The Irish Getaway Beyond Compare
By Alex Starace
Stunning cliffs, verdant hills and bucolic cottages punctuate a journey along the weathered west coast of Ireland. In County Mayo, a little off the coast, sits one of the region’s crown jewels: Ashford Castle.
Named the top resort hotel in all of Ireland by Travel and Leisure, Ashford combines the charm of a medieval structure on the water of Lough Corrib with the modern amenities of the twenty-first century resort. “The castle has welcomed royalty, politicians, movie stars and travelers,” said general manager Niall Rochford, “And all of them have marveled at the natural beauty of the location.”
Originally built in 1228 as a stronghold against the O’Connors of Connaught, it was controlled for over 300 years by the De Burgo family, Anglo-Normans who became the House of Burke. The castle was eventually confiscated by Sir Richard Bingham, Lord President of Connaught, in 1589, as punishment for a tax rebellion led by the Burkes. Ownership changed hands two more times as the centuries rolled by, and the estate began to take on a more genteel aspect.
The Guinness family, of brewery fame, expanded its acreage to 26,000, developing the woodlands and gardens for typical Irish country pursuits during the mid-1800s. And then, in 1905, the Prince of Wales planned a visit. To honor him, a special dining room with paneled walls and Waterford Crystal chandeliers was built. Upon his arrival, he had a drink at the castle’s bar, before dining in the room custom-made for the event. To this day, both the bar and dining room bear the prince’s name: The Prince of Wales Bar and the George V Dining Room, for the prince was destined to become King.
The castle barely made it much longer. “It was almost burnt down in the 1920s, during the Irish War of Independence,” explained Rochford. At the time, the Irish Republic Army (IRA) had a tactic of burning down large estates across the country. When the local IRA received orders to set Ashford ablaze, they refused. The Guinness family, who were still owners of the property, had been too good to the community. The arson was never committed, and the castle was saved from ruin.
Long-time stewards of the property, the Guinness family finally sold in 1939, and the estate was converted into a first-class hotel known for its picturesque scenery. In fact, the grounds and the nearby town of Cong formed the backdrop for the Oscar Award-winning 1952 film The Quiet Man, directed by John Ford. Starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, the tale of tempestuous lovers courting was nominated for seven Academy Awards, and won Best Director (Ford’s fourth and final Oscar) and Best Cinematography. It was one of the few Hollywood films to ever include Gaelic and it made Cong the tourist attraction that it is today.
The castle continued evolving, adding a golf course and doubling the size of its grounds in the 1970s. While it remained stately during this period, by 2013 it needed some attention. The Red Carnation Hotels Collection purchased it and undertook a massive restoration. “The goal of the restoration was to bring the property back to the former glory days of the Guinness era,” said Rochford.
The 789-year-old stonework was tuckpointed, 800 original windows were replaced with modern glass and over 30 tonnes of lead were used to reinforce the castle’s roof. Thirty guest rooms from the Guinness-era were restored, as were a number of authentic Victorian-era paintings in various guest rooms. The Prince of Wales Bar was meticulously maintained.
“Not since the Guinness family originally purchased and transformed the estate had so much love, care and money been lavished on the property,” said Rochford. In addition to restoration, expansion was also on the menu: A glass conservatory was constructed to house a world-class spa. A cinema, billiards room and cigar terrace were added. And the piece-de-resistance? “The transformation of the former servants entrance and coal bunkers into a wine cellar and tasting room. It illustrates the creativity and vision the designers had when planning the restoration.”
Now truly an elite getaway, the Ashford Castle hosted the wedding of four-time major-champion golfer Rory McIlroy and Erica Stoll this past summer. It recently won the Irish Cocktail Festival’s best cocktail award with a concoction featuring Connemara 12-year peated whiskey and Atlantic sea salt. Regularly listed as one of the best places to stay in the world, Ashford Castle’s evolution continues to fascinate.