Fishing is perhaps the big draw to Joe and Noreen Willoughby's welcoming country house hotel in Lismore, but a relaxing laid-back atmosphere, log fires and good home cooking also add up to a very attractive package - as many new fans have discovered recently.
Having threatened to ‘retire’ a couple of years ago, their dedicated followers – including many newly introduced to the charms of Lismore, as well as regular guests going back to way back when – made it clear that this could not be countenanced, and this unreconstructed Irish country house is now one of the most interesting success stories of post-boom Ireland.
Today guests fall with relief on those old houses that have bypassed major refurbishment, and the great charm of Ballyrafter (aside from its owners) is that it has remained itself.
The bar, where informal meals are served, is lined with photographs of happy fisherfolk - if you are dining in the restaurant, it’s an enjoyable place to have an aperitif while looking at the menu, or you can go in beside the fire in the drawing room.
The spacious bedrooms are simple and generally comfortable and one side of the courtyard area has been thoughtfully developed to provide five newer executive bedrooms in keeping with the old house.
On the ground floor, an attractive conservatory area is available for small functions, and is popular with locals for family events.
Rooms 14 (5 shower only).
An open fire, family antiques and flowers from the garden create a caring atmosphere in the dining room and the Duke of Devonshire’s fairytale castle looks magical from window tables when floodlit at night – and it is interesting to reflect on the history of Ballyrafter while awaiting your dinner, as it was built by the Duke in the early 19th century, as his estate manager’s residence.
Like everything else at Ballyrafter, menus are full of character – and not only redolent with local ingredients, but also capturing a sense of the region in their descriptions. Although recently reinvented as a bistro, which seems less formal and has made it popular for local nights out, it is still very much itself.
Appetising home-cooked meals based on local produce has always been the way here, with friendly and helpful service to make the experience even more enjoyable.