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November 18, 2011

House Parties in Hidden Ireland

by Julianne Mooney

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It’s a familiar scene, parents, children, grandparents, uncles and aunts gathered around a cosy fire, the Christmas tree lights twinkling in the background and the merry sound of laughter echoing through the house. Step off the big screen, out of the big American home and the reality is somewhat different.

Our troops are generally squashed into several rooms, adults perched precariously on sofa arms, children crawling under legs, a cluttered kitchen manned by stressed out mother, her reluctant assistants doing more talking than peeling. And more children, pulling on skirts and clawing at arms in search of tidbits.

With this familiar scene in mind, I set about wondering if there was something out there for families who’d outgrown their little nests. Not a hotel, but something like home, just a lot bigger.

It was during my research for Time Out that I discovered Hidden Ireland, a collection of old Country Houses passed down through the generations. It was two gentlemen, Johnny Madden (Hilton Park) and Jeremy Green (Ballyvolane House) who had the idea in the 1980’s of opening their homes to offer people a genuine country house experience.

It’s no secret that the maintenance of these houses can be a drain on the purse, we’ve all seen the Money Pit (haven’t we?) so the suggestion of operating as a guesthouse was of sorts, a solution to many families who were struggling to maintain such houses.

Their idea was not to become something they were not, but to be what they were, a home away from home. My first stay in one of the Hidden Ireland’s homes was Ballyvolane House, now run by Jeremy’s son Justin and his wife Jenny. When we arrived children were running about, the drawing room was buzzing with other guests and it had the authentic feel of being someone’s home. I immediately fell in love with the concept and for one blissful weekend managed to convince myself, it was my home.

All the houses share the same ethos remaining  true to their roots. Don’t expect room service, spas or wifi, but do expect delicious home-cooked meals, honesty bars, deep baths and stunning natural surrounds. These homes are a reminder of the olden days, when the pace of life was slower, more relaxed. All 33 are located in gloriously remote parts of the country, some with their own private fishing lakes, forests and farms and this my friends, is your natural spa.

In my mind’s eye I can see my family lazing on the couches in the drawing room in one of these houses, children lost in the depths of the house, ransacking present bags no doubt. A dining table large enough for us all to fit around and food delivered to the table without Mum having the stress of it all. This, I believe, is the Christmas she has always dreamed of.

So, if like me, you’re dreaming of a temporary upgrade to your home to fit the family troops in over Christmas, or seeking a luxurious and relaxed abode in which to throw a memorable New Year’s Eve party, then I’d suggest you check out any of the 33 houses that are part of Hidden Ireland.

I’ve strategically placed the brochures in my parent’s house, planting the seed for next year, when my rather large family congregate for Christmas. Maybe we can treat my parents to a lazy Christmas. I close my eyes and all of a sudden that happy American scene comes rushing back to me. I block out the alcohol fueled debates and impatient stares that tend to accompany our family gatherings. But I guess that’s all part of the fun.

PS: Hidden Ireland are running a photography competition on their facebook page. You can win 3 nights in one of their houses. I’m off out with the camera to solve the issue of my having to sleep in my 9 year old nephew’s bed, while my lovely man has to sleep on a blow-up bed on Christmas night. Camera at the ready.

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