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Lismore Castle’s Ireland

© Bill Phelps

Travel to the storied residence for an unprecedented Irish experience.

From the outside, Ireland’s Lismore Castle is dominated by its dark stone towers rooted on a cliff above the River Blackwater. The water is brooding—deadly in flood—its currents snaking through slow-moving pools the color of peat. Aside from the grounds and a converted wing showcasing world-class exhibitions of contemporary art, this is what the general public gets to see: a grand historical edifice, Ireland’s oldest continually cultivated garden and an Antony Gormley sculpture, among other collectible works, breaking up the avenues of yew. Some of the trees date back to when Lismore was the Irish seat of Sir Walter Raleigh, the Elizabethan adventurer who introduced tobacco to the English court. Later Lismore was the home of Richard Boyle, the first Earl of Cork. It was in 1753 that Lismore fell into the hands of the current owners, the Dukes of Devonshire, by virtue of a strategic marriage. The great and good came to visit, including Lady Caroline Lamb, guest of the sixth duke who retreated to Lismore to escape the furor over her affair with Lord Byron.

These days there are no heroic trysts to speak of (or at least none that make Tatler), but Lismore remains the Devonshire family’s inner sanctum, a retreat that’s locked down at the gatehouse. (The duke’s principal residence is Chatsworth in Derbyshire, England.) For years, there was no getting in unless one joined the family’s roster of friends and friends of friends. Today there’s another route to temporary occupancy of Lismore’s 15 bedrooms: The house, substantially renovated over the last ten years, is available to rent when the family is not in residence.

Unlike many of the great stately homes in Ireland, Scotland and England, Lismore’s public availability wasn’t driven by economic necessity. (Many owners are simply trying to cover their bills.) And the tendency to overcharge Americans with promises of aristocratic grandeur has no place here. Nor does the down-at-the-heel bathroom or creaking central heating, which so often afflicts historic houses with scores of rooms rendered redundant by modern living. At Lismore, the coming and going of house parties keeps the castle alive while it attracts visitors who share an interest in the contemporary art profile the property has gained in recent years—a reputation successfully built up by the 44-year-old William Burlington, or Lord Burlington as he is known in the parlance of Debrett’s, who now runs the castle and uses it often with his wife, children and friends.

Lismore has been marked by Irish history, from the cannonball lodged in a tower wall to the machine-gun scars beside a window that date back to the civil war in 1922. The house barely survived the country’s political turbulence—the curtains were doused in kerosene, but no one ever brought a match to the silk. Thank goodness, for Lismore holds the largest private collection of Pugin furniture in the world—including the log baskets. Today there are Van Dycks and a triptych by the stairs by Ai Weiwei (Dropping the Han Dynasty Urn, 1995), which, ironically, depicts the artist destroying a historical artifact. The exquisite charcoals are by David Nash. There are Turner Prize winners, among them Richard Long, an artist who used slates from Lismore for the Eleven works (untitled), which hangs in the hall.

Few houses have bells in the butler’s pantry that actually work. They do here, with “Her Grace’s” and “His Grace’s” rooms attended by the butler, Denis Nevin, who started as a footman in 1977 and now oversees a house staff of 12 or more. Service at most stately home rentals is of the rent-a-butler kind, but Nevin is a man of complete discretion, with an uncanny ability to move like a ghost through the house, ironing out the creases. The Irish cook, Beth-Ann Smith, works from a kitchen large enough to cater a military campaign—jams and chutneys bubbling away on the massive range, whole turbot on the bone resting on giant platters. Meals are taken in a dining room filled with exquisite silver and a fleet of footmen bearing elegant kedgeree at breakfast, and the lunchtime feast includes fresh salad and crab linguine. The main event is the multicourse dinner featuring perfect filet of beef from one of Ireland’s most well-regarded butchers, Michael McGrath, who operates out of the village. And afterward, there are plenty of inviting nooks in which to curl up with a good book or an iPad (there is WiFi throughout the house), such as the Duke’s Study, featuring eight original Lucian Freuds and a pull-down cinema screen. Even the bathroom reading is distinctive. The copy of Vogue by my tub dated from 1938; it sat in a pile with vintage Sotheby’s catalogues, well-thumbed copies of The Art Newspaper and books inscribed by their authors to Deborah Devonshire, the dowager duchess and only surviving Mitford sister, who married Andrew, the 11th duke.

