Here are our recommendations & reviews of the best luxury castle hotels in Ireland, hotels that provide accommodation which no other type of luxury hotel can match.
BALLYNAHINCH CASTLE HOTEL, CO. GALWAY:
In a beautiful setting in the wilds of Connemara, Galway, Ballynahinch Castle has acres of woods, a lake and a famous salmon fishing river on its grounds, within which you’ll find miles and miles of beautiful country walks. It also makes a superb base for further exploration of some of Europe’s most iconic scenery.
The hotel itself is full of old world charm, and is a relaxed, sociable place that effortlessly mixes the formal and informal, with fine dining in the Owenmore restaurant and traditional Irish Pub ambience in the Fisherman’s Bar. There are no business meeting facilities here and no spa or the like. It is a place for unpretentious, old style recreation and relaxation, and it has a rich history spanning over 500 years of greatly changing times in Ireland.
The early history of Ballynahinch belongs to the O’Flaherty Clan, who controlled most of the land and the coastline of Connemara in medieval times, an area known then as Lar Connaught. They had a castle at Ballynahinch but not what is now the castle hotel; Their original castle was built sometime in the 1500s on an island on Ballynahinch Lake, the ruins of which are still there to be seen today.
Perhaps the most famous resident of that castle was Grace O’Malley, or Grainne Uaile, the often mythologized Pirate Queen of Connaught, who married Donal O’Flaherty in 1546 in what was something of a power marriage, uniting two of the most dominant Gaelic families of the time. Less than twenty years and three children later her husband would be killed in an ambush by a long term rival clan, the Joyces, and Grace left Ballynahinch to return to her ancestral lands, taking many O’Flaherty followers with her. From her new base at Clare Island she would then start to gain infamy as the most notorious pirate of the western seaboard.
Opportunistic, unsophisticated forms of piracy were endemic among the Irish of the time. It went from the plundering of passing ships to the the extortion of money from vessels in return for safe passage, and under Grainne’s leadership on the western seaboard the O’Malleys were the most effective of them all. In between, of course, engaging in the traditional sideline of feuding with other clans in the area, most notably in this case, the McMahons of Doona who were a constant thorn in their side.
Since the time she left Ballynahinch she also held great influence among the O’Flahertys, who were at this stage divided among those loyal first to Donal O’Flaherty and, after his death, to his wife Grace/Grainne, and to those loyal to Murrough-ne-Doe O’Flaherty who had conspired with the ever encroaching English to declare himself Lord of Lar Connaught. The castle at Ballynahinch was to bear witness to that struggle, being captured by Murrough-ne-Doe in 1584 before being taken back in the same year by Grace’s sons, Owen and another, also named Murrough, but not for very long.
As the years went on the more organised English began to exploit the violent discord among the clans of Connaught, and of course of Ireland generally. So much so that by the time Grace O’Malley died in 1603, the dying of the light; the disintegration of the old Irish Gaelic order, and the Anglicization of the country, was well underway. Ballynahinch was to become symbolic of this, passing from the old Gaelic clan of the O’Flahertys to one of the fourteen Anglo-Norman Tribes of Galway.
The Martins were one of the first of The Tribes to venture out from the walled security of Galway City when, for providing support to Queen Elizabeth I’s Irish campaigns, Richard Martin was granted much of the lands of the, by now very weakened, O’Flahertys. Ballynahinch wasn’t included in this, as it happens, but he was later to buy it from them, and over the next few centuries as the English took complete control, the O’Flahertys, like all the other old Gaelic clans, were to become no more than peasant farmers on their own ancestral, royal, lands.
It was the Martins who would build what is now Ballynahinch Castle Hotel in the late 1700s. In fact it started life as something of a hotel, or an inn, as they were described in those days before reverting, almost a hundred years later, to a family home. The first of the Martins to call it home was a much admired figure, well ahead of his time; he was also named Richard Martin, and was an M.P. who, though a Protestant, was a keen supporter of Irish tenant farmer’s rights, Catholic emancipation and the abolition of slavery. He became most famous of all though for introducing the quite revolutionary “Cruelty to Animals Act” to the House of Commons in 1822. The bill was passed and it led to the formation of the R.S.P.C.A., the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which in turn inspired many other similar organizations around the world.
