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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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Ballyfin carriage

A carriage pulls up before Ballyfin to give us a tour of the 640-acre estate. Photo by David Lansing.

Late in the afternoon we went for a carriage ride around the estate ending up at a five-story medieval-style stone tower perched on a hill with views of the Slieve Bloom mountains. The tower is a folly, which means there was no practical purpose to it; it was built solely for decoration.

Actually, that’s not completely true in the case of the Ballyfin Tower. It was built by the original owner, Sir Charles Coote, in the 1860s in a bid to give jobs to the local population during the potato famine. So it at least served some purpose.

Ballyfin Tower

The Ballyfin Tower, built as a folly in the 1860s. Photo by David Lansing.

When we got to the top of the tower, there was a young Irish couple up there. We’d noticed them earlier having tea in the library. The young woman’s face was mottled and she was dabbing at her eyes with a tissue. Seeing our concerned look, she smiled and cried at the same time. “He’s just proposed!” she blurted.

The young man told us the story: He’d lured the young girl out to Ballyfin to have tea, which appeared to be quite the coup since the hotel is only open to those staying there (no lookyloos). After tea, he’d suggested they climb up the tower for a quick peek before leaving. Then he’d dropped to one knee and presented the ring. All very dramatic. Imagine telling that story to your children one day.

Of course, he’d lied about not staying at Ballyfin as well. “It’s costing a bloody fortune,” said the young man, “but I think it’s worth it.”

No doubt he’s right. I have a feeling we won’t see them at dinner.

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Gobsmacked at Ballyfin


Our arrival at Ballyfin. All photos by David Lansing.

Pulling up in front of Ballyfin I am gobsmacked. The size of the estate. The size of the house. The staff—all lined up in front of the stairs waiting for our arrival. We’re so intimidated that for the longest time, we refuse to get out of our vehicle. As if we’ve just intruded on a G8 conference and the staff here thinks the Obamas have arrived instead of us.

Mouths open, we follow behind a bellman who has a piece of luggage in each hand and is hustling up the steps. A pretty lass with strawberry blond hair says, “Cead mile failte.” A thousand welcomes. Her name is Carolina. We shake her hand. Next to her is Sorcha. “You’re most WEL-come,” she says, in that Irish way. “Please come in.”

I haven’t been outside of our vehicle since early this morning yet still I feel the need to wipe my feet before going inside. But there’s nothing to wipe them on. Sorcha leads us down the entrance hall with its antique Italian mosaic floor, through a doorway topped with giant elk horns, through the Whispering Room, and to the robin’s-egg-blue stair hallway where half-a-dozen grand portraits fill the walls.

“Are those real?” I stupidly ask.

Sorcha smiles but does not laugh. “Yes,” she says. “They’re original 19th century Coote family portraits. Some are quite good.”

The Cootes, you see, once owned Ballyfin which was built in the 1820s.

The Mountrath Room at Ballyfin.

Up the stairs, still gobsmacked, down a long corridor or two we get to the Mountrath Room. “Here we are,” says Sorcha, pulling back the heavy drapes to reveal views of the conservatory and, perfectly framed by our window, a watery stair case cascading down to a pond where Neptune appears to be sunning.

“Cocktails are at six in the Gold Room,” she says. And with that, she quietly closes the door behind her, leaving us to ponder several things: How come we didn’t have to register? And why have we no room key? And, most importantly, how have we ended up in this enchanted manor house?

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