Two romantic country houses for sale in 'the forgotten land'

Were it not for the completion, in 2010, of Ireland’s longest motorway, the 100- mile M7 linking Naas, Co Kildare, with Rossbrien on the outskirts of Limerick city, the undiscovered counties of Offaly and Laois, in the heart of the Irish Midlands, would probably still be places you passed through on your way to somewhere else. But with the Curragh now less than an hour’s drive away, and Dublin airport less than an hour from there, the former King’s County and Queen’s County of pre-independence days have begun to recover some of their lustre—although, hopefully, not too much.

The gently rolling hills of the Slieve Bloom Mountains form a natural frontier between Offaly and Laois. Now, the sale of two historic country estates, Milltown Park in Offaly, and Capard House in Laois—the former in need of updating, the latter sumptuously restored—shines a spotlight on this secret corner of Ireland that even the locals call ‘the forgotten land’.

The Spunners of Milltown Park (above), near Shinrone, six miles or so west of Roscrea, were among the first English settlers to arrive in these parts in the 1500s: they liked it so much that they’ve lived there ever since. But now, after 500 years of times good and bad, that link is to be severed, following the decision of Milltown Park’s current owner, Lt Gen Sir Barney White-Spunner, to sell his tranquil, 285-acre, walled demesne, with its classic small Palladian house, built in about 1720 near the site of the original family home, the ruins of which can be seen down by the banks of the Little Brosna River.

For Gen White-Spunner—writer, military historian, former Commander of Britain’s Field Army and current executive chairman of the Countryside Alliance—Milltown Park has always been ‘a very special place, a much- loved retreat,’ says Old Etonian contemporary George Windsor Clive of Windsor Clive International (01672 521155), who, with joint agents William Montgomery (028–4278 8666) and Sherry FitzGerald (00 353 1 237 6300) quotes a guide price of €4 million for the well-organised farming estate.

In its Victorian heyday, the Milltown Park estate covered more than1,000 acres; nowadays, the neat rectangular holding includes 100 acres of prime tillage, 95 acres of rich pasture (48 of which was the old deer park, separated from the gardens by a ha-ha) and 70 acres of well-managed forestry and woodland. It includes an ash plantation intended for the manufacture of hurley sticks—to the delight, no doubt, of Offaly’s many supporters of the Gaelic national game.

One of Ireland’s earliest small Palladian houses, designed in the style promoted in the early 18th century by the Irish architect Sir Edward Lovett Pearce (a relation of Vanbrugh), Milltown House perfectly represents ‘the middle ground between farmhouse and mansion: a shade unsophisticated but with great charm’ (Maurice Craig, Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size, 1976). Built on four floors with a manageable 7,183sq ft of beautifully proportioned living space, it boasts four fine but unpretentious reception rooms, eight bedrooms, two bathrooms and a large basement housing kitchens and staff quarters.

Irish country houses for sale

According to Mr Windsor-Clive, ‘Gen White-Spunner has spent considerable sums in the past five years on the basic fabric of the house, replacing the roof, the chimneys, the wiring and water supply, leaving a new purchaser free to concentrate on decoration and modernisation, in the knowledge that the essential structural work has already been done’.

Irish country houses for sale

Substantial further investment will also be needed to restore the integrity, or realise the potential, of various other estate buildings, notably the impressive farmstead (above). Built as a model farm in 1840, this ‘absolutely cries out for conversion to a stud farm, bearing in mind that, in previous generations, some really good bloodstock was raised close by, including, in the 1930s, the legendary stayer Brown Jack, winner of the Queen Alexandra Stakes at Ascot six times in a row’, the agent adds. Other buildings in need of restoration include the derelict garden cottage in the two-acre walled kitchen garden and the dilapidated former lodge opposite the main gate.

Commenting on the sale in his blog The Irish Aesthete, the architectural writer Robert O’Byrne sounds the alarm for the ‘sleeping beauty’ that is Milltown Park at this ‘potentially hazardous’ moment in its history: ‘Milltown waits to be awoken from its current slumber but whoever undertakes this task should have the sensitivity not to despoil the house’s special character. The place is vulnerable and requires—and deserves —special care’. What it needs, he says, is ‘one country gentleman prepared to share a property with a host of memories, and happy to permit the ghosts of its past to wander free’.

In total contrast to the gentle understatement of Milltown Park, Capard House in the foothills of the Slieve Bloom Mountains at Rosenallis, Co Laois, has always been a high-profile house, home to the Pigott family, who were major landowners in the county.

The Treaty of Limerick (1691), which ended the Williamite wars against James II, is said to have been signed at Capard, where the victorious Gen Ginkel stayed as a guest of Robert Pigott—his solders were quartered in Rosenallis village. A copy of the treaty was kept at Capard House until the 1960s, when it was donated to the National Museum. Capard House, an imposing, 16,680sq ft Protected Structure, is a two-storey late-18th-century mansion with a substantial self-contained adjoining wing, built in the Greek Revival style in 1790. For the past 20 years, the house and its 100 acres of pasture, spectacular formal gardens, orchard and woodland, have been the subject of a massive restoration programme carried out by the owners, who were initially ‘bowled over’ by its breathtaking panoramic view over five counties, says selling agent Harriet Grant of Savills (00 353 1 663 4350), who quotes a guide price of €5.5 million for the estate.

Capard House, Rosenallis, Co Laois

The opulent main house is designed for entertaining on a grand scale, with five principal reception rooms (including two dining rooms), eight bedrooms and eight bathrooms. The adjoining wing houses two kitchens, a banqueting room, a drawing room, a dining room, a study, a hot tub and showers on the ground floor, with five bedrooms, bathrooms, a second drawing room, offices and a games room on the first floor.

Irish country houses for sale

Capard’s magnificent gardens have been largely created by the inspirational Arthur Shackleton, who has used the topography of the landscape to sensational effect. Formal rose-covered terraces around the house lead into a camellia walk, a scented walk, a mixed grass border and a field of rhododendrons planted to celebrate the millennium; a lake and a canal sit happily in the valley below the house.

With five acres of bluebell woods, two acres of walled gardens, orchards and rose-gardens, multiple herbaceous borders, woods of yellow magnolias and a wild meadow to the southern boundary, the gardens at Capard offer a year-round feast for the senses.

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** This article was first published in Country Life on August 20 2014