The Real Castles of Ireland

There's the storybook version of an Irish castle hotel, all costume and falconry. And then there's a lesser-known sort—family-owned places that are smaller, a bit eccentric, and absolutely brimming with history and charm.

Ballynahinch Castle Hotel, on a 450-acre estate near Galway Bay
Ballynahinch Castle Hotel, on a 450-acre estate near Galway Bay (Cedric Angeles)

"Declan would like to take you up to the castle now," said Cecilia, my waitress, one blindingly clear Irish morning as I plopped down for breakfast in the dining hall at Ballinalacken Castle Hotel. This was the first of several castles along the Atlantic Coast that I planned to explore over the next four days, and, too bad for Cecilia, I intended to take my own sweet time doing it. I nodded OK to her but reached for the coffee anyway, admiring the view of the 700-foot-tall Cliffs of Moher through the floor-to-ceiling windows.

"Before the weather changes," she insisted. "Oh, the sun!" Her point sank in—you mustn't squander blue sky in Ireland—so I ventured outside dangerously uncaffeinated to meet the proprietor, Declan O'Callaghan. He hustled me up a steep knoll to the remains of a 15th-century fortress. Ninety-nine limestone steps spiral to the top of the tower, alive with lichens and moss; the uppermost floor, constructed of vaulted stone, has a commanding view of the cliffs and, on a clear day, the Aran Islands, where Irish (Gaelic to Americans) is still spoken. Away from the coast, the tufted headlands give way to a whale-shaped rocky terrain known as the Burren—sparse home to arctic wildflowers, seasonal lakes, unexplored caves, and miles of walking trails.

Declan pointed out the house in which he grew up, about half a mile away, where his father still farms cattle and sheep. His father owns Ballinalacken; Declan runs the hotel and the restaurant, which are housed in a mustard-stucco 1840s manor adjacent to the tower. The 12-room property has the unfussy air of a B&B, the kind of place where a guest might have to fetch the bartender from ocean-gazing to get a drink. "My grandfather bought 100 acres off the O'Briens, and the castle came with it," Declan said, as plainly as if he were describing how to change a tire. The O'Brien clan is one of the most powerful families in Ireland's history and ruled this part of the country for 600 years. "Castles—there're loads of them in Ireland."

Many Irish castles were razed by Oliver Cromwell when he swept through with his New Model Army in 1649. Some, like Ballinalacken, survived, and others have been built since. Almost all Irish castles now reflect a patchwork of architectural periods—medieval forts adjoining Victorian mansions and stone cottages. I found 27 across the country that are run as hotels, and when I plotted them on a map, a cluster emerged in the western counties. So I stitched together a scenic course up the coast.

I decided to skip the majestic mega resorts of Adare Manor, Ashford Castle, and Dromoland Castle—supersize forts frequented by the motor-coach crowd—because they're more grandiose (and pricier) than what I was after. Instead I chose Ballinalacken and two other family-owned castles that, despite a bit of decay—or perhaps because of it—I suspected would feel more authentic. (For those who want to compare for themselves, now's the time: The challenged Irish economy is forcing even the most luxe properties to offer as much as 45 percent off.) Declan himself certainly has no problem with the likes of Dromoland, just an hour's drive away. In fact, he poached his chef, Michael Foley, from the five-star resort.

Which brings me back to the dining room and the prospect of what to order for breakfast. I passed up the handsome buffet—complete with bologna for the odd German tourist—and went for the pancakes with stewed fruit, a homely description for the delicate crepes and spiced apples that turned up with a fresh pot of coffee. I spent the rest of the morning exploring the Cliffs of Moher and getting lost on roads best suited to shepherds.

I was looking for an excuse to loiter in the Burren when I happened onto Cassidy's Pub, a former constabulary barracks in the hamlet of Carron. Its tart-red shutters, neat stonework, and sign laying claim to THE HEART OF THE BURREN settled the matter. It might as well have been a history museum of the Irish language, the walls adorned with testaments to the native tongue. Reclining in a chair on the back deck, I ordered a Smithwick's and a pepperoni pizza, and watched as tufts of high clouds played charades in the sky. A young couple next to me who had relo­cated from Dublin for a quieter life told me that the expansive prairie in the near distance is actually the bed of a lake that comes and goes with the rain. Which, by the time I polished off my pizza, looked to be on its way. So I hit the road to the next castle.

For about 200 meters, anyway. There was a sign for The Burren Perfumery, and I wheeled down a side road chasing it. The place was a floral oasis of neat limestone cottages girded with roses, irises, and delphiniums. There's an herb garden, a tea room, and a shop that sells delicate potions and lotions. Once made from the distilled essences of local wildflowers—which are now protected as part of a nature preserve—the perfumes created here now rely on essential oils sourced from around the world.

THE IRELAND OF YOUR DREAMS

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