Try as I might, it’s hard to imagine a more tranquil retreat than Ballynahinch Castle, tucked away among the hills, rocks, turf bogs, rivers, lakes and forest glades of central Connemara in western Ireland.
Reached after an hour or so from Galway city, this 14th-century castle lies snug off the road behind wrought-iron black and gold gates, past several impressive chalk-white buildings and along a narrow drive way bordered by boulders that winds its way past a stone bridge and copses.
First glimpse of the castle are the crenellations along its walls. Plenty of parking out front and at one side where a babbling river flows by, home to colossal trout and salmon that tantalize fishing aficionadas who travel far and wide for a glimpse, and hopefully, a catch or two.
If further evidence is needed of the property’s undoubted rustic visage, then the ivy that clings tenaciously to its walls is more than enough.
Inside, a hunter dressed in full regalia – no doubt awake since before dawn - lies fast asleep on a soft couch before an open fire, his open mouth poised to catch generous numbers of flies, if there had been any. Thankfully for him, it’s not the season. An array of framed paintings featuring various outdoor scenes, both mountain and river, adorn the walls. The floor beneath our feet is of sturdy brownstone. A polished mahogany table stands between twin sofas. The reception desk is directly in front at the head of several steps.
Narrow carpeted corridors radiate in all directions, giving one an even greater sense of disappearing into utter privacy, retreating from the sounds and stresses of modern living into a world of quiet and relaxation. One leads to a parlour-style room with large windows opening out on to the surrounding 350 acres of forest and fields beyond (the hotel offers walks led by Noel, an experienced guide). Beyond lies the main restaurant, an expansive, country-style dining room with polish-wood floor, candles on every table and a window-series surround.
Along the way to the bedrooms one passes scores of photographs, paintings and drawings depicting scenes from the last 100 years of the life of the castle. These include photos of an avid fisherman proudly displaying his exceptional catch. An Indian by skin color and facial features, this was the Maharajah Ranjitsinji, also known as the ‘Ranji’, Prince of Cricketeers, a former owner of the estate.
The best way to describe the bedroom is sumptuous - cosy rather than spacious, with the luxury of a polished-mahogany, four-poster bed with overhead canopy. Displaying a sandy-colored décor enlivened by a bluebells and butterflies motif, a polished wood writing desk fronted the bed and television stood in one corner. Aside from the four-poster, the highlight of the room was its location, offering a wonderful view over the flowing Ballynahinch river just below and the wooded areas beyond.
Ballynahinch Castle provides ample scope for leisurely wandering. Tucked away, left of the main lobby as one enters from the outside, is a lovely study emanating old world charm. This room is named after a personage linked closely to the estate, Thomas Martin, as evidenced by his name carved in bold letters above the door. Son of former owner, Richard Martin, reputedly founder of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Thomas died in 1847 during the Famine. Just inside the room hangs a photograph of a quite well-known, now deceased, contemporary Irish writer and frequent visitor – John O’Donohue, author of the thoughtful, non-fiction book ‘Anam Cara’ (1997), which offered fascinating insights into Celtic spirituality, universal energy and the human condition. A wicker basket full of logs lie near the open fire, an invitation to linger a little longer.
As you leave the Thomas Martin Room, walk directly ahead past the reception desk, down a couple of steps and along a short corridor. This leads to a cosy snug of a pub, again with the ubiquitous open fire. Here is a simple yet attractive décor, one matching the rustic nature of the outside environment, with plain, polished-wood tables and chairs, and, of course, a well-stocked bar. Illustrative evidence of fishing success line the walls.
And not just in photographs. Inside two large glass-fronted containers attached to opposite walls are displayed rather life-like looking fish, stuffed for preservation purposes. One is a salmon weighing in at 18.5 pounds, caught in 1988. The other is a 15.4 pound brown trout caught in 2011. If you’re lucky, Damien, the barman, will show you photographs on his mobile of himself with actor Gabriel Byrne and also with his former Liverpool footballing hero, Kevin Keegan. He might also make you jealous by telling you that Jennifer Aniston had also been here, perhaps feeling slightly lonely and vulnerable after her break-up with Brad a few years back.
Then, she and Owen Wilson, were starring in the 2008 movie, ‘Marley & Me,’ the honeymoon scenes of which were shot in an area around the castle. Ah well, one can’t have everything in life.