Hidden Ireland

Salmon fishing at sunset, Yeats, and other desultory pleasures of a week spent visiting the country’s most storied private homes

Dust wraithlike rose from under her wheels. Honeysuckle sweetened the deepening hedges, from beyond which breathed distances cool with hay. The land had not yet composed itself quite to sleep, for light was not gone and might never go from the sky. The air through which she was swiftly passing was mauve, and tense with suspended dew: her own beautiful restlessness was everywhere.…She unchained the gates and rode up the avenue. The house, nothing as she approached it but a black outline, was deserted.

A World of Love, Elizabeth Bowen

When I first began to visit Ireland 20 years ago, I knew little about the place, traveling alone and fishing with only a guide, or gillie. I still go alone, but since then I have learned how to climb a stile, to tie a fly to match the morning hatch, to make sweet milky tea in a rocking curragh, and where to sleep at night. On my first trip I stayed with a friend, the Knight of Glin, in his castle on the Shannon River and in little cottages I found along my way—cottages where hot bathwater was dispensed by coin-fed meters. Several years ago the Irish writer Polly Devlin told me of The Hidden Ireland, a reference listing dozens of private homes across the country that took guests, ranging from the grand Hilton Park in County Monaghan to a former Victorian vicarage, Frewin House, in County Donegal. Many of them do not have more than five or six guest rooms, and dinner is arranged with the owner at your request. But all the houses have history and romance—and some even have ghosts.

The ghosts have always been there. As long ago as the Roman world, Ireland's isolation served to preserve its verdant landscape and archaic forms, giving it a very particular individuality. The country estate developed slowly in Ireland, in main because of the need to defend property. After the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, a hundred years of peace assured the prosperity of the newly arrived English settlers, many of whom had received their plantations in thanks for military service. Only a few generations later the Anglo-Irish lords, eager to demonstrate their Englishness, began to build country estates to match English standards and aesthetics. Accomplished architects and horticulturists, as well as craftsmen in ironwork, plasterwork, and wood carving, saw to it that the houses were of a superior design. Their owners toured the Continent to buy pictures, textiles, and furniture.

The fall of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy began in the late 19th century with the agricultural recession brought on by the disastrous famine, along with the success of the Land League movement and Irish Home Rule. Political turmoil and rebellion further contributed to the decline of country life. Between 1917 and 1923 some 200 houses were burned in the Troubles, and in the years after, 600 of the Big Houses disappeared, most often through dereliction or arson. It was during this tumultuous period that the Irish country house gained its reputation for folly and negligence—the shredded brocade curtains in the high-ceilinged drawing room, the collapsed stable, and the eccentric behavior of its hard-drinking, hard-riding owner. I remember an Irish friend remarking scornfully on the occasion of the country house show in Washington, D.C., several years ago: "They've left out nothing but the dog hair." It was not until a few decades ago that a number of properties were to find new life when their owners, some recent and some hereditary, took that shocking thing into their homes—the paying guest.

[The rooks] nested in the tall elms that sheltered the symmetrical high gray house. The third floor, where Molly slept, was on a level with their nests. She loved the raucous noise they made, a little louder at nightfall. In August it was not dark until ten o'clock and she would lie in bed reading and listening to them settling down to sleep.

The Dower House, Annabel Davis-Goff

Like much of Ireland, the land around Ballina in County Mayo is heavy with summer. The hedgerows are thick with wild roses—white, pink, and red—and alder, ash, and hazel line the narrow roads. The land is farmed, glistening here and there with limestone streams bordered with wild mint and foaming meadowsweet. Enniscoe House, a Georgian manor house first built in 1740, sits across a long slip of park from Lough Conn, just outside the small town of Crossmolina.

The owner, Susan Kellett, represents the 12th generation of the family to live at Enniscoe House. Upon arriving, should she and the staff be occupied, you push open the heavy door to find yourself in the hall—complete with mounted stag heads and pike, a row of hall chairs, portraits of racehorses. It seems familiar and strange at the same time. For an instant there is the fear that you are not expected in the warm and languid afternoon air. As in Sleeping Beauty's castle, everyone has fallen under a spell. Even the hounds are silent, dozing in their mossy huts.

