The very name of Castlemartyr may conjure up images of fierce knights imprisoned in a medieval fortress, but actually this is a peaceful 18th century manor house on over 200 rolling acres of woodlands, formal gardens and a swan lake on the southern coast of Ireland.

Castlemartyr, an 18th century manor house in southern Ireland

Castlemartyr, an 18th century manor house in southern Ireland. Credit the Dromoland Collection.

Yes, there is an 800-year-old castle ruin shelled by Oliver Cromwell that evokes the centuries-long Irish-English conflict, but today life at Castlemartyr centers on leisure and pleasures.

800-year-old castle ruins and horses share Castlemartyr's 200 acres.

800-year-old castle ruins and horses share Castlemartyr's 200 acres. Photo credit the Dromoland Collection.

Your approach to the main house winds through a unique golf course (more on that later). You might pass a grazing horse or two, and if you’re lucky, as I was, see a newborn foal. Soon a stunning architectural panorama appears: the 18th century manor house flanked on one side by a 13th century castle ruin and on the other, by a contemporary glass rectangle that houses the spa.

Built by the first Earl of Cork, the manor house opened in 2007 after a painstaking restoration that incorporated many original features. Prized among them is the high ornate rococo stucco ceiling in the former ballroom; now the Knights Bar, it was designed by the famous 18th century stuccadore Robert West, and features carved birds, leaves, a peacock in the center and a stucco frieze circling the room.

The prized ornate rococo stucco ceiling in the Knights Bar, the former ballroom, features birds and leaves, Castlemartyr southern Ireland

The prized ornate rococo stucco ceiling in the Knights Bar, the former ballroom, features birds and leaves. Photo credit The Dromoland Collection.

Most of the resort’s 103 bedrooms are in two modern well-hidden four-story buildings behind the spa; the Presidential Suite and 10 other rooms are in the main manor house. Rooms are spacious, with dressing room areas and large bathrooms that usually have two sinks, a tub, stand-alone shower and separate toilet.

Sophisticated electronics control the lights, drapes, etc, via flat touch-glass panels; there is even a US electric plug. The resort’s free Wifi is strongest in the public rooms, but often barely makes it to the bedrooms.

The finest way to explore Castlemartyr is with Roy Daily, the estate’s carriage man, in a trap pulled by a pair of his Kerry bog ponies. He puts them through their paces, racing up inclines and doing figure eights around plantings, but the ride’s highlight is the historical tour.

The formal gardens and elaborately patterned hedges were designed by the great landscape architect, Lancelot “Capability” Brown, Castlemartyr southern Ireland

The formal gardens and elaborately patterned hedges were designed by the great landscape architect, Lancelot “Capability” Brown. Photo credit Joan Scobey.

Roy will drive you through the castle ruins that Oliver Cromwell shelled during the Cromwellian Wars of 1641-42, knocking off the eastern tip of the castle. He’ll tell you how the castle, built in 1210, and its lands belonged to the Knights Templar, the most famous of the Christian military orders, and how, in the following centuries, the lands changed hands many times among owners that included Sir Walter Raleigh.

He’ll drive you through the formal gardens and elaborately patterned hedges designed by the great landscape architect, Lancelot “Capability” Brown; across a little stone bridge onto the unusual links-style golf course; past the iron entrance gates that when closed form a map of the property; and to the attractive contemporary 2- and 3-bedroom “self-catering” lodges at the far corner of the parkland that enjoy all the resort’s facilities. And if unexplored areas still beckon, hiking and jogging trails are mapped out and bicycles for men, women, and children are at the ready.

Among Castlemartyr’s other onsite activities are fly casting and fishing, laser clay shooting, target archery, and a supervised kids program in summer (ages 4-8 belong to the Little Paws Club; 9-12 year-olds are in the Top Dogs Club). Off-premise pleasures include guided walking and bird-watching tours of the southeastern Irish coast, horseback riding and catamaran and yachting on the nearby Celtic Sea.

A trap pulled by a pair of Kerry bog ponies takes you through the castle ruins that Oliver Cromwell shelled, Castlemartyr southern Ireland

A trap pulled by a pair of Kerry bog ponies takes you through the castle ruins that Oliver Cromwell shelled. Photo credit Joan Scobey.

One of the resort’s prized facilities is the Castlemartyr Links Golf Club, an 18-hole, par 72, inland links-style course created by renowned golf course designer Ron Kirby. Although it isn’t surrounded on three sides by water (the traditional definition of a true links course), its terrain was molded in the classic tradition of inland links, with naturally-shaped lows and hillocks to create a dune-land effect. It is planted with low-maintenance fescue grasses to be as self-sustainable as possible, all part of Castlemartyr’s ecological green initiative.

Of course, Castlemartyr has a spa—what full-service resort hasn’t—and this one is a beauty: a spacious, 24,400 square foot contemporary two-story glass building enclosing a 20-meter pool, an infinity Jacuzzi with water lounges, nine treatment rooms, an extensive therapy menu, as well as a fitness center and full range of Technogym equipment.

For full details of spa treatments and facilities, see “Irish Bliss in County Cork” in Worldwide Spa Review.

Exploring County Cork
The peaceful distractions and sporting challenges of Castlemartyr may conspire to keep you happily at the resort, but resist the temptation. There is much to visit in surrounding County Cork, from nearby artisans to coastal museums, all within a few miles:

  • Shanagarry, home of an art gallery for Kilkenny Designs and the potter Stephen Pearce, and Ballymaloe House where Myrtle and daughter-in-law Doreen Allen launched the modern Irish culinary renaissance along the southern coast.
  • The “Jameson Experience” in neighboring Midleton spotlights the making of Irish whiskey in Jameson’s original Old Distillery.
  • The thriving city of Cork, with one of the largest natural harbors in the world and a recent European Capital of Culture, is the lively center of food and art festivals. Don’t miss its famous covered English Market, which dates back to 1610, where Queen Elizabeth II stopped by on a recent visit.
  • The port of Cobh (pronounced cove) has just opened the “Titanic Experience” in the original White Star Line building through which 123 Irish passengers boarded the Titanic at the second stop of its maiden voyage (first was Cherbourg after sailing from Southampton). Nothing tells the story of those passengers more poignantly than your entrance ticket, stamped with one of their names. After following the “captain” through the ship’s exhibits, you can look up your fate: did you survive? I was 18-year-old Mary Lennon Mullin of County Galway, sharing a third-class cabin with my 20-year-old “brother” Dennis of Ballymahon. We were both lost at sea, and it was never clear whether Dennis was my brother or we were eloping.

Castlemartyr Resort, County Cork, 011 353 21 4219000; www.castlemartyrresort.ie; Preferred Hotels & Resorts, 1.800.323.7500, www.preferredhotels.com. Rates range from about €195.00 to €450.00 per room (one or two persons), and from €675.00 for a suite, and include all leisure facilities, wireless internet access, and VAT and service charges.