Ireland off season
Everyone loves to visit Ireland in summer, but to me, the dramatic fogs and winds of fall and winter best suit this green and haunted island.
Due to jet stream currents, Ireland experiences temperate weather, so it’s never miserably cold—as long as you dress in warm, water-repellent outerwear.
We were fortunate to grab some extra days over last fall’s Thanksgiving holiday. It proved to be the perfect time to tramp the rocky coast of West Ireland, and sleep in medieval castles.
We landed, as is usual on these overseas trips, in the wee hours of the morning. We picked up our rental car at Shannon Airport, then headed out in the dark to Limerick, about a half hour away—destination No.1 Pery Square, an elegant boutique townhouse hotel located in the city’s beautifully preserved Georgian heart. We flopped down to grab a nap under our room’s cloud-light down comforter.
Refreshed, we walked through the town—founded by Vikings in 922 on an island between the Shannon and Abbey Rivers—to explore the 12th-century St. John’s Castle and even earlier St. Mary’s Cathedral. Another highlight we stumbled upon was the small gem of a museum called The Hunt (what else?), containing one of the country’s greatest private collections of art and antiquities. Tea and crumble in The Hunt’s cafe was the ideal capper.
We walked through the pre-Christmas lighted streets and storefronts to John Hanly”s, purveyor of fine woolens for 117 years. Arms loaded with sumptuous blankets and throws of cashmere and lambswool, we staggered back to No.1 Pery Sq. Dinner in the townhouse’s gilded, mirrored dining room was simply heaven. And so to bed.
We drove out in the morning to Newmarket-on-Fergus, site of Dromoland, one of the most famous baronial castles in Ireland. Situated amidst hundreds of acres of woodlands and gardens on the banks of Lough Dromoland, the castle was the ancestral home of the O”Briens, one of the few native Gaelic families of royal blood, and direct descendents of Brian Boru, High King of Ireland in the 11th century. Originally a defensive stronghold, the structure was rebuilt in the 16th century. It remained in the family until the 1960s; the eighteenth Baron lives in nearby Thomond House, a sporting and leisure estate.
Little has changed since an 1800s renovation, but now it is one of Ireland’s finest castle hotels, retaining its stately country house atmosphere.
Besides the ultimate in bed and bath luxury, the castle serves food of the gods. Seriously. We overdosed on the massive, groaning breakfast board including myriad baked goods and artisanal cheeses; we ate locally sourced pheasant, fish, and beef for dinner; we saved up scones and clotted cream to bring on our drives through the countryside.
Dromoland not only has a lovely spa, but a top-notch 18-hole golf course and academy, tennis facility, complimentary mountain bikes, and hiking and picnicking trails galore. But why travel to Ireland for activities you can find at home?
We wanted to feel like guests at an Irish castle, so we considered archery, clay shooting, fishing, and riding, but we decided on falconry!
Dave Atkinson, head of the Dromoland School of Falconry, took my husband and me in his jeep to the back acres of the estate. As we trekked through the woods, I donned my special leather glove and, wielding a raw chicken leg, helped train Ruby, the Harris Hawk. Once she got to trust me, she divebombed through the trees, swooping down onto my wrist.
Dromoland was the perfect base for exploring the West of Ireland: The turbulent seas and windswept cliffs of Moher, where a double rainbow formed in front of our eyes (did that mean two pots of gold?); Bunratty Castle, still in wonderful shape, complete with furnishings, after 500 years; Bunratty Folk Park, Ireland’s version of Colonial Williamsburg, where thatch-roofed cottages have been preserved, interiors and all; and towns like Ennis and Doonbeg and Lisdoonvarna.
We even ate dinner on Thanksgiving (celebrated by us alone) in a small paneled drawing room decorated with gold cornices, heavy tasseled silk draperies, Waterford crystal chandeliers, and ancestral portraits staring us down. We were served in front of the fireplace, on a cozy, plumply pillowed sofa, where our server drew up a low table and brought in course after course of delicacies. Though we were far from family this year, it was one of the most memorable and stress-free Turkey-Day holidays in memory.
After a few nights at Dromoland, we drove down to her sister property in County Cork: Castlemartyr Resort. The castle itself, built in 1210, is in ruins, but its circa-1600s manor house, in the shadow of the castle walls, put us up in grand style. I expected Mr. Darcy, or his landed Irish cousin, to round the corner any minute.
Here, too, we had our choice of activities, including spending time at the world-class spa—probably the most expansive and impressive I’ve seen—but this time we chose to gallivant around the estate grounds in a pony trap. The driver, Sean, is a third-generation Castlemartyr horse trainer, and Bill and Ben, the sweet Irish ponies that pulled the trap, were of the breed raised only in this area of southern Ireland.
We trotted around the castle ruins, past the lake, through pastures where friendly horses grazed.
This base in Cork County was perfect for jaunts to the Rock of Cashel, a splendid, complex group of important medieval buildings; Cahir, where we went to tour yet another castle until we found we were castle-weary; the walled town of Youghal; the harbor towns of Kinsale and Cobh (this last the site of departure for Irish emigrants to America, and last port of call of the Titanic); and the riverside city of Cork. If only we’d had more time ….
Well, there will be another time, I”m sure of it.
No.1 Pery Square
Castlemartyr also has a group of fully provisioned townhouses, available by the week, that are perfect for family gatherings. I look forward to bringing my little granddaughter here some day to learn to love horses and to play with the rabbits, chickens, and dogs horse-trainer Sean keeps on the grounds just for these visiting kids to play with.