Returning to Ireland has always been a joy, even if visits in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis tended to be rather sobering. The Great Recession hit Ireland with a wallop, leaving the once-vaunted Celtic Tiger economy defanged and declawed. But on our last trip, in 2013, I saw glimmers of light: the recent debut of exceptional new hotels such as Ballyfin in County Laois and the emergence of new restaurants capitalizing on the country’s exceptional meat, fish and produce. Now, at last, a significant recovery appears to be under way: Dublin is bustling just as before, and an extensive urban light-rail system is under construction; and Ashford Castle, long a favorite of Hideaway Report readers, has been given a makeover to the tune of $75 million.
From New York, we flew into Shannon, on the west coast, where we picked up a car for the hour-and-a-half drive to Cong, in County Mayo. After zipping along a motorway toward Galway, we soon came to the point where the four-lane highway ended, and we found ourselves on a two-lane road bordered by encroaching hedgerows. Thanks to the good signage, we reached our destination without difficulty. With its thatched-roof cottages surrounded by forested hills, the postcard-perfect village of Cong provided the setting for John Ford’s 1952 classic movie, The Quiet Man. Nearby, Ashford Castle stands on a 350-acre estate, as it has for close to 800 years.
The original part of the castle dates to 1228, when the Anglo-Norman de Burgos built it after defeating the local O’Connors. Three centuries later, in 1589, Sir Richard Bingham defeated the de Burgos and constructed a fortified enclave. However, the greatest expansion came in 1852, when the wealthy Guinness brewing family purchased the estate and added two large extensions. The Guinnesses deeded Ashford Castle to the Irish government in 1939, at which time it became a hotel. The well-respected South African group Red Carnation Hotels acquired the property in 2013. Overseeing its restoration, company president Beatrice Tollman and architect Philippe Bonino were faced with considerable challenges. The project entailed complete repointing of all the stonework, including 40 battlements; reinforcing almost 11,000 square feet of roofing with 30 tons of lead; replacing 800 windows; installing 130 chandeliers; and refurbishing all 82 rooms and suites.