He had two nicknames, the first was Humanity Dick, a sarcastic jibe from his parliamentary colleagues about his, of the time, very progressive views. The other came from being known around Galway for his skills with a pistol, and from having been involved in, and survived, countless duels. This earned him his other nickname, one which, like it or not, is a lot more likely to be misinterpreted today; Hair-Trigger Dick. He was also known as something of a generous bon-vivant and Ballynahinch Castle was to witness many lavish parties before Hair-Trigger Dick, having hopefully enjoyed himself thoroughly, escaped to France under a huge cloud of debt, where he died in Boulogne in 1834.
After his death the huge Martin Estate, and with it the castle, were forcibly sold through the Encumbered Estates Court, where it was bought as an investment by the Law Life Assurance Company of London. They later sold it to the, very solidly Anglo, Berridge Family who set about restoring the by now somewhat decaying building, while also enlarging it in the process.
Moving on to 1924, with the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War having just concluded, the castle and estate were bought up by another famous character, one you probably wouldn’t expect to turn up in rural Ireland in the turbulent years of the early 20th century.
To give him his full title, he was His Highness the Maharaja Jam Sahib of Nawanager, more colloquially known as Ranji, Prince of Cricketers. He was the ruler of the Indian state of Nawanagar, a very famous cricketer, and by all accounts a fabulously wealthy man. Having bravely visited Ireland for numerous fishing holidays he fell in love with, and decided to buy, the Ballynahinch Estate, and it was he who was responsible for the original landscaping of the gardens we see today.
Ranji was also a flamboyant character, noted for his generosity and he threw many great parties at the castle. It is said too that on many occasions he would turn up in Ballynahinch with a fleet of motorcars which he would then give to locals as gifts before leaving for again for India.
He died in 1933 and his son sold it on to a McCormack family from Dublin before, in 1946, it was acquired by the Irish Tourist Board which preserved the building and opened the castle and the salmon fishery to the public for the first time. They sold it on in turn to an American businessmen, Edward Ball, who sold shares in the castle ownership with the consortium then being led by another American, Raymond Mason. Mason renovated and thoroughly upgraded the facilities in the early eighties, and then had the distinction of receiving perhaps the castle’s most famous guests; former U.S. President Gerald Ford and, on a different occasion, former U.K. Prime Minister James Callaghan.
WHAT TO EXPECT:
There is a nice old fashioned, though quite unstuffy, atmosphere at Ballynahinch, and it is a place which forgoes excessive pampering of its guests in favour of championing the quiet charms of the surrounding natural environment.
There are no spa facilites or massages on offer here, instead guests find relaxation and recuperation in long walks through the silent woodlands or by sitting quietly by the gently flowing river.
Some guests will prefer the fine dining on offer at the Owenmore restaurant while other prefer the food, drink and more sociable, carefree atmosphere of the Fisherman’s Bar which sometimes has live traditional Irish music.
The rooms have something of an early to mid 20th century manor house feel to them, very much eschewing modern styling though not modern hotel levels of comfort. Connemara is of course a wonderful place to explore and the hotel can provide a wealth of information about what to do and where to go. It also has a concierge service and can organize all sorts of tours and activities for guests, from golfing, guided hikes and boat rides to horse riding adventures and mountain biking.
CABRA CASTLE HOTEL, CO. CAVAN.
Co. Cavan isn’t generally an obvious destination for foreign tourists to Ireland, it’s an unassuming, typically rural, inland county that many people only end up passing through on their way from Dublin to the more mountainous, coastal charms of places like Sligo or Donegal. This location might be one of the reasons Cabra Castle is more under the radar for foreign visitors than other castle hotels in Ireland, but it has to be said that the castle itself alone might just make a detour worthwhile.
It is a very impressive, and very large, building, constructed in the early 19th century on the site of a more ancient castle. It was designed in a quite unique Neo-Norman style which gives it the look and feel of a much older property. The interiors are beautifully finished, though having been upgraded and renovated at various times throughout the years, they retain the elegance of a bygone era. There are lots of antique furniture pieces throughout the building too and with the amount of space inside there are endless places to admire the grandeur and to soak in the atmosphere.
