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Luxury Hospitality in 'Hidden Ireland'
By Mackenzie Carpenter
The historic Beech Hill Country House Hotel near Derry, in Northern Ireland, was built in 1739. In 1942, U.S. Marines were billeted there. President Bill Clinton has stayed there twice.
Inside the glossy brochure called "Hidden Ireland," a compendium of grand, historic guest houses, there is a fragment from a poem — not by the quintessentially Irish William Butler Yeats, but by the quintessentially American Robert Frost:
"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by/
And that has made all the difference."
The public relations people of "Hidden Ireland" know what they're doing when they invoke Frost's well-loved lines rather than Yeats': Americans love to travel in Ireland, but sometimes it makes all the difference to go off the beaten path and discover, as I did, beautiful places hidden in plain sight.
When I was in Ireland on assignment earlier this summer, Dublin was unseasonably hot, hectic and completely new to me. I didn't realize, for example, how nice it would be to have a car: There are no subways in Dublin, and the country's train service is far less extensive than in the U.K.
But lucky me: I knew people. And so, amid all the interviews and deadlines, I was able, with their help, to take a breath and experience two history-drenched places, one in Northern Ireland, and one in the south, in the Republic of Ireland.
Beech Hill Country House Hotel, Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland
Frank Gallagher, a friend of my family, is a well-regarded musician and music producer in Northern Ireland. He is also, as so many Irish are, a gifted storyteller.
I hopped a train from Dublin to Belfast, and he picked me up at the ultra-modern train station. Expecting dingy streets and graffiti, I got sunshine and urban design -- and a fascinating tutorial from Frank on the complicated history of Northern Ireland. I asked so many questions, we quickly developed a shorthand: "Pre-famine," he'd say when I'd ask about some old castle -- i.e., prior to the 1840s -- as he drove over the Glenshane Pass to Derry. Bit by bit, Northern Ireland has "dragged itself off its knees," Frank said. In 2013, Derry will be the U.K.'s official "City of Culture, which means a full schedule of concerts, art exhibitions, theater and other cultural doings.
In recent years, new hotels have sprouted up in this historic, battle-scarred, beautiful city, but when we turned into the lush grounds of the Beech Hill Country House Hotel two miles outside Dublin, my heart stopped at the sight of the elegant 18th-century Georgian manor house with the little sports car parked out front. I half expected Daniel Craig to hop in and drive away.
The Beech Hill was built in 1739, remaining a private home until 1989, when it was purchased by the current owner, Patsy O'Kane, who lovingly renovated and opened the house as a hotel in 1991.
The rooms are comfortable, the food excellent -- the hotel's Ardmore restaurant is considered one of the best in all of Ireland, north and south, using locally grown ingredients. But the best reason to go there is because of the lobby.
Much of 20th-century Northern Irish history hangs on these raspberry-colored walls: photo after photo of former President Bill Clinton, who stayed here twice in the 1990s. There he is with Hillary, and being greeted by Ms. O'Kane. There's Sen. John Kerry with wife Teresa Heinz Kerry and Northern Ireland's Nobel Prize-winning political leader John Hume. And all three Kennedy brothers, signed by Sen. Edward Kennedy.
In an adjoining room, the walls are covered with black-and-white photographs of American soldiers. Derry is on the northern Atlantic, and the Navy was stationed here along with other Allied forces during World War II's long Battle of the Atlantic — actually several naval campaigns from 1939-45 protecting convoy routes against German U-boats.
More than 750 Marines were assigned to guard the U.S. Naval base, and were billeted at a camp on Beech Hill's grounds between 1942-45.
"At Derry I found an unofficious, friendly, quick-thinking people," wrote famed American war correspondent Ernie Pyle, who stayed at the hotel in 1942 and whose article, published in what was then called the Boston Daily Globe, hangs on the wall. There are other pictures, too — of soldiers standing guard, or with an Irish farmer they've befriended, or playing the bagpipes with a young Irish woman.
Next year at the hotel, there will be a symposium hosted by the Beech Hill U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Association about the Battle of the Atlantic. Because the battle's outcome wasn't determined until 1943, 2013 is a 70th anniversary of sorts: Next year, this cozy, photo-stuffed room will have been transformed into a small modern museum and digital archive dedicated to preserving the durable, indispensable connection between Derry and Navy and Marine Corps.
