Through the rain occasional flashes of lightning lit the sky outside the dining room at Ballymaloe House, a 400-acre country estate in Shanagarry on the southern coast of County Cork.
Guests at beautifully set tables were dining on gourmet meals of fresh fish or spring lamb, fresh vegetables and fine wines. Rich, homemade desserts waited temptingly on a cart and a fireplace blazed with a warming fire.
Conversation was easy and pleasant with our owner-hosts, Myrtle and Ivan Allen, who were full of suggestions about what we should see and do on our journey around southwest Ireland.
Avoiding the Highways
Our group had come from County Wicklow that day, avoiding highways and taking "scenic routes" (as they were called on our map), visiting the medieval town of Kilkenny and the city of Cashel, with its impressive Cashel Rock that towers over the town and by an impressive complex of churches that date back to the 12th Century.
We were told that it was there, while delivering a speech to his followers, that St. Patrick first used a shamrock that later became a national symbol.
My room was homey--not elegant but warm and inviting, with a comfortable bed and large bathroom. And though I could see the lightning, I couldn't hear a sound through the thick granite walls.
Although Ballymaloe, built on the site of an old castle, has been rebuilt and modernized over the centuries, parts of the original castle have been preserved, including a 14th-Century keep. It has 30 rooms in its main house and annexes.
Also, on the grounds are a craft shop, pool, tennis court, small golf course and children's play equipment. The estate is also the site of the renowned Ballymaloe Cooking School, run by daughter-in-law Darina Allen.
Queen of the Kitchen
Myrtle Allen, a chef and author of several cook books, is queen mother of the culinary department at Ballymaloe, so it's not surprising that dining is a big event.
The cooking school, which draws would-be chefs from around the world, has two 12-week sessions a year, one beginning Sept. 14 and the other next Jan. 4. Tuition is about $3,000 per course including accommodations and meals cooked by the students.
Ballymaloe is convenient for sightseeing, being just two miles from a coastline with many small, uncrowded beaches. Also in Shanagarry are the pottery and shop of Stephen Pearce, one of Ireland's foremost potters.
Just 20 miles north is the city of Cork, great for shopping or puckering up to kiss the famous Blarney Stone.
To the west, a dining adventure awaits in the historic fishing village of Kinsale, which promotes itself as the "culinary capital of Ireland." Eleven restaurants, including the award-winning Blue Haven seafood restaurant, have formed a co-op to maintain rigid standards and to host an internationally known Gourmet Festival during the first weekend of October.
At the Blue Haven, diners enjoy the Molly Malone seafood casserole, seafood quiche and smoked salmon platters in the cozy, wood-paneled bar.
Over on the west coast, travelers also have discovered the Ballylickey country house, a 10-acre estate and gardens overlooking magnificent Bantry Bay.
Ballylickey was built in 1650 as a hunting lodge, and later turned into a hotel. Though heavily damaged by fire in 1982, it has been rebuilt as a private home by the George Graves family. They take in guests in the main house or in charming, chalet-like cottages.
Walk a Challenge
The cottages, heated pool and a restaurant and bar/lounge were added during the rebuilding, a comfortable walk through the park-like grounds from the main house. On a rainy day the walk is a bit of a challenge, but the blazing fire, comfortable antique furniture and delicious French cuisine make it worthwhile.
Bantry, in addition to the usual quota of relics and ruins, is the site of Bantry House. Open to the public, this fine Georgian house with a spectacular view of the bay is a storehouse of art treasures collected by former Earls of Bantry.
Visitors to Ballylickey usually head for nearby Glengarriff and the 10-minute boat ride (about $5 plus $2 entrance fee) to Garnish Island, a horticulturist's dream of exotic subtropical plants, flowers and trees from around the world.
Even on a damp and misty day, it's a rewarding side trip to wander through the lush growth and elaborate Italian gardens. The greenery and flowers seem even brighter on a gray day.