Cabra doesn’t have such a long and illustrious history as, say, Ballynahinch Castle above. It too though was to bear witness to the destruction and violence of possibly Ireland’s worst ever times, the mid 17th century, having originally been, just like Ballynahinch, confiscated by the English from the old Gaelic clans. From then on though Cabra had a more peaceful time, and the stories that inhabit the castle and the surrounding estate are more personal, family affairs rather than famous tales of heroism, blood and fire.
Like all the castles in Ireland from the 17th century onwards it was inhabited by what were later to be known as the Anglo Irish. People of British stock who were, in the main, granted lands in Ireland as a long term strategy to punish and control the rebellious Irish, and who would become the aristocratic overlords of the country.
The most famous exponent of this strategy was the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, and it was he who seized the Cabra lands from the native O’Reilly clan in 1650 and handed it to a loyalist, Colonel Thomas Hooch. The O’Reillys had a castle on those lands but it was destroyed in the fighting and would lay in ruins ever since. Hooch’s only daughter would end up marrying into another wealthy Anglo Irish family from Co.Meath, the Pratts, and Cabra would from then on become synonymous with the Pratt name, handed down by them for generations up until the middle of the 20th century.
The site of the castle hotel was part of the old O’Reilly lands but in a section that was granted to other Cromwellian loyalists the Fosters, and it wasn’t until 1818, just after what is now the castle hotel had been built, that the Pratts were to own it. This castle was built by a Henry Foster on the site of another ruined castle and it was a very ambitious, landmark project that ended up almost bankrupting the Foster family. Not long after Henry had completed the project they were sadly forced to sell and it was then that the Pratts, their next door neighbours and already linked by marriage, were to step in.
Colonel Joseph Pratt was the head of the family back in 1813 and the first to move in, calling the castle Cabra Castle, thus linking the historic Cabra Estate with the Castle which we know today. The Pratts were to remain at Cabra for most of the 19th century but a marriage by a male heir into the Jackson family of Enniscoe in Mayo lead to him moving there and leaving the Cabra Castle somewhat abandoned. The next heir, Mervyn Pratt, was born and spend most of his his life in Mayo thereby allowing the castle to become more abandoned still and by the mid 20th century it had fallen very much into disrepair.
By 1964 it would be sold on to a local family, the Brennans, who set about extensive renovation work and opened it as a hotel. They in turn sold it in 1986 to Ahmad Mansour a politician from the U.A.E. who wanted to use it as a private residence but somehow never got around to it and sold it again five years later to the Corscadden Hotel Group who run it as a luxury hotel to this day.
WHAT TO EXPECT:
There are luxury rooms both in the castle and outside in what they call the cottages or old courtyard, formerly the servants quarters. In the castle for many will be preferable but the outside rooms are also plush and inviting and can possibly offer better value, as you are of course free to use the common areas of the castle as much as you like with either type of accommodation.
The castle itself is an impressive sight, and there is a large amount of space to explore inside, with old style drawing rooms, grand old staircases and corridors, as well as a very nice bar, the Derby Bar and a fine restaurant, the Courtyard Restaurant. The castle is also something of a local tourist attraction in these parts and day visitors have entry for a few hours each afternoon. Wedding receptions are also extremely popular which can add an extra bit of colour, and well, noise, to weekend evenings, especially over the summer.
The grounds have nicely tended gardens, a 9 hole golf course and a tennis court (you can rent clubs, rackets etc. at the hotel.), but what makes Cabra quite special is its location beside the Dun A Ri Forest Park which is a beautiful, peaceful place, ideal for long walks and with a few unassuming historic sites along the way, an ancient castle ruins for example, two historic bridges, and a holy well. The staff at Cabra are much praised by visitors for their friendliness and efficiency, they are a good source of advice about things to do around the area, and will be happy to arrange things like fishing trips, archery and horse riding for those interested.
ASHFORD CASTLE HOTEL, CO. GALWAY:
Long the jewel in the crown of Irish Castle Hotels, and more than ever after its acquisition, and subsequent upgrade, by the Red Carnation Hotel group in 2013, the 5 star Ashford Castle is a globally recognized brand. Guests come with extremely high expectations, but these expectations are met consistently and comfortably by this extravagantly beautiful hotel.
