Formerly a jail-house, court-house, town-house and library – the Old Ground Hotel in Clare in western Ireland has certainly played a pivotal role in Irish history.
In 1917, for example, this beautifully restored 18th century manor house was the site of a special convention that launched the political career of Eamon de Valera, recently released from prison after his involvement in the revolution the previous year. Selected as a local candidate, he eventually became the longest-serving President of Ireland.
More recently, after its purchase through a ‘blind auction’ by Allen Flynn in 1995, it became part of the Flynn Hotels Group, which also owns properties in Waterford, Cork and Kilkenny, and is now the de facto place to be seen in the town.
For Allen, a former accountant for PricewaterhouseCoopers who spent eight years in New York before returning home to Ireland, the Old Ground is far more than just an entrepreneurial venture in hospitality.
“It’s my second home, with strong sentimental attachment,” he said. “I remember coming here for holidays when I was a teenager.”
‘Second home’ and ‘sentimental attachment’ are phrases I feel, after spending two enjoyable nights here recently during the All-Ireland One Act Drama Festival, sums up the atmosphere of this hotel.
Service is genuinely warm and helpful, as exemplified by Fiona, a friendly receptionist, who – with a storm brewing outside – kindly offered me her own umbrella to keep me dry during an afternoon walk. Or Allen’s generous gesture of complimentary bottles of champagne for winners of the drama festival, with many of the actors, directors and stage and lighting designers staying at the hotel. And Benny, a young porter, who took me upstairs to see a 500-year-old fireplace from the abandoned Leamaneh Castle which has found a new home at the hotel.
Upon first sight, the Old Ground emanates a traditional-style welcome, with an outdoor patio with wrought-iron furniture embraced with branches from above and ivy clinging to the exterior walls of the hotel.
Inside, an elegant ‘homey’ atmosphere is enhanced by several rooms leading to the right along a narrow corridor from the reception desk, featuring brightly-adorned soft sofas and armchairs where guests sit relaxed, chatting amiably to each other. To the left of the reception desk is the ‘Poet’s Corner Bar,’ a cheerful pub-cum-restaurant.
Around the corner from the reception desk, a collection of black and white photographs depict market day in a bygone age on Spancill Hill, about which a popular Irish ballad was composed.
Originally the Old Ground hotel had 59 bedrooms, now it has 107 after two floors were added in 2004 and 2007.
My room, 501, was cosy and ample in size, featuring drape curtains the color of foliage, a music system, two soft armchairs, a writing desk, a coffee table and elegant framed paintings on the walls. The bathroom comprised both a deep tub, which provided immense evening pleasure after a day’s walking in the Irish rain, as well as a shower. Toiletries were by FieldDay in county Down in the northern part of Ireland. A pair of ornate bedside glass devilled brass lamps and a snug dressing gown made my evenings complete.
The hotel offers several dining options. The Town Hall Bistro, formerly Ennis’ Town Hall, serves coffee and freshly baked scones as a mid-morning break and a tasty, bistro-style lunch throughout the day. You can also treat yourself to afternoon tea with berry crumble or pear and chocolate tart sourced from local producers. At night, the Town Hall provides an intimate setting for dinner with candlelit tables. Other options include the spacious Brendan O’Regan Restaurant and the Poet’s Corner Bar.
Conferences and private events are well catered for at the Old Ground Hotel. The Lemenagh Hall, a Tudor style room, formerly Ennis town jail, accommodates around 30 people and lends itself to small conferences or as a boardroom. The recently-refurbished Banner Suite adjacent to it, formerly the upper floor of Ennis Town Hall, features floor-to-ceiling windows with capacity for 200 people for a gala dinner, while the Maguire Suite accommodates up to 60 guests for private dining.
A major advantage for the Old Ground Hotel, noted for its stone tower and its resident cat, OG, is its central location adjacent to the town’s main historical sites and shopping streets. It’s not by accident that Ennis is known as the ‘boutique capital’ of Ireland with many small, independent shops lining its pavements.
Ennis itself is a charming medieval town of narrow streets packed with pubs and cafes and was voted Ireland’s friendliest place. Renown for its music, it’s not difficult to find pub offering the lively traditional style. Simply stand still on the main street and listen. It’ll probably pour out of the doors.
To understand and enjoy the town best, I’d also advise booking a tour with well-informed academic Jane O’Brien of Ennis Walking Tours. In this way, in just over an hour you’d learn about the town’s rich history, including ghosts and myths, and the powerful and idiosyncratic individuals who shaped it through the centuries.
The hotel also benefits from the position of Ennis in relation to major cities such as Galway and Limerick, as well as to Shannon Airport, an easy 25-minute drive away. It’s also about a half-hour’s drive to popular tourism destinations such as the peculiar geological region known as the Burren National Park and to the towering Cliffs of Moher.