Editor's Note: As of 2013 Ashford Castle is a Red Carnation Collection Hotel. Visit www.redcarnationhotels.com
The regal Ashford Castle core was begun by the Anglo-Norman de Burgo family in 1228, but the ancient Celtics had lived in the area for over 1100 years before the castle was built.
The de Burgos defeated the native O’Connors of Connaught and they built several castles in Ireland , but Ashford was their stronghold. The grounds are recorded in Irish history from the 2nd century. Later generations expanded the castle buildings.
The magnificent Oak Hall.
After more than three and a half centuries under the de Burgos Ashford passed to a new owner in 1589 after a fierce battle with English Lord Bingham, governor of Connaught; a truce was agreed and the castle fell to Bingham who added the fortified enclave.
The estate in 1715 passed to the Oranmore and Brone family and a fabulous French-style chateaux was added to the grandeur.
Shortly after the Irish famine, Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness, of the famous Dublin beer brewing family, purchased the castle and grounds in 1852, and added 25,000 acres to the grounds. He built two large Victorian-style extensions. He developed the grounds and planted trees that are still around today, with the grounds planting employing 300 men.
In 1868, Benjamin’s son and heir, Arthur (Lord Ardilaun who entered peerage in 1880, with his title named after one of the Lough Corrib islands) and his wife, Olive, continued as remarkable caretakers. Considered the Golden Age of Ashford, they rebuilt the entire west wing of the castle and they continued to plant millions of trees in the Wooded Parkland around the Castle, with the trails and road extending for over 25 miles. The parklands are fully restored to this day and I took a delightful walk through the dappled landscape, and later participating in falconry at the onsite falcon centre.
Take High Tea in the intimate Drawing Room.
In 1915 Ashford was retained by the Iveagh trust on behalf of the Guinness family until it was bought by Noel Huggard in 1939, when the castle became a first class hotel.
In 1970 the castle was bought by John Mulcahy who oversaw the restoration and expansion, doubling the castle size, building the golf course and redeveloping the gardens and grounds.
In 1985, a group of Irish-American investors purchased Ashford and it has remained one of the top 50 resort hotels in Europe.
There's informal dining at Cullen's at the Cottage.
The Grounds A helipad is located in a meadow near the River Cong, one of Ireland ’s most famous salmon rivers. I watch a frustrated fishermen who hasn't caught a thing since the season opened March 1 (It is now June 3rd.), and as I video tape him he suddenly catches his first whopper, about a five pound plus Atlantic salmon. The next day he says I brought him luck and we wants me to tape him again at the same spot.
The Castle itself is situated on the northern shores of Lough (Lake) Corrib, Ireland's largest lake, with the Corrib River flowing through the city of Galway to the south. The Mayo and Galway county line passes through the town of Cong near Ashford Castle.
Falconry and Hawks
One of my most interesting experiences at the castle is Ireland’s First School of Falconry, which is a private bird of prey centre located on the shoreline of Lake Corrib, but on the castle grounds. Falconry was conceived in the Far East, around 2000 BC, and it is one of the world’s oldest sports. By 1228, when Ashford was build, the sport was enjoyed by many in Ireland, and not just nobility, but by the locals who used falcons to hunt for wild game. I wonder if this is how the table fare lands on the plate at the castle restaurants.
Experience the ancient sport of Falconry.
This is a rare opportunity to learn how to handle these rare and magnificent birds, most of which are Harris Hawks. The program is suited for all ages, and no experience is necessary, and the thrill never leaves me as the hawk lands on my gloved hand. During my Hawk
Walk in the primeval forest with my Frenchwoman guide, the hawk dashes off suddenly netting a mouse in its claws, devouring it on the spot, cloaking the kill with his wings. The rest of the walk we feed raw meat to the hawk to get it to return to the glove, after casting him into the trees.
I don’t think the rabbits and crows on the property have a chance with these magnificent birds of prey. The Harris Hawk is renowned for its easy going temperament, but the eyes pierce me as deep as talons on a mouse. The center also has eagles, falcons, and even owls, all of them specially trained for hunting. Each bird is weighed before a hunt to see how much to feed them during the walk. The instructors can provide private or group lessons. It is advised to book in advance through the castle’s guest services or through the school at 094 954 6820 or email email@example.com or check their website at www.falconry.ie
Golf at Ashford Castle
The castle sports a magnificent 9 hole, 2976 yard par 35 parkland course that is complimentary to all residents (guests of the castle).