Ashford Castle sits on the wooded shores of Lough Corrib in north Co. Galway, with the lake and its small islands stretching out on front and the ancient broad leaved woodlands covering the rear.
The building is huge, and a very imposing sight from the outside, while the interiors are a veritable showcase of lavish splendor. In its history as a hotel it has always embodied old fashioned sophistication and class complimented in recent years by the addition of more modern facilities.
Historically Ashford Castle is synonymous with two famous surnames; De Burgo/De Burgh/Burke and Guinness. William de Burgo was a Anglo-Norman knight who arrived in Ireland in 1185, sixteen years after the initial Norman invasions. He was very well connected with the Norman aristocracy of the time and was immediately granted the title of Chief Governor of Limerick.
He married into a local Irish Gaelic clan, the O’Briens, and before long started pushing for land to the north, in Connaught, which was at that time mainly under the control of the powerful O’Connor clan. William de Burgo would die in 1204 but by that stage he had already gained a foothold in Co. Galway and the land where Ashford Castle would later be built. In those days it was the site of an old monastery and in between bothering the O’Connors in other areas it was William’s son Richard who would build Ashford Castle in 1228.
Ashford was a fine building from the start, it became a worthy base for the de Burgo family who would evolve over the next three centuries into an even more powerful dynasty known as the House of Burke. Though they were originally Norman in origin the family too would evolve, becoming for all intents and purposes indistinguishable from the ‘native’ Irish that they displaced.
This might have been an asset for most of that time but come the turmoil of the 16th and 17th centuries their Irishness and resulting disassociation from the powers that be in England meant that they were as much a target as anyone else. Those powers that be; the Tudor Royal Family in England were also of course of Norman descent, but descent meant nothing when religion and loyalty, or lack of it, to the Crown became the only means to tell enemy from friend. King Henry VIII had famously turned his back on the Catholic Church around that time and expected his loyal subjects to pledge allegiance to the newly formed Protestant Church of England.
As with all power shifts and struggles that occurred in the England of those times the first the Irish would really know about it was when English armies would be sent to bring the notoriously disloyal locals into line. In 1589 the still Catholic, and thereby equally disloyal, Burkes would be forced out of Ashford by the invaders when it became the official possession of the English Crown.
One hundred years later the castle would be granted to Dominick Browne, Mayor of Galway, who was, unusually enough for a man in such a position of power, a Catholic. Thus Ashford became quite unusual in the story of Irish castles, being held, relatively undisturbed, by a Catholic family for the next couple of hundred years.
During that time the Brownes made many upgrades to both the castle and the grounds and it was very much the grandest property around before they went bankrupt in 1852 and were forced to sell. The new buyers were the infamous Guinness brewing family. They too made some major upgrades to the property, introducing the distinctive Neo Gothic or Gothic Revival style that we see today and increasing the size of the estate to 26,000 acres.
It became an even more landmark property under the Guinnesses and would play host to such distinguished guests as Oscar Wilde and King George V.
Despite their wealth the Guinness family didn’t keep Ashford for very long though and it was sold in 1939 to a Co. Kerry hotelier named Noel Huggard who was the first to open its doors to paying guests, who, over the years included some other distinguished names; John Wayne and Ronald Reagan to name but two.
WHAT TO EXPECT:
It is quite difficult not to pour superlatives all over Ashford Castle, being truly one of the world’s greatest hotels. It always had grandeur and status and now, with the quite recent addition of new more modern facilities, it covers almost everything for an ultimate vacation experience.
Though the phrase ‘treated like royalty’ can be applied to any of our recommended castle hotels, Ashford Castle it takes it to another level. The 5 star service, the food and drink, and the extra opulence of the interiors are equalled by the great choice of facilities on offer.
There really is so much to do; catch a film at the beautifully retro cinema, practise falconry or archery in the gardens or boating and fishing on the lake, relax and recharge at the spa, take a swim in the pool or enjoy fine dining, the list goes on.
The building is enormous and has a total of 83 accommodation options, from top of the range suites to a private hideaway cottage on the castle grounds. None will disappoint, they are beautifully designed and offer every modern comfort. It is a 5 star hotel, one of the world’s greatest, after all.
A work in progress..More to be listed soon. In the meantime you can check out all the above, plus more castle hotels in Ireland at Manor Castles.