The Boissevains and Ballynatray

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A few miles north of Youghal, County Cork, on a bend of the River Blackwater, in one of the most beautiful places in Ireland, stands Ballynatray House.

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The present house dates from 1795. In 1969, Horace Holroyd-Smyth, who died in a shooting accident, bequeathed the house and the 850 acre estate to his cousins, the Ponsonbys of County Tipperary. It had deteriorated badly by this time and it continued to decay in the years that followed. It looked as if dereliction was going to be its fate.

This would have been an ignominious end for a house that had survived the destruction by the IRA of so many great houses in Ireland during the revolutionary period of 1919 to 1923.  The wanton burning and looting that took place is a shameful blot on our history.  Even Stalin made sure that the palaces of the Tsars were preserved for posterity.

Then, in 1995, a little miracle occurred. A wealthy couple, Serge and Henriette Boissevain, had been searching Europe for a suitable home and they came upon Ballynatray.  They purchased it for £1.5 million.

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Henriette and Serge Boissevain. Henriette was born in London on 30th January 1949, the daughter of Adolph Willem Carel Bentinck Van Schoonheten and Gabrielle Wilhelmine Hedwig Marie Thyssen-Bornemisza Von Kaszony.  Her uncle was the German steel tycoon Baron “Heini” Thyssen-Bornemisza .  Serge was born on 10th July 1947 in Neuilly-Sur-Seine, Ile-De-France.  They had known each other as teenagers but went their separate ways. Serge married Chantal Marie Francoise Girault in Marseille in 1969 but the marriage was dissolved in 1977. Henriette married the Marquess of Northampton but this ended in divorce. She then married Richard Thompson, a businessman and this was also dissolved. Serge and Henriette met again and were married in 1978. They were inseparable for the rest of their lives.

Over the next few years they spent millions renovating the house and improving the estate. They employed the best engineers, builders and craftsmen with one end in mind: transform the crumbling residence into a jewel that would sparkle by the waters of the Blackwater.  And in this they were singularly successful – Ballynatray now stands resplendent, not merely restored to its former glory but surpassing it.

But then, after this investment of time, money and love into Ballynatray, the Boissevains decided to sell up and move to southern Spain. Henriette’s health required that she live in a warmer and drier climate. The estate was sold in 2004 for €12 million to English businessman Henry Gwyn Jones who has lived there since.

In Almadén de la Plata, 85kms north of Seville, Serge and Henriette set up a ranch for the breeding of Cartujano horses, a passion of Henriette’s. However, in November 2010, Henriette died suddenly. She was only 61 years old. Serge was bereft and he went into a spiral of despair which culminated in his taking his own life a couple of months later in January 2011. He was 63. They had been married for 34 years.

This was a tragic conclusion to the lives of the couple who did so much to rescue and restore Ballynatray. The house and its grounds stand testament to their achievement and they will be remembered with gratitude for generations to come.

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Molana Abbey on the Ballynatray Estate. It was founded in 510 Ad by Mael an Faidh (Mael the Prophet). The existing ruins are of the Augustinian Priory established by Raymond Le Gros. The abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1538.

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Molana Abbey is on the bottom left. It was originally an island – Dairinis – but a causeway was built in the 19th century to connect it with the mainland. Ballynatray House is in the upper centre. 

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The ruined Church of Ireland church at Templemichael to the south of Ballynatray. The Boissevains installed a car park here for visitors  to the church and Molana Abbey.  

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Templemichael Quay.  Stanley Kubrick filmed the duel scene from “Barry Lyndon” here.  Ballynatray Estate was also used for other scenes in the film.