I was on a fishing holiday to Ireland with my father when I first caught sight of Lismore Castle. I remember it well because it was during the same period that I worked as a researcher for Deborah Devonshire’s sister, the author and well-known Socialist Jessica Mitford. “Best salmon fishing in Ireland,” my father said, looking up the famous Blackwater for salmon jumping the weir. We have since returned, using the Devonshire’s fishing lodge, Careysville, a few miles upstream, which has a reputation among fishing folk second only, perhaps, to the River Tweed in Scotland. Lord Burlington describes arriving at the lodge as a boy with his grandfather, a passionate fisherman, who said: “William, these gates may not look like much to you, but to me they are the very gates of heaven.”

On that first trip with my father, I was more impressed by Lismore Castle than heaven’s gates. I marveled that a political campaigner like Jessica—summoned in 1953 to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the height of McCarthyism—could have a sister living in a place so grand. But until a recent fall weekend when I was invited to join the family for an arts symposium, I had never stepped inside. Only then, during that perfect weekend, did it become clear that Lismore is, in its own idiosyncratic way, like any other house with a purpose: It’s about family and long weekends sitting by the fire. I began to understand its warmth and how it was loved and adored by real people living real lives, albeit in an extraordinarily beautiful place. I read the papers for hours in front of a huge open fire; I watched others come in from a day’s hike and throw muddy boots down by the door. I wandered into the town for lunch at the Summerhouse’s pretty café. Life here is about privacy and glamour and sophisticated parties that require a Communist and an aristocrat in the same room to make sense of all this eccentric texture. One just has to take a look at the visitors’ book to get a handle on what I mean. There is Lucian Freud (the worst handwriting of the lot), Diana Mosley (another Mitford sister, who married Britain’s most infamous fascist), poet John Betjeman, writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, photographer Cecil Beaton and actor Dominic West. There are earls, dukes and other royals; there are soccer stars and rock stars. A young J.F.K. came to stay. There is Fred Astaire, his signature followed by a note from his sister, Adele, who lived at Lismore from 1936 to 1944 with her husband, Lord Charles Cavendish, younger brother of the tenth duke. “I thought he’d never leave,” Adele wrote in her delicate hand, beneath a missive from her brother.

It would take days, weeks to discover every detail of this house. For this reason alone, Lismore is the best rental of its kind—utterly authentic, the family trusting and un-paranoid about the treasures within its walls. Afternoon tea, served in the drawing room, isn’t awkward or stiff; it’s simply a ritual that belongs to the place, the crested porcelain impeccably laid out just as it always has been at 4 p.m. by the bay window overhanging the Blackwater’s chocolate rills. Every detail is true to its locale, right down to the sandwiches: smoked salmon caught by the family’s gillies in the pools below; cucumber harvested hours before from the kitchen garden.

“Lismore feels more lived in than it has ever been,” says Nevin, who is the castle’s most spectacular repository of tales. It’s he who knows the details of this house, how each generation has changed elements to meet its tastes, from painting the dark Pugin furniture white (the crime of Duchess Eve) to cutting up a tapestry to make a place for a door. Adele Astaire, who adored the castle, put in the plumbing (now completely upgraded) and the garden swimming pool that these days is grassed over on the far side of a high medieval wall. With the new incumbent, William, and his wife, Laura, Lismore’s identity shifts again—this time toward the contemporary art they collect and the artists they support. This vitality is what the very private family now shares by opening up, just occasionally, those dramatic gatehouse doors.

Lismore Castle (353-58/54-288; lismorecastle.com) is available to rent for exclusive use by families and groups of up to 27 people staying in 15 rooms (ten doubles, two twins, three singles). The minimum stay is two nights and starts at $16,500 for up to 12 people, which includes full butler service, breakfast, afternoon tea and dinner, as well as use of golf courses, tennis courts and fishing grounds. Careysville Fishery (353-25/31-094; careysville.com) can be fished from the beginning of February to the end of September. The lodge sleeps 11 and costs from $165 a person per night on a full-board basis; for fishermen, from $210 a rod per day.