Ireland’s Ashford Castle wants you to live like royalty

I I have to admit it’s nice to know the exact coordinates of the luxury lap: 53°32’04″N 9°17’06″W. Or, to be more precise, Ashford Castle, the hotel and resort just outside the town of Cong, County Mayo, Republic of Ireland.

I recently spent five nights there and my only complaint is that I didn’t spend six nights. Unlike most hotels I know, it wasn’t a place I left voluntarily. Similarly, it turned my vocabulary upside down. luxury and pamper are words that make my apostate Presbyterian soul shudder with a “Get behind me, Satan” sort of thing. Usually. But then, after my time at the Castle, I had to ask myself if, before, I’d only encountered hoteliers who didn’t know the right methods to administer luxury or pampering (although my mental jury is still divided on any kind of pampering, a word also often found in the same sentence with the word spa, a place whose charm largely escaped me even in Ashford Castle).


Good service is only part of what you get. Add to this the quality of food served at the hotel’s various restaurants, the luxury of the common spaces and individual rooms, the usual high-end resort amenities (golf, spa) and the unique setting – 336 acres of well-landscaped woods and gardens that all bordering the largest lake in the Republic of Ireland – the deal is starting to make sense.

Still, no hotel earns five-star ratings solely on the basis of attentive service, good food, and an even finer thread count. There has to be something more, and in the case of Ashford Castle, it’s a little more of two things: history and location. The hotel’s 83 rooms are housed in a building where every turn of the stairs and every glimpse out of a floor-to-ceiling window feels like you’ve walked into one Downton Abbey (and if you can afford Ashford Castle, you might actually be one of those people, like Violet Crawley who cluelessly asks, “What’s a weekend?”). But it’s not a set, or not quite. Yes, much of the vintage 19th-century art was bought at estate sales, but the hotel was once the country home of a wealthy family, so the illusion of going back in time is no illusion. It’s just that now the order is reversed and it’s the servants who dress in formal wear for dinner.

As soon as you leave the hotel, in almost any direction, there is no illusion, or rather, illusion and reality are one. The fountains, the lawns that stretch into infinity, the landscaping that here obeys a regimented order while over there nature is let loose in a romantic riot of color and shape, the paths that lead through woods to more gardens, and more gravel paths and more woods, and tennis courts and more gardens: these sculpted vistas that never stop giving way to more and more vistas somehow manage to sculpt spaces at once vast and intimate, and it works like a tonic on you. As soon as you start a walk, at every corner and curve you feel tempted to see what lies beyond. Just a little further. And a little more. And if Irish weather is like this, take an hour’s stroll through this immensity and before you’re done you’ll have enjoyed all four seasons.


Ashford Castle has been a hotel since 1939. But it lives up to its name, as it was once a castle (the hotel’s slogan: Excellence Since 1228). Building has been intermittent since the 13th century, but without end, adding a wing here and a tower there, until sometime in the 20th century the building took on its present form: a sprawling gray turreted and crenellated building topped by a Moat is lined. Built on the site of a ruined priory, the castle was owned by Normans, Irish nobles and English Protestants for nearly seven centuries before being purchased in 1852 by the Guinnesses, the wealthy brewing family, who bought a good chunk of their wealth in order to gain respectability and a to buy a place in high society. Ashford Castle, with its 26,000 acres of hunting and fishing, was their lure for the idle rich and mixed kings, and the lure proved sufficiently enticing to bring Arthur Guinness a lordship.

In its life as a hotel, Ashford Castle has changed hands and fortunes several times, until it was most recently acquired for the relatively cheap price of €20 million by the Red Carnation hotel group, who quickly invested around €75 million in the property to… I would say, restore its greatness, but I’m not sure it’s ever been this great before.


