By Margaret M. Johnson
No phones, no clocks, no TV. No reception desk, no bar, “no brains,” my husband added, referring to my idea that we drive up to Monaghan to spend a night at Castle Leslie. The “no brains” comment was muttered about halfway up the N2 when I mentioned the above lack of amenities that Castle Leslie was noted for. We had, I should mention, just flown over from London, where we enjoyed the ultimate creature comforts at hotels like the sumptuous Dorchester, the ultramodern, all-inclusive “41,” and the handsome 51
Buckingham Gate, luxury suites and apartments originally built to house overflow guests of the palace.
So who wants more of the same? Who wants fawning butlers standing around just dying for you to request another glass of wine or a cup of tea, or top-hatted doormen rushing to carry your bags and open doors for you?
“Apparently not us,” hubby spoke again, when the only official greeters at Castle Leslie were the family dogs, Amber, Cloudie, and Max (who didn’t offer to take our bags), and once we made it past them, we found the front door locked (for security reasons).
“Well, it’s just like the guidebooks said — ‘unlike anywhere you’re likely to stay,’ ‘outrageous and charmingly eccentric.’ Besides, Noel’s here.”
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The mention of Noel McMeel, the new head chef at the Castle, finally made it all seem worthwhile to my husband, and he eventually admitted he needed neither phone, nor clock, nor TV (he would have liked a bar, though, and perhaps an elevator) in order to enjoy this country sojourn. You won’t either.
Castle Leslie is, in fact, the perfect destination if a visit to Ireland includes the border counties of Louth, Cavan, or Monaghan. Built in 1878 on a 1,000-acre estate where Leslies have lived since 1661, it has only been a castle accepting paying guests since 1995 when Samantha Leslie, familiarly known as Sammy, and her husband, Ultan Bannon, opened a tea room and gave tours of the house. The couple slowly improved the premises, restoring six
bedrooms in 1995, the dining room and eight more bedrooms in 1997. (Instead of being numbered, the 14 bedrooms all bear names of Leslie ancestors.) In 1998, Castle Leslie received the “Good Hotel Award” for the “most utterly enjoyable and mildly eccentric place to stay,” a distinction that thrilled Sammy then and which she promises to uphold.
“We’re all as mad as hatters here,” she told me with a smile. “We’ll never be Ashford or Dromoland — they went strictly for the American market. We won’t have satellite TV, or room service-can you imagine how many people would fall up and down the stairs carrying trays? We won’t have music unless it’s some lovely harpist or pianist for a special occasion, and we won’t change the furniture or the curtains.” Pointing to the “historic” ones in the dining room, she proudly told me: “These are 127 years old. We’ll restore
things, but never change them.”
And that’s what makes Castle Leslie so special. The house is simply crammed to the rafters with Victorian-era furnishings, paintings, and frescoes, most of which were placed in the house when Sir John Leslie, first baronet of Glaslough, built it. He was an accomplished painter of the Pre-Raph’lite school, and his admiration for Italy, Renaissance art and paintings were the motivating force for his choice of decoration. Many of his own works, especially those executed while traveling in Italy, hang throughout the castle, but the culmination of his artistic talents are the wall paintings he made for the top and side-lit Long Gallery, which connects the main house to the library.
Neither the gallery nor the library has been refurbished yet, but Sammy, along with Uncle Jack (Sir John Norman Leslie, fourth baronet), who resides full-time at the Castle and gives guided tours, plans to restore them, as well as the conservatory. Their most ambitious project, however, will be the establishment of Castle Leslie Culinary Arts School, a 12-month diploma program in culinary arts directed by Noel McMeel. Since taking over as head chef in 2000, the inventive McMeel (our friend and the reason for our visit) has brought new life to Castle Leslie dining with his signature “eclectic” style and his “gourmet diversions” — events that combine fine dining with musical or operatic entertainment, gourmet Sunday lunches with each course paired with a matching wine, and a monthly gourmet circle where members
experience cuisine themed from foods around the world.
For a recent Italian gourmet lunch, McMeel offered regional fare including Gorgonzola crostini, linguini with anchovy and chili dressing, braised lamb with saffron and garlic, and lemon polenta cake with marscapone and berries. Typically, his menu depends on seasonal ingredients and local specialties, but you can always expect “imports” like confit of duck with
curried lentils, salmon with Thai noodles, duck breast with foie gras wontons, or red snapper with spiced couscous. Finish with his white chocolate soup or whiskey crFme brulee and you’ll never notice the absence of phones, TV, or clocks.
“This house is to be enjoyed,” Sammy said, “and we want to do superb food.” They also want to share their culinary success with those who might not be able to actually visit Castle Leslie, so with that in mind, they’ve recently launched a new range of Castle Leslie food products — jams, preserves, olive oils, biscuits, and cakes — with all the proceeds going to the restoration of the castle. For a taste of Castle Leslie’s delicious goodies, visit the website, where on-line ordering is available. In Ireland, Brown Thomas
department stores carry the full line.