If you travel from the mainland by road, you’re hardly aware that Fota is an island in Cork Harbour. Its main attraction is Fota House, built in the 1740s as a hunting lodge for the Barry family, whose main seat had by then moved from nearby Barryscourt Castle to Castlelyons near Fermoy. In the early nineteenth century, the house was substantially redeveloped and extended in elegant, Neoclassical style, and now lies a ten-minute walk from Fota train station. Excellent guided tours reveal plenty of telling details, with the highlights being the entrance hall, a beautifully symmetrical space divided by striking ochre columns of scagliola (imitation marble), and the ceiling of the drawing room, with its plasterwork doves, musical instruments and hunting implements and delicately painted cherubs and floral motifs. The tour also goes below stairs to the servants’ quarters, which include an impressive octagonal game-larder and such features as gaps at the top of the windows of the butler’s servery – added so that food smells would tantalize the poor servants rather than the house guests. For visitors, there’s now a nice little café in the long gallery and billiard room. Much of the estate’s formal gardens and its internationally significant arboretum, laid out in the mid-nineteenth century, are under the care of the Office of Public Works, with free access. At its best in April and May, the arboretum hosts a wide range of exotic trees and shrubs, with many rare examples, including some magnificent Lebanese cedars, a Victorian fernery and a lush, almost tropical lake.
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