Vacations in Ireland are not complete without a visit, or even better, a stay – particularly if it’s a ‘soft’ rainy day – in one of the many medieval castles located around its mountains and rugged shoreline.
Dromoland Castle in Country Clare, ancestral home of the O’Brien’s, Barons of Inchiquin and a 15-minute drive from Shannon International Airport, offers one such opportunity. Reached along a winding, tree-lined road that bypasses a boating lake and a golf course in the grounds, the grey-stoned, gothic-style castle comes into view over the tops of several undulating hills.
A spacious horseshoe driveway in front of ivy-bordered stone reception steps permitted us to unload our baggage before entering a splendid lobby, with a painted wood ceiling, replete with the trappings of a bygone era including two standing suits of armor complete with swords, a heavy wooden table with gargoyles carved on its sides, floral, beige-colored armchairs, wall tapestries and curtained reception area.
To the left, a passageway led to the ‘Billy Higgins’ souvenir and clothes shop, a small business center and rooms beyond while another hallway to the right led to the main restaurant, the ‘Earl of Thomond Dining Hall’, a lounge area and a small bar.
The molded, high-ceilinged, chandeliered lounge area, clothed in a plum-red and gold color scheme of matching curtains with tassels, walls and carpet, is, in effect, a large hallway lined with sumptuous armchairs and sofas, table lamps with bronze, porcelain and even bamboo stems and bases. Classic, gilt-framed oil portraits of barons and women of the Inchiquin family line the walls and an overall hunting theme is ably conveyed by paintings of horses and a series of trophies, mainly deer heads and horns.
The corridor ends in what is termed ‘the Gallery,’ a wider area consisting of two adjoining rooms with an open fireplace in one and a central bronze statute of Europa tied to the back of the God Zeus transformed as a bull. At the other end of the corridor is a winding, wooden staircase with the family emblem – three lions – carved on it. A large stained glass window overlooks the landing.
The bar area, formerly a turret of the castle, is octagonal-shaped with walls having built-in bookshelves, which also now house the bar’s wine and liquor bottles. A charming collection of porcelain Staffordshire dogs adorn the room each perched on its own individual shelf, spaced randomly at different heights around the walls. Above the door as you enter are a collection of Toby jugs and colorful porcelain barrels marked ‘gin,’ ‘port’ and ‘brandy’ behind the bar-shelf.
With the castle celebrating 50 years as a hotel property, the gourmet restaurant, Earl of Thomond, offered guests a ‘Nostalgic Tasting Menu,’ in addition to its standard a la carte offer. Paired with French and Australian wines, the 8-course dinner was a culinary journey through some classic dishes revisited by the chef such as prawn cocktail served with foie gras pate and smoked salmon Mimosa; Tournedos Rossini with truffle sauce in place of the traditional Madeira sauce; and fillet of sole Princess with poached sole rather than the pan-fried version.
Breakfast is also served here which allows guests to admire the opulent décor in the light of day – tones of olive green and dark military blue, gold leaf stucco on the ceiling and intricately-carved mahogany wood wall panels, brightened by crisp white table clothes and branded silver cutlery.
Like many castle in Ireland, Dromoland has an intriguing history with the O’Briens purportedly being one of the few native Gaelic families of ‘royal blood,’ direct descendants of Brian Boroimhe (Boru), High King of Ireland in the 10th century. In 1543, Morrough, then chief of the O’Brien clan, was forced to surrender his royalty to King Henry VII, thus becoming the Barron of Inchiquin and Earl of Thomond. The Inchiquin family have lived in Dromoland for over one thousand years. The castle’s present main building, with its four 80-foot towers, was completed in 1826. In 1962, it underwent major renovation to turn it into a luxury hotel and has undergone ownership changes since.
Our room was located on the second floor overlooking the front driveway and consisted of a spacious, airy bedroom and sitting room combined, featuring patina 19th century French style furniture, including a light green central sofa and coffee table, a round writing table with two chairs and a large free-standing wardrobe with a floral motif (the same motif that decorated several large wall mirrors in the room). The bathroom with a white stone-tiled floor was fitted with two wash-hand basins and a separate bath and shower (the water jet was the strongest I have ever experienced).
Situated off-road on 410 acres of rolling woodland and feral lakes, the Dromoland demesne is a walker’s delight.
It being rainy the few days we were there, we couldn’t fully enjoy the outdoor environment but we did embark on a couple of explorations and were rewarded with several sightings of young deer among the thickets. The hotel makes full use of its landholdings with a range of activities offered to guests including clay pigeon shooting, golf, outdoor tennis, lake boating and archery, to name but a few.
Truth be known, we participated in none of the above, instead spending most of our time indoors enjoying the serene, atmosphere of the castle and a little pampering in the hotel’s spa and its large outdoor Jacuzzi sheltered under a canopy. The award-winning ‘Spa at Dromoland’ deserves special mention. Housed in the main building and conveniently accessed through a set of carpeted stairs near the reception desk, it is a haven of peace and quiet, with soft music, comfortable treatment rooms and a relaxation room decorated with abstract Celtic art, flickering candles and massage chairs. After treatments using both Irish-based Voya products as well as those of Pevonia, a US- based company, we were served a small plate containing a delightful mix strawberries, blackberries and chocolate truffle, with both a small glass of fruit smoothie and an herbal tea. One signature facial treatment, ‘Lumafirm Lift and Glow Facial,’ that my wife experienced, was made even more enjoyable by the detailed knowledge offered by Aoife, the therapist who explained the procedure, which included a cleansing using Enzymo-Sphérides Peeling Cream (encapsulated enzymes in micro-sphérides to eliminate impurities) and Lumafirm repair cream, containing anti-free radicals. It worked, I could have sworn my wife glowed in the dim light of the relaxing room. Or maybe I was overly ecstatic following my combination organic oil and stone massage performed skillfully by Clare.
All in all, Dromoland Castle combines an authentic historical Irish setting with matching ambience and elegant decor with fine service and multiple activities both indoor and out.