A crenellated parapet circling a thicket of chimneys and tall round turrets crown Dromoland Castle, looking for all the world like a medieval Irish bastion. Yes, the estate has an impressive noble heritage dating back to the 11th century: the ancestral lands of the O’Briens, Barons of Inchiquin, one of the few native Gaelic families of royal blood and direct descendants of Brian Boru, High King of Ireland in the eleventh century. Of the succeeding generations of O’Briens who had homes there, the most noteworthy was Sir Edward O’Brien, the 4th Baronet, who completed the present high Gothic-style castle in 1835. It quickly became known as “one of the most beautiful and desirable residences in Ireland.”
But as historically royal as that is, the birthday the Castle is celebrating is its 50th, a half century of welcoming hospitality since the private castle was transformed into a luxury hotel and sporting playground.
For that you can thank an American, Bernard McDonogh, who bought the property in 1962 from the O’Brien family. He added a wing, and transformed the neo-Gothic castle into a 99-room resort that today retains much of its historical flavor. As arriving guests step out of their cars, for instance, they are greeted by a formal row of smiling staff and a kilted bagpiper.
Inside, the public rooms are grandly baronial: stained glass windows, rich antique furnishings and paneling, coats of armor, ancestral portraits, and royal banners hanging by the grand staircase. Bedrooms, especially in the original wing, often have heavily draped four-poster beds, antique armoires, and sometimes claw-footed tubs in marble bathrooms; in the newer wings rooms are more familiarly hotel-like.
The Earl of Thomond Restaurant, the main dining room, is lit by a quartet of Waterford crystal chandeliers, damask covers the walls, tasseled drapes frame the windows. The classic menu, overseen by Executive Chef David McCann, features local foods, among them Irish lamb, vegetables from the castle garden, and regional cheeses. Diners often finish the evening in the adjacent octagonal bar, the former study of the O’Brien Lords, with Irish coffee and Gaelic music.
The Castle is surrounded by 450 acres of breathtaking scenery, including a river, forests, and its own lough (lake). The gardens are particularly noteworthy, their design based on the formal approach of Andre Le Notre, the legendary French landscape architect of Versailles. One walled garden is dedicated to roses, another grows herbs for the kitchen.
Perhaps the most curious structure on the estate is the small round Temple of Mercury, a classic columned folly built in the 18th century by Sir Edward O’Brien, a passionate race horse owner. According to legend, he once bet the whole estate on a favorite horse to win a particular race; fortunately, it did, and when the horse died, O’Brien built the Temple over his grave.
Over the last fifty years, Dromoland has grown into a full-service resort hotel, offering an array of activities that suit country gentlemen and everyone who wants to emulate them: clay shooting, archery, boating and trout fishing on lovely Lough Dromoland, tennis, mountain biking, and strolling the idyllic woodland. My own favorite is the ancient sport of falconry, taking a “Hawk Walk” (most of the birds of prey are hawks, not falcons) with instructors at the School of Falconry, who explain the natural history of the birds and their role in the environment, as well as how to actually handle them.
Of course, there is golf, not only a championship parkland course but a Golf Academy, the most modern practice facility in Ireland with driving stations, putting greens, a bunker, and a variety of grasses, slopes and other challenging lies.
The Spa is equally unique. The generally holistic treatments use certified organic VOYA products, seaweed based and hand-harvested on Ireland’s west coast by an Irish family-owned company. This reflects Dromoland’s robust sustainable initiative to reduce its carbon footprint throughout the estate, which has earned it national Green Awards for six years.
Every aspect of Dromoland, in fact, has won recognition; for instance, Travel + Leisure’s World’s Best Awards; Condé Nast Traveler Gold List, Europe, 2005–2013; and 2012 Fodor’s 100 Hotel Awards.
Dromoland regards the 50th anniversary as a grand excuse for further improvements, and is celebrating in appropriate royal fashion:
* An imperial logo depicting the main castle and a crown.
* A special lager from the Dungarvan Brewing Company, a blonde craft-brewed Irish ale, named Dromoland Pale Ale. Sporting the new castle logo, it is described as having “a hoppy bitterness and aroma, an astringent dry finish, distinctive fruits, and good length.”
* A Dromoland tartan, selected from a baronial collection, and produced by a mill that has spun, woven, and finished wool into tartans since 1837. Its stripes salute Castle colors: the green of wild grasses, the reddish-pink of the garden’s roses, the brown of fallen leaves, and the lavender feathers of its birdlife.
* A renovated Fig Tree Restaurant at the Dromoland Castle Golf and Country Club that also includes a bar area, library, and a patio.
* Stocking the estate with a variety of native flora and fauna in the continuing sustainable green initiative to reduce the property’s carbon footprint.
* The new Shop at Dromoland that sells castle-made jams from its own produce, and honey from its beekeeping boles that date to Elizabethan days.
Time now to raise a mug of Dromoland Pale and celebrate the historic anniversary. Slainte!
Dromoland Castle, Newmarket-on-Fergus; 800 346 7007; 011 353 (0)61 368144; rates from about €200 ($245) per person double occupancy, including full Irish breakfast, depending on the season and day of the week, plus special 50th anniversary packages.