Carton House: Where history and contemporary style meet
Follow in the footsteps of Queen Victoria with a visit to Carton House in Co Kildare and you’ll be treated royally, writes Helen McGurk
It is rare to eat one’s breakfast in the presence of chubby-cheeked golden cherubs, an elaborate pipe organ, and walls dripping in so much gold leaf it would seem Midas had run riot, but such was the case on a recent visit to Carton House in Co Kildare.
Like many families this year, we re-thought our holiday plans due to Covid-19 and instead of a planned trip of France, decided to retain our euros (and our sanity) and explore areas of Ireland we’d never been.
A friend had recently visited Carton House and had waxed lyrical about the grand Georgian estate, so we decided it would be the first stop on our staycation tour, and thus the reason we were dining in celestial company.
Kildare, is a just a couple of hours’ drive from Belfast, but I’d wager it falls under the radar of many, except those seeking retail therapy at the eponymous designer outlet mall or a flutter at the Curragh, but if you can, it’s well worth lingering in this county of rolling, velvety countryside and grand houses.
And Carton House, near the university town of Maynooth, must surely be one of the grandest and most historic, not just in the county, but the whole of Ireland.
Built in the early 18th century it was once home to the influential and aristocratic FitzGerald family, Emily, Duchess of Leinster (1731-1814), and James, the Duke of Leinster.
Now owned by the Irish-American Mullen family, history buffs, gourmands and golfers and connoisseurs of comfort will love the place.
The drive into the walled estate passes by two well-groomed championship 18-hole golf courses, which stretch round the 1,100 acres of grounds on the banks of the River Rye.
We spot a Tyrconnell Tower, a pretty Boat House on the water’s edge and a cute 18th century cottage, decorated outside and in with all manner of pretty seashells, which we later learn was lived in by comedy actor Peter Sellers and also during the 1990s by iconic singer Marianne Faithful,
In fact Carton House has played host to some of Britain’s most distinguished democrats including Grace Kelly, Prince Rainier and Queen Victoria, who apparently had a dream before she came that she was on a boat on a lake at Carton House. No such lake existed, so one was man-made for her.
Fairmont managed hotel
A new chapter in the centuries-old story of Carton House began this summer, after an extensive, multi- million euro two-year refurbishment of the original house, surrounding hotel and grounds was unveiled, and it has now opened its doors as a luxurious Fairmont managed hotel, a collection famed for iconic properties including The Savoy in London and The Plaza in New York.
Despite its high-end credentials, the atmosphere at Carton House is never snooty or stuffy. Staff are genuinely warm and friendly as we wait for check-in, lounging on comfy couches while flicking through an array of glossy coffee-table books, admiring the view through floor-to-ceiling windows which frame a courtyard terrace.
We were staying in the new part of the hotel, the Garden Wing, which is joined to the old part of the house via a long glass corridor. Guests (with deeper pockets) can stay in the original house, whizzing up to one of the 18 sumptuous rooms, in a modern glass elevator.
Our modern family room was spacious, comfortable and opulent, with plush linens, complimentary wi-fi, LCD system and glorious bathroom.
A balcony gave wonderful views of the lush grounds and many ancient trees.
Sadly, we were only staying at Carton House for one night, but wanted to find out as much as possible about the history of the mansion. Luckily the lovely staff offer tours, and the exceptionally knowledgeable house manager Harry Glynn was full of facts and interesting stories.
The original house
The original house boosts a series of grand and imposing rooms. The stunning Gold Salon, described as one of the most beautiful rooms in Ireland and where we had breakfast, boasts an incredible stucco plaster work ceiling dating from the late 1700s. Created by the renowned Lafranchini brothers, it depicts the Courtship of the Gods.
There’s the superlative Drawing Room, the breathtaking Morrison Room and the Bell Room, (look out for the duchess’s bell, with a hole worn through it from use).
These beautiful rooms are not locked up, but are part of the daily rituals of Carton House life and at the heart of each guest’s experience.
Guests can also view the Chinese Room, where Queen Victoria stayed, which is kept under lock and key, and admire the museum-quality chinoiserie wallpaper... albeit from behind a velvet rope.
Look out for the cosy book-lined Whiskey Library with an encyclopedic selection of the world’s finest whiskeys and the amazing wine room with an international collection of fine wines.
We had a gorgeous evening meal in Kathleen’s Kitchen. Located in the original kitchens of the house, it retains many original features, including the vast cast iron stoves and beautifully-tiled Cheese Room.
Harry told us that from Lady Emily’s letters it’s clear she treated Kathleen, the original housekeeper of Carton House, as a friend and confidant.
Kathleen also helped to look after 19 of Lady Emily’s 24 children who lived at the house.
The Mediterranean-style menu, which you can watch being made in the open-style kitchen by a flurry of talented chefs, offers arancini, stone baked flatbreads (a big hit with the kids), pastas and oysters.
Guests could also dine in the Carriage House restaurant or the Courtyard bar, which has an impressive wine and cocktail list (expect to pay 15 euro or upwards for a cocktail) or opt for a fine dining experience in the aforementioned Morrison Room, which is aiming for a Michelin star.
Breakfasts at Carton, which, incidentally comes from the old Irish name ‘Bailie an Cairthe’ of Land of the Pillar Stone, are, in a word, amazing.
There’s American Style pancakes, Kenmare Irish smoked salmon, Eggs Royale, Eggs Benedict, and more. Due to Covid, buffet items like pastries, yoghurt, cheese and juice are brought to the table on a cakestand.
After indulging, there’s plenty of activities to choose from. Aside from golf, there’s tennis, fishing, archery and clay pigeon shooting or you could just amble the walking trails or enjoy a dip in the pool or have a treatment in the spa. Or simply do nothing, but sit and enjoy the tranquillity, space, relaxed comfort, natural beauty and soak up all that history.
*For more information visit www.cartonhouse.com