By the mid-19th century, thousands of country mansions and castles were scattered around Ireland. One hundred years later, the landscape had changed – a legacy of changing economies, the rise of Home Rule (the movement to establish a parliament in Dublin), the decline of the landlord class, and simply the passage of time.
Though only a small portion of these houses remain today, their architectural grandeur, antique furnishings and interiors, cultivated gardens and sprawling demesnes play a key part in Ireland’s cultural history. Many are open wholly or in part to the public, and you might be surprised at the diversity of activities on offer: from formal tours to parkland paths and even music festivals.
Mount Stewart House, County Down
Like many of Ireland’s historic houses, the 18th-century Mount Stewart House in Newtownards is far more than just an architectural gem. Owned by the National Trust, its mild climate was the perfect setting for some spectacular experiments in garden design, resulting today in a landscaped oasis of extraordinary scope, extending from Italian villa landscapes to lily-strewn manmade lakes.
Russborough House, County Wicklow
Dating from the 1740s, this princely Palladian pile is best known as the home of Lord and Lady Beit, who bought it to house their art collection in 1952. The house and gardens are open to the public, but just as compelling are the stories surrounding the Beits themselves. Fred Astaire, Coco Chanel and Mick Jagger were amongst the guests of the most dashing couple of their day; and their priceless paintings were raided no less than four times... though thankfully recovered on each occasion.
Muckross House, County Kerry
Gardens form a similar draw at Muckross House, the 19th-century mansion at which Queen Victoria was a guest during her famous trip to Kerry in 1861. The sunken garden, rock garden and stream garden here lie in marked contrast to the wildly beautiful backdrop of Killarney National Park.
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Florence Court, County Fermanagh
The 18th-century Florence Court is the former home of the Earls of Enniskillen. Sitting peacefully against a mountain backdrop, its classical architecture and interiors are complemented by glorious walks, play areas and some surprising garden treats – including the mother tree to all Irish yews.
Loftus Hall, County Wexford
Historic buildings aren’t always prim and proper. Loftus Hall is a desolate husk teetering on the edge of Wexford’s Hook Peninsula. A dark stranger called to the door here during foul weather in 1765 – a man who was discovered, during a late-night game of cards, to have a cloven hoof. He promptly burst through the ceiling in a ball of flames, creating a hole said to have resisted repair to this day.
Loftus Hall has been through a succession of owners, the latest of which is offering tours, bike hire and quirky events on the estate since it reopened on (gulp...) Friday “the thirteenth” of July, 2012.
Borris House, County Carlow
Dating in its present form from 1731, Borris House is best known as the ancestral home of Leinster’s High Kings. Another resident was the redoubtable Arthur Kavanagh. Born in 1831, Kavanagh won fame as an MP, bestselling author, dispatch rider for the East India Company, a sailor who travelled as far as the Persian Gulf, and a vigorous ladies’ man.
Fancy finding out what life is like living in one of these grand houses?