Walking in the shadows of kings

By Caroline Tapp-McDougall

NEWMARKET-ON-FERGUS, IRELAND

The story of County Clare’s Dromoland Castle began in 1002, when Brian Boru ruled Ireland as High King from his throne in Killaloe. His son, Donough O’Brien, used Dromoland as a defensive stronghold and, for the next 900 years, the O’Brien clan lived and ruled from the now-famous castle.

Time and titles passed, but Dromoland remained in the family until 1962 when the 16th Baron of Inchiquin, Sir Donough O’Brien, had to sell the castle and 330 of its surrounding acres, plus hunting and fishing rights, to an American industrialist. It was only then that the significant renovations necessary to transform Dromoland into a luxury hotel were undertaken. Sold again in 1987 to an Irish–American consortium that still owns it today, the storied castle continues its reign. And, as tradition would have it, Conor O’Brien, the 18th baron, and his family still live and farm on a portion of the remaining estate.

At first glance, little of the castle’s imposing baronial edifice appears to have changed. Similarly, its grand interiors remain true to period, albeit graciously modified by 21st century comforts. Under the watchful eye of Managing Director Mark Nolan, a 30-year Dromoland veteran, the castle has, however, buried parts of its daunting past and now runs like a well-oiled machine—or, should I say, a much-loved classic car… smooth and easy, with head-turning style.

Comfortably elegant

With 97 guestrooms including 14 suites, all with beautiful bathrooms and deep soaking tubs, and common rooms a-plenty, it doesn’t take long for us to recognize that every corner of the castle has been carefully refurbished—a comfortably elegant home away from home for welcome guests.

The restaurants, bars and sitting areas are also graciously appointed. The Gallery and drawing room become our most-beloved spots to capture the essence of countryside relaxation. We settle into a deep fireside sofa surrounded by well-preserved antiques, hunting mounts and ancestral portraits for an afternoon read and a pint of the black stuff. Don’t be surprised if you linger longer than you intended.

Intimate and inviting, The Cocktail Bar is housed in what was once the O’Brien family’s library. Still a fantastical octagonal room with sweet little window seats overlooking the lawns, it serves as an attractive place to sample one of Dromoland’s signature tarot-inspired cocktails.

Past and present

Today, aside from offering delightfully attentive and personalized service that’s fit for royalty, our “castle experience” is enhanced by an eclectic collection of guided leisure pursuits: Archery, horse-riding on the countryside trails, and falconry displays and lessons for those fascinated with birds of prey and their role in the castle’s tradition.

For the golfers in our party, the Ron Kirby- and JB Carr-designed parkland course delivers a perfect blend of distance, accuracy, risk and reward. A stern challenge for both professionals and our amateurs, the 18 enchanting holes sweep through 450 acres of shady woodland and open rolling pasture, and past lakes and streams. There’s always a magnificent view of the castle and a respected golf academy to call on if you’re looking to up your game.

Putting their lines into the Dromoland Lough seemed tame, so the fishermen among us took up a bolder adventure and set off at dawn with Dromoland’s resident ghillie. The River Shannon, where they were headed is, after all, the longest in Ireland and boasts some of the best salmon pools anywhere. With the luck of the Irish—and some expert guidance—our anglers were jubilantly triumphant. A nice touch: At the end of the day, the castle’s chef prepared their prized salmon for dinner.

While others were gallivanting on the greens or casting on the river, I was in my glory at Dromoland’s spa. Hidden inside the castle’s 16th century walls the spa’s six treatment rooms, including a couple’s room and mani/pedi suites, are a cozy place to spend a soft weather day. From tailored

anti-aging treatments for face and body to the “Golf Ball” massage (a deep muscle massage that uses the size, hardness and shape of a real golf ball to alleviate trigger points and muscle spasms), bespoke restorative time here is both blissfully indulgent and, I’m told, stroke improving.

Proper pursuits

Afternoon tea at Dromoland is certainly worth a mention. Served on pretty china with silver teapots and a tantalizing selection of proper loose teas, finger sandwiches, homemade jams, and fresh-baked scones and pastries, Mrs. White’s Afternoon Tea (named after a long-standing staff member) in the drawing room is a sparkling affair. No need for supper after this!

The pony and trap ride through the property, narrated by the most interesting of local guides, is perhaps my favourite activity. Full of blarney and plenty of Irish quips, time and centuries of progress vanish as we listen, learn and laugh with a chap who has undoubtedly found his calling—a genuine “old-soul” storyteller living in modern times. Complete with cap, boots and weathered tweed blazer, he knows every nook and cranny of the estate like he’s been here forever. I can’t help but wonder if he’s actually the current baron in disguise, but I’m too shy to ask.

All round, Dromoland’s a lovely retreat with an easy elegance and friendly Irish charm in which to spend a memorable few days.

dromoland.ie

Moran’s Oyster Cottage

Heads up, seafood lovers! A must-do outing for local oysters, lobster, mussels, fish and chips or crab, Moran’s can be found in a 300-year-old thatched cottage on a waterside cul-de-sac along the Wild Atlantic Way. Now run by the seventh generation of champion shuckers, who hold Irish, European and world titles, the cottage is about 40 minutes from the castle between Kilcolgan and Clarinbridge.

moransoystercottage.com

The Burren Perfumery

The Burren (an Irish word meaning “rocky place”)
is a remarkable limestone plateau that spans 100 square miles. Its majestic grey mountains and rolling green hills are home to more than 2,500 prehistoric tombs and monuments, and to extraordinary flora that a local family company forages to produce its all-natural perfumes and cosmetics. Everything is made by hand, on site
in the Burren.

A nice touch at Dromoland Castle: Guests are treated to a gift box of The Burren Perfumery’s environmentally mindful shampoo, conditioner,
hand lotion and body wash to use during their stay and take home.

burrenperfumery.com

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