The course was originally a Red Deer park until the well known Irish golf architect Eddie Hackett was hired to design the course in 1974.
The course is a blend of natural features and hazards that contribute to tough par 3s and exciting par 4s and a formidable par 5.
Golf Ashford Castle's 9 hole, par 35 course.
Many world renowned golfers, including Bob Hope, have played the course.
The names of each hole are as witty as the Irish themselves:
Corrib View hole 1, par 4, 273 yards.
Lady’s Buttery hole 2, par 4, 246 yards. The name for the hole was conceived because there is a cave hidden among the trees on the left of the fairway, about 200 yards from the tee. In the old days the Castle had no refrigerator so the meat and butter was held underground to keep it fresh. It was a long walk for the maids and lady of the house, thus the name.
Watson’s Way hole 3, par 4, 321 yards. This hole was named after the famous U.S. golfer Tom Watson, who while on vacation in 1983 and playing a round hit his tee shot 316 yards over the tee on the left, pitching in front of the green and rolling a further 10 yards to finish 10 feet from the pin. He sank the putt and went on later that year to win his 5th Open Championship in Royal Birkdale. There is a plaque on the men’s tee to commemorate this achievement.
The Shamrock hole 4, par 3, 130 yards.
"The Quiet Man" scenes
at Ashford's golf course.
The Island hole 5, par 4, 284 yards. The name is derived from the fact that you can see one of the 365 islands on Lough Corrib after you have hit your drive 220 yards. The 5th hole is famous because it appears in the John Wayne movie, “The Quiet Man”, where in the film, Maureen O’Hara was seen herding sheep down the slope in her bare feet.
Rory’s Amen Corner hole 6, par 5, 434 yards.
Mulcahy’s Test hole 7, par 4, 273 yards. The hole was named after the former owner and original designer of the course, Mr. John A. Mulcahy, who himself was a fine golfer and renowned for giving golf lessons to many top golfers and the staff at the Castle. He said that the tree on the right of the fairway created a tight line to white marker that measures 150 yards to a two tier green and was a good test of club selection. He also designed the Waterville Golf Course where his ashes are buried on the 16th hole, which is known as Mulcahy’s Peak.
Water Tower hole 8, par 4, 200 yards.
Castle View hole 9, par 3, 133 yards. The Ryder Cup player Christy O’Conner, Jr. said that the 9th hole at Ashford is his favorite par 3 in the world. The wooden bench at the tee is known as a spot where young couples get engaged because of the romantic view of the castle.
To play the Ashford Course, contact the golf professionals at the Thatch Cottage where you can return for lunch and brews. Call 353 92 46003 or fax 353 92 46260 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Tennis at Ashford is complimentary on two all weather courts. Racquets and balls are available at the hospitality desk.
Rooms All 83 of the guest or resident rooms in the castle include TV, radio, writing desk, armchairs, phone, voice mail, bathrobes, trouser press, safety deposit box, hairdryers, and turn down service with chocolates.
Live like royalty in the Presidential Suite.
Suites The suites all have either a lake or river view and all feature Italian designed baths. One of the suites is a duplex with sitting room upstairs. The bedroom has a magnificent view of the lake. Extra amenities include sherry decanter and slippers.
Standard Great view of the fountain and parapets. Most standard rooms are Double/Twin bedded rooms.
Deluxe These rooms are larger than the standard rooms, all with commanding views, furnished with antiques and oil paintings.
Guest Rooms have stunning views.
State The rooms are very large rooms with high ceilings, allocated in the oldest section of Ashford, dating back to the 13th and 17th centuries. Three State rooms have traditional 4-poster beds. All five State rooms have the original fireplaces for cozying up to on a misty, medieval night. They are all furnished with antiques, including the mirrors. Some of these rooms have pedestal claw bathtubs, such as my room. Extra amenities include sherry decanters and Ashford icon slippers.
