An imposing gatehouse with crenellated solid stone battlements either side fronting a narrow driveway winding its way past a sweep of manicured lawns are the first clues that something impressive lies beyond. But still, these elements ill prepare one for the full splendor of the Ashford Castle as the magnificent 13th century Irish edifice comes into view beyond the last gentle rise of land.
Dating back to 1228 when it was the former seat of the De Burgo family, this stunning castle occupies a most coveted location - on the edge of Lake Corrib in County Mayo in western Ireland surrounded by forest and woodlands with several islands in close proximity.
Drawing nearer as one passes over a small stone bridge and under a decorative archway, it is easy to imagine bygone days when battle-weary warriors and genteel nobility passed this very same route on horseback or carriage. It’s a picture even easier to imagine as one walks up the entrance steps and comes face-to-face with two formidable, armor-clad, medieval knights, visors down. Such ornamentation – there’s no-one inside the life-size, stand alone replicas complete with breastplates, gauntlets and helmets – dramatically sets the historical tone, as does the castle’s entire interior, adorned with sumptuous medieval artifacts and furnishings.
The castle’s lobby area is a large open space, the reception desk being straight ahead. Assorted oil paintings bedeck the walls – a landscape at sunset; fishermen in a boat; a hatted man walking along a pathway, picnic basket in hand, to name but a few. A tall candleholder standing on the ground is shaped as half-man, half beast with hooves. Glass fronted shelves nearby contain finely-cut crystal glasses and miniature bronze and brass figurines of wizard-like characters and the legendary Queen Maeve of Connaught, the western Irish region in which Ashford Castle is located. A walk through the rooms and hallways is a journey back in time, starting left of the lobby where there is an even larger area, heavily carpeted, with a high wooden ceiling and carved balconies above.
To one side is an expansive drawing room with cozy sofas, an open fire, a grand piano and a small bar, adjacent to the dining room, richly decorated in tones of burgundy and cream, with immaculately white tablecloths, shining silverware and Queen Anne chairs. On the other side of the ground floor, past a table and chessboard (with information for those wishing to take lessons) and delicately crafted furniture pieces, are several other rooms - an intimate, stone and marble nook beside an open fire with padded benches either side and another lined with shelves resplendent with Imari porcelain plates.
Beyond, a high-ceilinged, well-lighted room with several full-length casement windows grants wonderful views outside, reasons to ponder. A short staircase nearby, candelabra either side and decorated with framed equestrian themed photographs, entices one to explore further. Halfway up, a bronze statute of a helmeted hunter, sword and crossbow in hand, stands on a small table. Further on is a ‘memorablia wall’ with photographs of past celebrity visitors from the worlds of politics and entertainment including former US President Ronald Reagan, actress Maureen O’Hara, star of the hit movie, ‘The Quiet Man,’ filmed nearby; John Wayne, her suitor in the movie; and a young Brad Pitt. A gift store lies just off the staircase.
After feasting in one of the castle’s restaurants some form of activity is in order and Ashford offers several alternatives. Visiting the School of Falconry in the castle grounds, one can learn about the history and temperament of these beautiful raptors while embarking on a ‘Hawk Walk’ with the instructor Aurelie O'Sullivan in the woodlands and enjoying the experience of wearing leather wrist bands and seeing the bird fly back to eat morsels of food from your hands.
A boat ride, courtesy of guide, David Luskin, and the boat’s captain, Patrick Luskin, of Corrib Cruises, not only allows one to enjoy the ancient waterway but also see some of the sacred islands such as Inchagoill and monastic sites, as well as learn more about the local area.
For something more lighthearted, a visit to the museum dedicated to the movie, ‘The Quiet Man,’ in the nearby town of Cong is very worthwhile. Established by local man, former bread van driver Gerry Collins, at the urging of his daughter, Lisa, the cottage museum and gift store provides insights into the making of the hit Hollywood movie about life in rural Ireland, including amusing re-enactments of several scenes, complete with period costumes.