Unless your mother is Rei Kawakubo.
We dressed for a lengthy tasting menu of locally sourced veg and meats, with champagne served in the library beforehand, and the next morning I gassed on about how good the pork and apple sausages from the local butcher were, as if I’d never eaten a banger before in my life.
When I got back to London, sadly sans Bentley, I mentioned to a friend that I’d been to Ballyfin. The house gets relatively few English visitors, so I began to tell him its history. He needed no explanation, becoming immediately animated as he told me excitedly that his aunt’s brother-in-law was himself a Coote, and had stories galore about the house and life in Ireland. The drama sounded as compelling as the grandeur of the house today is impressive. And that’s the thing about family sagas; the best ones need to be big budget affairs. Cost what it may, if you will. C
Ballyfin Demesne, Ballyfin, Co. Laois
+353 57 875 5866; ballyfin.com