It was built as a residence for a nineteenth century Duke’s lover and was owned for a time by a Nazi general once dubbed the most dangerous man in Europe.
And the history of Co Kildare’s Martinstown House is not the only remarkable thing about the 200 year-old property.
Everyone knows about Ireland’s green fields, beautiful beaches and quaint old pubs,but what about the treasures that lie beyond - in hidden Ireland?
If the idea of experiencing the life of the country’s nineteenth century upper class with five-course meals in a grand dining room and a walk around glorious gardens appeals to you then look no further than this beautiful old home less than an hour outside Dublin.
I was off to discover the concept of ‘Hidden Ireland’ for a weekend. It would be a lovely few days break, out in the Irish countryside, yet close enough to Kildare Village that I could browse the designer outlets there, should the notion take me.
But rather than checking into a chain hotel, where I might end up watching television for a time and speak to no-one new aside from the brief encounter I’d have with the receptionist who’d given me my key, I was to be welcomed as a guest in the home of Edward and Roisin Booth.
The Booths, who have made Martinstown House – a 15 minute drive from Kildare – their family home since the late 1960s, delight in inviting guests to sample its rustic charm. Modestly, Edward says it is not the biggest or most luxurious of the Hidden Ireland properties – which stretch from Galway to Cork and Antrim to Carlow – but accurately describes it as a boutique hotel.
My guest and I, having travelled the two-hour journey from home, were greeted by Edward who was ready and waiting at the front door of the bright yellow building to carry our bags inside. It is said the scent of a new place can leave a lasting impression, and I was delighted to be welcomed by the strong and homely smell of freshly chopped logs burning on a roaring open fire. And rather than be directed straight to a room with an electronic keycard, tea in a delicate china cup with home-made almond biscuits was the refreshment offered on arrival.
Edward, whose American stepfather bought the house in 1969, filled us in on the history of the magnificent home, with its stunning drawing room – complete with grand piano and double height ceiling – and the beautiful Roman drawings that adorn the walls of one of the cosy living rooms. Immediately I felt at home – albeit a rather more palatial setting than my own. The house may have been owned by landed gentry who could afford to house servants in the now refurbished coach house out the back, but it is not an intimidating kind of grand, rather just the right balance between sumptuous luxury and homely comforts.
Designed in the 1830s by renowned English architect Decimus Burton, the house is defined as gothic, but Edward tells me that, upon purchase, his mother decided it needed brightening up – so the previously white exterior became yellow, and some light murals were added on the walls as you enter the hallway. The story of why the house was first built is one of romance, or deception – depending on which way you look at it. The third Duke of Leinster had it built as a shooting lodge, but also allegedly as a residence for his mistress.
And the colourful history does not end there. It was owned for a time around 1959 by a Nazi acquaintance of Hitler’s, as most recently highlighted in a new book ‘Ratlines’. SS General Otto Skorzeny - once known as the most dangerous man in Europe - lived in the house, before Edward’s step-father Thomas Long from New Jersey bought it over in 1969.
There isn’t much to indicate that a man who had been close to Hitler and rescued Mussolini from a fortress during the war had ever lived in the house – but the history behind the building made the stay all the more interesting. This wasn’t a chain hotel devoid of personality; this house has stories to tell.
The guest rooms, which are located at the front and back of the house, are all slightly different – one with a terracotta bathroom decorated with Spanish garden-themed murals, another with a grand standalone bath in the ensuite. But each is as comfortable and luxurious as the last, with a gas fire and electric blankets more than making it up to anyone who may miss their double glazing. To me, the original windows with their quaint wooden shutters simply reminded me of the time and style which inspired such a property to be built.
Dinner in the evening is a sociable, as well as sumptuous, experience. Drinks are first served in the grand drawing room, as guests mingle to the dulcet tones of classical music in the background. And one must come to the table hungry as it would be a real shame to miss out on any one of the mouthwatering courses freshly prepared by self-taught – and talented - cook Roisin.
The idea of dining with strangers for a meal I knew would easily last three to four hours intimidated me somewhat at first. But I have to say it was a very pleasant surprise as the conversation flowed and Edward, Roisin and their son Andrew filled us in on the house and area’s history.
After a delicate Goat’s cheese salad, beautiful mushroom soup, tender marinated barbecue lamb, profiteroles, cheese and crackers, and tea and coffee to round it off, it was fair to say I left the table delightfully satisfied.
Food is cooked in line with the season, and so prepared with the freshest ingredients – perhaps home-grown vegetables in the walled garden outside or choice cuts of meat from the award-winning butchers in Kilcullen village just 10 minutes up the road. And it shows.
After a relaxing two-night stay, breakfast on the final morning was tinged with sadness. No matter how tasty the grilled meat, toast and orange juice was I knew it would be the last time I would enjoy my first meal of the morning staring out the patio doors to the spacious gardens as Clancy and Theodore – the resident donkeys – wandered the grounds.
Certainly the Hidden Ireland experience is different, and it may not be for everyone. But the idea of meeting new people while enjoying scrumptious food in a beautiful history-laden setting was definitely for me.
Martinstown House is near the Curragh, Naas and Punchestown racecourses, and within four miles of the National Stud and Japanese Gardens.
For details on how to book a stay in Martinstown House, which can be rented entirely for bigger groups, visit www.martinstownhouse.com.