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Traveling Around on the Scenic Routes of Ireland

August 02, 1987|BETTY MARTIN | Martin is a former Travel Section staff writer.

KILLARNEY, Ireland — Through the rain occasional flashes of lightning lit the sky outside the dining room at Ballymaloe House, a 400-acre country estate in Shanagarry on the southern coast of County Cork.

Guests at beautifully set tables were dining on gourmet meals of fresh fish or spring lamb, fresh vegetables and fine wines. Rich, homemade desserts waited temptingly on a cart and a fireplace blazed with a warming fire.

Conversation was easy and pleasant with our owner-hosts, Myrtle and Ivan Allen, who were full of suggestions about what we should see and do on our journey around southwest Ireland.

Avoiding the Highways

Our group had come from County Wicklow that day, avoiding highways and taking "scenic routes" (as they were called on our map), visiting the medieval town of Kilkenny and the city of Cashel, with its impressive Cashel Rock that towers over the town and by an impressive complex of churches that date back to the 12th Century.

We were told that it was there, while delivering a speech to his followers, that St. Patrick first used a shamrock that later became a national symbol.

My room was homey--not elegant but warm and inviting, with a comfortable bed and large bathroom. And though I could see the lightning, I couldn't hear a sound through the thick granite walls.

Although Ballymaloe, built on the site of an old castle, has been rebuilt and modernized over the centuries, parts of the original castle have been preserved, including a 14th-Century keep. It has 30 rooms in its main house and annexes.

Also, on the grounds are a craft shop, pool, tennis court, small golf course and children's play equipment. The estate is also the site of the renowned Ballymaloe Cooking School, run by daughter-in-law Darina Allen.

Queen of the Kitchen

Myrtle Allen, a chef and author of several cook books, is queen mother of the culinary department at Ballymaloe, so it's not surprising that dining is a big event.

The cooking school, which draws would-be chefs from around the world, has two 12-week sessions a year, one beginning Sept. 14 and the other next Jan. 4. Tuition is about $3,000 per course including accommodations and meals cooked by the students.

Ballymaloe is convenient for sightseeing, being just two miles from a coastline with many small, uncrowded beaches. Also in Shanagarry are the pottery and shop of Stephen Pearce, one of Ireland's foremost potters.

Just 20 miles north is the city of Cork, great for shopping or puckering up to kiss the famous Blarney Stone.

To the west, a dining adventure awaits in the historic fishing village of Kinsale, which promotes itself as the "culinary capital of Ireland." Eleven restaurants, including the award-winning Blue Haven seafood restaurant, have formed a co-op to maintain rigid standards and to host an internationally known Gourmet Festival during the first weekend of October.

At the Blue Haven, diners enjoy the Molly Malone seafood casserole, seafood quiche and smoked salmon platters in the cozy, wood-paneled bar.

Over on the west coast, travelers also have discovered the Ballylickey country house, a 10-acre estate and gardens overlooking magnificent Bantry Bay.

Ballylickey was built in 1650 as a hunting lodge, and later turned into a hotel. Though heavily damaged by fire in 1982, it has been rebuilt as a private home by the George Graves family. They take in guests in the main house or in charming, chalet-like cottages.

Walk a Challenge

The cottages, heated pool and a restaurant and bar/lounge were added during the rebuilding, a comfortable walk through the park-like grounds from the main house. On a rainy day the walk is a bit of a challenge, but the blazing fire, comfortable antique furniture and delicious French cuisine make it worthwhile.

Bantry, in addition to the usual quota of relics and ruins, is the site of Bantry House. Open to the public, this fine Georgian house with a spectacular view of the bay is a storehouse of art treasures collected by former Earls of Bantry.

Visitors to Ballylickey usually head for nearby Glengarriff and the 10-minute boat ride (about $5 plus $2 entrance fee) to Garnish Island, a horticulturist's dream of exotic subtropical plants, flowers and trees from around the world.

Even on a damp and misty day, it's a rewarding side trip to wander through the lush growth and elaborate Italian gardens. The greenery and flowers seem even brighter on a gray day.

On the peak of the island are the ruins of an old fort where it is said that George Bernard Shaw was inspired to write part of "St. Joan."

Travelers heading for Killarney and the Ring of Kerry usually take the pleasant drive north from Ballylickey to the town of Kenmare, a southern terminus for the drive around the Iveraugh Peninsula.

Gardens of Country House

On the north side of the peninsula, just a mile from the Ring, is Caragh Lodge, a country house fronting on beautiful Lough Caragh and set in nine acres of colorful gardens.

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