Once upon a time in a castle in Ireland, children were occasionally seen but never heard. Then a good steward (a general manager) arrived and children were given special menus and a game room. Parents smiled and headed to the bar. Fun reigned instead of formality.
Ashford Castle rises above 350 acres of secluded grounds less than an hour’s drive from Galway, the unofficial capital of western Ireland. In the past it was known as the location of The Quiet Man—a 1952 Hollywood take on rural Irish life starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara—and for a rigid devotion to the well-heeled. "You would never hear young voices around the castle," says general manager Niall Rochford, speaking of the last half of the 20th century (a mere blink of an eye for a structure built in 1228). But it now courts families, even going so far as to procure a babysitter for this writer’s daughter (the same one used by actor Pierce Brosnan during his 2001 wedding here, raising the bar for all future minders). Meanwhile, and coincidentally, Carroll Spinney of Big Bird fame sat at a bar of a different sort, dressed splendidly in Tyrolean garb, celebrating his birthday with friends.
Time, then, to join Spinney for a pint of the black in the Prince of Wales Room, an appropriate move as the castle, originally a monastery, was once the country home of the Guinness family. Ashford’s history as a residence is what gives the place its relaxed charm and cozy atmosphere: On your way to the spa in the morning, you might see a former leader of the Irish government heading into the kitchen for a spoon for his porridge.
Dinner in the George V dining room is splendid but not exactly imaginative. For a culinary adventure, seek out newer restaurants, such as the Fillet of Soul in Manorhamilton, opened by a four-time Irish Chef of the Year. But don’t feel guilty if you never leave the castle. Furnished with antiques, the rooms are magnificent and there’s no sign of the chilly drafts endemic to most castles. "I wanted a country decor and feel rather than something medieval with lots of armor," Rochford says.
As for the surrounding estate, you haven’t lived until you’ve felt the wild thrill of a hawk flying off your arm at the falconry school. Golf, fishing, and horseback riding compensate for all the pints consumed. Back in your room, watch The Quiet Man on the flat-screen TV, but tell no one, especially not an Irishman—all you’ll get is a roll of the eyes. From $1,165; 800-346-7007; ashford.ie.
Aer Lingus (800-474-7424; flyaerlingus.com) offers daily flights from New York and Boston to Shannon, Ireland, which is a scenic hour-and-a-half drive from Ashford Castle. If you are coming from Dublin, the airline offers multiple flights from the city to Shannon. Galway, which is 28 miles south of the castle, has a small airport that receives commuter flights from Dublin. Ashford will also send a car to Dublin to take you directly to the castle ($485 each way). The ride takes about four hours, passing through quaint castle- and pub-studded towns such as Kinnegad and Ballinasloe.