Photo Credit: Julie Hatfield & Dromoland CastleWhat is so rare as a day in June? How about a day in Ireland in June, at a castle, playing golf? Many Americans go to Ireland to play golf on some of the finest courses in the world there. Others go to the Emerald Isle to visit many of the most stunning castles ever built. We decided to do both at the same time.
So we hopped into a rented car at Dublin Airport and – taking our lives in our hands driving on the "wrong" side of the road with their brain-teasing, reverse-directed roundabouts - drove to three fairytale castles to play a round on a noble course during the day and to live like royalty each night. Here are the three castles with golf courses attached that we visited:
Our suite featured a four-poster bed, a view of Lough Corrib, the second largest lake in Ireland, and an enormous bathroom with claw-footed tub, fireplace and state-of-the-art glass shower with tiny stained glass castle windows. Normally we would have been more than happy to settle into this grand accommodation for our entire two nights' stay, but the Ashford golf course beckoned.
A friendly nine-hole course, next to the castle in what was originally a Red Deer park, it was designed by Irish golf architect Eddie Hackett, with no water hazards and little or no rough. It lacked the excessive manicuring that American golf courses offer (you putt on natural grass greens that may reveal an occasional worm residue), but if Bob Hope and Tom Watson could enjoy it, so can we.
In fact, there is a plaque on Hole 3, now called Watson’s Way, stating that Pro Watson once hit an unbelievable 391 yard-drive from the tee to the green, over the trees and around the dogleg, to come within a few feet of the tee. One putt later he had an amazing, never duplicated Eagle. Hole 4 is known as the Shamrock Hole, with an elaborate bunker formed in that shape.
You can ride horses at Ashford, learn how to train a hawk to come to your hand in Ireland’s first school of falconry, fly fish in the lake or the River Cong, shoot clay pigeons, stroll to the gardens and of course enjoy all three meals in three different restaurants on the castle grounds. Oh yes, and the golf course is complimentary to all Ashford guests. We fit as much as humanly possible into our two-day, two-night stay. Room prices range from $254 to $1400.
Vibrant colors and floral patterns abound, and while the royalty who lived here originally had no indoor plumbing at all, our marble bathtub was fitted with a built-in television set so we could watch the news or sports while bathing.
Dromoland was the ancestral home of the O’Briens, Barons of Inchiquin, one of the few native Gaelic families of royal blood. You can feel the royal touch in the formal Earl of Thomond restaurant with its oak wainscoting, and in the cocktail bar formerly the baron’s study. The restaurant features locally sourced produce and customized fine wine recommendations by the knowledgeable sommeliers.
The new Dromoland Spa includes vibrating lounge chairs so that you can be massaged by the chair while waiting for your real life massage; and the 18-hole parkland golf course, designed by Brook L. Wigginton, winds around Lake Dromoland. Golfers are accompanied on the course by meadowlarks and pheasants. The fescue is rough and challenging and the greens are well manicured with elevated tees, most especially the 7th hole which presents a spectacular view of the castle.
In the sweet town of Newmarket-on-Fergus, Dromoland takes up 410 acres of unspoiled woods and parkland. Dromoland boasts a state-of-the-art golf academy with nine driving range bays and fully automated "Power Tees" alleviating the need for bending down for your next ball.
In addition to falconry, guests can go clay shooting on the property, play tennis, cycle using the castle’s complimentary mountain bikes, practice archery, and fish in the lake, which is well stocked with trout and perch. Dromoland is near Limerick and just eight miles from Shannon Airport. The average room price is $546
To have a pedicure while gazing down at the enormous swimming pool, which overlooks the formal gardens of the baronial estate, while dreaming of the dinner of smoked Irish salmon and young spring Irish lamb in the pretty Castlemartyr dining room is luxurious relaxation at its finest.
But we were there to golf, and Castlemartyr’s inland links-style golf course challenged us to the core. Too bad the former owners Knights Templar, Sir Walter Raleigh and the first Earl of Cork were not here when the Ron Kirby-designed course was made. The natural shaping of lows and hillocks create unpredictable bounce and lies. A range of native grasses, fescue and gorse surround the long holes. This was obviously designed as a walking course, as cart paths are sometimes far from the hole and tee.
The members’ clubhouse, while copying the same gray of the castle ruins, is a surprising Bauhaus-like contemporary boxy structure that shocks the golfer looking for a traditional place from which to start the game. The 220-acre woodland estate, built by Henry Boyle, Earl of Shannon, includes a lake graced with swans, a ballroom, and a Knights Bar with its renowned Irish whisky collection. From 1929 to 1996, the Carmelite Fathers owned it and opened a boarding school for boys. Everything since has been restored and modernized, and the guest rooms are up to the minute with their amenities and décor.
The beautiful restaurant at Castlemartyr, overlooking the manor gardens offered Irish fresh local fish, meat and produce taken to gourmet heights. Example: a starter of confit duck and foie gras, celeriac remoulade, caper and raisin puree and a main course consisting of pan fried sea bass with bok choi, potato gnocchi, onion, chervil and mussel sauce. Heaven.