It's not hard to find connection, even in one night, at this hotel, which boasts an elegant bar (no matter how cheap the hotel in Ireland, the bar always seems to punch above its weight) with a large fireplace and chandelier. When I arrived at the hotel in midafternoon with Frank, we saw a group of people gathered there in a circle after a funeral, solemnly sipping Guinness.
Frank then took me out on a whirlwind tour of nearby County Donegal — actually just over the border in the south of Ireland — breathtaking scenery, world-famous golf courses. When he deposited me at 10 p.m. at the hotel, it was still fairly light out (it was May, in a northern latitude, after all) .
And the mourners were still there, still telling stories, still drinking.
They asked me to join them, and I ordered a Guinness. By then, though, they had switched to Budweiser -- actually considered an adventurous choice of beer in Ireland.
Rossnaree, County Meath, Republic of Ireland
"Whatever you do in Ireland," my childhood friend Brigid Moynahan told me, "you must spend a night at Rossnaree."
A bit of a backstory: Brigid's father was an English professor, literary critic and novelist whose specialty was Ireland. So Brigid spent some years growing up in Dublin while her father did his research, and the family lived next door to the Stuarts, Imogen and Ian, both artists — Imogen is one of Ireland's foremost sculptors — and their children, who became fast friends with the young Moynahans.
Flash forward many years: Aisling Stuart Law, one of the neighboring children and now an artist, is grown, married, widowed and the proprietress of Rossnaree, a romantic old manor house and farm on the banks of the River Boyne, right where the famous battle of the same name was fought, in County Meath about an hour north of Dublin.
And she takes guests.
And — English majors, listen up — she's the great-granddaughter of Maud Gonne, the Irish revolutionary and the great unrequited love of William Butler Yeats' life.
And not only does Rossnaree look over emerald meadows and a meandering river, but also the ancient archaeological sites of Newgrange and Knowth, the oldest man-made tombs ever found, built by Neolithic farming communities. World Heritage sites, they predate Egypt's pyramids by 400 years and Stonehenge by 1,000.
What really makes Rossnaree extraordinary is the way Ms. Law makes you feel as though you are a friend staying in her beautiful, very private home. There are only four bedrooms, each with a theme: The Bird Room, with powder blue, hand-painted wallpaper; the Tiger Room, with artifacts and textiles from Ms. Law's travels in Asia and Africa; the William Morris Room; and the River Room.
The William Morris Room, a very masculine room with its eponymous wallpaper, enormous mahogany bed and access to what I consider to be the world's greatest bathroom -- high ceilings, fragile antique chairs, deep-set arched windows with elaborate moldings and an old pine floor varnished a deep mahogany. I could happily move into that bathroom.
I chose the Bird Room, however — deeply feminine, with a four-poster bed and pickled-lime wooden floors, the way they do it in Scandinavia. Oh, that bed: the luxury Irish linens were on a par with any Hyatt Regency, without the sterile, climate-controlled environment.
Rossnaree isn't for travelers who like Hiltons. Indeed, there is no lobby; you just drive up through the gatehouse to the main house and Ms. Law greets you, feeds you dinner and tells you stories. She hosts a summer art school, wine tastings, pop-up restaurants and concerts on the grounds. Breakfast is included in the room rate, and if you tell Ms. Law in advance, she will make you a meal in the grand dining room with its red and blue Mason china, although because I was Brigid's friend she let me hang out in her country kitchen — a whirl of children, dogs and relatives and an Aga stove, while she prepared an exquisite Moroccan chicken tagine for a family dinner that night.
A word, though, about transport: mostly clueless about transportation in Ireland, it never occurred to me that there weren't trains to County Meath, which is near Dublin's airport, and since I was flying out of the country the next day, I thought, fine, I'll just stop at Rossnaree for the night.
The concierge at the Dublin hotel looked at me as though I were mad, then told me to get on a bus to Newgrange -- and arrange for someone to pick me up.
No problem. After I was deposited at a deserted rural intersection, Ms. Law was there 5 minutes later in her truck, which was full of vegetables from the farmer's market for that night's supper.
And when I was getting ready to leave the next day, she had the property's manager and gardener, Jurandir Martins from Brazil, drive me to Drogheda — site of one of the bloodiest sieges in history — to catch the bus to the airport.
I have his card somewhere, I'm sure. As I got out of the car, he handed it to me and said, "Get in touch when you come to Brazil. I'll make sure you're treated like family."
He has had plenty of practice at Rossnaree.
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