Historic hotels in County Laois

Historic hotels in County Laois. Photo credit: arizanko, fotolia.com

Laois is one of the two counties created in 1556 by Queen Mary. It was originally called Queen's County, and the main town of Portlaoise was formerly named Maryborough. Ireland, in general, and County Laois, in particular, are home to numerous historical properties, some of which have been converted to hotels over the years. Castles, for instance, dot the landscape across the country, but the upkeep is often expensive, so it makes sense for them to be turned into commercial spaces to defray those costs.

One castle was built by Sir Piers Crosby, who took over the Ballyfin demesne from the O'More clan. He lost the territory during the troubles of the 1640s, and the estate passed to the Pole family, descendants of Sir William Pole of Devonshire. The estate grew as it passed from father to son, and eventually the original Crosby castle was torn down and replaced with a grand, expensive house with elegant gardens. Unfortunately, the cost of his labors left the owner penniless by his death. His son applied further restorations to the house after it caught fire, but since he had no heirs, the property passed to his sibling, also named William Pole, who was married to Lady Sarah Moore, the fifth earl of Drogheda's daughter. The couple added extensions and a suite of offices to the original house, but again, the family ran out of money to complete all of their great plans for the building. In his will, William Pole bequeathed the estate to someone who was bound to hire a gardener for 100 pounds sterling per year to take care of the house and demesne and preserve its condition.

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As the couple had no children, the inheritor was William's godson and grand-nephew, William Wellesley, son of the first earl of Mornington and elder brother of the Duke of Wellington. To accept the inheritance, William was bound to assume the Pole surname, so he changed his name to William Wellesley-Pole. William became the first Baron Maryborough and later the third earl of Mornington. Rather than leaving the estate to his spendthrift son, who ultimately died penniless after squandering his wife's massive fortune, William Wellesley-Pole sold Ballyfin to Sir Charles Henry Coote, the premier Baronet of Ireland. Sir Coote and his wife added further extensions to the house, first with the notorious Dominick Madden and later by the efforts of Morrisons, Richard and his son William Vitruvius, who broke down Madden's work as part of their plans. The new design included tall columns, mahogany doors and bookcases, exotic parquet floors, and Roman mosaic set into the entrance hall's stone floors. The Coote family retained control of the property for over a century but were ultimately forced to sell upon losing the estate to the Land Commission.

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The Patrician Brothers, a religious order, bought the estate for only 10,000 pounds sterling and used it as a boarding school. They put it up for sale in 2001. At the time, it was considered barely habitable, having suffered water damage. A great deal of work was required to return it to a decent condition. Even the grounds had suffered from a lack of upkeep, and sections of the woodland needed to be replanted entirely. The new owners undertook the challenge of restoring the house and parklands to their former glory, while trying to keep the house as close to its original plan as possible. Work carried on from 2002 to 2010, after which Ballyfin was opened to the public as a luxury hotel. In homage to the previous owners and highlighting the estate's history, each of the rooms has been named for the various original owners of the estate.

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Castle Durrow is an 18th-century country house built by an AngloIrish landlord, Colonel William Flower. The current building is still quite close to its original state. The Flower family, who were Barons and Viscounts Ashbrook, occupied the castle in 1716, four years after construction began but expansions and improvements continued unimpeded over the course of two centuries. They were known as benevolent landlords and were the largest employers of Durrow Village.

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The bank foreclosed on the property in 1922, forcing the Flower family to return to England. A resident of County Kilkenny purchased it for its timber reserves, but these became scarce by 1928. The arable parts of the estate were taken over by the Land Commission, while the woodlands were acquired by the Forestry Department. The manor house remained empty until the property was purchased by the Parish of Durrow, which turned it into a school and convent. In 1998, the property was bought by Peter and Shelley Stokes, who turned the castle into a luxury hotel.

 

The Gandon Inn, a Georgian restaurant, bar, and hotel, is more than 250 years old. An original James Gandon design, it was built in 1750 as a coach or guest house for important visitors of the earl of Portarlington at Emo Court. James Gandon, a renowned architect in the late 18th century, is known for his work on The Custom House, King's Inns in Dublin, Emo Court in Co. Laois, and the Four Courts. Despite his success as an architect, he was quite unpopular for his role in building The Custom House due to what it represented: taxation. As a result, his entire career was dogged by harsh criticism from the media and the public at large. Most of Gandon's work in Ireland was destroyed during the uprisings, especially the carefully designed interiors. The Four Courts, for example, suffered great damage, and although it was restored, most of Gandon's work had to be removed.

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The Gandon Inn he built currently features 10 en-suite guestrooms, one of which is a VIP or bridal suite, and offers a function room for parties, corporate events and family dinners. The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner daily, using locally sourced fresh ingredients.

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Carolyn John, 2015

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