Ireland Part Four: handmaidens, unicorns, and pirate queens

Once upon a time there were two peasant women, an aunt accompanied by her niece, and they were in search of a castle.  They were traveling in an economy Ford Fiesta and were hoping to reach the castle before the drawbridge was raised for the night.  Both were hopeful they would be welcomed and not forced to work as handmaides. 

We had no idea what to expect from Ballynahinch Castle.  Most of my ideas about castles are based on fairytales and BBC dramas.  I'd never actually been to a castle before, but in my imagining there was usually a moat, a drawbridge, a tower, and a Mr. Darcy.  This castle, Ballynahinch, is located in the region of Connemara, a peninsula northwest of Galway.  It's a more remote area, slightly off the beaten path, as we discovered in our search to find it.  Ballynahinch had not actually been in our plans.  Galway was the destination of desire, but there were no rooms available.  There were horse races going on and the city was packed.  The nearest accommodation was at this castle and my aunt was slightly dismayed at how far it seemed to be from Galway.  As we drove farther out, the landscape started to change.  There were fewer houses until there were almost no houses, the landscape became rocky and there were small mountains and hills popping up, usually flanked by a lake or a waterway.  There was none of the busyness of Kerry, no tour buses, and few other cars.

We were unsure of where the castle was located exactly.  I had a couple of towns marked on the map where we thought it might be, but we were counting on signs.  The driving hadn't been that difficult this day, but as the area became more remote and the sun began to set, our need to find this castle felt urgent.  I had visions of the Fiesta breaking down leaving Lucy and I to stumble across the moors with the "hounds of hell" on our heels (have you read The Hound of the Baskervilles?).  I think I may have been expecting lots of signage advertising the castle because I'm an American and I've been to Wall Drug.  The idea that this castle might be a gimicky King Arthur playland, complete with reenactments, was dissipating.  We weren't seeing any signs and soon we would be nearing a turn-off that we should maybe take, but neither one of us knew for sure.  Fortunately, out-of-nowhere came a discreet sign on the corner of a country road that said Ballynahinch Castle with an arrow pointing down the road and the number of Kilometers to get there.  So, off we went down the little road and we drove and we drove and it seemed like we had gone much farther than what the sign said.  We were about to give up and drive back to reread the sign, when all of a sudden there was another little sign that said Ballynahinch, 40 meters (or something like that) and it wasn't long before we saw the sign that pointed to the entrance.  

As we made our way up the drive, we ceased talking.  The suspense over Ballynahinch Castle hung in the air.  We were at the base of a mountain following a lane that curved back and forth with trees and flowers on both sides and a shimmering river off to the left.  The castle stayed out of view until we reached the top of the lane and then there it was.  

The magnificence of the building and the setting is beyond words or pictures.  We pulled up and parked the Ford Fiesta in amongst the Bentleys and the Mercedes.  We still hadn't spoken and we dared not even look at one another because it all seemed too good to be true.  How had we ended up here? This couldn't possibly be our castle.  Unless, maybe they had some musty cabins down by the river.  We left the car and walked up to the castle door.  It opened as we approached and there stood a man in a white shirt, tie, and vest.  He ushered us inside, where we were greeted at an elegantly carved desk by a woman named Jane.  

There was no mistake, we were officially registered as guests at Ballynahinch.  It was about 9 p.m. and as Jane checked us in, she said "Oh ladies, it looks like you've had a hard journey, are you hungry?"  How did she know?  We were starving for everything this castle had to offer: the food, the ambience, the luxury, and the castleness of it all.  Jane called upon the pub manager to see what he could do for us since the restaurant was closed and the pub had just stopped serving food.  When he arrived, he greeted us and also said, "Oh ladies, it looks like you've had a hard journey, are you hungry?"  I'm not sure what we looked like, but Ireland is hands down one of the most hospitable places on Earth.  The pub manager offered to put together a cold platter of smoked salmon, prosciutto, cheese, and bread along with a tomato bisque soup.  We were then shown to our room, which was not a musty cabin.  It was a suite on the top floor of the castle, complete with canopied bed, walk-in shower, jacuzzi tub, walk-in closet, views of the castle grounds, and a sitting area. After the porter left us, Lucy and I did our jumping up and down, squealing, hugging etc.  Then we collected ourselves, put on our cool faces and went down to enjoy our salmon and wine in the quiet castle pub.  We spent the next two days soaking it all in: the grounds with their walking trails, the food, the company, and the beauty of Connemara and its seaside towns.  We never made it to Galway and we didn't care.  

It's no wonder Colman Andrews devotes an entire chapter to salmon in The Country Cooking of Ireland.  Salmon in Ireland is plentiful and delicious. The restautant at Ballynahinch can serve salmon caught fresh from the estate's fisheries.    

Some things you should know about Ballynahinch:
  • The history of this castle goes back to 1384.
  • Writers love Ballynahinch and it has a distinct connection to the literary arts.
  • It's nestled on a 450 acre estate of woodlands, gardens, lakes, and rivers.
  • You may see unicorns grazing on the estate grounds, but only if you have "the gift" of sensing their presence as I do.
  • The castle restaurant is amazing and has been recognized by Food & Wine magazine time and again.
  • Crackling logs burn away in the reception area fireplace nearly all the time.
  • There is a library with leather wing chairs and its own fireplace.
  • When you look out at the castle grounds from the gabled windows of your room, you believe your name is Princess So-and-So.  
  • One of the most famous residents was the pirate queen of Connaugh, Grace O'Malley.  She moved in around the year 1546.
  • Live music in the pub on Saturdays.  
  • Fly fishing is the main reason many guests come to Ballynahinch.  There's even a fisherman on staff.
  • The crowd is high society at its casual best.
  • The night porter, John, knows far more about Irish writers and Irish history than any college professor.
  • Unfortunately, there are no ghosts at Ballynahinch.
  • The castle staff are splendid.
  • Ballynahinch is a castle of the people and for the people.

Secret passageways at Ballynahinch.
The town of Roundstone, Connemara.

1 comment:

  1. Oh my goodness, this looks to be the most beautiful place on earth! And your narrative on it makes me want to travel there :-) Thanks so much!