Ireland’s Blue Book is a joint venture of a collection of descriptive listings of selected Irish country houses, hotels, and restaurants located all across the island. A visit to one of these gracious spots affords a unique experience of living and sleeping in glorious old grand estates, all preserved, maintained, and featuring a variety of outdoor activities: fishing, hiking, some golf. It’s really about decompressing from the pace of modern-day life. Having stayed now at four of these properties, I recommend them and the unique experiences they afford. Here’s a report on two visits last year:
Enniscoe House, an 18th century manor in Ballina, Co. Mayo
Owner Susan Kellett meets her guests at the door. She’s a member of the 12th generation of the family that has owned the estate, dating back to the 1650s when Oliver Cromwell granted the property to one of his commanders.
Born Susan Nicholson, she studied history at Trinity College Dublin and never planned to have a career in the hospitality business. Now she, her son DJ Kellett, and his wife Colette and their daughter live on the estate and welcome guests to the main house.
“I suppose I had never intended to take over the running of the house, but, as things worked out, my brother was not interested in staying here,” she said. “This would be back in the early 1980s, and I decided to have a go at it. At that time, there were very few people working here and there were very few people coming in and out of the place.
“There’s a bit of land left, but not enough to do serious farming. So the very obvious thing was tourism and getting people in. And the other obvious thing was involving the local community in it because when I came back in the late 1970s, I discovered that very few locals had been actually in the house, that they might come up as small boys to get bamboo sticks for fishing rods, and might’ve visited the local school came every year to visit the gardens.
“So I thought, well, the first thing is that you have to open the place up and if I’m going to stay here and the house has to be earning its keep, it’s not going to be from farming. And that’s what I did. And now it took me rather longer to get the place on its feet than I thought it would. But, we’re still here.”
Kellett said that she had “partly” grown up on the property: “It belonged to a cousin of my father, but my mother’s from this area. She was from Ballycastle. Her family built a little holiday house down at Pontoon, which is the other end of the lake from here. So we spent all our summers in Mayo and when I was growing up, we used to come and visit what we as children thought was this rather grumpy old man living by himself in this big house.
“He died in 1950 and my parents inherited the house. At that point, my father discovered there was basically no money. He was a professor of veterinary medicine at the veterinary college in Dublin. So, as he used to say, ‘Earned the money in Dublin to lose it in Mayo,’ and that continued. So they never lived here full time. We spent a lot of time here, obviously, growing up. I mean, I was at school in Dublin at Trinity. So my intention was that if I was taking it on, the place had to pay and it had to be full time. I’d spent a childhood on the road backwards and forwards. Dublin, Mayo, Dublin, Mayo, Dublin, Mayo.
“There are just six bedrooms that I’m using for this business, and there are one or two extra, and I actually live in the back of the house as well. Some years ago, we converted the old stables into three self-catering apartments. Now they’re quite flexible. They can be used as extra bedrooms for the house. Essentially throughout the summer months, there will be people staying in those apartments who may or may not come and have dinner in the house. Just as they like.”
After breakfast that mild August morning, we wandered through the glorious gardens adjacent to the main house and visited the adjacent Mayo Heritage Center, viewing artifacts from centuries of settlements in that part of Mayo. Last year, The National Trust for Ireland – An Taisce – presented the prestigious Green Flag Award to Ennsicoe House “awarded for exceeding tough environmental standards in green space management and excellence of visitor attractions.”
“It is over 30 years since I took over the ownership and management of Enniscoe House and Estate,” Kellett said in accepting the honor. “In that time, we have set about the restoration of the house and gardens and redeveloped the estate into a community-focused destination for this rural and regional community. I am delighted that the work carried out by so many people over the years has been recognized by An Taisce.”
Cashel House, located in Connemara between Roundstone and Clifden.
Manager Brian McEvilly spoke about the property: “I grew up in the house. This was my family home, it was purchased by my parents in 1967. They opened the hotel in 1968 and we had Charles DeGaulle stay in May of 1969, which put Cashel ‘on the map’ as it were, in Ireland.
