Step 1: Secure the chicest, most storied castle in Ireland for one week. Step 2: Invite a pack of Dallas society swells and other mixed nuts, from hither and yon. Step 3: Just try to survive the scotches, sumptuous meals, giggles in the hallways and snooker till 3 in the morning.
(And that was just the first day.)
written and photographed by ROB BRINKLEY
Jay Gatsby, you’ve been handed your walking papers. “Just get to Lismore Castle,” said the smiling Dallas man who was to be my host at the illustrious Irish country house, as we sat at a sidewalk table one sunny day, at Parigi in Dallas. “The rest is taken care of.”
He would issue that same invitation to 27 other lucky sorts, most living in Dallas, but also San Antonio, Oklahoma City, New Jersey, New York, California and London. The types on his list were motley: friends, clients, colleagues, his boyfriend, his brother. They came from the arts, media, philanthropy, business, finance and design. They were straight, gay, married, single and divorced, and their ages ranged from 30s to 80s. The one thing they had in common? A friendship with the host.
As the getaway week in May approached, our generous ringleader, who has long made a living arranging elegant, art-centric trips for small groups, sent sage advice and clear instructions via email. He also offered side-trip options and three days in Dublin, post-Lismore, for those so inclined. In the end, though, nothing was more exciting — or satisfying — than the castle.
I will never forget the crunch-crunch-crunch of gravel under the big, black BMW’s wheels as it drew up to the stone edifice, built a mind-boggling 828 years ago. (That’s how they do things at Lismore: They send you a BMW 7-Series, to slip you through the narrow arch of the stone gatehouse and up to the castle door.) Night had just fallen, and some of us had just teetered off a minibus from a three-hour sway through the countryside from Dublin Airport. Others had flown to Cork and had a much shorter car ride, perhaps an hour. No matter which mode of transport to the tiny town of Lismore, one of the most historic in County Waterford, that gleaming black car was the only way in, followed by the slow swinging-closed of two massive wooden gates. Goodbye, cruel world.
The official front door of the castle itself is a Gothic-arch number slicked in what looks like 49 coats of peacock blue. It has been opened to kings, queens, dukes, duchesses, Charles Dickens, John F. Kennedy and Fred Astaire — and on this night, us, a pack of assorted nuts. Some of said nuts had arrived earlier in the day and were slumped, after a sumptuous welcome dinner, around a fragrant blaze in the front hall’s fireplace. That is something else I will never forget about Lismore Castle: the aromas inside. Stone, mahogany, oak, silk, linen, history — it is heady. (“The vague smell of peat and wood,” Deborah Mitford has said of it. She would know. She is Deborah “Debo” Mitford Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire — yes, that one. Her late husband was Lord Andrew Cavendish, the 11th Duke of Devonshire. The Cavendish family seat in England is Chatsworth, perhaps the most famous country house in England. In Ireland, it is Lismore Castle. Framed casual photos of Debo are everywhere in the house.) Because some of our group already knew each other back in Dallas, there were whoops, hollers and hugs in the glow of the fireplace, then introductions to the unfamiliar folk. Mingled with these joyous sounds of conversation and laughter was a distinct accompaniment, something that would become the soundtrack to the week: the tinkle of ice cubes jostling about in heavy crystal highball glasses of whiskey, scotch and vodka.
No one could imagine the group dynamic that would emerge in the days to come. Think of the movie Clue, minus the murders. Each day, we would awake to the Texas flag flying from the highest tower — and to a hearty Irish breakfast, served buffet-style in the smaller of two dining rooms (smaller in the sense it seats about 30; the larger seats 80). I loved the come-and-go nature of the morning meal. But at 9:30 on the dot, everyone climbed into the large private bus — plush seats, cocktail tables, a lavatory — at the end of the castle drive. Off it would go, on erudite forays arranged by our host: a bustling 1700s food market, a charming cooking school; a tiny fishing village; a modernist furniture-maker’s studio; a foggy-morning river cruise; a visit to the palatial home of the Jameson Irish Whiskey sisters, who served us the good stuff at 10:30 in the morning, in gigantic shot glasses filled to the brims. (No one remembers what happened the rest of that day.) We met organic chickens, explored jaw-dropping gardens, careened on country roads, climbed inside turrets and, in two cases, held each other up after nearly fainting at the sight of animal parts one could never imagine pickled. (Those were for sale in a grocer’s case in the city of Cork.) At the conclusion of our daily adventures, the big bus would deposit us, exhausted, at the castle gate ’round about 3:30 and in we’d go, on foot or by BMW, to a gracious tea service — cucumber sandwiches, spice cakes, the works. Fires would crackle. The ice cubes would commence to clinking.