A word here on the restoration of old hotels, which all too often means less restoration and more modernization and modernization, all but wiping out the original character of the hotel that made you value it in the first place. Water pressure is good but character is gone. Let one small detail suffice: in the past, one could tell how upscale a hotel was by the quality of the complimentary stationery and envelopes that lay on the desk in the room. Well, mind you, no one spends much time writing letters in hotels or anywhere these days, and hoteliers have taken note: the last time I stayed at the modernized Shelbourne in Dublin, they had stopped leaving any stationery, which I Broke my heart because damn that paper was so good for you sought write a letter. I’m happy to report that Ashford Castle is still producing good stuff.

Niall Rochford, the hotel’s manager, once told a reporter: “Of the two words in our hotel’s name, ‘castle’ is the most important. This makes Ashford unique and authentic. People want to live the dream of being king or queen for a day.”

Ashford Castle is selling a fantasy, but the elements of the fantasy are real enough: it was a castle, it was a country estate – it would just be crazy not to deal in it.

From what I could see, the hotel does its best to fulfill this fantasy for its guests. Service is caring and competent without being obsequious. The staff is friendly and helpful, even if it doesn’t have to be; For example, a porter caught me admiring one of the 19th-century paintings that lined the hallways and took the time to explain how the disastrous tales of famine and land reform were dramatized in such a vivid display: a landowner on horseback sympathetically watching dispossessed tenants by the side of the road. I didn’t know if I should be more impressed by the fact that the Castle would hang such a painting or that a random employee was such a competent and friendly interpreter.


Culturally, Ashford Castle has an understandable, if not entirely forgivable, fixation on John Ford’s soft-headed Irish fairy tale The quiet man, which was filmed partly on the hotel premises and can be shown on every TV screen in every room and a few times a week in the hotel’s luxury cinema. But for the most part, the hotel’s staff tries hard not to distort history — luckily for the hotel’s origins, the Guinness and its predecessors were among the “good” landlords of the 19th century, before national independence — and they do a first class effort to celebrate the regional culture.

There is a dizzying list of ways to spend your time at the castle, ranging from the usual (golf, fishing, trap shooting) to the more esoteric (archery, ziplining, horseback riding). But you would be a fool not to make your first stop at Ireland’s School of Falconry, which is a short walk from the hotel. When you first feel a hawk’s talons tighten on your gloved wrist, you’re suddenly glad you’re wearing that glove. Then the hawk takes off from your wrist and as it soars, it’s as if a part of you is suddenly in the air too. We rarely come this close to the wild, and it might sound easy to call it exhilarating, but it is exactly that.

After falconry, the coolest activity was at the castle, well, not at the castle itself. The castle’s Meet the Makers program takes you on day trips to meet and learn from artisans and craftsmen working in the west of Ireland. Directed by Eoin Warner, a documentary filmmaker and an authority on Irish folk life, a day trip includes visits to at least three artisans including fishermen, blacksmiths, weavers, woodworkers, storytellers, potters and organic farmers. The trip I took part in included visits from basket weaver Joe Hogan, traditional flute player and flute maker Marcus Hernon and his son violinist Breándán Hernon, and chefs Phillipa Duff and Sinéad Foyle, who run Sea Hare, a famous pop sourcing up restaurant in Connemara that celebrates the locals. And the round-trip journey meandered through the blazing sun and shady beauty of Connemara’s changing mountain landscape, booking a near-perfect day.

Ashford Castle sells a fantasy, but the parts of the fantasy are real enough: it was a castle, it was a country estate – it would just be crazy not to act on it. And the hotel tops off its share of the bargain with top-notch service and amenities, and a staff that fulfills their roles so thoroughly you never see the mask slip. Robert Bowe, the hotel’s restaurant and wine program manager with 35 years experience on the premises, is so courteous and knowledgeable in everything he does, whether it’s touring the wine cellar or the silver bell from a newly arrived entree wiping the table that I began mentally describing him using the words Wodehouse uses to describe the inimitable Jeeves as “Jeeves shimmered across the room”. So it was no surprise that Bowe would be the keeper of the lore of Ivory, the little girl spirit who haunts the castle, or that he knew how to tell the story so beautifully that you couldn’t help but laugh and tremble once. At Ashford Castle everyone is good at what they do, right down to the ghost stories. Ireland’s Ashford Castle wants you to live like royalty


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