Hilton Park, County Monaghan
Danny Madden is not yet six years old, and already he’s a dead ringer for his great-great-great-grandfather. I spot this doppelgänger dressed up as a hedgehog shortly after he crawls into Hilton Park’s dining room and halts beneath a marble bust of his forebear.
Little Danny marks the tenth generation to have lived at Hilton Park since Samuel Madden snapped up the land in 1734. Like all Big Houses, Hilton Park was built with entertainment in mind. Approached by a mile-long avenue, the three-story sandstone mansion looks like an Italian palazzo stranded in Irish countryside. The house, known locally as “the Castle,” achieves much of its aesthetic magnificence from a Victorian porte cochere, topped by a stone carving of the Madden family crest. The present house hails from 1734; John Madden expanded it significantly in the 1870s. The industrious John also dug a 135-foot well on the grounds, from which the Maddens still get their water.
The dining room ceiling is stuccoed with oak leaves and braided ropes, a tribute to an ancestor who sailed with Adm. Horatio Nelson. At dinner, my wife, Ally, and I sit around a Georgian mahogany table with Karl and Sonja, a visiting couple from Germany, and Johnny Madden, the evening’s host and grandfather of Danny. A wood fire crackles in a Neapolitan marble fireplace. “My antecedents were great fighters,” Johnny says. “Mostly among themselves.” His father lost a leg battling the Germans in World War II, he tells us. Karl says his grandfather tried to kill Hitler. It’s OK to discuss the war these days.
Johnny is an eloquent speaker, holding court on topics from Buffalo Bill to Justin Bieber to the tribulations of a drunken butler who swayed through this very room 12 decades ago. Stick a powdered wig on Johnny’s head, and you might be talking to his ancestor Samuel, who tutored Frederick, Prince of Wales, to become one of the 18th century’s greatest patrons of arts and architecture. In recent years, the sheep-grazed fields at Hilton Park have revived that genteel spirit of cultural advocacy by hosting the Flat Lake Literary and Arts Festival, participants of which have included singer Lily Allen, actor Sam Shepard, and the late Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney.
Thousands of teardrop-shaped humps of earth, called drumlins, mark the landscape here in the north of Ireland, left behind by the last ice age. Local soldiers had barely arrived home from World War I when the politicians drew a line through this boggy frontier to delineate the border between Northern Ireland and what would become the Republic of Ireland. For the most part, the Maddens tended to steer clear of politics. “The only government they were concerned with was here at Hilton,” says Johnny.
Johnny and his wife, Lucy, handed over the reins of Hilton Park to their only son, Fred, and his wife, Joanna, in 2011. Trained as a chef in London, Fred has elevated the house’s culinary reputation with menus like tonight’s scallops atop endive, beef fillet with Jerusalem artichoke, and black currant leaf panna cotta.
After dinner we head down a hall with a vintage harmonium along one side and the heads of slain impala on the walls, to the family living room. As we sprawl upon chesterfields, Fred and Joanna talk about the challenges they face to keep Hilton rolling for another generation. Their sense of duty is absolute: The show will go on.
As we head up a staircase of Riga oak to our antiques-filled but not fusty guest room, one of six at Hilton, we pass rows of books. My wife plucks a title from a shelf and reads from the cover: “The Potato Year: 365 Ways of Cooking Potatoes, by Lucy Madden.” Samuel Madden may have been a bibliophile, but the present-day Maddens take their love of books one step further. —Turtle Bunbury
Six rooms, from $224 per person, including breakfast and dinner, and afternoon tea on arrival.