It is a private home, after all, and there is no doorman or army of porters (once, in the south of Ireland, my three elderly aunts, unaware that our porter was the equally aged Earl of Bantry, demanded that he hurry it up with their bags). Just as you are beginning to feel like an intruder, Ms. Kellett appears, or her son, Dj, or the cook, and you are led to your elegant room, a tea tray hastening behind lest you be tired from your journey.

The lake is visible from the pedimented doorway and the wide windows of the upper rooms. Behind the house—so deceptively near that it seems rooted in the park—is dark and solemn Mount Nephin, rising roundly from the plain. Enniscoe House was damaged in the Rebellion of 1798 and the Adam-style plasterwork dates from the early 19th century; one of the drawing rooms has wallpaper of faded peony pink with a classical frieze in pale blue and white.

If you arrive in the afternoon, you may be just in time for the evening rise on the River Moy. The river, with its long, deep, and slow-moving pools, is difficult to fish with a fly. Although it is not unusual to have annual catches of more than 7,000 fish, most of them are taken with bait or a spinner. The crowded Ridge Pool is one of the most famous stretches of water in Ireland. It runs from the Thomas Hardy–like weir to Ham Bridge—only 160 yards, but such a rich and generous pool! Access is by reservation, and the bag limit varies as part of a conservation program. It is possible to fish until sunset, when the sky begins to turn. I caught my first Irish salmon in the Ash Tree Pool, in a small boat with a gillie (much better dressed than I in tweed jacket, tattersall shirt, and paisley necktie), fishing in an advantageous downstream wind with a delicate—no. 14—silver fly.

The River Deel, west of the Moy, flows across moorland as well as farmland, and the fishing is very good, particularly the five miles upstream past Carrowgarve Bridge, where I have caught two- and three-pound trout on a Wickham's Fancy. The quiet—even stealthy—approach along the grassy bank, rod in hand, on a violet Irish evening in midsummer is as close to sublime as I will ever come. There is nothing in fishing quite like that first shining cast into a dark pool, the water as yet unruffled, the fish as yet unsuspecting of your presence. Should you remain until nightfall, you may ask that your dinner at Enniscoe House—the food is delicious—be served upon your return, awaiting you as you walk home across the damp, shadowed fields, your brace wrapped in bright green ferns, playing each cast over and over again in your mind. After dinner it is soothing to walk through the fresh night air to the walled garden behind the house, the borders flinging the last scents of the day—nicotiana and phlox and lily—into the sky.

As you fall asleep, the sky still traced with light, it is tempting to imagine that it is your house. This is how I would like to live, you think. This is what a bedsheet should be—cool pressed linen smelling of lavender. And this is the way a night should sound—the rooks still at last, the wind soughing through the yew wood, a fox barking in the field. This is how I myself should feel—tired from the day's tramp across the fields, happy after a good dinner. It is nostalgic, of course, but like many daydreams, not altogether impossible.

It was lovely driving back to the mountains, and in the evening there was a colder exciting air when the fat valley lands were left behind. The hills were ribbed with stone. Stone like heron's feathers in the glass green of the bracken. And stone made all the walls, and there was a hunger about the hills, a need that would never be fulfilled, something within them and hid from them.

Full House, M. J. Farrell (Molly Keane)

Driving to Ballina from Dublin, I stop an hour northeast at Drumcliffe Bay in County Sligo to visit the Lissadell Estate, a large, heavy gray stone great house on Drumcliffe Bay, completed in 1833 in the Greek Revival style. The poet W. B. Yeats, who was a friend of the family, described it as "exceedingly impressive…with a great sitting room high as a church." The late owner, Sir Robert Gore Booth, chaired four famine relief committees and distributed food to the starving during the famine of the 1840s, and there is a banner hanging in the cellar presented to him in gratitude for his kindness. It was at Lissadell that Yeats composed his poem about the young Gore Booth sisters.

The light of evening, Lissadell, Great windows open to the south, Two girls in silk kimonos, both Beautiful, one a gazelle.

