Where the Knights Templar meet the Wild Atlantic Way

By Chris McBeath

The cigars were more than years old yet they tasted as if they had been rolled yesterday, and amidst the billows of smoke, we were transported into a bygone era. And that’s what a visit to Temple House in County Sligo is all about.  Surrounded by a history tangible enough to taste, you feel like a member of Temple House’s once illustrious family, the Percevals, the history of which is as poignant as the story behind these remarkable cigars. 

A few years back, when the cigars were first pulled from the cool, damp cellars of Temple House, their discovery electrified the world of stogie aficionados, capturing headlines in publications such as the Daily Telegraph and Cigar Magazine. An American even offered to purchase each one for $2,000 and while their real value remains under wraps they’re not for sale, in large part because of the tax burden these imported delights would incur. So they remain in the cellar of this rambling Irish mansion – in their perfect, accidental humidor that has kept them as fresh as when they were first purchased in 1864. 

A Heritage Family Home

While the truth seems to tug at credulity, Temple House is no Irish yarn. 

Run by congenial host and heir, Roderick Perceval and his wife, Helena, you are surrounded by evidence of a glorious past: crested silverware; priceless porcelain; family portraits that have evolved from 16th century canvases to 20th century Kodak moments (the family nose holds long and true through the generations); as well as assorted Asian treasures that hint to the oriental spin to this passionately Irish tale.  

Set amidst 1,000 acres of farmland and woods, Temple House is a wonderful Georgian mansion that has been in the Perceval family since 1665. Like the Irish equivalent to Gone with the Wind’s “Tara”, its fortunes rose and fell with the times. When the Percevals, alongside many of their countrymen, lost everything during the 1840s potato famine, it was Roderick’s great, great, great grandfather, Alexander Perceval who restored the family’s pride and fortune. To do so, he helped found Jardine Mathieson in Hong Kong where opium and commerce were as prized as tea, spices and silk. In his travels, Alexander picked up artifacts from around the world, including the infamous cigars, as well as a beautiful young wife from Boston’s high society.  

By 1863, the Percevals owned Temple House once more and ‘the Chinaman’, as Alexander was nicknamed, enlarged the house to 97 rooms, 32 of which are in the basement alone!  Below stairs has long-ago been abandoned for modern conveniences but it exudes a …… Roderick reads my mind by answering “Potential is an expensive, and not always practical, dream.”  

Family Hospitality

Upstairs is a different story and radiates the hospitality of a family home.  Some dressing rooms have made way for private en suites, and central heating now crackles through radiator pipes. The largest guest room is nicknamed the Half Acre and almost needs a compass to navigate. Another room, with two single canopied beds, was once the bedroom of Roderick’s great great grandmother and sister. Off the East Wing lies Maiden Lane where the housemaids used to sleep while the male servants lived on the opposite wing, appropriately named, Batchelor’s Row. 

Guests can enjoy a well-stocked library in what used to be the private schoolroom as well as intimate lounges, a billiards room and more.  Trophies from hunts long past line the walls of the Great Hall while books, diaries and albums share intimate details of a way of family life long gone: of Alexander’s accidental death in Temple Lake shortly after the house had been fully restored; of his young widow becoming a virtual recluse; and of a family’s struggles adapting to change as servants, estate workers and gentlemen farmers became a paradox in their own times. Some actually left to find their way in Canada. 

Exploring the ‘hood

 The old dairy lies as a relic beside the original kitchens, wine cellars and larders, as do the stables and courtyards nearby.  Guests can row or fish for trout on the lake, or simply stroll forested trails and rolling lawns where almost 3,000 sheep and Kerry cattle graze. A special treat is the ancient walled garden. Much of its produce is incorporated into the seasonal cuisine – food so good it has been written up by Gourmet Magazine.  There’s even a ghost – a carriage that travels along one of the overgrown avenues – as well as the ruins of a 12th century castle built by the Knights Templar, which gave the house its name.  The Wild Atlantic Way lies within a 15 minute drive as do other intriguing finds such as stone circles and Queen Maeves Cairn. 

Unlike many historic houses in Ireland, the grandeur of Temple House is warm and understated.  It offers a rare opportunity to interact with a family history spanning multiple generations and to feel, first hand, a heritage that makes this greatest getaway an extraordinary one-of-a-kind experience.