Ashford Castle
Published March/April 2013

A Knight in an Irish Castle

Overnight stays at medieval keeps in the Emerald Isle make guests feel like royalty

BYBeverly Burmeier
Steeped in tradition and outfitted with charming amenities, turreted Irish towers stretch to the sky, offering visitors a fairytale experience. Ireland is home to hundreds of castles, constructed in ancient times as a symbol of status as well as a safe retreat. Today, many remain in the form of overgrown ruins on windswept hills, but some have been restored to their former glory and provide a full slate of activities for guests.
 
Ashford Castle
Last owned by the Guinness family (yes, of beer fame) as a private home, Ashford Castle bears the stamp of every family that lived there. From ownership by the O’Connors, whose abbey remains an attraction in nearby Cong, to its reopening as a hotel in 2008, the castle’s history is an important part of its appeal.

From our room overlooking ducks swimming and a private guest boat gliding on the lake, we could just imagine the Oranmore and Brown families enjoying similar country views when establishing Ashford Estate in 1715.

Under ownership of Sir Benjamin Guinness in the mid-1800s the estate grew to 26,000 acres, and two large, Victorian-style extensions were added. Later in the 19th century, gardens and woodlands were developed, and the entire west wing was rebuilt. Since the castle opened as a hotel in 1939, it has undergone major upgrades — including the recently added Lodge at Ashford Castle, which provides 50 additional rooms with a lower price point than the main building. Now the location is considered one of the top 50 resort properties in Europe.
 
Yes, we felt like royalty amid the opulent old-world décor of brocade draperies, floral embroidered upholstery, heavy carved wood furniture, and gleaming gold-rimmed mirrors.
 
A five-minute walk to tiny, quaint Cong takes you to a museum dedicated to the John Wayne/Maureen O’Hara movie, The Quiet Man, that was filmed there. We strolled the narrow village streets admiring wool sweaters and scarves in shop windows before returning to the castle via an ancient bridge.
 
Multiple paths meander through the 300 acres currently on the Ashford Castle grounds, which are surrounded by government-owned forestland. A nine-hole golf course, horseback riding, falconry school, spa, and plentiful areas for games and conversation will keep any Lord and Lady occupied.
 
Ballyfin Castle
After eight years of restoration, this lavish Regency mansion opened in spring 2011. It’s a grand country house with the feel of a family home. Service is impeccable — butlers will unpack your luggage, hang up your clothes (I searched the room for my jacket after returning from dinner until I found it neatly hanging in the closet), shine your shoes, and do your laundry — and complimentary.
 
Fifteen guest rooms reflect the home’s original purpose as a place for entertainment. Lord Charles and Lady Catherine Coote started building the house in 1820, the same year he entered Parliament. During the six months spent each year on this 614-acre estate 35 miles from Kilkenny, they exemplified the finest Irish society.
 
After Ireland became an independent country, families with allegiance to England felt out of place and the Cootes departed their lush estate. A boys’ school purchased the property, but the monks felt the buildings were too grand for a school and most were left unused. Since the fathers didn’t have funds to maintain the castle and grounds, the property was eventually sold again, this time for development as a hotel.
 
Maps, paintings, early photographs, and archival documents helped architects restore the castle and gardens to its 18th century splendor. Mahogany doors and windows are all original, and elegant stucco designs have been painstakingly re-created. Inlaid wood flooring, a stained-glass ceiling window, and 12-foot-tall Chippendale mirrors with gilded frames add to the sumptuous ambience. A cascade constructed to the rear of the house brings to mind Italy’s Lake Como.
 
Formal canals, garden paths, a fitness center, tennis, fishing, stargazing, croquet, canoeing, archery, falconry, and bird watching all provide entertainment for guests. On the last morning of our stay, we hopped on complimentary bicycles and explored additional areas of the property, including a hidden grotto. Three golf courses within 50 miles, scenery of the Slieve Bloom Mountains, and day excursions to Kilkenny and Dublin (50 miles away) provide bountiful diversions for guests.

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Castlemartyr
Castlemartyr
Room in Ballyfin Castle
Room in Ballyfin Castle
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