When you can’t travel forward, and you don’t want to stay where you are, the only way to go is backwards. I’ve been making the most of the limited 5 km in which I can travel these days by visiting local cemeteries and ruined churches. I have a thing for other people’s pasts. Now that the travel limit has been extended to 20 km, I don’t know myself. The excitement of it all. That said. with nothing much open, I’ve had to content myself with being on the outside looking in.
The K Club in Straffan is familiar to those with handicaps that accompany a set of irons, a putter, and a Big Bertha or whatever is in at the minute. It was where the 2006 Ryder Cup was played (on the Palmer North course), the year the locals rented out their spare rooms for thousands – or so rumour had it. I’ve only ever known it as a posh golf course, way too expensive for my blood – my game was never good enough to warrant those green fees (peak season €175 for 18 holes). But there’s much more to it.
Back in 1831, a certain Hugh Barton bought land at Straffan and a year later began building Straffan House. He’d come from some fine stock and could trace his ancestors back to France, to Bordeaux, where a Corkman called Thomas Barton (known to his mates as French Tom) had founded the famous B&G Winehouse, now the oldest in the region.
France in the late 1700s wasn’t the safest place in the world to be. Barton ended up in prison but later, with the help of his wife Ann, escaped to the UK and then to Ireland. She, too, was from an Irish wine family. Who knew we had wine in our genes.
The original Straffan house still stands today, although it’s been added to over the years. It was modelled on a château at Louveciennes, not far from Versailles. When construction was underway, the Bartons stayed up the road at Barberstown Castle which a century and a bit later would be home to rock legend Eric Clapton.
Hugh and Ann enjoyed the house until he died aged 89, a grand age to reach back in the 1850s. There must be something to that red wine. The house passed down through the generations, more of a noose than a necklace. It’s huge. And it has to cost a small fortune to keep up. In the economic slough of 1930s Ireland, then owner Derick Barton knocked down a wing and used the rubble to fill in the massive basement. A rather drastic way to reduce the heating bills but needs must.
In 1949, motorcycle manufacturer John Ellis bought the place for the princely sum of £15000 (about €580k in today’s money). Its list of owners since then reads like a Who’s Who of What’s What.
Car importer Steven O’Flaherty (1960), the film producer responsible for the James Bond film Thunderball, Kevin McClory (1973), Iranian Air Force founder, Nader Jahanbani (1977) who was executed around the time of the downfall of the Shah Reza Pahlavi government. Other owners included Patrick Gallagher (1979), who cut an extravagant dash as a property developer many years before such characters were familiar on the Irish scene and the property magnate Alan Ferguson (1981).
It was the Gallagher family who rebuilt the wing that had been knocked down some 30 years earlier and you’d never know the difference unless you were looking for it.
In 1988, the Smurfit Group bought it and three years later, it was a five-star hotel that came with a golf course designed by Arnold Palmer himself (the Palmer North). Another golf course was added in 2003 (the Palmer South, now played by Straffan Golf Club) and in 2005 it was bought from the Group by Michael Smurfit and Gerry Gannon. The following year we had the Ryder Cup for the first time in Ireland and we won making it three in a row. But that one was extra special. When Darren Clarke beat Zach Johnson on the 16th, the fans couldn’t contain themselves. Clarke’s wife Heather had died just six weeks earlier. It still brings on the tears.
In 2012, Smurfit bought Gannon out and started a massive renovation that would make your eyes water at the cost. Connemara carpets don’t come cheap. The final bill for the tennis courts, the new bars, the conference centre, and everything else was in the region of €20 million. Prince Albert of Monaco was on hand with a shovel in 2015 to turn the sod on the new wing and its 70 bedrooms, perhaps a nod to the calibre of the guest list the place enjoyed.
In 2020, Smurfit sold the estate, the 134-room hotel, both golf courses, and maybe even his private house, to Michael Fetherston for a reported €65-70 million, somewhat less than what he bought it for but when you’re dealing with so many zeros, the pain mightn’t be so bad.
The place has that run-down feel to it. I used to drive past one of Fetherson’s nursing homes and always thought it could do with a lick of paint. I feel the same way about the K Club. But it might simply be the Covid residue. Nothing a good power wash and an army of gardeners can’t cure.
With the River Liffey flowing through the grounds traversed by bridges of all sorts, it’s a piece of heaven. Once free to those who wanted to walk the grounds, now you have to be a hotel resident, a golfer, own one of the houses or apartments on the estate or be over 65. Otherwise, it’s €100 for your household, for the year.
When the golf courses open up next month with the promised easing of Covid restrictions, no doubt the place will get new life. In the meantime, it’s worth a wander. And, as usually happens any time I visit a grand house of its ilk and its era, I found myself dithering over whether I’d have lived upstairs or downstairs, whether I’d have been on the guestlist or issuing the invitations, and more specifically whether I’d have preferred the original Barton era or the later Gallagher reign.
In this lifetime, I doubt I’ll ever have or want to spend about €4000 per night (yes, you read that right) for the most popular room – the Imperial bedroom. Can you put a price on two rooms, a private balcony overlooking the Liffey, an in-room sauna, a fireplace, and a private dining room? Apparently, you can. If you fancy a sneaky look inside, check out the piece in Dujour. In the meantime, I’ll be pulling myself out of the nineteenth century and settling back into my 20 km.