It’s an edifice straight from the pages of a Hibernian fairytale, an ode to Ireland’s beauty. Ballyfin sweeps you into another century enveloped in aristocratic elegance.
An unassuming 90-minute drive from Dublin, it’s not until Ballyfin’s wrought iron gates clink behind you, that you are privy to ‘the fair demesne’.
A line of uniformed staff stand ready to greet you like a long-awaited house guest (the pair of inconspicuous valets having already made quick work of your luggage), and whisk you inside for a glass of champagne next to a roaring fire. Such are the levels of effervescent Irish charm to be found at Ballyfin – alongside homemade soda bread and Irish whiskey.
Surrounded by 614 acres of rolling park and woodland, babbling brooks, walled gardens, a boating lake, a six-story tower straight out of a fairy-tale, and the Slieve Bloom mountains beyond, Ballyfin is an ode to the perennial beauty of the Emerald Isle. But the road to restored Regency grandeur was riddled with troubles.
Abandoned by its Anglo-Irish owners, Ballyfin’s bucolic idyll was brought to an abrupt end after the political unrest which followed the First World War. Sold to an order of Catholic priests, one of Ireland’s finest country houses spent the next 80 years as an all-boys boarding school. By the turn of the century, it was almost beyond repair, until American billionaire Fred Krehbiel and his Irish wife purchased it - transforming Ballyfin into Ireland’s most luxurious hotel.
They drew on talent from either side of the proverbial pond, including London-based interior designer Colin Orchard, who curated each of the property’s 21 idiosyncratic guest suites, right down to a former caretaker, who scrupulously saved missing tiles from the drawing-room floor. All played their part in the colossal restoration effort.
The furniture and artworks - including a pair of enormous Chippendale mirrors, and a 2000-year-old mosaic, transported from Pompeii by Lady Caroline - are worthy of a museum.
Yet despite Ballyfin’s elegant interiors, what really sets this place apart is the great outdoors. A selection of Dubarry boots (arranged in size order, naturally) and ‘Ballyfin’-branded windbreakers are positioned invitingly in the main hallway. From archery to horse riding, fishing to falconry, there’s an exhaustively exhaustive list of outdoor pursuits to work your way through.
Long walks make way for even longer dinners, as Chef Sam Moody (who earned himself a Michelin star at Bath Priory) uses ingredients from the eight-acre walled garden to furnish his impressive eight-course tasting menu.
Seasonal fair in a refined setting, the bacchanalian-sounding Crispy Pig’s Head is delicately presented, accompanied by a mustard mayonnaise and nasturtium (an edible flower, for anyone as unsure as I was); to follow, purebred Aberdeen Angus - sourced just ten minutes away in Mountrath - is transformed into a light and mouth-watering fillet, served with the best brisket pasty you’ve ever tasted and tiny beef fat potatoes. All paired with a carefully selected list of wines by the in-house sommelier. Dining might be formal, but the service is not at all stiff; the staff are very discreet.
Breakfast is similarly indulgent, with freshly baked Irish soda bread and pastries, accompanied with homemade jams, honey from the estate, and eggs straight from the coop.
A very grand county pile, Ballyfin allows guests to enjoy the life of O’Riley long since passed.