ARMIES of dedicated staff are looking after the Big House, cleaning, polishing, ferrying and carrying from morning until night at the beck and call of the demanding occupants.
But the fictional worlds of TV series like Upstairs Downstairs and more recently Downton Abbey could not be more different than the reality of life inside one of Ireland’s best loved big houses.
The present doyenne of Bantry House in West Cork, 33-year-old Julie Shelswell-White, is wrapped up in a warm jacket, suggesting that I also keep my overcoat on for the visit. She serves coffee off a tray before the empty fireplace in the library, a room so vast that its grand piano is completely dwarfed. Her young jack Russell dog Dougal races back and forth, chasing placid big house dog Daisy.
“As you see, there’s none of that upstairs downstairs grandeur around here,” Julie laughs. “We all get stuck in when required; it’s a joint effort; I don’t clean out the grates myself, I’m not so good at that, but my brother Sam does and I’ll lend a hand wherever needed.”
We are meeting as Bantry House stirs from its winter slumber to be readied for a new season’s influx of visitors to the gracious interior that’s crammed with personality. The wonderful Italian-style gardens have a pergola that supports an extraordinary wisteria, a sweep of 100 steps, paths, borders, courtyards, statuary and wild spaces. The house officially opened again on April 1 and a wedding party was among the first visitors.
Bookings for weddings are going from strength to strength. Bantry House is one of the most romantic spots to tie the knot due to its unique setting and gorgeous views over to Whiddy Island and beyond to the Caha mountains.
Cork TV talk show superstar and author Graham Norton held his wedding reception for over 100 guests here last year, no doubt increasing its popularity for nuptials.
Julie says that after they closed for the winter, a friend remarked ‘Isn’t it great, you can put your feet up now’. “This house is a never-ending work in progress”, she points out, “drains get blocked, windows are smashed and statues knocked over when bad weather strikes us up here above the bay.
“When the season starts, tills are ringing and people are coming in, there’s a great buzz here, but it can be hard in winter, because you are seeing how much needs to be done when there’s no money coming in.”
Last year, for the first time, Bantry House secured a heritage structures grant of €200,000 for essential roof and other structural repairs. “It has been a game-changer and we are hopeful of getting another grant this year,” says Julie. “it meant so much to us, showing that government and the council recognise that we matter, as a small family business, trying our best to maintain this huge estate and secure its future.”
Open to the public since 1946, it was among only a handful of surviving great houses that did so. A sizeable proportion were burnt to the ground or abandoned by their owners during the War of Independence and towards the end of the Civil War.
Some were re-built and turned into hotels, or were snapped up by rich non-nationals for a song.
During the Civil War years, Julie’s great- grandmother Arethusa offered Bantry House to the Sisters of Mercy, who turned it into a hospital to treat casualties, regardless of which side they were on.
“I think that wise, humane offer may have ensured the survival of the house at that time and a lot of good local feeling came out of it,” she says.
Notwithstanding many a crisis over the years, including massive debt - at one point the bank debts were higher than the value of Bantry House - the house dating back to 1710 has survived thanks to the tenacity and hard work of the Shelswell-White family who have been here for generations.
Julie says they receive great ongoing local support.
“A team of local ladies moved in before our opening to help with the gardens, they got stuck in and their help was so appreciated”.
Every summer, a group of French horticultural student volunteers spend several weeks helping out also.
The townspeople are proud of the historic stately home on the Wild Atlantic Way, which is an important tourism draw for Bantry. Throughout the pandemic years, many paid outside socially distanced visits to the gardens and tea rooms terrace, adding badly needed income.
The ‘friends’ of Bantry House, who take out annual membership, continues to grow whilst two important festivals take place here - the West Cork Chamber Festival fills the house with music in late June and the Masters of Tradition, featuring Irish and international music, spills out into the halls and pubs of the town, filling hotel rooms and B&Bs.
Julie’s mother Brigitte, an Austrian-born picture restorer, and her late father Egerton brought up their four children in a flat in one wing of the house. The children attended local schools and Julie is a past pupil of Schull Community College.
To create enough revenue to carry out essential restoration, they opened a B& B, started hosting events, and grew the number of visits to house and gardens over the decades.
Yet the house was haemorrhaging money. An offer to buy Bantry House and turn it into a hotel was seriously considered at one time. But when the would-be purchasers pointed to a much-loved old tree in the garden, saying it would have to come down, the horrified owners knew they could never part with Bantry House - fearing it would “lose its character and be just another big commercial pile”.
Due to its financial dire straits, it was later decided to sell off a number of important paintings, tapestries and furniture to raise money.
Two exquisite tapestries that hang in the rose drawing room were woven for Marie Antoinette of France. Much of the valuable collection was gathered by the second Earl of Bantry, Richard White, during a grand tour of Europe. But the auction never took place because the Edinburgh-based auctioneers did not have the required licence.
Julie and her brother Sam took over the running of the 49 room mansion and 100 acres of grounds after their sister, Sophie, went to live in Tasmania a few years ago, and following the earlier retirement of their mother.
This new generation thinks nothing of rolling up their sleeves and getting down and dirty, with Sam working in the gardens alongside head gardener Adam Carveth and other employees.
“Though my role is mainly managerial and organising the bookings for weddings and events, I step in and wait on tables or do whatever needs doing if we are short-staffed,” Julie explains.
“We have 20 staff between four different departments by summertime and it’s a really great team; we recently hired a lady from Ukraine for kitchen and housekeeping.”
Valerie Pakenham, author of The Big House In Ireland, a history of life in great Irish country houses, wrote: “At Bantry House, I remember being taken around by the owner, swathed splendidly in two fur coats, and observing with fascination a large Nescafe tin filled with potpourri among the family silver.”
This telling snapshot of keeping such grand houses from crumbling, without any semblance of pretension, seems to mirror the spirit of a Cork ancestral family’s dogged determination to preserve the history of Bantry House and to continue to share its rich history with others.