The story of Ireland’s country houses is the story of Ireland, and the sale of two very different Irish estates—Lisselan in the deep south and Dundarave in the far north—highlights not only the social and cultural differences that have divided North and South, but the twin passions for sport and the Irish countryside that unite them.

South of the border, the madness of the Celtic Tiger era has finally given way to a gradual recovery in the fine-homes market, dominated in the first quarter of the year by increased activity in Dublin city, which accounted for more than 85% of all properties sold for more than €1 million, reveals David Ashmore of Irish agents Sherry Fitzgerald. In contrast, the market for country properties and estates was dominated by overseas buyers—from the USA, Canada, Australia, Europe and the UK—whose welcome reappearance has boosted local confidence.

Ireland’s longstanding obsession with heritage and horses was underlined by the recent headline in the Irish Examiner announcing a ‘West Cork estate with links to Henry Ford and Imperial Call on sale for €9 million’ —through Sherry Fitzgerald (00 353 1 2376325) and Knight Frank (020– 7861 1098). The enchanting, 315- acre Lisselan estate, near thriving Clonakilty, 30 miles southwest of Cork, was the family seat of the Bence-Jones family in Victorian times, when the estate stretched for miles from Ballinascarthy on the Argideen River to the spectacular West Cork coast at Inchydoney. Henry Ford’s grandfather, John Ford, was a struggling tenant farmer on the Lisselan estate when the famine hit Ireland in 1847 and he and his family—including his son, William —left for a new life in America. In 1863, William’s son, Henry, was born on a farm in Michigan and the rest is car-making history.

irish estates lisselan

Back at Lisselan, the present main house was built in bijou French château style between 1851 and 1853 by William Bence-Jones and extended in about 1900. The large glass conservatory, made for the Cork exhibition of 1902, was added by Reginald Bence-Jones, who also contributed the central library hall, in 1907. In addition, the family created Lisselan’s famous formal gardens on either side of the river, which they widened to form the lake.

In 1930, the Bence-Joneses sold Lisselan to radio pioneer Charles Orr Stanley, whose wife devoted the rest of her life to enhancing Lisselan’s 30 acres of ‘Robinsonian’ gardens. Amazingly, they remain much as they were in Mrs Stanley’s day, thanks to Lisselan’s current owner, inter national businessman David Blackburn, who bought the estate from the Stanleys in 1990.

A keen sportsman, Mr Blackburn lost no time in establishing the estate as a centre of sporting excellence, restoring Lisselan’s section of the Argideen as one of the best private stretches of salmon and sea-trout fishing in the south-west, creating a challenging and picturesque nine-hole golf course on 80 estate acres and establishing a stable of Thoroughbred racehorses, among them the tenacious Imperial Call, winner of the 1996 Cheltenham Gold Cup, when trained by the late Fergie Sutherland. ‘Those were great days,’ recalls estate manager Sarah Lane, reminding me that no fewer than five young Irish trainers cut their teeth on the 40 or so horses once based at Lisselan Farms.

For now, the walls of Lisselan House are lined with sporting pictures— a testament to the Blackburn family’s joie de vivre and multiple sporting achievements. The house itself, with its five traditional reception rooms, conservatory, old-fashioned kitchen and eight bedrooms, certainly needs modernising, as does the dairy-farm complex.

But, otherwise, the estate and its facilities are in great shape, ready for the arrival of the next family who will, no doubt, want to write their own unique chapter of Lisselan’s history.

Dundarave, Bushmills, Co. Antrim

Meanwhile, in the North, for sale through Savills (020–7016 3925) at a guide price of £5 million, is the 550-acre Dundarave estate, between Bushmills village and the Giant’s Causeway on the north coast of Antrim. It’s the Irish seat of Scotland’s Macnaghten family, who once owned more than 7,000 acres of land in the county. The current owner, Sir Malcolm Macnaghten, who inherited Dundarave on his father’s death in 2007, is the chief of the Clan Macnaghten, whose former seat was Dundarave Castle near Inveraray, Argyll, on the shores of Loch Fyne.

The 1st Macnaghten baronet was Sir Francis Workman-Macnaghten, a High Court judge in India, who made his fortune there and bought his father-in-law’s property at Bushmills, where he built himself a new, castellated mansion, Bushmills House.

On his death in 1843, his eldest son, Edmund, who also made his fortune in India, inherited his father’s title and estates In 1846, Sir Edmund commissioned the architect Sir Charles Lanyon, a fellow Co Antrim landowner, to build the Italianate Dundarave House near the site of Bushmills House, which was then demolished.

The architectural historian Sir Charles Brett described the new mansion as ‘by far the grandest 19th century house in north Antrim’. Dundarave House, listed Grade I, stands on high ground at the heart of the estate, sheltered from the Atlantic winds by banks of woodland and two walled gardens. The heart of the house is the vast, magnificent, galleried Great Hall—its design inspired by the interior of London’s Reform Club. Five elegant reception rooms— the drawing room, the dining room, the morning room, the library and the billiards room—are accessed either from the Great Hall or the impressive vaulted vestibule leading to it. Seven main bedrooms lead off the first-floor landing, with a further 12 located in the former service wing.

In typical ‘Big House’ style, two sets of stairs lead to the huge basement containing the double-height main kitchen, the servants’ hall, the housekeeper’s room and the cellar. Other estate houses include a three-bedroom manager’s house, a gardener’s cottage, two lodges in good condition and two further lodges, including the Grade I-listed gate lodge, in a state of disrepair.

‘It’s rare indeed to find an estate in Northern Ireland with more than 500 acres of land, a historic main house that’s grand but not overpowering— although somewhat out of date— and a well-run commercial farm with an established pheasant shoot.

We’ve already had interest from buyers in the UK, Europe and America and the vendors hope that Dundarave will be bought and lived in by another family who will appreciate its unique heritage,’ says selling agent James Walker.
* Country houses for sale

* Country houses for sale in Ireland