With their cosy nooks and crannies, beautiful grounds and sumptuous suites, luxurious Irish castle-hotels enchant through the turnings of time. ALEXANDRA DESMOND explores the royal ties, family dramas and spectral visitors associated with Ireland’s most lavish accommodations
With Ireland being home to over 30,000 castles and stately ruins — the oldest dating back as far as the 11th century — these structures were the ultimate symbols of power and prestige. Expansive residences set on sprawling estates, it’s hard to believe these luxury lodgings were once family homes that spanned generations.
One such castle that has remained in the family name since its acquisition in 1665 is Castle Leslie Estate in Glaslough, Co. Monaghan. The estate was purchased by John Leslie, “the fighting bishop”, with a £2,000-reward from King Charles II in 1665, and members of the Leslie family have been living here ever since. Undergoing several alterations and extensions over the centuries, the castle as we know it today was completely remodelled in the 1870s.
The Leslie family history includes an interesting list of figures including military, political and royal dignitaries along with philanthropists, artists and all-around eccentrics. The estate was passed to Desmond Leslie in 1964, one of the few surviving wartime Spitfire pilots who also counted author and composer of electronic music amongst his achievements.
Desmond had an unusual interest in UFOs and flying saucers and went on to publish a book, Flying Saucers Have Landed, in the 1950s. It wasn’t until 1991 that he handed the estate over to his five children, and Castle Leslie is now run by his daughter, Samantha Leslie. Nestled on 1,000 acres of the undulating Irish countryside, the castle hosted the wedding of Paul McCartney and Heather Mills in 2002.
A national heritage site located along the River Shannon in Co. Limerick, Glin Castle is home to the FitzGerald family — hereditary Knights of Glin for over 800 years. Members of the FitzGerald clan first settled at nearby Shanid Castle in the 1200s, following the Norman invasion of Ireland.
Several colourful characters have held the title ‘Knight of Glin’, including Edmund, whose son, as legend has it, was taken hostage and tied to the mouth of a cannon during the famous Siege of Glin in 1601. Then there was the much-loved 25th “Knight of the Women”, who was said to have installed mistresses in each of the Gothic lodges. Later still, “Cracked Jack” (the 26th Knight) was given to riding his horse up the flying staircase to bed.
The 29th and last Knight, Desmond (1937-2011), was perhaps one of the most colourful of all. A respected scholar of Irish art, he also kept the FitzGerald tradition of entertaining and hospitality alive in the castle. The castle is now owned by Desmond’s daughter, Catherine Fitzgerald, and her husband, actor Dominic West, who hire out the venue to guests on an exclusive basis.
Also remaining in the same family throughout several generations is the picturesque Huntington Castle in Clonegal, Co. Carlow. Built as a garrison in 1625 by the Esmonde family, the castle was converted into a home for the family some 50 years later after the soldiers left.
Huntington is currently inhabited by the third generation of the Durdin Robertsons (Alexander and Clare), who are direct descendants of the Esmondes. Many generations have added various details and extensions to the castle.
The basement was even converted into a temple to the Egyptian Goddess Isis in the 1970s.
Another castle that originated as a garrison is Ballyseede Castle in Tralee. Originally the stronghold for the FitzGeralds, who held the title ‘Earl of Desmond’, Ballyseede endured 300 years of war before Gerald, the 16th Earl was beheaded in the estate in 1584. The castle was then handed to Robert Blennerhassett, who paid the nominal rent of a red rose (presented each year on Midsummer’s Day).
The Blennerhassett family went on to build the main castle in 1721, with an extension added later that century. Ballyseede remained in the family ownership until the death of Hilda Blennerhassett in 1965, after which the castle was transformed into a hotel that is now owned and run by the Corscadden family.
Legend has it that the ghost of Hilda haunts the castle basement and makes her presence known each year on March 24.
Arguably Ireland’s most famous castle of all, Ashford Castle in the tiny village of Cong, Co. Mayo originated way back in the 11th century at the hands of the Anglo-Norman family the De Burgos. The estate was the site of several major battles in its early centuries. Skip forward to 1852 when the legendary Guinness brewing family took ownership.
They immediately set about renovating and expanding the property in a neo-gothic style, while also adding The Lodge, which served as a guesthouse and residence for the estate manager.
The Guinnesses then bequeathed the castle to the Irish State in 1915. It was purchased by Noel Huggard in 1939 and it was he who was responsible for turning Ashford into a luxurious hotel. Today, Ashford Castle is owned by Beatrice and Stanley Tollman, who are behind the Red Carnation Hotel Group.
The nearby Belleek Castle in Ballina, Co. Mayo was constructed between 1825 and 1831 — the project was commissioned by Sir Arthur Francis Knox-Gore for the princely cost of £10,000. He lived here with his wife and nine children until his death in 1873. Mayo County Council purchased the building in the 1950s to use as a hospital and military barracks.
Then, in 1961, Marshall Thomas Doran (born Jack Marshall Fenn) bought Belleek and commenced the monumental task of converting the former manor house into a fine hotel and mediaeval museum. A man of many talents, Marshall was a hotelier, merchant marine officer, mediaeval antiquities expert and raconteur. Today, the castle is managed by Marshall’s son, Paul Doran, and Ms Maya Nikolaeva.
Among the oldest inhabited castles in Ireland, Kilkea Castle in Co. Kildare was built by the Earl of Ulster, Hugh de Lacy in 1180 for Sir Walter de Riddlesford, whose granddaughter married Maurice Fitzgerald and Kilkea went on to stay in the Fitzgerald family for the next 700 years — notable owners included Silken Thomas and his half-brother Gerald, who was also known as the Wizard Earl.