On the peak of the island are the ruins of an old fort where it is said that George Bernard Shaw was inspired to write part of "St. Joan."
Travelers heading for Killarney and the Ring of Kerry usually take the pleasant drive north from Ballylickey to the town of Kenmare, a southern terminus for the drive around the Iveraugh Peninsula.
Gardens of Country House
On the north side of the peninsula, just a mile from the Ring, is Caragh Lodge, a country house fronting on beautiful Lough Caragh and set in nine acres of colorful gardens.
Michael and Ines Braasch greet you with a warm fire and a cup of tea and show you to one of the 10 rooms in the main house or annexes. Rooms are comfortable and functional and include private baths. In addition to sightseeing, activities include swimming and fishing along the 300-yard lake front, tennis on an all-weather tennis court and Ping-Pong. There's also a sauna to relieve the weary traveler.
Listen to the Quiet
Fireplaces in the lounges lend their warmth and comfortable furniture invites the guest to rest a while, enjoy the view and listen to the quiet.
The Ring of Kerry is the big sightseeing attraction from Caragh Lodge, and it takes at least half a day to complete. It's worth waiting for a clear day to experience one of Ireland's most scenic drives. Circling the peninsula you see sheep grazing on the green hillsides, look down on deserted sandy beaches and pass through old towns such as Caherciceen with a view of the Blasket Islands in the distance.
In addition to the magnificent seascapes, the peninsula is a wondrous area of history and legend. Ruins and relics dating back 6,000 years have been found near Derrydane on the southwestern tip.
Waterville and the Waterville Lake Hotel, at about the midway point, make a good place to take a break. The hotel's championship golf course overlooking Lough Currane and the Atlantic Ocean draws golfers from throughout the world.
Around the bend the road turns back to Kenmare and Killarney, passing historic Parknasilla and the elegant Parknasilla Hotel. The hotel on a point and has wide-ranging views of the Kenmare River and the Atlantic.
Inland about 30 miles from Killarney rises Assolas House, a 17th-Century manor that has been transformed through the years into a peaceful refuge for travelers.
A river flows past the house and through the prize-winning gardens. Guests can row on the river, fish, play lawn tennis or take quiet walks through the sylvan setting of sweeping lawns and age-old yew and oak trees.
Hugh and Eleanor Burke, the owners and managers of the house, treasure its history and will gladly give tours pointing out walls that are 4 1/2 feet thick, plus the many original windows of hand-blown glass and the more than 300-year-old outbuildings that are still in use.
The main house has seven guest rooms and three newer ones have been converted from an old tack room. All have private baths. The newer bathrooms feature oversize bathtubs and a skylight.
The "genuine country house cuisine combined with progressive Irish cooking," as they call it, is excellent. Dinner is usually preceded by drinks in the exquisitely furnished drawing room.
Fireplace Sheds a Glow
A Ping-Pong table has been set up in the old kitchen with its original flagstone floor and a huge fireplace that sheds a warm glow.
Sitting by the fire, waiting my turn to play, I could almost hear the ghosts of centuries past cheering us on. That's one of the wonders of any visit to Ireland--you seem to both see and feel history. There's not a whole lot that's new here. Let's hope it stays that way.
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Ballymaloe House, Shanagarry, Midleton, County Cork, Ireland. Bed and breakfast, 30 (about $47 U.S.) to 36 (about $57 U.S.) per person, double.
Ballylickey Manor House, Bantry Bay, County Cork, Ireland. B&B; 28 to 38 per person, double.
Caragh Lodge, Caragh Lake, County Kerry, Ireland. B&B; from 20 per person, double. Dinner from 16.
Assolas House, Kanturk, County Cork, Ireland. B&B; from 25 per person, double. Dinner 17.
These country houses are members of the Irish Country Houses & Restaurant Assn. Many are closed during winter. For an illustrated booklet with details on all 34 houses scattered throughout Ireland, write to the Irish Tourist Board, 757 3rd Ave., 19th Floor, New York 10017; phone (212) 418-0800.