Food, wine, travel, music
Renvyle House has an interesting history. Donal O’Flaherty, one of the chieftains of Ireland’s most powerful clans in the province of Connaught lived there, and Augustus John painted some portraits which were burned when the hotel was razed to the ground in 1923. This was during the tenure of Oliver St. John Gogarty who, having wound down his medical practice, bought Renvyle as a country residence. During this time and later when it opened again for paying guests, luminaries such as WB Yeats, Denis Johnston, ‘the Pope’ O’Mahony, Count and Countess McCormack, Lord and Lady Longford, Winston Churchill and his wife Clementine, Lord and Lady Glenavy and Stephen Gwynn signed the guest register. Writers such as Somerville & Ross enjoyed time there and wrote about it later, like so many literary figures that were inspired there.
In 1952 Gogarty sold it to the Coyle family who still own it and continue the strong tradition of hospitality and hosting of an eclectic clientele. Guests stay for whatever appeals to them most, but chef Tim O’Sullivan’s food must be top of the list of attractions. A beach, private lake, 9-hole golf course, woodlands and garden, mean you can fly fish, play tennis, try clay pigeon shooting, croquet, snooker and boating without ever having to leave the hotel grounds.
I acted as MC for the celebratory dinner for which I chose wines to match Tim’s menu. I edited his cookbook At Home in Renvyle some years back and at the end of it concluded he is a pretty special chef. He would be a TV chef if he wanted to be, but he’s a shy kind of guy and enjoys nothing more than to cook. I paired his lobster and mango salad with a Macon Lugny white wine which worked perfectly, the weight of this style of Chardonnay able to cope with the two main ingredients and the aioli on the side. A filo parcel of shredded confit of duck went well with a white Cote de Ventoux, picking up on the cumin flavour and vegetables. A pear and fennel soup was followed by a refreshing raspberry sorbet before the herb topped lamb paired with a Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Great lamb. Delicious cheeses included the Hegarty cheddar and mature Ardrahan which worked with a Tokaji, a Hungarian wine which can go from a light dry style to very sweet. Some prefer red wine or port with cheese, but a good, slightly sweet white is always worth a try – more subtle to bring out the best in the cheese. We finished with a Bellini paired with a superb passion fruit parfait. As usual front of house service headed by General Manager Ronnie Counihan was seamless.
The bar in Renvyle was welcoming with Richard Dunckley and his daughter Fionnuala Hannigan-Dunckley providing excellent and varied music. Their wide range of instruments and versatile vocals were a treat. They were happy too to encourage anyone who felt like releasing their inner Bono, Mary Coughlan, Amy Winehouse…What goes on in Renvyle, stays in Renvyle. My fingers won’t tap out any secrets, but Seamus O’C would give Bono a run for his money. It was a 5am kind of evening. You think you are going to Renvyle for a rest, then you kind of drift.
Nearby a visit during the day to Kylemore Abbey is a must. The 1,000 acre estate has woodland and lakeshore walks, nature trails and children’s play trail are well suited to a family day out.
Home to a small community of nuns of the Benedictine Order who originally arrived in 1920 after their abbey in Ypres, Belgium was destroyed in World War I, they developed a boarding school which closed in 2007. Henry Mitchell, a previous owner who developed the castle and gardens had a tragic end to his time there. His wife Margaret, mother of nine, had died in Egypt in 1874 at the age of 45. Mitchell had her body embalmed, and it and his ashes are housed in a mausoleum on the estate.
Close to the mausoleum the Gothic church designed by architect J Fuller, was built by Mitchell in memory of his wife. Originally a place of Anglican worship, it was re-dedicated as a Catholic Church in 1920. It has been beautifully restored and retains a sense of peace. No excessive ornamentation renders it humble and restful and a recording of chanting is barely audible. It is used to host musical recitals, poetry readings and cross-community celebrations.
The main building gives the historical context of the estate with snippets of information on the lives of the Mitchell family and the workings of convent life. Its pinnacle of high living and lavish entertaining is well displayed by the table setting in the dining room; legions of staff included its own fire brigade.
A bus takes visitors a mile away to a six acre Victorian walled garden, developed, unusually, on peat soil, where food is grown for the nuns who work hard to produce preserves, soaps and other souvenirs sold in the shop. You can also buy seeds from the heritage species grown there. A newly built café is just what it should be – well organized and serving good, freshly made food, some of it grown in the garden, and decent coffee. The adjoining shop has a good level of quality, even in basic Irish souvenirs. I wish some larger stores would take note. Allow at least half a day for a visit here and keep in touch with the website to see offers of retreats and concerts. For me a day sitting by the lake surrounded by mountains of purple hues, engrossed in its magic would go a long way to de-cluttering and spring cleaning mind and body. http://www.kylemore.com.