Travel: Spookily luxurious breaks in five of Ireland's top castle hotels
For history buffs and for those just who just want to be pampered amid sumptuous surroundings from time to time, many of Ireland's castles now operate as hotels, offering both luxury and lore. Margaret Carragher sampled five of the best
WITH their imposing facades, colourful histories and connotations of grandeur and romance, it is little wonder that so many old Irish castles are now operating as hotels. I mean, who wouldn’t want to luxuriate in surroundings fit for a queen? Certainly not yours truly.
So, given the brief to do just that – oh happy days – it was off with the good man to check out five of the best.
First up Kinnitty Castle, a splendid neo-gothic pile located at the foothills of the Slieve Bloom Mountains in Co Offaly. And even before setting foot in the place its quirky charms are evident in the amazing wood carvings dotting the castle grounds. Enquiries reveal these to be the work of hotel chef Sandor Nagy, who honed his word-carving skills in Asia before moving to Ireland. Now, when he’s not cooking up a storm in Kinnitty’s kitchen, Sandor can be found raising its tree stumps to art form.
And there’s artistry aplenty within the castle’s stout granite walls with its mullioned windows, elaborate plasterwork and magnificent cut stone entrance staircase. With 37 individually styled guest rooms packed with period features, a Kinnitty Castle sleepover is an experience to savour.
As is the cuisine in its award-winning Sli Dala restaurant, and the weekend entertainment in its delightfully atmospheric Dungeon Bar. But it’s thoughtful little details, like the endless supply of complimentary tea and coffee served with a smile morning, noon and night in its palatial lounge that really makes guests feel like, well royalty.
More regal treatment awaits in Dromoland Castle, where we happily roll up for a midweek break. Located just outside Newmarket-on-Fergus, Co Clare, this five-star establishment’s royal connections stretch back a thousand years to Ireland’s legendary High King Brian Boru.
Surrounded by 330 rolling acres the castle’s colourful history, meticulously detailed in its Hotel & Destination Guide would be worthy of a Netflix series; certainly its interiors would give any of those featured in The Crown a run for their money, particularly since its recent €20 million refurbishment.
With a bedroom big enough to get lost in, complimentary chocolates, a bundle of glossies and a humongous interactive telly, one could happily hibernate here – but The Spa at Dromoland beckons.
And what a treat. Restful colours and mood lighting have punters almost horizontally relaxed in an instant. Add a full body massage (like mine) or a deep tissue back, neck and shoulder treatment (the good man’s) and you’ll positively float out of the place.
Onwards to the internationally renowned Earl of Thomond restaurant for more royal treatment; because gender notwithstanding, here at Dromoland Castle the customer is always, always king.
Northwards then to Ballygally Castle and a hotel so spooky it’s said there are often more ghostly residents than paying guests in the place. However, the castle’s most famous ghost is reputed to be that of Lady Isabella Shaw, wife of Scottish-born James Shaw who in 1625 acquired land from the Earl of Antrim on which to build a French chateau-style castle just 20 miles north of Belfast on the Antrim coast.
Alas, when Shaw’s wife had the temerity to produce a daughter instead of a son and heir, Shaw banished her to a turret from where she subsequently fell, or was pushed, to her death. Since then Lady Isabella’s spirit is said to roam the castle searching endlessly for her baby daughter. So far, so fascinating.
However, there are no ghosts in evidence during our visit to Ballygally Castle – just lots of jolly, real live folk enjoying a wedding which spills from its newly refurbished Kintyre ballroom to the surrounding grounds. Now part of the Hastings Group, this magnificent four-star hotel bears little resemblance to Lord Shaw’s 17th century fortress – even if, almost four centuries on, its turreted ‘Ghost Room’ continues to pack ’em in.
Back south then to Fitzpatrick Castle Hotel on Dublin’s Killiney Hill, from whose splendid balconied bedrooms one can see across Dublin Bay all the way to Howth. In more turbulent times the place was occupied by the Black and Tans, the IRA and republicans during the Civil War before being burnt by Free State troops.
Nowadays the castle is all about tranquillity, be it relaxing in its steam room, sauna and Jacuzzi; sampling cocktails in its Library Bar; enjoying a meal in one of its many restaurants or simply chilling out in its extensive manicured grounds.
As it happens our visit coincides with Dalkey’s annual book festival. Located within minutes of the castle, we stroll down to find the seaside village in celebratory mode with luminaries such as Neil Jordan, Mariella Frostrup and Bernie Sanders mingling with the crowds.
On Sorrento Road, home place of the late, great Maeve Binchy I spot a notice advertising a hundred free parking spaces for festival-goers in Fitzpatrick Castle Hotel. That’s the way to do business. But then this place has been doing the business very well indeed for a long time now.
Across the Liffey then to Clontarf Castle and perhaps the only hotel loo in the country with its very own fireplace – just one of many wonderfully zany results of this 12th century castle’s amazing post-millennial makeover.
A remarkable blend of classic and contemporary, Clontarf Castle Hotel recently made its debut in the multi-award-winning luxury and lifestyle travel magazine Conde Naste Traveler Readers’ Choice Awards for Ireland. And, sweeping up its magnificent driveway one can see why.
It’s a bright, crisp day in early January and we’re just in time to catch the castle’s seasonal decorations before they’re mothballed for another year. Outside, huge red-ribboned wreaths garland the surrounding trees. Fairy lights twinkle through ancient mullioned windows.
In the grand entrance lobby, a giant fir swathed in the castle’s trademark colour purple soars up through the glazed multi-storey atrium almost out of sight. A rusty suit of armour fashioned for some long forgotten knight languishes in a barred alcove within sight of an enormous stone fireplace around which happy looking folk cluster with coffee and newspapers. What a place. And we haven’t even checked in yet. Bring it on.
:: Clontarf Castle Hotel, Castle Avenue, Clontarf, Dublin 3, D03 W5NO
Tel +353 (0) 1 8332321; fax: 353 (0) 8330418; email:email@example.com; clontarfcastle.ie
:: Fitzpatrick Castle Hotel, Killiney, Co Dublin
Tel + 353 1 230 5400; .fitzpatrickcastle.com
:: Ballygally Castle, Coast Road, Ballygally, Co. Antrim, BT40 2QZ
Tel +44 (0) 28 2858 1066; fax: +44 (0) 28 2858 3681; astingshotels.com/ballygally-castle/
:: Dromoland Castle & Country Estate, Newmarket-On-Fergus, Co Clare
Tel: +353 61 368144; fax: +353 61 363355 (from USA: 1800 346 7007) email: firstname.lastname@example.org; dromoland.ie
:: Kinnitty Castle Hotel, Kinnitty, Birr, Co Offaly
Tel: +353 (0) 57 9137318; email: receptionkinnittycastlehotel.com; kinnittycastlehotel.com
:: Though not operating as a hotel, Birr Castle in County Offaly is open to the public and has guided tours, award-winning gardens, an adventure centre and what was once the world’s largest telescope, constructed in the 1840s on the castle grounds by the Third Earl of Ross (birrcastle.com)