“Cashel is a tiny village. It consisted back then of this old house, and next door was an old property owned by Guinness’s, (and) a church. And then there was a local shop which was a post office or hardware shop, one of these all-in-one kind of units. And then there would have been a very small rural community.
“My father is from Sligo and my mother is from just outside Clifden, about 30 minutes drive from here. When they came to Cashel, they were looking to purchase a property to convert it into a hotel. They were both hoteliers and they had run a hotel in Athlone. So this property and another property up in Mayo became available to purchase and they were looking at both properties; the deciding factor was the gardens at the hotel. They were exceptionally well maintained even back then.
“So my mother, a very keen gardener, said the gardens are going to go on to be a huge attraction, which was a great advantage over the other properties that they were looking for. Plus it was very close to her parents.
“The house was a wedding present when it was built and the gardens were not as substantial as they were. The mountain actually ran right down by the side of the hotel. So there would have been just green fields. And each generation that has purchased the house or owned the property has a green finger-keen gardener in them. And back in those days, there were very little restrictions on importing and exporting plants. So the gentleman used to do a lot of dealings internationally, especially with India and Asia, and he would bring in exotic plants to see what would grow in Ireland because he knew that the climate on the west coast with the Gulf Stream was a lot warmer than the rest of Ireland. So a lot of what he brought in never made it, but a good few plants did. So we have quite a few rare plants growing here simply because he kept trying to see what he would be able to get to grow.
“He built an orchard out to the left hand side of the property and put in apple trees, plum trees, that sort of thing. And then they had gifted a wedding present of a rosebush that is still here to this day. We take very good care of it; we’ve actually transplanted into two or three other locations just in case so that we have that rose.
“We have a lot of rare azaleas, and hundreds of Rhododendrons as we have 26 acres of woodland walks and gardens. The plantings go back as far as 1840. It was many years after we purchased the property when we realized that in the secret garden there are some very rare trees. The Royal Horticultural Society of the UK have come over to Ireland and they have catalogued and geotagged the trees. There are only a handful of them in the whole British Isles. The secret garden was named because when my parents first purchased the house, there was no gate. There was a completely walled section and that’s where he kept the rare trees.”
Brian tells about the roots of the Ireland Blue Book:
“The Blue Book Association, which we’re a founding member of, is a very well-known Irish hotels association. It was one of the first and it would still be ranked as the best in Ireland. It’s very selective on the hotels and properties that can be chosen to be an individual property. That’s the whole ethos really of the association: to have similar properties of a similar standard. The people can kind of have confidence in when they’re making the bookings of the reservations.
“With the advent of booking.com and all of the online travel agencies, people have an awful lot more choice when they’re traveling in Ireland and they can now make last-minute bookings, that sort of thing. But we find that when most people travel around Ireland, they have a much better informed idea of where to go.
“The first time people come to Ireland, they generally cover the main key areas – focal points like the Cliffs of Moher or the Book of Kells. But after they’ve been here and they’ve toured, the second time they come back, they zone in on certain areas of where they want to be. And that’s where Connemara and the west of Ireland does very well, because people would want to go to the more rural, quieter areas, areas that have not been changed that much from tourism. People on their second and third visits generally graduate to do so, and we get more seasoned travelers, if you will.
“We noticed that people were coming to us from other hotels and we were hearing the same names, the same locations several times. And when we were talking to them, we would make advanced bookings. So somebody would arrive to us and they’d say, ‘Okay, we’re going to go on a bit further north. Can you recommend somewhere?’ And the hotels to the south of us were being asked the same questions and we always wanted to recommend a property similar to ourselves.
“So one of the directors in Failte Ireland at the time said, ‘You know, you guys should get together and form an association ‘cause you’re constantly dealing with yourselves.’ And we looked at it from a marketing point of view that it would be a very good thing for us to do … There were 11 properties starting off and we were all on that same cycle that tourists used to do. And probably one of the best ways to form an association is when you’re supplying a service for a demand that is there and it’s growing. I believe there are over 50 properties within the Blue Book at the moment. And again, all on that circle route, the main circle group or key focal points.”
For more information about the Blue Book Association, see Irelands-blue-book.ie.