Kilkea Castle is home to several legends, most notable is the tale behind the castle’s monkey logo. The Fitzgerald family owned a mischievous pet monkey who regularly escaped and hid amongst the trees, which resulted in the family chaining him up to prevent this.
A fire broke out one night and the baby John, 1st Earl of Kildare, was said to be asleep in his room, with the monkey tied up in there also. Frantic, the family were unable to reach John as the fire raged. All of a sudden, the monkey appeared with the baby in tow, saving his life. A carving of a monkey can today be found in one of the castle’s chimneys and is said to be the reason there hasn’t been a fire since.
The Irish home of the Duke of Devonshire, Lismore Castle in Co. Waterford was built in 1185 by the soon-to-be King of England, Prince John and was used as a Bishop’s Palace before being bought by Sir Walter Raleigh, best known for introducing tobacco to the English court.
The castle was passed to the fourth Duke of Devonshire in 1753 and continues to be owned by his family today. Lismore has undergone a series of extensive restorations by various generations who ensured the historic charm of the castle always remained intact. Though the family still reside here, the entire castle is available to rent out on an exclusive hire basis.
Also sharing a royal association is Ballynahinch Castle in Recess, Co. Galway. Built in the 1750s, the castle was originally home to the O’Flaherty clan, who ruled Connemara. There was an amalgamation of fortunes in 1546 when Donal O’Flaherty married famed Mayo pirate queen Granuaile (Grace O’Malley) when she was just 16. The couple had four children before Grace took over as head of the O’Flaherty family when Donal was murdered by a rival clan.
Ballynahinch was reconstructed in the 1700s by the Martin family with the purposes of using the property as an inn. Indian Prince Ranjitsinhji Maharajah of Nawanger stayed in the castle in the 1920s — he ended up buying the place. He continued to holiday here every year until his death in 1932. Ballynahinch is today owned by businessman Denis O’Brien, who has (lavishly) completely refurbished the place.
Another Irish businessman of note, JP McManus took on the most painstakingly magnificent restoration project of all after he purchased the renowned Adare Manor in Limerick some five years ago.
Originally built in 1832 by the 2nd Earl of Dunraven and his wife, Lady Caroline Wyndham, Adare Manor shares many features of the 19th century Gothic Revival in Ireland and Britain.
The building is a rare example of a “Calendar House” in that it is adorned with 365 leaded windows, 52 ornate chimneys, seven stone pillars and four towers to mark the annual tally of days, weeks and seasons in a year. The majority of the original design work was completed by the Pain brothers, architects commissioned to design several public buildings and country homes.
The Manor House sits on an 840-acre estate (the same size as New York’s Central Park) which is made up of sweeping parklands, manicured gardens, a championship golf course and the trout-laden River Maigue.
The Pain brothers also contributed to the design of Kinnitty Castle in Birr, Co. Offaly. The neo-gothic-style castle dates back to ancient times with the original structure being built by the O’Carrolls at Glinsk around 350AD, approximately the same time an Augustinian Abbey was founded by St. Finian on the grounds of the present castle. The famous High Cross and Abbey Wall went on to be incorporated into the castle after the abbey was destroyed by Danes in 839AD.
The castle changed hands several times before the Irish State took it over for use as a Forestry Training centre in 1955. The Ryan family, descendants of the King of Spain, purchased the property in 1994, transforming it into the luxury 37-bedroom hotel which stands today.
Castle Leslie Estate, Glaslough, Co. Monaghan.
Tel: 047 88100
Amenities/Activities: Equestrian centre, archery, boating, Victorian treatment rooms, horse-drawn carriage rides.
Glin Castle, Co. Limerick.
Tel: 087 3294575
Amenities/Activities: Clay pigeon shooting, yoga, archery, evening whiskey tastings.
Huntington Castle & Gardens, Clonegal, Co. Carlow.
Tel: 053 9377160
Amenities/Activities: Castle tours, garden walks, a woodland adventure playground for children
Ballyseede Castle, Tralee, Co. Kerry.
Tel: 066 7125799
Amenities/Activities: Fishing, boating, art workshops, flower arranging.
Ashford Castle, Cong, Co. Mayo.
Tel: 094 9546003
Amenities/Activities: Golf, falconry, clay pigeon shooting, archery, spa treatments, fishing, horse-riding, boat trips.
Belleek Castle, Ballina, Co. Mayo.
Tel: 096 22400
Amenities/Activities: Castle tours, fishing, cycling.
Kilkea Castle, Castledermot, Co. Kildare.
Tel: 059 9145600
Amenities/Activities: Golf, spa, horse-riding, archery, falconry, fishing, whiskey tasting.
Lismore Castle, Lismore, Co. Waterford.
Tel: 058 54288
Amenities/Activities: Garden walks, tennis, fishing, yoga.
Ballynahinch Castle, Recess, Co. Galway.
Tel: 095 31006
Amenities/Activities: Fishing, hiking, shooting, cycling, horse-riding.
Adare Manor, Adare, Co. Limerick.
Tel: 061 605200
Amenities/Activities: Golf, fishing, spa, shooting, falconry, archery, horse-riding.
Kinnitty Castle, Birr, Co. Offaly.
Tel: 057 9137318
Amenities/Activities: Fishing, clay pigeon shooting, horse-riding, spa treatments.