Home Away From Home Being there: In Ireland, you can rent a castle or a cottage, a stately manor or a farmhouse, for a week or two.

March 03, 1996|By Walter V. Robinson | Walter V. Robinson,BOSTON GLOBE

In the rolling hills south of Cork, not far from the cliffs that protect Ireland's southern coast from the ceaseless battering of the Atlantic, there's nothing flat to be found on the landscape, save, perhaps, for a pint of Guinness left unattended for an hour or so.

So it came as no surprise to discover, when we moved into the 19th-century, ivy-covered former Anglican parsonage we had rented for an August week, that the lawn-tennis court in the side yard sloped from back to front.

But who journeys to Ireland for the tennis? Not us, for sure. We came for a first-time, firsthand look at the country and its people. And moving in with them, so to speak, provided us a glimpse of Ireland that rarely can be found from a hotel room.

In this quaint village of Ballinadee -- with two churches and two pubs, an even match for two of Ireland's passions -- we moved back in time, into a three-bedroom Georgian home furnished with 19th-century antiques, sitting on 2 acres of gardens, and just a 15-minute drive from Kinsale, the scenic port town that has become the gourmet capital of Ireland.

After a week in County Cork, which we used as a base to explore southern and central Ireland, we moved on to County Clare on Ireland's west coast. There, we took up residence in another unusual home, Fortville House, a 240-year-old, recently restored farmhouse on 103 acres of land we shared with its longer-term tenants -- 107 head of cattle.

It was a spectacular setting, with views for miles over Clare's green hills; the remnants of a seventh-century earthen fort just 50 yards out the back door; and a doting owner, Tom McNamara, who came by daily to light us a peat fire and entertain us with local lore in as delightful a brogue as we heard during our trip.

Renting homes abroad takes some planning, involves some risk-taking and, at first blush, seems like an expensive proposition. But for my wife, daughter and me, my sister, brother-in-law and their two daughters, it turned out to be a bargain.

The parsonage in Cork, called Glebe House, is a bit pricey -- $2,795 for the week -- but three decent hotel rooms for a week would have cost more. And the experience of living in Ballinadee's most impressive home was well worth the cost. For $3,494 a week, the Glebe House rental also includes a beautifully redesigned two-bedroom apartment over an adjacent garage.

Tom McNamara's four-bedroom farmhouse, on the other hand, is a bargain -- $971 for a week, including peat and the landlord's ministrations. Mr. McNamara and his wife even took us to their favorite pub on Saturday night.

From the farmhouse, we traveled northward to the beautiful port city of Galway. We toured the coastline, including the spectacular Cliffs of Moher. We visited an Irish national shrine -- Yeats' home, with its Norman turret. We even took a day trip by train to Dublin. And my brother-in-law and I played a round of golf -- badly -- at Lahinch, the wind-swept ocean-side course that is often described as the St. Andrews of Ireland.

Old Ireland hands might wonder why we chose to stay near the coast south of Cork and near the coast west of Ennis in County Clare, instead of renting a house in County Kerry, which many Americans consider the most beautiful part of Ireland.

The answer is simple: We booked late, in June, and Kerry summer rentals were long gone by then.

The Kerry and Dingle peninsulas in Ireland's southwest may have the country's most spectacular scenery. But Cork's south-facing coast and the Clare and Galway coastlines are themselves breathtaking and make the coastal vistas in places like Maine and Oregon look boring by comparison. And in summer, traffic jams are not uncommon around the Ring of Kerry, so popular is Kerry with American tourists.

Though we booked late, we did our homework. Renting a home overseas requires some thought, a lot of planning and some family question-and-answer sessions.

Family quizzed

Did we want a hotel with all its amenities, including room service? But of course. Who wouldn't? Could we afford the best of hotels in Ireland and their amenities? No. Did we, then, want to pursue the bed-and-breakfast route? We looked at that option, since it appears that every third home in Ireland doubles as a B&B.

But for people who don't want to pack and move every night or two, and in a country small enough that a home rental makes many day trips possible, staying put for a week at a time made a lot of sense to us.

We still took most of our meals out, save for breakfast -- often, but not often enough, warm scones from nearby bakeries. And though the notion of great Irish food might seem oxymoronic to many -- one adage has it that the food is bad because the Irish are more interested in what comes out of their mouths than what goes in -- we dined very well in Ennis, and exceptionally well in Kinsale. And at modest cost.

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