Friday, June 3, 2011


An aerial view of the magnificent demesne of Ballyfin, now Ballyfin House and Demesne, the site, settled since ancient times, was ancestral home to the O'Mores, the Wellesley-Poles and the Cootes who built the great house long admired as the most lavish Regency mansion in Ireland.
Friday, June 3, 2011. Sunny and breezy but warm, yesterday in New York. Then at night by the ten o’clock hour it had got very cool – into the low 60s.

A friend sent me the book Ballyfin; The Restoration of an Irish House & Demesne by Kevin V. Mulligan because they know of my interest in the history of houses. The cover got me immediately.

This is Ballyfin, an ancient estate of 614 acres outside Dublin. The name comes from the Irish An Baile Fionn, meaning “a fair place.” The lands surrounding the house (and on which the first house was built) date back to medieval times when feudalism was still “policy.” The Tudors changed all that and then Oliver Cromwell changed it again, and the Windsors changed it again.
The Rotunda. Placed here between all the main rooms, the Rotunda "need not have served any other purpose than as a kind of sumptuous, indulgent architectural intermezzo, essentially as a link or an anteroom." Eventually it was used as a music room. The Library. During the 18th century, the library had become common in country houses and were given prominence as a developed architectural interior. But it was a male domain, "used above all else as a form of morning room for men -- a place to carry out their correspondence which to relax and read. Eventually libraries began to be used as a form of living room..."
The library from end to end.
In 1813, Charles Coote, the 9th baronet of Mountrath, having inherited at age ten from a cousin, the estate and the baronetcy, came into his majority. In other words, his inheritance. The estate consisted of approximately 50,000 acres of Mountrath lands surrounding the demesne of Ballyfin -- which then belonged to a ne-er-do-well brother of the Duke of Wellington.

A demesne is an ancient name for land that is part of a manor. It comes from the age of feudalism when the land belonged to one man, often granted by the sovereign, who may have seized it from someone else. Sir Charles acquired the property with the thought of possessing an impressive house that reflected his position as Ireland’s premier baronet. Still in his early 20s, he moved in with his new wife with whom he soon had a family.

Before he was thirty, he was actively contemplating a house fit for a man of his wealth and position. Between 1821 and 1826, with the help of two different architects – one a father and son – Sir Charles enlarged and expanded the house well beyond its former self and size. The result was a magnificent neo-classical stone mansion that today remains one of the most beautiful of the stately Irish houses.
The Gold Drawing Room. The "drawing" room was where the women would "withdraw to" when the men went off to the Billards room to smoke their cigars. As the 19th century moved forward, it became more and more a room for both sexes to withdraw to to relax or for evening parties.
The Conservatory "Hidden behind the bookcase in a corner of the Library is a mirrored doorway that opens, Alice-in-Wonderland like, into a fragile iron cage and a balmy tropical atmosphere." In the Regency era, was "conceived as an oasis of exotic novelty, filled with camellias, citrus fruits and geraniums..." The State Dining Room "occupies the center of the garden front. As dining was essentially the most formal social activity, it tended to be reflected in the decoration where the walls were plastered and painted, the surface usually divided with stucco panels and hung with paintings. Wall hangings were avoided on the basis that they 'retain the smell of victuals.'"
The Knight's Room is at the center of the east front of the mansion behind the entrance portico with its broad views over the lake "with its embrace of sheltering trees, their broccoli-like crowns always colourfully alive to the changing seasons ...."
The bathroom of the Maryborough Room.
Sir Charles died at age 72 in 1864. His son Sir Charles Henry Coote became the 10th baronet. Number 10, however, had little interest in the country life, preferring to live in the family house in London. He had no particular pride in his father’s demesne.

Evidently the father suspected as much of his eldest son when he set down his will. He appointed trustees to look after the maintenance of the house and facilities, along with the parks, be maintained as if he were alive. This was done but mainly the house lived alone.

When the second Sir Charles died, age 80, without issue, his younger brother, the second son (of the first Sir Charles), age 78 – The Rev. Sir Algernon Coote became the 11th baronet. His succession was brief. He died four years later and was succeeded by his son Sir Algernon Charles Pumptre Coote.
The Sir Christopher Coote Suite.
The bedchamber of the suite.
View from the garden room overlooking the center of the garden front with the water cascade descending from a serene classical temple. Swans on the lake.
The stone tower, built in the 19th century, it stands over a lime kiln in an old gravel pit, and is traditionally said to have been conceived to provide employment during the harrowing years of the Great Famine. It was completed before 1861.
This Sir Algernon was 52 when he inherited. He no doubt assumed long before that he would succeed to the title. He had time to think about his responsibilities. He apparently had some of the spirit of his grandfather, the first Sir Charles. Ballyfin came to life again. It was one of the great Irish country houses and said to be the most magnificent house in all of County Kildare.

Sir Algernon died in 1920 at 73. World War I had taken its toll on the Empire, on Ireland, and on the landed gentry. England had lost 30% of its young men (ages 20-30) in the Great War.

Sir Ralph Algernon Coote became the 13th baronet but the party was over. The staff had been halved and then some. The land was being redistributed by law, obliterating the remnants of the feudal age. Ballyfin was no longer the pride of a man’s title. In other words, they couldn’t afford it. And so this huge plantation which was self-sustaining and highly productive in its day, was passed on to a Roman Catholic teaching brotherhood, the Patrician Brothers. They founded Ballyfin College. It was exactly 100 years to the day the first Sir Charles opened the house to guests.
The restoration team at Ballyfin House which opened this past May 1st.
The history of the house stopped. The Patrician Brothers occupied Ballyfin for 74 years, until 2001. It had gone from being an active college to becoming a remnant itself, just like the house. When the Brothers announced the closing of Ballyfin College, there were four brothers living in what had become a falling down house with all of its grandeur cracked, worn and crumbling.

Enter a man from Chicago named Fred Krebhiel. Mr. Krebhiel is a very successful businessman in Chicago who made a fortune in computer parts. With his wife, he has maintained a proactive interest in the arts and culture. Besides being an art collector (he owns the largest private collection of Irish art, from the 18th century to contemporary), his interest in architecture and preservation motivated him to find a great house of another age, restore it to its former glory and turn it into a luxury hotel where guests can enjoy the country life of the stately home.

Click to order Ballyfin: The Restoration of an Irish House & Demesne.
In 2001, he found Ballyfin, now in a dilapidated, falling apart state – yet still with its good bones and apparitions of withered glory. He paid several million for the property in this state. The restoration took nine years and is said to have cost Fred Krebhiel about $30 million. Desmond Fitzgerald, Knight of Glin, served as adviser.

Now Coote family portraits by Charles Jervas and Jonathan Richardson line the hall, along with more recent work by William Crozier and Michael Canning.

Fine antiques now furnish the guest rooms, and Irish artworks (along with discreetly placed plasma TVs) adorn the walls. Entertainment options on the premises range from whiskey tastings to falconry, and Ballyfin’s staff — many of whom have had familial ties to the estate for centuries — can direct guests to a host of outdoor activities.

This book is about Ballyfin, Fred Krebhiel’s magnificent architectural odyssey and restoration and what life is like there now (when you are a paying guest). May 1, Ballyfin opened as a 15 room country hotel, 90 minutes from Dublin and looking like the cover of this book: heaven. From the reviews I’ve read, it lives up to your imagination also.

Ballyfin nightly room rates run from €£750 to €1,400, with the entire estate set at €14,500.
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