Over the years Ashford Castle has hosted many famous guests. John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara shot major portions of the movie “The Quiet Man” on the castle grounds, and in the nearby village of Cong. The Quiet Man cottage still stands; and the Anglican church seen in the movie is on the castle grounds, still providing services. The Irish James Bond, Pierce Brosnan of 007 fame, was married at the Ashford church so I stopped in for the Sunday service and the parishioners welcomed me like a long lost friend with tea and biscuits.
Ashford’s most famous visitor was the Prince of Wales who intended a short hunting visit but stayed for a month; he later became King George V of England. Other heads of state included Princess Grace and Prince Rainer of Monaco, and President Ronald Reagan and wife Nancy.
The Castle has been popular with film and pop stars like John Travolta, Rod Stewart, Jack Nicholson, Johnny Cash, Sharon Stone, Robin Williams, Barbara Streisand, Brad Pitt, Harry Belafonte, Jane Seymour, and Omar Sharif.
Dining and Cocktails
Since 2003 world-class Head Chef Stefan Matz commands the kitchen with culinary skill, garnishing Michelin stars along the way.
Any five star international hotel is going to have superb dining facilities, open only to guests, and Ashford provides with the George V Dining Room with views across the Cong River.
150 guests can dine in George V Dining Room.
Fine wines from around the world (such as my Merlot from Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley) is poured, with plated service on crisp linens I indulge in the elegant art of regal dining. Breakfast is complimentary to all guests, and the George V is the prime spot for lunch and dinner as well.
The fixe prix menu (62 Euros) includes an outstanding variety of local fresh entrées, and I had the luxurious pleasure of sampling the Carpaccio of Scallops and Turbot with Tossed Lettuce; then the next evening it was roasted John Dory Fillets with a Saffron Mayonnaise and Garlic Cream.
The final night is a serving of the region’s specialty, Roast Rack of Connemara Lamb gradinated with fine herbs and jus of Rosemary. Other entrées include: Cured Ham of Connemara Lamb and Minted Yoghurt and assorted Melon; Warm Goats Cheese Tartlet of Oven Roasted Vegetables and Balsamic Vinegar; Galantine of Chicken with a dressing of fresh figs; Medallion of Tuna, glazed with a Tomato Honey and Ginger Sauce; Lobster Consommé with Cream of Celery and Cashel Blue Cheese Sauce; Roasted Monk Tail, flavored with Paprika and Roast Garlic; Supreme of Guinea Fowl with a Potato Champ of Wild Mushrooms and Glazed Vegetables; Baked Tart of Caramelized Fennel and Shallots on Puff Pastry. Then tea or coffee is served with a selection of Petit Fours.
40 guests can dine in the private Connaught Room.
The Connaught Room is the castle’s award-winning gourmet restaurant set for smaller groups or private dining with views across the gardens and lake. The room has exquisite wood carvings and delicate furnishings, the finest in the Castle, with a hand-crafted Inglenook fireplace reaching 20 feet into the oak ceiling. Intimate 3-, 5- or 7-course dining gustations come with ample wine from sommelier Robert Bowe.
A typical menu from the Connaught Room may include: Char Grilled Scallops on a Salad of Potatoes and Carrots; Baked Lobster Mousse in a White Saunternes Butter Sauce; Fillet of John Dory with Clams in a Saffron Sauce; Sorbet of Pears and Wild Rosemary; Medallion of Veal Fillet, topped with Foie Gras on a Potato Gateaux of Leaf Spinach, all with a Cheese Board of Irish Farmhouse Cheeses and homemade breads and biscuits. Then if there is room, and there is always room for these, hot Soufflé of Rhubarb or Ice Cream of Soured Cream and Vanilla.
Private dining is also available in the Ardilaun Suite, for 15-70 guests, with only set menus. The chefs can also prepare an à la carte in-room dining experience if given 24 hours notice, or they will pack a lunch for day outings with notice.
My favorite area in the castle during the day and a great place to meet other guests was the Drawing Room. Traditionally I think of a drawing room as a closed off space, but the Castle offers an open drawing room overlooking the gardens.
The tranquil retreat has a small bar off to the side and guests relax and sink into the leather couches with the daily paper with morning coffee, afternoon tea, or evening cocktails.
The antique tea service is on display from the 25th anniversary (in 1896) of Lord and Lady Ardilaun.
The Drawing Room offers a snack service from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., with sandwiches and cold dishes.
