Emlagh basks in shadow of Funghi and Hollywood

Dingle manor has won numerous awards and would be ideal for family or other uses, Tommy Barker reports.

FUNGHI the dolphin is 30 years resident in Dingle, Co Kerry this spring —- which means he’s been here three times longer than Emlagh House.

Named from the Irish, Imeall an Locha, the Georgian manor or country house Emlagh is, in fact, a modern pretender, built in classical old style in a great town setting — overlooking the harbour mouth, Hussey’s Folly and the old lighthouse, all very much Fungi’s familiar Dingle Bay stomping ground.

Despite being just 10 years old, the period-styled house is so well bedded down on its acre, with just the Skellig Hotel between it and the sea, that visitors gazing to the waters wonder how the Skellig Hotel ever got permission to build in its view. That’s despite the fact the Skellig’s been there since 1969, back when David Lean’s movie Ryan’s Daughter put the west Kerry town (and Ireland’s most westerly town to boot) on a worldwide map.

Dingle continues to be one of Ireland’s strongest calling cards for international, and home-grown, tourism: simply put, the scenery’s up there with very best this country’s shores can offer, and a leisurely drive around Slea Head is all that’s needed to prove the point. The area’s steeped in beauty, archaeology, literature, art and culture, and has had scene-stealing, starring roles in movies like Far and Away.

Visitors to Emlagh House have included UK actor Clive Owen, and Irish actor Gabriel Byrne who has had his own private ‘gatherings’ in Dingle.

On St Patrick’s Weekend, the Irish Examiner’s visit for a look-see coincided with the Dingle Film Festival, and movie maker Sophie Fiennes (a sister of top star Ralph Fiennes) was a house guest, seen at the breakfast table looking beyond the long-proven Skellig Hotel to the bay and Ring of Kerry backdrop beyond.

Now a prospect in its own right and up for sale, Emlagh House has different options ahead of it, suggests Kenmare-based selling agent Elaine Daly, who reckons that given its quality of build and setting in a prime Dingle spot, it could be bought as a private home (albeit a very large one) or may continue to earn its crust as a top, niche guest business. To cover all bases, she’s marketing it through Sherry FitzGerald Daly’s links with Christies International Real Estate. Guide price, all-in, with furniture, art works and libraries of locally-informative books, is an even €1.5m.

Emlagh House came into being thanks to the drive of entrepreneurial local couple Michael and Marion Kavanagh, as the crowning glory of a series of local businesses they’d established. Michael, originally a farmer, broadened his interests when he first bought a JCB, went into plant hire, ground works, quarrying, dredging and more, before deciding with his wife Marion to emulate the notable Blue Book-type of guesthouses they’d stayed in and admired.

Fate intervened, however, shortly after Emlagh got built — Michael Kavanagh passed away suddenly after a series of healths concerns, at age 53, shortly after Emlagh opened its doors. It’s been run since by his daughter Gráinne (pictured left), and by Marion (p11), who’s Ballymaloe trained. At the top of its game, they’ve decided it’s time that the country house in its quite special town setting got a new lease of life, as they themselves prepare for new life chapters.

“Michael and I had looked around for a place to set up as a country house. It had to be ’m’áit dúchais,’ my native place,” says town-born Marion, who grew up in famed Tom Long’s bar, and has stories galore of market days in the old Dingle, when its streets swarmed with livestock instead of tourists. “But, there just wasn’t any house available of the quality you’d want, and we also felt that town is the best place to have it, so we took the chance to build, from scratch,” recalls Marion, in the library-like drawing room of the finished entity.

The couple started sourcing antiques for what was going to be their new business ever before knowing where they were going to end up: At one stage, Michael went to Tipperary to buy a horse, and came back with a horse, a horse-box and an old, half-tester bed. The house’s many fine old pieces have similar tales of random provenances and finds; the whole ten-bed house is fairly fully stocked with older pieces — and, best of all, seems to be the ornate marble chimney-piece in the house entrance hall, a constant centre of wood-burning scent and devourer of logs.

The Kavanaghs drafted in the services of Kerry architect Brendan Williams for the two-storey, manor-style design, with a determination to use the best quality materials inside and out, and proportion to match their ambitions for their hospitable goal.

Thus, the house’s roof lines and wing sections vary in profile and height to give the impression of a house that has evolved over time and generations, rather than springing up as a single block, and it’s topped with the best slate, while the entrance porch is faced in cut limestone, windows are double glazed in timber sash frames of appropriate proportions, and sills are granite.

Builder was local man Paddy McKenna, with Michael Kavanagh overseeing and sourcing materials. from far and wide. The back of the house has terraces off several ground-floor bedrooms topped in thick terracotta tiles, and old street cobbles or sets ring the borders, around the back garden and around the front, car-parking slots. “Michael was a stickler for details,” says Marion approvingly, while Gráinne adds that he was well able to crack the whip to get the job done right.

In the past ten years, Emlagh has never been out of the Bridgestone Guides, and has won numerous awards, including AA Country House of the Year, and generally trades each year from March to October, getting top dollar rates as a matter of course.

Local art feature very extensively throughout, with a half a dozen or so artists featuring pretty extensively.

Painter June McIntyre, who moved to West Kerry from the UK and who runs the Dingle Artworks gallery, was commissioned to paint ten local wild flowers; from her paintings each of the ten bedrooms get its decor, colour theme and name.

Thus, the rooms are called fuchsia, iris, gorse, bluebell, primrose, wild orchid, honeysuckle, etc., and other art, furniture and sundry items were picked to go with the flower theme for posies of prettiness and restrained calm. Soft wool blankets were specially commissioned to go with each of the colour themes, and guests often ask the woollen mills for copies.

As much as possible was sourced locally, from light fittings to curtains, and local Dingle firm Curtain Call did the various curtain, drapes, blinds and fabrics, prompting Marion to recall the impact on Dingle of the Ryan’s Daughter movie, effectively in the town for two years around 1969: “it was like the curtains were pulled back on Dingle.” When Tinsletown came to call again in the early 1990s for Ron Howard’s Far and Away, filmed with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, “it was like living in Hollywood,” she adds.

Now, having drawn Hollywood’s like and more private luxury seekers as paying guests, Emlagh itself is there for new directions. It may catch the eye of a private buyer, but may be too large for some, but room numbers could be reduced by making a smaller number of even larger rooms. Most already average about 450 sq ft, though, about the size of one-bed apartments, thanks to decent bedroom sizes, lobbies and bathrooms, all with white marble trim and showers powerful enough to flay the flesh.

Emlagh has six of its ten guest bedrooms (there’s also an owner’s suite) upstairs, four below, and reception rooms with real grace, open fireplaces, views and book, books and more books — just in case it rains, which Dingle is occasionally inclined to.

Unlike some distressed hotel and guesthouse sales, Emlagh Houses has a strong, niche position in a tourist town with an acknowledged international appeal, and has links to select tour operators and lots of repeat business. While it’s always hard to fill the shoes of operators at the top of their game, there’s openings here as yet unexplored. The acre of ground has enough space for a small marquee or two for select functions, and evening meals is an obvious option, says auctioneer Elaine Daly, adding there may be expat or returning emigrant interest in it as a private home.

And, should some aspiring or celeb chef like a Neven Maguire (MacNean House) or a Kevin Dundon (Dunbrody House) want to do restaurant, seafood or cookery classes and accommodation and more in a turn-key venture, this could be the one.

After all, if a dolphin like Fungi can knock 30 years out of the place.......


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