Sky’s the limit as Liss Ard throws open its doors

The beautiful Skibbereen estate has revamped its hospitality business and is also free for walkers, writes Tommy Barker

THE gates at Liss Ard have swung open, shut and open again, down very many years — and they are about as wide open right now as they’ve ever been.

The wonderful West Cork estate, home not just to one pristine period property but to two manor homes, of very different styles and eras, is open to callers and paying guests, while its 185 acres of land, woodland, waterfalls and lakes are now free to all and sundry to wander around and to wonder at.

Fresh life is being breathed into the estate.

Near Skibbereen, the Liss Ard estate has had about as chequered a career as any Irish demesne, growing and shrinking in acreage before consolidating again as owners changed, yet fairly much managing to hold onto its modest grandeurs through many changes of Irish and international ownership. If its chic, minimalist walls could talk, they’d be accented and multi-tongued.

Originally a stronghold of the O’Donovans, the Georgian home in 1850 was their last grand family fling, with a Victorian dower house built in a sublime setting in 1870.

Down the years, it has had Irish owners, English and American owners, and was even bought as a secret bolt-hole for a Swiss government in exile, should nuclear war ever break out on the Continent. They believed that prevailing south-westerlies made it a safe bet from toxic clouds.

Liss Ard alternated from private house to country house hotel, and major renovation began in the late 1980s when European art dealer Veith Turske took an interest.

A foundation (now defunct) was set up to safeguard the house and grounds, and during its time the wholly novel Irish Sky Garden was set up, created by internationally acclaimed artist and creator of ‘skyspaces’, James Turrell (see details below).

In latter years, Liss Ard has become a the venue for niche music and rock concerts, and a food and art festival: that’s when most people locally in Cork and beyond have been able to savour sections of its grounds.

Guests, and visiting musicians down the years have included Oasis, Nick Cave, Lou Reed, Van Morrison and Patti Smith, and the main 1850 late-Georgian manor house has a baby grand piano in its entrance hall for those who’d fancy themselves in such exalted company.

Freedom to roam the vast bulk of Liss Ard’s lands and grounds is a new departure, and one already welcomed these spring weeks by neighbours, tourists, dog-walkers and families looking for a safe and intriguing day out in glorious surroundings.

While once there was an air of utter exclusivity and an impression that casual callers weren’t exactly encouraged, that’s now been banished: there’s a definite feel of the place ramping up to make a fresh and fresh air start.

First up, or course, there’s a guest business here, with rooms at the two main houses, one Georgian, the other a Victorian lodge, open to paying guests, as is the converted garden mews’s stable block, with 10 more bedrooms.

Taken as a whole, Liss Ard can hold about 60 guests in utter laid-back style and comfort, as singles, couples, groups of friends, and can be block-booked for special occasions and small weddings.

Digging in for the longer term is a new masters programme in organic horticulture, with 16 participants on the first stage of this innovative programme — the first of its kind in Europe.

The programme is organised in conjunction with UCC, with further involvement from Carbery Enterprise Group. Local resident David Puttnam says it’s a great coup for the region and “one of the more important elements in the evolution of West Cork in general, and Skibbereen in particular”.

That inaugural 12-month horticultural course is now half way through, and Liss Ard is also keen to position itself now as championing the best of local food produce in its menus and promotions, and — belatedly, perhaps — is about to start its own walled garden horticultural enterprises in earnest, says Liss Ard’s newly-appointed operations manager Melanie Uhkoetter.

Uhkoetter hails from Germany, but is pretty much a world citizen by now after spells working around Europe, South America and elsewhere, She was encouraged to come to Cork from Portugal where she was a key player in a major tourism venture at Martinhal in Portugal, also owned by the Stern family who became involved in Liss Ard back in 1999 and now are sole owners.

There’s a definite renaissance afoot; on a recent Friday afternoon visit the Irish Examiner’s treks around the kilometres of paths and trails were cris-crossed by bounding dogs, excited children and appreciative, contemplative walkers.

The estate is big enough, literally and metaphorically, to accommodate all comers, plus there’s the 50-acre Lough Absidealy, stocked with fish, and navigable by canoe, dinghy, fishing boat or, for the brave, by bathers.

So-called wild swimming is a Liss Ard option, with a few dark ponds and lakes elsewhere in the meandering grounds to tempt those brave enough for a swift dip.

Then, of course, there’s the option of a ‘Drop of the Crater’ — a visit to the man-made crater scooped out and moulded of high banks of earth by American installation artist James Turrell.

Seventy-years-old this year, Turrell is widely recognised for his creations in Arizona, the UK, Liss Ard, Spain and elsewhere, and has created concrete/conceptual spaces to trick with light, landscape and sky.

At Liss Ard, Turrell’s crater is a huge outdoor installation, entered by a narrow limestone-walled tunnel and up steep steps, described as a birthing parallel, and then entering into the light, or the night and starry skies, depending on the time of visits.

Inside, at the base of the ellipse, is a elongated stone plinth on which visitors lie down, and look skyward. The crater’s rim sloping up and away frames the sky, and if you’re none too sceptical, there’s a definite effect — not quite the earth moving, but more the ripples of being open to the skies, and a change or shift of perspective.

The grounds around Liss Ard are free to wander, as is the Sky Garden, but for guided group trips, there’s a €5 charge — a drop in the ocean, if not the cosmos. And, to mark Turrell’s 70th birthday, Liss Ard is doing a special guest picnic or prosecco packages for night visits to the crater.

Another similar package — in this, the year of the Gathering — is a deal for anyone with the O’Donovan surname (keeping faith with the house’s clan originators) involving more prosecco, a clan badge and rooms from €105 per night (see lissardestate.com)

As Liss Ard enters its third year of hospitality, it’s unlikely that its living quarters have ever been as accommodating. After reopening for the coming season, bookings are coming in, well in advance, from Continental Europeans (about 25% of business is German) while we Irish (another 25%, and a growing segment) tend to leave it to the last minute. Easter is looking very full, with easter egg hunts for guests — none too easy, with 185 acres of land in which to conceal goodies.

Internally, Liss Ard’s ‘look’ in its two main houses and mews wing, has possibly softened over the past decade: the early 1990s minimalist (almost art gallery) look become a little fuller and, dare to say, warmer, but there’s still very much a contemporary edge and buzz, rather than old masters’ or notional ancestors’ paintings and portraits in oils; lighting is more inclined to be recessed and swish track spots than pendants and chandeliers.

While it’s all pretty much relaxed now (there’s no real foyers or reception desks, for example, you just introduce yourself) there’s physically more formality or grandeur in the two-storey over basement Georgian house (six guest rooms, three of them suites) with higher ceilings and larger rooms, while there’s more fun and personality in the Victorian dower house, especially in the couple of rooms with lofted mezzanines and windows overlooking Lough Abisdealy.

VERDICT: Great to see the doors, gates and skies open thrown once more at Liss Ard.


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