Country Matters: The Liffey winds sweetly past

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A REPORT just published by the Irish Georgian Society, Future of the Country House, makes dismal reading. It reveals that many owners are so hard up that they cannot afford even to insure their properties, let alone to maintain them; and it concludes that unless drastic action is taken, part-

icularly to sort out what it

calls 'the tangled skeins of

tax relief', Irish country houses 'will soon be a fading memory'.

Everywhere in the Irish Republic you see magnificent dwellings, standing aloof in their grounds, which look very fine from a distance. Go closer, though, and it becomes all too clear that they are in states of advanced decay, with rain pouring through the roofs and rats rampaging through the cellars.

A few of the best are rescued by The Georgian Society; but the funds of that excellent organisation are limited, and many middle-of-the-range Irish houses are heading for extinction. Yet there is one that has triumphantly burst back into life: Straffan House, in Co Kildare, now converted at colossal expense into the Kildare Hotel and Country Club, known as the K Club for short. Legend has it that nearly pounds 30m has been spent on restoration and improvements, and the results are spectacular.

Imagine a long, low house, vaguely 18th-century French in appearance, and painted so pale a green that it looks almost white, with an Italianate bell-tower rising slender and square above one wing. Imagine the house surrounded by grass sloping down to the River Liffey, which winds sweetly past. Imagine splendid specimen trees, white railings and more than 40 acres of lawn, mown three times a week all summer.

This is the pleasure dome devised by Dr Michael Smurfit, the paper and packaging millionaire, with the aim of creating a world-class hotel and golf course. Not being a player, I cannot pronounce on the virtues of the course, save to say that its challenge is clearly increased by the chance of meeting a watery death at almost every hole. As for the hotel, only the seriously rich or recklessly extravagant would dare to stay in it, for the prices are astronomical; yet ordinary mortals can eat in the restaurant, and going in for a meal gives you a chance to snoop about.

The present building, or at least about half of it, went up in the 1830s, after the estate had been bought by Hugh Barton, a successful wine-grower in France. It remained in the Barton family until 1949, but since then has had a bewildering succession of owners, among them the Gallaghers, the Fergusons, the film producer Kevin McClory, and a general in the Iranian air force, who made the fatal mistake of returning to his home country at an inauspicious moment and was shot by his colleagues before he could take possession of his new Irish property.

When the Smurfit group bought Straffan in 1988, the house was extended by the addition of a west wing, exactly matching the original building. A former stable yard became apartments, and new facilities included an indoor sports complex with two tennis courts, squash courts and a gym under a huge curved roof.

To shape the golf course, designed by Arnold Palmer, more than a million tons of earth were shifted. At the same time, seven lakes were created, partly to make the golf more interesting, and partly to add variety to the fishing. The estate already owned a mile of salmon and trout fishing on the Liffey, but now it has lakes containing (separately) wild brown trout, rainbow trout, carp, tench, bream and pike.

An inspired move was to line the new ponds with hundreds of tons of mud dredged from the Liffey: buried in the silt came eggs by the million, with the result that in spring the lakes are alive with mayfly and other insects.

Not everything went according to plan. In places, earth- moving machinery compacted the soil so badly that surface water could not escape, and the sculpted banks round some greens had to be hacked open again to accommodate extra drainage slits. Now, with repair work finished, everything is immaculate.

One man who has known Straffan through thick and thin, and survived four previous owners, is Sean McManmon, in charge of the grounds and sporting facilities. Small, silver-bearded, quick- moving, he is a passionate fisherman, and recalls how, when he was a boy, his father never let him use a spinner, only a fly. Now he looks after the Straffan fishing with the fervour of a true purist.

To tour the grounds with him is to hear recent history come alive. He will tell you how, in the Bartons' time, 100 people worked in the kitchen garden alone, and how Mrs Ferguson employed 45 staff when she bred racehorses, in boxes with heated brick floors. Here - he points to the spot - one of the Bartons had a fall and broke his neck, 'and don't people hear his horse come clattering into the yard, to this very day]'

If local fishing and rough shooting pall, Mr McManmon can arrange high-class driven pheasants in the Nire Valley, way down in Co Tipperary, and deer-stalking at Luggala, in the Wicklow mountains. In fact I cannot see any activity palling in his company, for he is one of those enthusiasts whose own spark lights up everyone with him.

Inside, Straffan itself now feels gloriously solid, with open fires, hefty furniture and big oil paintings. Of these the most striking depicts the Byerley Turk, one of the three original Arab stallions from which all British bloodstock is descended. Jet black, and almost life-size, he glares down imperiously from the crimson wall of the dining room.

Looking round all this sumptuous restoration, I felt a painful contrast between Straffan and Rathenny, the country house in Co Tipperary that we once rented for 18 months. This was nothing like so large: it was a small big house, or a big small house, depending on how you considered it, with five bedrooms, five good-sized rooms on the ground floor, and a complete cellar floor - alive with rats - underground.

Modest though it was (and is), it is Georgian, perfectly proportioned and has considerable style. Its great glory is the alcove at the end of the sitting room, which itinerant Italian plasterers, passing by in about 1790, decorated with three-dimensional sheaves of corn, bunches of grapes and other rustic cornucopias. Its great weakness was the roof: every time it rained - that is, most days - we had to deploy six buckets on the landing, and even then we caught only half the drips.

The plumbing was in a class of its own, the central mystery being that the apparatus known locally as 'de Agga' had so little effect in heating the water. 'God,' said Mr Loony, a plumber called in to help, as he eyed the hot-water tank, 'it should put that feller hoppin' '. But it did no such thing, and our baths were seldom more than luke-warm.

Leaking and cold though it was, we loved Rathenny. It is still in private hands, and I am glad to say that the whole roof has been renewed, so that for the moment one medium-sized country house is safe. But when you see what has been done with Straffan, you can only wish that there were more millionaires about.