Next entrance on this Grand Tour of Ireland’s best luxury hotels is at Ashford Castle, which prides itself on ‘excellence since 1228’. In those days of course the gal would not have arrived on a Peugeot bike, to be greeted by a pair of canine statues. (Ashford Castle is a mile and a half from the mighty Co Mayo metropolis – sorry, delightful village – of Cong, which recently unveiled a lifesize statue of John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, the other side of the one-way circuit road from the rare and new bookstore.)
Stanley and Bea Tollman, owners of the Red Carnation hotel brand, were among the VIPs watching the Wayne-O’Hara unveiling. They first came to Ashford Castle in 1975 and earlier this year, 2013, when they heard it was for sale, they swooped. They have bought 350 acres of idyllic land, with loughs (lakes) and two boats, and equestrian centre and gardens, and a four-floor crenellated castle that belonged to the Guinness family from 1852 through to 1939, when right at the beginning of the war, it was turned into a hotel. Later it was bought by a group of investors, mostly American but also a few Irish, people of the calibre of duty-free king Chuck Feeney and Tony O’Reilly’s son Gavin O’Reilly. They sold on to a former mathematics teacher, Gerry Barrett, who could not make his sums add up, hence the Tollmans.
Ashford Castle has 84 bedrooms – and the most enormous public areas you can imagine. Rooms lead to rooms, all wood paneled walls leading up to high wood-carved ceilings. Portraits of the famous from other days hang here and there. A famous inglenook is welcoming in winter: an inglenook is, as here, a small room – one side open – dominated by a giant fire, so you virtually bake as if in a dry sauna as you sit either side of the fire on fixed seats. A famous Ashford resident, Dingle, swoops. He has been brought in from the castle’s falconry centre, and his name is so appropriate as he rocks back and forth. He is 14 years old, could live to 70, apparently.
It seems that you stay in Irish castles as if they are still the private houses they were for so many centuries. You get a mammoth buffet breakfast, with a late start time that suits American visitors, on their timings, but is not so good for eager-to-get-going Europeans (but coffee and good petits pains au chocolat are put out in the lounge, earlier). Lunch is casual, in that lounge. Dinner follows a table d’hote set menu, with choices, with chefs’ concoctions rather than plain ingredients – do not dine in an Irish castle if you want a simple grill, say. I start with organic leaves with custard of Cooleeney cheese from Arrabawn Dairies, Ballinasloe, Co Galway – yes, another Irish-food feature, chefs are commendably proud of local provenance. We drink Hannibal 2009, a Bouchard Finlayson wine owned by the Tollmans.
There is always lots going on at Ashford Castle and half-term, this time of year (October-November) is Harry Potter time. Book now, for 2014… parents come with kids, three to 13 years, who simply revel in a Hogwarts experience. Adults are not allowed in, of course – this is their time for walking the castle grounds, having a Yon-ka spa massage, biking or riding. Goodness only knows what the kids get up to but they love it so much that some of them come back year after year, for one-day or two-days during the eight-day whole session. The castle is ideal for such imaginings, centred on the Dungeon Bar that at other times becomes a nightclub.
I was sadly too old for H. Potter but not too old for Peugeot, so I pedaled away to watch some Orvis fishing – they have caught 1,200 salmon so far, this year – and the nine-hole Eddie Hackett golf course, and the hundreds of trees planted by a 19th century Guinness tree lover, Lord Ardilaun. I left the estate of this memorable luxury hotel and passed an old church – ideal for weddings – and on to Cong centre. I paid homage to John Wayne, born as Marion Robert Morrison in Winterset Iowa in 1907, and Maureen O’Hara, born Maureen FitzSimons in the Dublin suburbs in 1920, and, crumbs, she is still alive, living with her grandson in Idaho. She has said of her friendship with John Wayne: ‘I was tough. I was tall. I was strong. I didn’t take any nonsense from anybody. He was tough, he was tall, he was strong and he didn’t take any nonsense from anybody. As a man and a human being, I adored him’.