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Most Famous Guests: Oscar Wilde, Ronald Reagan, John Lennon.
Perhaps the most renowned of all the Castle Hotels in Ireland, the 5 star Ashford Castle in Co. Galway, is an extremely impressive property, with an extravagant setting, an imposing exterior and very lavish interiors. Those factors combined with a great range of modern facilities, fantastic food and extremely high levels of service, make Ashford Castle a fairly consistent choice for any list of the best hotels in Ireland, Europe, and quite possibly the world.
They have a huge choice of rooms and suites, 83 in total, as well as one private ‘Hideaway Cottage‘ on the castle grounds. They are all individually designed, and with great attention to detail, containing many well chosen antique furniture pieces, works of art and high quality fabrics that compliment the castle’s original features. The result is old fashioned elegance and opulence but with all the modern luxuries of a five star hotel.
The grounds are as beautiful as you can imagine, the castle sits by the shores of Lough Corrib and has acres of formal gardens and lawns, as well as lots of wild, untouched woodland to be explored. Activities are numerous at Ashford and you can enjoy such things such as horse riding, boating, tennis, golf (9 hole course), archery, falconry, fishing and more without ever leaving the castle grounds.
The award winning, and beautifully designed, spa is a particular draw at Ashford Castle, with a great range of beauty treatments, holistic therapies, a gym and a swimming pool. The food too is world class, and can be enjoyed in four different dining rooms. You can go for fine dining in the very grand George V Dining Room or a more informal experience in The Dungeon or Cullen’s, and also enjoy afternoon tea like a victorian aristocrat in the elegant surroundings of the Connaught Room. There are also numerous bars at the castle, and for smokers there is comfort and style at the roof top cigar terrace.
The cinema is a very nice, and quite recent, addition to the castle facilities. It mimics beautifully some of the more glamorous picture houses of the early to mid twentieth century and, in keeping with the theme, shows a lot of old classic films as well as the odd more modern classic. Maureen O’Hara & John Wayne’s The Quiet Man of course gets a regular airing. It was shot in the local area and the two main stars made Ashford Castle their base for the duration.
Ashford Castle lies on the northern edge of Lough Corrib, where Co. Galway meets Co. Mayo, and less than a mile from the lovely little village of Cong and its famous 12th century abbey. Going west from the castle you will find yourself in the fabled Connemara, land of mountains, lakes and some of Ireland‘s most beautiful scenery. Galway city is about 40 minutes to the south while the journey from Dublin and its international airport should take about two and a half hours.
Though what we see today has evolved quite a bit, Ashford Castle dates all the way back to 1228, when it was the home of the de Burgo/de Burgh family, one of the earlier Norman families to have settled in the west after the initial invasions of Ireland that began in the South East in 1169.
The land had previously belonged to the most powerful family in Connaught, the O’Connors, who had, under the last High King of Ireland, Ruadhri O’Connor, strived valiantly to push the Anglo-Normans out. After many battles, many advances and retreats, treaties and broken treaties, the native Irish were to succumb to the more militarily advanced invaders and in less than ten years the majority of the country would be in foreign hands. Though the O’Connors were, for the time being, to keep most of their Connaught stronghold.
William de Burgh was the first of the de Burghs to settle in Ireland, a Norman Knight, his brother was the Earl of Kent in England, and by all accounts a powerful man. But in time William would match his brother’s power in the new political playing field that was Ireland. He arrived in the country in only about 1185, when the dust had settled somewhat on the main conflicts, and was soon granted, the newly titled, chief governorship of Limerick. He then, sensibly, strategically, managed to ally himself with one of the few remaining Gaelic royal families of the time, the O’Briens, by marrying the daughter of Donal Mor O’Brien, King of Thomond.
With his power consolidated in that region he quickly set about conquering Connaught and the O’Connor lands to the north, and before his death in 1204 he had gained a good foothold in Co.Galway, including the site of the present day Ashford Castle which was at that point an abandoned monastic settlement.
Over two decades after his death, his son Richard, in between continuing the assault on the O’Connors, made plans for the old monastery at Ashford to become the family seat. In 1228 the castle was built and was to become the stronghold of the House of Burke, a dynasty that would eventually take much of Connaught, and remain in a position of power there for more than three hundred years.
During those three hundred years the de Burghs/Burkes, like the majority of the first Norman invaders, were to become assimilated in to Gaelic culture and customs. They became pretty much undistinguishable from the ‘native’ Irish and their Norman ancestry would be, for all intents and purposes, an irrelevance.
An irrelevance it would also be to their Norman cousins across the Irish Sea, who were equally assimilated into England and now made up the bulk of the aristocracy and what became known as the Tudor Royal Family. The most famous of all these former Norman Tudors was King Henry VIII who, in the pursuit of domestic happiness, set off a chain of events that changed Britain and Ireland forever.
Spited by the Vatican’s refusal to grant him a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and emboldened by the spread of Martin Luther’s anti-Vatican Protestant Church, he would turn his back on the Catholic Church and shape his own, the Church of England. His loyal subjects in Britain mainly followed suit, but the Irish, having enjoyed circumstantial semi autonomy up until that point, mainly had not much of an idea as to who the King of England even was, never mind why they should bow to his favour. Thus Ireland became an obvious sore point which would lead to yet further English invasions of the country, invasions where the historically recent Gaelicization, and therefore independence from the crown’s will, of the, now Irish, Anglo Normans would make them just as much of a target as anyone else.
Ashford Castle would bear witness to this when it, and the Burke lands surrounding it, came under constant attack by the new, English Protestant appointed, Lord President of Connaught, Sir Richard Bingham. In 1589 the Catholic Burkes were forced out and it became the possession of the English.
Less than a hundred years later though, in a twist of fate, it was granted by the English to Dominick Browne, the very first Catholic mayor of Galway city since the Tudor invasions. An achievement in itself, for a Catholic mayorship was a revolutionary concept, and one which would have been a total affront to the traditionalists among the original Tudor powers; when to remain a catholic was to be native Irish, to be disloyal, and to be usurped immediately.
And so, as the rebel Burkes faded into political oblivion, in the more enlightened times of the 17th century, the Browne family, having somehow managed to keep a low profile during the previous sectarian wars, were now in a position to exploit the openness of the new era, where religion became just a suggestion of loyalty to the crown of England, and not an absolute decree, and thus Ashford Castle became theirs.
Ashford would then, against all the historic odds, remain comfortably with the Browne Family all the way up until 1852, when unsustainable lifestyles, and unsustainable debts, forced it into the so called Encumbered Estates Court. During that time though the Brownes would have already made some major renovation work on the castle, including the addition of the French Chateau style Hunting Lodge.
The new buyer was Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness, Lord Mayor of Dublin and a member of the famous brewing family. He added a couple of large Victorian style extensions to the castle and bought land around it to expand the estate to 26,000 acres. On his death in 1868 Ashford passed to his son Arthur, soon to be Lord Ardilaun, who developed the grounds and extended the building further in the Neo Gothic or Gothic Revival style fashionable in Victorian times. Arthur would die in 1915 and the castle was passed to the Iveagh Trust, a charity set up by the Guinness Family. Just over two decades later, in 1939, it was then sold it to Noel Huggard, a hotelier from Co. Kerry, and thus Ashford Castle began its life as a hotel.
The influential Guinness family had often hosted famous guests there in the past, King George V and Oscar Wilde being just two examples, and that tradition would continue in its new life as a hotel, welcoming a diverse bunch of celebs over the years to include the likes of John Lennon, Brad Pitt and US President Ronald Reagan.
Address: Ashford Castle Estate
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