Here is an article I wrote in 2003 for The Irish Scoop magazine. Photo above courtesy of the folks at Roundwood House. Photos below are my own.
ROUNDWOOD HOUSE, An Idyllic Part of Hidden Ireland
One of the best kept secrets in Irish travel is Hidden Ireland, a group of beautiful, historic houses offering the visitor a unique opportunity to see Ireland off the beaten tourist path. Scattered throughout the country from Donegal to Kerry, from the west coast of Galway to the east coast of Dublin and Wicklow, these private homes are not hotels or B&B guest houses. They are the family homes of unusual and interesting people who enjoy giving visitors an experience not available anywhere else in Ireland.
Each house has its own history and character, and my favorite of the group is Roundwood House, located a short distance outside the village of Mountrath, County Laois. It is an interesting example of the 18th century Palladian villa, built around the remains of an earlier house which dates to 1680. It was originally owned by the Sharpe family, then acquired by the Hamiltons in 1836. In 1970, the Irish Georgian Society bought Roundwood House to save it from ruin and eventually sold it to its present owners, Frank and Rosemarie Kennen, who left the corporate world and city life behind to raise their children in the unspoilt heart of Ireland.
My first visit to Roundwood House was in 1992 when a group of us from Dublin decided that a long, leisurely weekend in the country was just the thing as a break from the hectic pace of city life. By car from Dublin, the trip was tedious in Friday afternoon traffic, but once in Mountrath, the journey was forgotten as we drove down the narrow, tree-shroueded road leading out of the village. A break in the stone wall took us onto the avenue, and my first view of Roundwood House was a magnificent surprise. The month was October, and the eighteen acres of woodlands surrounding the house were alive with autumn colors, the evergreens contrasting with chestnut, lime and beech trees.
When we parked the car, a flock of geese meandered out of the woods to see who had arrived on the scene, then noisily wandered off again. Before we could get to the front door, it opened and we were welcomed enthusiastically by Frank and Rosemarie, who greeted us as if we were good friends turning up for the weekend. We were ushered into a drawing room where a roaring turf fire awaited our arrival, and it was only a few minutes before tea and cakes were brought from the kitchen. We were surrounded by an interesting mix of antique furniture and paintings, all reflecting the somewhat eccentric and eclectic personality of the house and owners.
After tea, we were escorted to our rooms for a short nap before gathering again in the drawing room for pre-dinner drinks. The evening meal was served by candlelight in the formal dining room, three lovely courses prepared by Rosemarie using local meat and produce, accompanied by wines chosen by Frank. After dessert, we had tea and coffee in the drawing room, and the craic went on well into the wee hours of the morning. We were joined by our host, Frank, for this late night session, and he sat near the fireplace, smoking his pipe, telling stories and discoursing with his guests on just about any subject.
The main house has ten bedrooms, each one decorated in a different color, reflecting the authentic atmosphere of an Irish country house. If you happen to be located in the Blue Room, overlooking the stable yard, morning is heralded quite early by the resident rooster. It’s easy, however, to drift back to sleep in the comfort of the large bed and warm duvet. On the first morning of my stay, I overslept well beyond the 11:00 a.m. deadline for breakfast. By the time I got downstairs, it was well past noon, but not to worry. A full Irish breakfast was produced without any bother. I did get a bit of good natured teasing from Frank, however. Being the only American in the group that weekend, he said, “It it weren’t for all the photographs you take, we’d think you were Irish!”
The location of Roundwood House makes it the perfect center for exploring the surrounding area. It is close to the Slieve Bloom Mountains where there are many hiking trails and panoramic vistas of deep glens, beautiful waterfalls and lazy streams. One of the country’s largest unrboken areas of peat can be seen from the many roads that wind through the mountains. The High Cross of Kinnitty, dating from the 9th century, is located in the grounds of Kinnitty Castle and is one of the finest examples of early Christian art from that period. Legendary Irish hero, Fionn MacCumhaill, is said to have been raised in the Slieve Bloom Mountains by a druidess, and prehistoric customs are still celebrated each year during the Celtic harvest festival of Lughnasa.
In another direction, the town of Birr and Birr Castle can easily be explored on a relaxing weekend afternoon. The Castle demesne houses an historic science center where early astronomical instruments, cameras, photographs and photographic equipment used by the third and fourth Earls of Rosse, and Mary, Countess of Rosse, can be seen. The award winning gardens contain a 72-inch reflecting telescope built by the third Earl Rosse in the 1840′s. The Parsons family have lived in Birr Castle for the last four hundred years, and the castle itself is not open to the public, but on a chilly afternoon you might spot Brendan Parsons, the current Lord Rosse, in the newly rebuilt gazebo in the gardens, serving port and mince pies to private guests.
Less ambitious excursions from Roundwood House will take you to the nearby village of Rosenallis where the pub is very inviting with its thatched roof and original fireplace that is almost large enough to stand in. Abbeyleix is also nearby, and a stop in to Morrissey’s pub for lunch, or a hot whiskey in front of the pot-bellied stove, shouldn’t be missed.
For those who don’t want to venture beyond Roundwood House itself, there is a beautiful walled garden to explore, an abundant variety of wildlife and birds in the adjacent woods and moors, and inside the house, a large collection of books and games.
Over the years, Roundwood House has expanded. The 17th century coach house has been restored and turned into self-catering apartments, and the 18th century forge offers spacious accommodation on two floors. Nestled in the corner of the walled garden is a tiny, romantic stone cottage that offers seclusion from the main house. However, I still prefer the Blue Room in the main house, with its uneven floorboards and none of the frills of modern restoration.
I’ve returned to Roundwood House many times since my first stay in 1992, and it’s always like going to the home of good friends. You can put your feet up on the furniture, and no one cares! I’ve great memories of people and events there, and I can’t wait to get back to Ireland to make a few more!