Review by Fiona Duncan, published 28th October 2011.
In the sitting room at Roundwood House there's a scrapbook of photographs and press cuttings. It documents 28 years in the life of Frank and Rosemarie Kennan, during the time they ran their home, with evident warmth and vitality, as a guesthouse, raising their six children at the same time. How good to know that they are still about – in a cottage across the old stable yard – and that this fine, endearingly eccentric Georgian house continues, in the hands of their daughter Hannah, to work its benign Irish charm.
It's the people that count, but the house is pretty special too. It was built around 1841 by Anthony Sharp, whose remarkable grandfather, also Anthony, set up a Quaker community here called Friendstown, at the same time prospering in the wool business. His own far plainer house stands behind his grandson's which, steely grey in colour, Palladian in style and dauntingly severe, gives little hint of the flight of fancy inside.
We arrive at Roundwood in the early evening. Before we've even made it to the front door, we're enthusiastically welcomed by an advance party consisting of a flock of tufted ducks (that look for all the world as if they have bonnets on their heads), a goose, a cockerel, a Labrador puppy, two kittens, two little girls and a pet pig.
The tribe makes us smile and so, once inside, does the enchanting grand hall, with its imposing doors and its central staircase leading to two bulging, overhanging galleries enclosed by a handsome fretwork screen.
The whole slightly dotty house has great charm: part traditional, part bohemian, and beloved by its inhabitants. No surprise to hear that Henrietta Moraes, wild-child muse of Freud and Bacon, took up residence here in the late Seventies, often joined by friends such as Marianne Faithfull and Eric Burdon, who recorded an album in the house. No surprise, either, to find that Frank Kennan, a passionate bibliophile, has created a 1,000-book Library of the Evolution of Civilisation on the top floor, a delightful space that doubles as a "wet-day nursery" housing children's furniture and boxes of toys.
One feels instantly at home, and in good company. Hannah has a master's in Classical civilisation, her Canadian/Irish husband Paddy Flynn is a talented singer-songwriter and the little girls are theirs. There are cracks in the ceiling, chips in the paintwork, scuffs in the carpets (Frank and Rosemarie took on the house after it was restored by the Irish Georgian Society), the beds are neither young nor luxurious and a tap comes off in my hand. But we know we're going to have a good time.
Communal dining can be a tribulation, but not here. In the elegant dining room we share Hannah's excellent home cooking with a couple from Munich. He's a theatre director who has translated more than half of Shakespeare's plays for the German stage. We breakfast together next morning on bacon and griddled scones and promise to remain in touch.
There's another hotel not far from Roundwood called Ballyfin. The latter offers luxury; the former simplicity. During the 10 years that Ballyfin was being restored, its billionaire American owner chose to make Roundwood his home from home. I can see why.
Mountrath (00353 57 8732120; www.roundwoodhouse.com) Doubles £113 per night, including breakfast; singles £69. Access difficult for guests with disabilities.
Where to walk
At just over an hour from Dublin, the Slieve Bloom mountains (www.slievebloom.ie) make an excellent base for visiting several fine sights. The mountains themselves are made for walking, with 50 miles of signposted walks, the loveliest of which is along the Barrow river to the waterfall in Glenbarrow and then on through forestry and bog, with fine views.
Places of interest
Lough Boora Sculpture Park (www.loughbooraparklands.com) is well worth visiting: a cut away bog in Lough Boora Parklands has become the setting for Irish and international sculptures made by the artists especially to respond to the landscape and they make a great impact. You can also walk and hire bikes there and the marsh and lake landscape makes for great birdwatching. The heritage town of Birr, in Offaly's Lakeland region, is also nearby. Birr Castle (www.birrcastle.com) has beautiful grounds and formal gardens, a science centre and its famous Great Telescope. Also Emo Court House and Gardens (www.emocourt.net) are about half an hour from Roundwood. The house is a magnificent example of the neoclassical style and is surrounded by beautiful gardens and parkland.
Where to eat
For a traditional, absolutely unchanged Irish pub, look no further than Morrisey's in Abbeyleix (0353 57 873 1281) – one of Ireland's most famous. It first opened as a grocery in 1775, when it started life as a thatched one-storey house and in 1880 it was rebuilt as the lofty two-storey premises that exists today, with high shelf-lined walls and a pot belly stove to gather around on cold days.