In the evening my favorite spot is either the Dungeon Bar (of course it is in the ancient Gaol) or the Prince of Wales Cocktail Bar.
The Guinness and Jameson flow freely in both.
The Dungeon Bar is renowned for local Irish entertainment, such as the harpist playing during my stay, or for theatrical and musical performances.
The Prince of Wales Cocktail Bar was built specifically for his 1902 stay; from 10 o’clock onward the castle’s own live international show provides the entertainment.
In the evening over cocktails and the daily news, shoot snooker or billiards in the castle games room.
Health and Beauty Services
The Castle offers residents complimentary saunas, Jacuzzi, steam rooms, and a full gymnasium. Beauty treatments include: deep tissue massage, aromatherapy full body massage, Swedish massage, head to toe revive, hot stone massage, back massage, back-neck-shoulders-face-scalp massage, Yonka classical facial, Yonka rejuvenating facial, quick fix mini facial, manicure, pedicure, French manicure, full and half leg waxing, bikini line waxing, eyebrow tint and shape, and eyelash tint.
When the day is spent, spend time in the Spa.
Any king would be in ecstasy over his queen's health and beauty makeover at Ashford.
The Ashford Equestrian Centre is within easy walking distance from the Castle, with guided rides over the beautiful woodlands or into the Connemara mountains to the west, or along the shores of Loughs Corrib and Mask.
The modern facility has a large indoor school and outdoor jumps, but it is operated separately from the Castle.
Ask guest services to set up a ride or lessons. The original horse drawn jaunting side cart used in “The Quiet Man” takes up to four guests on leisurely tours of the grounds.
Many of the early visitors to Ashford castle came up from Galway by boat, gaining their first glimpse of the magnificent edifice from the water. The Guinness family often arrived on their stately yacht, the AMO 11. Today Corrib Cruises offers guests lake tours on the 100 passenger Lady Ardilaun, plying the waters to different destinations. During my stay I was lucky enough to cruise over to St. Patrick’s Island to view the mystical ancient 4th century church where the saint meditated. The green forest ferns and mists make the uninhabited island even more spiritual and attractive. The roofless church still stands. The boat cruises operate year around, with guest services setting up your cruise in the morning or afternoon.
Cruise to St. Patrick's
Island on Lough Corrib.
Lake fishing on Corrib or salmon fly fishing on the Cong River are popular sports.
The Castle has its own ghillie (guide) who takes guests out on the islands for lunch, boils the kettle for tea, and fries the catch on an open fire. Salmon fishing in the Cong runs from the 1st of March to the 30th of September.
The Ashford Sport Clay Range features targets that simulate the game typical of the region.
Test your skills against the Bolting Rabbit or the Springing Teal or the Wily Woodcock.
Beginners 16 or older obtain a pleasant introduction to the sport through a sound grounding in safety and etiquette.
Light guns with light loads are available.
Walking and trekking the grounds of the castle and the shore line can be accompanied by a trained guide who also takes you into the island town of Cong to visit the 12th century Augustinian Abbey, with stops along the way where portions of “The Quiet Man” were shot.
Cong's Augustinian Abbey.
Cong is so close and I found the easy walk out the castle's back gate needing only sturdy legs. The small village is a delight to walk around, especially the grounds around the abbey along the Cong River.
Area Attractions Use Ashford Castle as a base to explore western Ireland’s culture and history, but first get a guidebook from Kenny’s Book Shop on Shop Street in Cong. Then visit the Ceide Fields in North Mayo, a 5,000-year-old stone age landscape of stonewalled fields, dwellings, and megalithic tombs. Or visit Foxford Woolen Mills on a self guided tour of the 1892 mill founded by Mother Agnes Morrogh-Bernard. Stop at the craft shop and restaurant on the grounds, too.
The Aran Islands are the westernmost point in Europe, and the Irish speaking population is a throwback to ancient days. Inishmor is the largest Irish island, with the Dun Aengus fortress dating back to the 4th century.
The Castle activities desk can set up all your tour needs.
Every man is a "king" of his castle, and every women the "queen", and Ashford exemplifies the charm, history, and luxury of what castle life is all about.
Feature by Kriss Hammond, Editor, Jetsetters Magazine; photos courtesy of Ashford Castle.