Visiting Large at Big Houses

After our adventures at Crom on Sunday, we retired to our rooms at Derryvree House & Cottage, mainly so Declan could kick a football around with the owners’ boys. The B&B is a working sheep farm, and we could hear the sheep bleating from our open window—quite a change from the road noise outside our flat.

Wendy was a great hostess, welcoming us on Sunday morning with tea and treats—even though we were just dropping our bags. She recommended the Bush Bar & Bistro for dinner, which was superb. After a good night’s sleep, we all enjoyed a traditional Irish breakfast, with Irish bacon and sausages, eggs, stewed tomato, mushrooms, soda bread and toast, along with cereal, fruit and yogurt.

But Monday’s main attraction was two big houses, both part of the National Trust. The Big House novel is a genre of Irish literature, where the action unfolds in a generally rundown building that falls apart (or burns) by the book’s end.

Upstairs and downstairs

On the tour of Castle Coole, home to the earls of Belmore, we were ushered in the big front doors as honored guests at an evening fete. The 100-room Georgian mansion was built in the late 1700s with symmetry in mind, false doors and fake columns used as needed to maintain the overall balance.

The mansion seems to pop out of the top of the field where it sits, which was the intent of the design. There are no doors at the back of the house where people could wander outside and spoil the view. However, strategic floor-length windows did open out to wide steps, so authorized wandering actually was possible.

After seeing how our betters lived, we were ushered downstairs to the servants’ level. The National Trust had to pour a lot of concrete to level the steps, which had been worn down by constant use. The docent turned out the lights, simulating the semi-darkness where servants worked, low candles doing little to dispel the gloom. She said a worker interviewed in the 1950s said servants would walk down the main corridor with a hand lightly touching the wall as a wayfinding device.

We saw the kitchen, wine corking room and housekeeper’s room. The butler’s rooms will be open soon, a reason to come back.

FlorenceCourt (2)
Florence Court suffered heavy fire damage in the 1950s.

Burning down the (big) house

After a leisurely lunch, we visited Florence Court, which actually did burn in the 1950s, damaging two-thirds of the mansion. Fortunately, many of the baroque plaster ceilings survived, including the elaborate ceiling in the dining room that was saved when workman drilled several holes into it to drain water from the upper story after the fire.

The fire broke out in the wee hours of March 22, 1955, caused by faulty electrical wiring in the floorboards near Lady Enniskillen’s bedroom. She was no spring chicken, but she raised the staff, then ran a half-mile in her night clothes to summon the fire brigade from the nearest telephone. Our docent said the lord had only just reluctantly allowed electricity in the house but drew the line at a telephone.

Although Florence Court looks bigger from the outside, we were surprised to learn that Castle Coole actually has more rooms. But Florence Court does have a large, tri-sectioned walled garden that was a perfect way to cap the day.

A special thanks to the National Trust staff at Crom, Castle Coole and Florence Court for warm welcomes, tasty treats and overall good craic. We are especially grateful to the staffer who drove us in a golf cart from the car park to the mansion at Florence Court so we could catch the next tour and later cycled around the grounds to find Eileen and deliver the book she had bought because the visitor center was about to close.

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