June 2013

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As our guide, John O’Driscoll, took us around Strokestown, filling us in a bit on the Mahon family’s eccentricities, I couldn’t help but think of a castle I visited on the Isle of Rùm, off the west coast of Scotland, a few years ago. Kinloch Castle was built by a very strange man named Sir George Bullough who liked dead animals, Victorian pornography, and playing with dynamite (not necessarily in that order).

At least one of the Strokestown Mahons also seemed to have an affinity for both dead animals and pornography, if not dynamite. The dead animals were everywhere: birds, forest creatures, exotic animals from other continents. Little of the pornography was on display, and what you could see was actually pretty tasteful, although no doubt shocking back in Victorian times. But the odd connection between the dead animals and pornography at Kinloch Castle and Strokestown House made me wonder if there wasn’t some sort of weird UK secret society back in the day where the lords of the manors got together and shot a fox or two, then retired for cocktails while sharing each other’s pornographic photos. How else to explain it?

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Strokestown House, Ireland

Strokestown House in Ireland.

When you visit Strokestown House, not far from Ballyfin, the first thing you wonder is, Is this what Ballyfin would have looked like if a pair of wealthy Americans hadn’t rescued it? Strokestown was never as grand as Ballyfin. But it was pretty grand.

Built by Thomas Mahon in the early 18th century, it was a palladian mansion (meaning the architecture was of the European style derived from the designs of the 16th century Venetian architect Andrea Palladio).

But in talking about the differences between Ballyfin and Strokestown, I’m not thinking so much about the size or style of the estates but what happened to them. Both were built around the same time, both had glamorous histories, and then both fell in to sad states of disrepair in the 20th century when the two families money ran out. Ballyfin was sold to a religious order to be turned in to a boarding school in the 1930s while the Mahon family held on to Strokestown until 1979 when the house, which was a total mess, was purchased by a local garage for expansion of their business.

Another big difference: All of the furnishings in the Strokestown Manor are original. Not so with Ballyfin. Which makes Strokestown more authentic, in some ways, although also a little creepy. For instance, cautiously make your way up to the second floor (the stairs are still a little iffy) and you come to the children’s room where you’ll find dolls and toys dating back to the Victorian era, including a collection of porcelain dolls slumping on chairs around a children’s tea set that reminded me of the Chucky movies from the 90s. Fleeing the room, I was certain the creepy little dolls, like ghosts in the house, were watching me.

Dolls in Strokestown House, Ireland

Porcelain dolls at the Strokestown House. Photo by David Lansing.

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The indoor pool at Ballyfin was formerly the dormitory for a Catholic boys school. Photo by David Lansing.

So I told you that Ballyfin was erected in 1826 by Sir Charles Coote, Premier Baronet of Ireland, and passed on from Coote to Coote, as it were, until shortly after World War I when the family pretty much realized they’d pissed through all their money. (Ironically, perhaps, the family motto was Coûte que coûte, or “Cost what it may.” I guess in the end they realized that doesn’t always work out.)

Anyway, the family eventually sold the entire 640-acres—estate, house, stables, and conservancy included—for £10,000 to a group of Irish Catholic monks who turned it in to a boys’ school in the 1930s. The good brothers couldn’t put much (any?) money in to the upkeep of the place and by the time Fred and Kay Krehbiel saw the place, in 2000, it was a shambles. The roof had caved in, plaster was falling off the walls, the parquet floors were warped.

Yet Jim Reynolds, the designer who was brought in by the Krehbiels to have a look and make his own evaluation, credits the brothers with actually saving the place. “If they hadn’t bought it when they did and kept it going as best they could, it would have been a complete ruin and probably torn down a long time ago.”

One of the things the brothers did was build a dormitory, next to the main house, to house the students. That space has been converted in to a beautiful indoor swimming pool, a grand ballroom, and a cozy Irish bar.

After dinner, Reynolds brought us down to the bar where he’d arranged for a small group of local trad musicians to play. They were accompanied by a young woman with black hair and green eyes who danced. While sipping my Redbreast, I carefully watched her. You could see how much effort she put in to it to make the dance look effortless, her upper body barely moving, her breathing steady and calm, but her legs and feet flying. She was a thing of beauty to watch.


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Ballyfin costumes for dinner

The guests at Ballyfin dressed up in their operatic costumes before dinner. Photos by David Lansing.

It all started when Jim Reynolds, Ballyfin’s majordomo, made an off-hand remark about how the owners, Fred and Kay Krehbiel, bought the entire collection of old period costumes from the Lyric Opera of Chicago (where Fred is a trustee) and brought them to Ballyfin.

“So guests could dress up for dinner, if they like.”

Well, this was interesting. Guests dressed up in opera costumes for dinner?

“It’s quite extraordinary,” Reynolds said. “Everybody looks like extras in a Merchant-Ivory movie.”

Next thing you know we’re all being shuttled over to the staff quarters and escorted upstairs where there are two large rooms with dozens and dozens of opera costumes, some of which look Victorian, others Napoleonic and still others sort of Gatsbyish. Obviously we had to give it a go.

Ballyfin costumes

Casey and Jan looked like extras in a Merchant-Ivory movie. Photo by David Lansing.

I pick my costume out in minutes: a long elegant coat with elaborate gold trim, a red silk vest , and a black satin top hat (which probably didn’t really go with the jacket but I liked it anyway). “We shall have to start calling you Sir David,” said Reynolds.

Anyway, everyone picked out a costume. The ladies, of course, took their time. Reynolds and I waited for them to finish up and when, after half an hour, they were still making whatever decisions they were making, he said, “I think we should go back to the house. I need a cocktail.”

I felt the same way. So the two of us high-tailed it back to the manor house and quickly ordered up a bottle of Redbreast and a couple of glasses. An hour or so later, the rest of the group joined us.

What a transformation. Not just in the way everyone looked, which was extraordinary, but in the way everyone acted. The costumes clearly changed everyone’s personality. Including mine—I was now Sir David Lansing, Premier Baronet of Ireland. Which meant I could order as many single still pot Irish whiskies as I wanted. Which I did.

The guests at Ballyfin at dinner. Photo by David Lansing.

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Ballyfin Demesne with the lake in the foreground and the stone tower folly in the right hand corner.

If you go for a late afternoon property tour with Jim Reynolds, the landscape designer (and general manager) of Ballyfin, you’ll hear him constantly refer to the “Ballyfin domain.”

Or at least, that’s what I thought he was saying. Actually he’s saying “Ballyfin demesne.” Which is pronounced pretty much like domain, the French word from which it is derived (the “s” in demesne is silent).

Demesnes are pretty much English and Irish inventions. Elizabeth Bowen, the Irish novelist and short story writer, called Irish demesnes “house islands,” which seems like an apt description.

A demesne is sort of an enclosed world—stone walls surrounding hundreds and hundreds of landscaped acres and, in the middle, a big house. As Jim summed it up to me, “Lakes, towers, sham ruins, grottoes, rustic buildings, gazebos, formal gardens—that sort of thing.”

They were particularly popular in the 18th and 19th century when, according to one Irish source, as much as 5% of all the land in Ireland was considered a demesne. The idea was that you built your estate—like Ballyfin—out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded it with high walls, and then the peasants who would come to feed and bathe and dress you would establish themselves nearby. Not on the estate, mind you. But just outside the walls. So you didn’t have to see them.

So a baron like Sir Charles Coote who built Ballyfin, could wake up in the morning and, while scratching his belly, look out on the 36-acre man-made lake in front of his house and his acres and acres of woodland and not have this idyllic vision marred with peat smoke from tiny thatched cottages and peasant women hanging laundry.


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