It is St. Patrick’s Day and I can’t help but remember spending a few days at Ashford Castle in Cong, Ireland.
From our window at the Castle, I could see a moat, the steel gray stone tower and battlements and know that the 13th century building was once a true castle—a retreat to keep one safe against intrusion or attack.
Interestingly, Ashford Castle is still a retreat from unwanted intrusions. A discrete sign at the entrance warns potential gawkers that only “residents could enter.” No run-of-the-mill tourists in their jeans and t-shirts, camcorders in hand can enter unless they can pay the stiff tariff.
However, they can wander the extensive grounds, roaming through walled gardens with nine-foot tall lush pink, blue and white hydrangea bushes and down moss covered forest paths. The verdant gardens overlook a pristine lake devoid of signs of modern resort life like jet skis or airplane-flown streamers advertising the best place to get a margarita.
Ashford Castle is often the destination of choice for Hollywood celebrities, kings and presidents. The Billiard Room was built for King George V (then Prince of Wales) when he came to stay in 1905. Ronald Reagan generated lots of excitement when he bedded down at the Castle in 1984.
The interior of the house fulfilled my expectations of bygone grandeur. The stately rooms were filled with masterpiece art, fine antiques, rich brown carved paneling and staircases, red leather chairs, richly textured brocade sofas, knights in armor, massive fireplaces and slightly shabby “been in the family for years” upholstery.
At first, I thought I detected a musty smell not surprising when you think of the vastness of the 83 roomy guest rooms and endless hallways, storage closets, offices and behind the scene spaces.
Then I realized the peat fires in many fireplaces gave off an odor different from wood burning fires.
The hotel is complete with a spa, health center, Dungeon Bar for Irish singing and story telling and most amenities fine hotels around the world offer. The halls meander all around and up and down a result of the many additions. We had to ask several times to find our way back to our end of the building.
Coats and ties are required in the dining room and the staff is ever so polite. By the second day, many of them knew our names and our room number. This came in especially handy one evening when our daughter called to report on a minor emergency.
The staff was able to track us down lustily singing, “My Irish Eyes were Smiling” in the Dungeon Bar, to my daughter’s amusement.
Most interesting was the Falcon Walk we took on our last day. Ashford Castle is the site of the Ireland’s First Falconry School. On our walk with a young female guide, we watched the majestic Harris Hawk soar and then return with massive wings spread wide to my husband’s gloved hand.
Falconry, reputed to be the oldest sport in the world, originated as a means of catching food in the Far East. By the time the original Ashford Castle was built in the 1300s, Falconry was well established in Ireland.
While I found learning the facts about the 26 falcons, hawks and owls maintained at the school and seeing them perform very interesting, our guide’s story intrigued me more. While on a holiday, our fresh faced young Tennessean was snared by a young Irish lad some five years earlier.
He invited her to go on a Falconry Walk.
“I think he was trying to impress me,” she said, grinning.
He did and she fell in love with both the lad and the birds and has found made her home in Ireland ever since. In fact, as she strode confidently around the grounds, guiding us with our hawk I could picture her in an earlier time as the mistress of the castle. She seemed so at home.
Ashford Castle has seen many such mistresses.
The earliest structure on the grounds of the northern most point of Lough Corrib was a monastery in 1228. The de Burgos family built the original castle in the 1300’s. Several hundred years later Lord Ardilaun constructed the French style chateau, now in the center of the current version.
Then in 1852, beer baron, Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness purchased Ashford Castle, turning it into Guinness family summer home. During the potato famine, he employed almost 300 men to maintain the 26,000 acres and expand the stately structure.
In 1939, the castle was restored yet again and transformed into Ireland’s most exclusive resort. Now it boasts 83 guest rooms, two large dining rooms and assorted charming spots for tea and drinks beneath lofty paneled ceilings. Guests can play golf or tennis, go fishing, ride horses, walk the extensive grounds and gardens, boat on the lake and saunter to the small village of Cong, close by.
Cong is of particular interest to many tourists because it was the location of the movie, The Quiet Man, staring Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne. John Ford took home the best director Oscar for it in 1952. One senses that nothing exciting has happened there since.
That is what makes it all so charming.