Carol O’Callaghan pays a visit to Ballynatray House and discovers tales of serendipity, love-at-first-sight and hidden treasures.
Did you know it was Horace Walpole who in 1754 coined the word ‘serendipity’? He revealed this while corresponding with a friend about uncovering a Persian fairytale called The Three Princes of Serendip. It appears this royal triumvirate were in the habit of making discoveries by accident and sagacity, “of things they were not in quest of”, wrote Horace.
Wind on 200 years to another letter by a different Horace, this time Horace Holroyd-Smyth, the then owner of Ballynatray House, who in the 1960s hosted a guest, Timothy Gwyn-Jones. Later, Timothy wrote to Horace expressing his interest in buying the house should it ever come on the market. He received an emphatic reply that the house would never be for sale, a tale recounted to me recently by Timothy’s son, Henry who, by another stroke of serendipity, happens to be Ballynatray’s current owner.
About 14 years ago when Henry was living in England and looking for a house of his own in Ireland, he came across a listing for Ballynatray in a Sotheby International’s catalogue. The house had come up for sale after all, and had been sold to Serge and Henriette Boissevain by the heirs of the late, Horace Holroyd-Smyth.
Now on the market for only the second time since its construction began in the 1790s, Henry bought the house with its 400 acres.
“It was love at first sight,” he admits, when he came through the gates located on the road to Knockanore just outside Youghal, Co Cork, from where a drive wends its lengthy way through parkland, which at this time of year sees summer lushness turning autumnal.
Arriving at the house, so happily situated on a meander of the River Blackwater where it’s at its most expansive, Henry at the time was unaware of his father’s visit — and offer — 40 years earlier.
Resident now at Ballynatray for some 13 years, he reckons he spends 65%-70% of his time there, overseeing the house’s ongoing conservation, reinstating fixtures and fittings removed by the previous owners, converting estate cottages to let, and increasing the estate from 400 to over 800 acres.
In the morning room, where we sit sipping tea and chatting on one of those still, breeze-free, Irish mornings, Henry points out the fireplace, not an original but a carefully sourced Adam’s style model from an Irish country house of the Georgian period.
Squaring it off are three sofas, and between them an enormous square Ottoman which is a breeding ground for piles of books. Sitting above the fireplace is a vast gilt-framed mirror which reflects light from a window opposite. Not that it’s needed for anything more than decoration as, together with a double aspect of windows overlooking the Blackwater, there’s a reminder of how adept the Georgians were at creating the most lightsome houses.
“Many of the original fireplaces, with high mantelpieces, were taken out and replaced with lower, modern ones,” says Henry.
It was something he was keen to rectify and prompted him to search for suitable models from other Irish Georgian houses. Many ended up abroad when some of our grandest country houses were dismantled, but by a happy stroke of luck, locating some of what was needed didn’t involve venturing very far.
“We discovered an old skip outside in one of the sheds,” Henry explains. “Some of the original fireplaces had been dumped there. I had them restored and put back in.”
Our conversation takes a non sequitur to the topic of Irish Georgian silver, something no Irish Georgian house is complete without. It prompts Henry to tell of a chance phone call he received from a London silversmith last year.
“He called me to say he had two silver trays that had belonged to the house. They were given to one of the Holroyd-Smyths as a wedding gift. What could I say? Of course I bought them.” This in turn prompts me to ask about the cost of upkeep of such a property as Ballynatray House, outside of historically appropriate interior purchases. Like many more of its ilk, Ballynatray can be hired for weddings, clay pigeon shooting, archery and corporate entertaining, with future plans including the re-thatching of the boathouse, now a romantic get-away, and restoration of Molana Abbey with government-matched funding.
It would be difficult to find somewhere quite as romantic for a wedding, especially as it is, ultimately, a private home rather than a soulless country house hotel conversion, and where up to 400 guests can be accommodated in a marquee on the lawn. “We do about six or seven weddings a year,” Henry says, “and we’ve restored cottages on the estate which are let as Airbnb.”
From there he suggests an amble through the other downstairs rooms, all showing signs of modern living layered on an historic context. In the drawing room cosy sofas and armchairs sit beneath contemporary art canvases, with framed family photos sprinkled on a table or console.
The library, sandwiched between the drawing room and the morning room, is smaller by comparison, although big by most standards. The requisite desk is a glossy antique number, polished, no doubt for decades, to a patina as glossy as the silvery Mac which sits on it.
Behind it stands one of a pair of breakfront cabinets which Henry picked up at the Chatsworth attic sale back in 2010. It now provides suitable storage for books and a collection of dvds to feed the flat screen television nearby.
Henry then leads the way to a staircase; it’s handsome but erring on the functional side of elegance, suggesting a grander version in keeping with the scale of the house has yet to be revealed.
Below stairs are a swimming pool and billiard room. Could it possibly be the same billiard table from which Horace Holroyd-Smyth is alleged to have eaten all his meals?
It’s unlikely the current castellan indulges the same habit as there’s a fully functioning formal dining room, beautifully laid today for 16 guests, and a more compact relaxed breakfast room from which to choose.
The climb upstairs leads to eight bedrooms, some with glorious views across the Blackwater, or to lush parkland on the other side.
A large master bedroom follows the footprint of the drawing room below it, and like one or two of the other bedrooms has a decidedly masculine feel to it. By contrast, two other bedrooms appeal to feminine sensibilities, and one in particular, where hanging on the wall is a strikingly familiar painting. Its composition and emphasis on blue tones, singles it out instantly as being by Daniel O’Neill, a recent acquisition of Henry’s, it appears.
And then it’s revealed: The main staircase, and my admiration which had attached itself so firmly to the morning room, is transferred on sight of decorative plasterwork; stone steps edged with a delicately honed metal balustrade, lustrous wooden hand rail, and the satisfying echo of our footsteps in staccato rhythm on the treads as we make our way downwards.
It’s worthy of a Jane Austen heroine in her best muslin frock, but, paradoxically, has a timelessness too. Perhaps it’s the lightness of touch in white walls, unadorned as they are by art; minimalist, apart from the decorative ceiling plasterwork from which hangs a glass and metal terrarium light fitting, electricity having replaced candles. It’s a space where a piece of bespoke contemporary Irish furniture would not look out of place, but likely add to it, and where, thankfully, there’s a dearth of niches and alcoves housing statues of Greek and Roman bathing beauties, which were so beloved by the Georgians.
From there it’s a return to the hall, a space of symmetry and volume, designed no doubt to impress ladies and gentlemen in days of old who might have waited there to be received by their host, perhaps even leaving their calling cards on one of the Holroyd-Smyth silver salvers. Today the scene is one of discreet industry as staff prepare for guests later in the week. The hall fireplace blazes with logs crackling in the hearth, flanked either side by statuesque arrangements of September flowers and reddening foliage harvested from the garden, and now spilling out of urns perched on gleaming polished console tables.
Outside, the River Blackwater flows by in sight of evergreen woods on the opposite bank, beneath an autumnal midday sun which sits high in the sky.
You might just be convinced it’s eternally summer at Ballynatray.
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