There are three things that you will notice upon approaching Ballyfin. The first of them is the lake. In 1759 the fashionable Emily, Countess of Kildare, stated her intention to have it copied at her own house, Carton. The next thing you see is the golf buggies, all in a row, facing the lake. You could be forgiven for wondering what it would be like to drive a golf buggy into the lake, if you felt playful. But one senses that you would be forgiven almost anything as a guest at Ballyfin, for this is Ireland’s most exclusive hotel. The third thing that you notice is the staff. They are lined up outside to greet you, as if you were the owner returned from your travels. And this, they insist, is how they want you to feel. As if this is your home. There is even a hot towel on offer to mop your brow.
There are other things that you see as you are whisked into the bosom of this magnanimous mansion. The Italian mosaic that you tread on in the entrance hall is more than 2,000 years old. The antlers of an Irish elk, extinct for more than 10,000 years, hang over a doorway. The marquetry floors in the main saloon are the most glorious that I have ever seen. The saloon, when combined with the vestibule and grand staircase make a room that is 80-feet long and is designed to ‘gradually swell the mind’ as the viewer experiences it.
The house is neo-classical in style and was redesigned in 1822 by Irish architects Richard and William Morrison at the behest of Sir Charles Coote. William complained that Sir Charles was “so amazingly anxious that he does not leave me a moment to myself”. As a result, the house is considered the most lavish Regency mansion in Ireland.
As Irish independence neared, Ballyfin was sold to the Patrician Brothers, who turned it into a school. By 2001, the house was on the list of most endangered buildings in the country. The Irish Georgian Society brought it to the attention of American businessman Fred Krehbiel who had been looking for an Irish country house to restore in the grand tradition of haute hospitality that these houses were designed for. No expense was spared in the restoration. Everywhere is evidence of the kind of passionate intensity that fired Sir Charles Coote.
Having visited most of Ireland’s great houses, this one wins all the prizes for opulence and comfort. Some grand houses are so cold that one is obliged to take the carpet from the floor and use it for the bed, but this one is almost too warm.
The Gold Drawing Room positively dazzles with bling, boasting as it does a chandelier that came from Queen Caroline of Naples, sister of the Emperor Napoleon. It is rumoured that this is the favourite reception room of Kanye West, who has stayed here three times and recently honeymooned here with Kim Kardashian. The house has also hosted Bono and his wife Alison, although no details of these visits can be revealed — the staff are discreet in the extreme.
Because there are only 15 bedrooms, one is afforded a great deal of space and privacy here, and there are so many reception rooms that it is possible to avoid any contact with other guests, if that is your wish. Members of the public are not allowed onto the premises unless they are guests at the hotel, which also adds to the sense of privacy, although most guests take the entire house for their exclusive use.
In Ireland, it must be noted that any interior will always be upstaged by the countryside and, of course, this is true at Ballyfin. The 600-acre estate is an Earthly paradise of rolling hills and woodland walks around the lake and views of the Slieve Bloom Mountains.
There is cycling, boating, archery, clay pigeon shooting, fishing, tennis, croquet and falconry on offer. If you wish it, staff will bring coffee, whisky or a full meal as you explore. There is an 18th-century hobbit-style grotto and a very tall tower from which you can see eight counties on a clear day. And, if it rains, there is a pool, a spa and a costume room where you can play at dressing up as Sir Charles and Lady Coote. Which is, I am assured, a most popular pastime.