Lismore’s purple patch
MAGAN’S WORLD: MANCHÁN MAGAN’S tales of a travel addict
THE HIGHLIGHT of any journey to Lismore is the rich mantel of rhododendron that covers the mountains in an alien, eye-popping display of hand-knotted purple carpet. It dazzles and disorientates the mind. It’s Day of the Triffids territory – an intensity of colour and texture that is disturbing – as if the area’s famous witch, Petticoats Loose, has unloosed her eponymous garment.
Ideally, one would delay one’s visit until early summer to savour the drive up and over the Knockmealdown Mountains twisting back and forth along the hairpin bends, through the Vee when the flowers are in bloom, but in fact Lismore is worth a visit in any season.
For true luxury stay at Lismore Castle, which can be rented for €3,500 per night for up to 12 guests, but if that is not an option at least find €7 to visit the castle gardens (open April to October). The 17th-century Yew Walk and Jacobean strolling gardens are spectacular, and there is also the hidden gift of Lismore Castle Arts, an elegant contemporary art gallery in the castle’s west wing.
Its aim is to bring international modern art of the highest calibre to Waterford, and with works by Anthony Gormley and Eilis O’Connell scattered around the gardens and subtly curated exhibitions inside, it delivers.
One of the pleasures for me is staying in an old dowager house built by the Duke of Devonshire estate for some superannuated relation that they wished to bump out of Lismore Castle, or perhaps an esteemed estate manager.
Ballyrafter House Hotel is an agreeably dog-eared three-star place, full of faded elegance, which stands straight across the Blackwater River from the castle, with great views through the trees of floodlit towers and turrets at night.
Judging by the elegant facade, landscaped gardens and the few remaining pieces of fine furniture, it must have been grand at some point, but now it’s wonderfully unpretentious, with that shabby, unassuming, comfortable-in-its-skin gentility that the southeast pulls off so naturally.
Michael Palin has made positive comments about the views from the old fashioned dining room, while Redmond O’Hanlon, the adventurer and author of Into the Heart of Borneo, revealed a penchant for the resident’s lounge.
On my last visit, I saw Sir Ranulph Fiennes purring like a cat in the conservatory. I’ve seen Jan Morris, Feargal Keane and Rory MacLean all enjoying meals there – and if this seems unlikely, you must remember that Lismore is the home of the annual Immrama Festival of Travel Writing, so for one week each year the place is crawling with adventurers, explorers and mountaineers.
The rest of the time Ballyrafter House caters to fishermen. I once saw a group of Icelandic men gallantly practising fly casting on the front lawn. They were dressed like decorative maquettes in what they regarded as traditional Irish fishing gear – an expensive array of tweeds, cords, plus-fours and brogues. Uber-stylist Robert O’Byrne who happened to be peacocking around the hall at the time pronounced them “utterly adorable”.
The owner of Ballyrafter, Joe Willoughby, is a fanatical angler, and adept at sourcing the required permits from the Duke of Devonshire who regrettably owns most of the river rights for this section of the Blackwater.
One cannot visit Lismore without eating at O’Brien’s Chop House. Word is spreading fast about this pioneering restaurant hiding in the skin of a classic old Victorian pub with its own secret garden.
It cannot be recommended too highly: invigorating, vibey cuisine at low prices – elderflower bellinis, roast garlic risotto and game from the Ballynatray Estate. It’s a brave and heroic new departure in Irish dining set up by Justin Green of the glorious and exclusive Ballyvolane House which at double the price and double the luxury of Ballyrafter, is also well worth a visit.
Go now, and return in the summer for the rhododendrons and travel festival.