Hidden Ireland book reveals experience of staying in Irish country houses

Carol O’Callaghan meets the author and photographer behind a new book on Irish country houses that offer accommodation and hospitality to travellers looking for something different.

Living in an Irish stately home or country mansion might seem grand and romantic, but the costs of upkeep have forced many to sell up in the last hundred years or so, with only very few now remaining in the hands of descendants of their original owners.

Some that do remain, and others that are equally loved and nurtured by their new owners, are now featured in a book entitled Hidden Ireland, which charts the experience of what it’s like to stay as a paying guest in one of these houses, ranging from the grandest Palladian mansions, to charming, nook-filled rectories.

The name Hidden Ireland is shared with a group of owners founded in the 1980s to help generate income towards the upkeep of these houses, and it’s this group which has commissioned the book, written and styled by Josephine Ryan, with photographer James Fennell, whose sumptuous, but sensitive images support Ryan’s engaging text.

A total of 20 member houses are featured from across all four provinces of Ireland, and are as much about the people who own and run them as the facilities and experiences on offer.

Unlike some books on Irish country houses which focus more on the fabric and development of the houses over time, Ryan and Fennell, through text and imagery, weave an experience of what it’s like to stay there, citing details of the welcome, the hearty breakfasts and the feeling of being the owners’ personal guests, following stays in all 20 Hidden Ireland homes.

And it shows, with detailed descriptions of extensive knick-knackery in the conservatory of Quay House in Clifden, Co Galway, for example, to the precise names of paint: Farrow & Ball Heritage colours are a common refrain, and, there are anecdotes about ancestors who have helped shape the houses, and of the presence of friendly, rather than menacing, ghosts.

No doubt this seemingly effortless engagement with each other and with the house owners is helped by Josephine and James having worked together on Essentially Irish, a book about Irish homes, from Georgian splendour to modern apartments, some years ago. “We were introduced by a publisher,” says James, “and I really liked the way Josephine could write and style.”

To which Josephine adds: “It was actually my styling skills that got me the job on Hidden Ireland.”

But while this might sound terribly glamorous with styling and photo shoots, it’s time-consuming hard work.

“In some houses we sat in the dining room and were served, but in others we were in the kitchen and saw others being served,” says Josephine.

And it seems working in such places brings challenges. “It’s a classic situation where the house owners don’t always know the power of photography,” James reveals. 

“I come from a country house (Burtown House, Co Kildare is his family home) and I’m a photographer, so I understand how powerful photography is.

“The starting point was to find out the houses’ unique selling point: I wanted to shoot different things and not just rooms.”

This and his self-description as a natural light photographer have resulted in atmospheric images, from vistas of expansive drawing rooms and sweeping staircases, to the detail of food presented in vintage wares on sparkling linen tablecloths; shelves lined with pairs of green wellies, and vases of foliage from the grounds arranged like sculpture sitting in a pool of natural light from a nearby window.

It prompts me to ask which house was his favourite.

“Hilton Park,” he replies without hesitation. “It’s the least changed and it’s atmospheric.”

Josephine is more reticent about a favourite.

“For me, it was a lot about the people who own them, they’re the heart and soul of these places.”

And she has certainly reflected this in Hidden Ireland, as it is this aspect of the book that sets the houses wide apart from those stately piles, elaborate Gothic castellated structures and sturdy Georgian mansions which have been developed into soulless hotels, complete with stark, commercially driven extensions.

At the end of this charmingly insightful read with its arresting photography, it seems the success of the country house experience comes down to a single factor: authenticity. 

For houses like this to work for the paying guest, they need to be lived in by those who own and love them, and whose lives and pasts link inextricably with them.

Hidden Ireland by James Fennell and Josephine Ryan. Published by Blackstaff Press. €29.99.


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