No external charms could compare to daily life inside Lismore. The castle is romantic, clinging to a hill over the winding River Blackwater. It traces its roots to 1185, with a substantial restyling in the 1850s by the 6th Duke of Devonshire into what he called a “quasi-feudal ultra-regal fortress” — the only structure that could’ve stood up to our antics, chitchats, wee-hours snooker, meandering and gossip sessions. On two nights, it became our Downton Abbey, as we filed into the great banquet hall in black-tie finery. Our first formal dinner ended with naughty limericks read aloud around the mile-long table. (Our host loves them. He had packed a beloved limerick book in a suitcase.) The second black-tie evening found us surprised by an Irish troupe, who sang, danced, recited tales and taught the braver among us how to jig. There was merriment in spades. Most nights — well, mornings — found the diehards down below in a subterranean room, around a massive snooker table, ties undone and shawls tossed off, wielding chalky pool cues till almost sunup. One morning, someone awakened in a bed that wasn’t his. Another, in an empty bathtub. All the while, the Lismore Castle staff, directed by head butler Denis Nevin, who started as a footman in the late 1970s, ran discreetly in the halls, plumping pillows, pouring tea, providing fresh towels, stoking fires, turning down beds and ironing clothes. Our dinners were divine, from the castle kitchen of Beth-Ann Smith, a graduate of the nearby Ballymaloe Cookery School, which we had toured. Her meats were tender, her vegetables flavorful — especially served in such delicious surroundings. Lismore Castle’s decor has barely changed since the 1850s, all silk-upholstered walls, worn rugs and rumpled sofas. The castle, despite the word castle, is a supremely comfortable house. There are family photos everywhere, board games, pens, stationery, stacks of 33-rpm records, magazines, the daily papers, dog-eared books, fax machines and TV remote controls. Debo’s grandson, William Cavendish, the Earl of Burlington, all of 44 years old, keeps private quarters there for himself, his wife and their two children. In the early 2000s, the young earl and his wife turned a derelict wing of the giant house into a startlingly contemporary art gallery, Lismore Castle Arts. The contrast of pieces in the gallery and on the grounds of the ancient castle is thrilling. One room in the house has nearly one dozen Lucian Freud drawings; one stair landing has an edgy Anthony Goicolea photograph. The earl himself popped in one night after dinner, to meet our group. He stayed almost three hours. Funny enough, it felt like we were welcoming him to our castle and not the other way around — that is how comfortable we had become in the ultimate Irish house, and with one another. The latter is a testament to our host, who mixed a guest list with more aplomb than Elsa Maxwell, Jay Gatsby and Auntie Mame put together. He considered similarities, differences, economic strata and personalities, then stirred us all together and watched it snap, crackle and pop. In fact, so tightly did the group bond that, early last month, almost everyone gathered again, at the grand Dallas house of one in our party. Though nearly six months had gone by, it was as if it were six minutes. There were whoops, hollers and hugs, and, yes, the tinkling of ice in highball glasses. Joyous noise. In fact, it has been suggested that the group take another trip — and, for reasons I can’t divulge, it may be to Alice, Texas.
They may want to raise the drawbridge there and close the gates.
Lismore Castle can be rented only in its entirety, for two, five and seven nights. (High season is Easter, June, July, August, Christmas and New Year, at seven nights minimum.) Rental includes full butler and concierge services, laundry, flowers in all rooms, estate activities (tennis, golf, fishing, clay-pigeon shooting, archery) and daily breakfast, afternoon tea and dinner. Information and rates 011-353-58-54288, firstname.lastname@example.org; lismorecastle.com.