Leaving Sligo, you drive through County Mayo to Leenane in northern Connemara and stop for tea in Clifden on your way to Ballynahinch Castle Hotel in Recess, County Galway. Though not listed in The Hidden Ireland, the castle is worth a visit. Built in the 19th century as the country residence of the Martin family, it is in a western part of the country known for its wildness and isolation. Before a good road was made, the trip from Galway to Ballynahinch—some 40 miles through the bog—required three days of hard travel. Once one of the largest estates in Ireland, Ballynahinch has 450 acres of lakes, streams, and rivers, eight miles from the Atlantic coast. Unlike the refined and austere Georgian architecture of Enniscoe House, Ballynahinch looks artificial—it resembles a Hollywood set of a Gothic castle, with four battlemented towers dropped into each corner. Because of its large size it has neither the intimacy nor the isolation of a smaller house such as Enniscoe, but there is space and variation, and the company of fellow guests. It sits in all its amusing grandeur on a low rise, sloping past thickets of rhododendron to the salmon river and the bogs beyond.

Violet Martin, using the pseudonym Martin Ross, was the writing partner of her cousin Edith Somerville. Together they wrote the well-loved Some Experiences of an Irish R.M. and what is considered one of the country's finest novels of the 19th century, The Real Charlotte. Their families were more shocked by their writing than by their romantic attachment to each other. After Martin's death in 1915, Somerville, a fervent Spiritualist, always insisted that the late Violet guided her pen as she wrote, and she did not bother to remove Martin's name from future works. Although the Martin family was not enormously wealthy, they maintained the house in high style (like the Gore Booths, they fed the poor, although the Martins were eventually bankrupted by their generosity—Thomas Martin himself died of famine fever, and the lines of loyal tenants took two hours to pass his coffin). The writer Maria Edgeworth sent a letter to her brother describing the Martins' lavish dinners, despite there being only one teapot that was shared in the morning; the hungry servants were obliged to wait for their tea until everyone in the house had eaten. Edgeworth described Ballynahinch as a "dilapidated...wild kind of hand to mouth house and establishment."

For years the river was heavily fished, particularly for sea trout, not least by the maharaja Jam Sahib of Nawanagar, who owned the house in the twenties and thirties. The maharaja also built the 70 small casting platforms and huts on the eight beats, or sections, of the river, making the water accessible to his fashionable guests. The fishing is by fly only; beats may be reserved for oneself or shared with a partner, and you are moved downstream on a half-day rotation to increase everyone's chances. The season for salmon runs from February to the end of September, although the best fishing is from mid-June through September. The gardens of rhododendron extend along the banks of the river (purists complain of the invasive rhododendron—not a native plant, it was, perhaps most upsetting, introduced by the English). In Ballynahinch Lake there is a ruined castle said to have been built in 1565 by the husband of that early capitalist the pirate queen Grace O'Malley and later used as a prison by the Martins.

The gardens wind along the river into wild moorland—Connemara is not a landscape of herbaceous borders and willows. Outside the cultivated garden, the landscape grows severe. My favorite walk on days I am unable to fish is known as the Walker's Return. It follows the river for two hours as it makes its way to the sea at Bertraghboy Bay. There are endless delights along the way: birds (the diffident pine marten, the swooping kestrel) and rustic cottages (the Angler's Return), wildflowers, errant sheep, deserted villages (Ard Na Caille), and even a small pub. Then back through the dusk to the castle, accompanied by the home-plodding cows, and the crows, and the clicking leaves—damp, silvery, fragrant.

Susanna Moore's most recent novel, The Big Girls, was published in May.

Ireland Address Book

The Hidden Ireland, a guide to Irish country homes, is published annually and can be purchased at hiddenireland.com. Included here are some of Ireland's other noteworthy houses, which also accept guests and are not listed in the directory.

Ballynahinch Castle Hotel

From $295 to $465. Recess, Connemara, County Galway; 353-95/31006; ballynahinch-castle.com

Enniscoe House

From $260 to $300. Castlehill, Ballina, County Mayo; 353-96/31112; enniscoe.com

Frewin House

1 From $160 to $230. Ramelton, County Donegal; 353-74/915-1246; frewinhouse.com

Glin Castle

From $415 to $660. Glin, County Limerick; 353-68/34173; glincastle.com

Hilton Park

From $335 to $400. Clones, County Monaghan; 353-47/56007; hiltonpark.ie

Lissadell Estate

The museum does not accept overnight guests but is open to the public April to September. Ballinfull, County Sligo; 353-71/916-3150; lissadellhouse.com