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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Castle capers

One of the very cool things about living in Ireland (especially if you are an American) is that there are castles.

I don’t mean just one or two or even three or four. There are tons of castles here. Most of them are just ruins sitting in a field, with cows grazing in, near or around them. Some are barely more than a pile of stones. There are two or three of these within just a couple of miles of my house. Others are in better shape. Some are good enough for the owner (sometimes the government, sometimes a private citizen) to charge admission or at least to be preserved as a public monument, maybe even with a visitor center. Some are grand enough to be bought up by people with money and refurbished for living in. People like Jeremy Irons and Michael Flatley (and others you have never heard of) have done this. And some are big enough and grand enough to be converted into hotels. When President and Mrs. Bush stopped in Ireland last summer, they stayed at Dromoland Castle in County Clare, a truly grand place.

I have my favorites among Irish castles. I think Bunratty Castle, also in County Clare near Shannon Airport, is a great castle, although it is a bit commercialized. It is a good size and has been restored to be very much like what it must have been in its heyday. Old cottages from different parts of Ireland have been transported to the adjacent “folk village,” forming sort of a museum of traditional Irish life. It’s all a bit like a theme park, but with the saving grace that it’s all real. Another particular favorite of mine is Dunluce Castle in County Antrim, near the village of Bushmills, home of the world’s oldest whiskey distillery. Now you might be thinking that the presence of a great distillery has something to do with my fondness for that castle. And you’d be right. Bushmills is grand place, even without the castle, and I very much enjoyed staying once at the Bushmills Inn, even though I embarrassed myself there by absentmindedly ordering a scotch. But Dunluce Castle stands on its own, even if it wasn’t near Bushmills. It’s just a ruin, but it stands on a positively breathtaking point overlooking the sea in one of the most beautiful spots in the whole world.

You have to wonder why there are so many castles in Ireland. It brings to mind something I read in a history book once. The author was explaining why it took a lot of time and a lot of work for Ireland to be dominated by foreigners. When invaders (like the Normans) invaded England, they only had to defeat the English king and then they had control over the whole country. When they got to Ireland, on the other hand, they found that there were something like 400 kings. And defeating any one of them didn’t cut much ice with most of the rest of the country. That, in a nutshell, is the essential difference between the English and the Irish.

In cataloguing my favorite Irish castles, I have to include a couple that have strong movie associations. One is definitely Cahir Castle in County Tipperary, on the banks of the river Suir. Built in 1142, it has pretty much been in constant use ever since, many of its several centuries in the hands of the Butler family. It is large and dramatic and looks like every castle you have ever pictured in your mind when reading or listening to a fairy tale. It is in great shape and (at least on my single visit there several years ago) the guides do a splendid tour of the place. It looks positively like something out of a Hollywood movie. Which is not a coincidence, since it has actually been used as a location for filming for quite a few movies, most notably John Boorman’s epic about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Excalibur, and Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon.

There is another Irish castle close to my heart, and I mean that fairly literally, since it sits just a few minutes drive from my front door. It is Ashford Castle, which was first built in 1228. For nearly a century of its long history, it belonged to the Guinness family. For the past half-century or so, it has been a luxury hotel. As far as I know, it is related to just one movie. And that is one that I seem to keep mentioning here fairly regularly, The Quiet Man. The adjacent village of Cong, County Mayo, was used for much of the location shooting of the movie, and the main cast members stayed in the castle. Not only was some of the location shooting done on the castle’s extensive and beautiful grounds but, as it happens, the opening shot of the movie is of Ashford Castle itself, although it is never made clear what it has to do with the story in the movie. (A plug in exchange for a reduction of the bill for lodging?)

Ashford Castle
Ashford Castle, County Mayo, Ireland

Persistent readers with long memories will recall another sort-of movie association with Ashford Castle. The actor Pierce Brosnan was married there in the summer of 2001, as documented by my own quasi-exclusive near-coverage of the event. Security for the occasion was extensive and like something out of, well, a James Bond movie. In the last innocent weeks before 9/11, the reason for the security wasn’t fear of terrorism or sabotage. It was to protect the photo rights for high-paying Hello magazine.

Despite its proximity, I have only been inside Ashford Castle twice. The first time was a few years ago during the slow season, when the Missus and I brazened our way past the forbidding “Residents Only” sign at the main entrance and marched into the tea room like we owned the place. We ordered afternoon tea, which was truly wonderful, but when we got the bill we realized that, for the same price, we could have invited several friends to dinner at a local restaurant. Our second visit was just the other day when friends of ours from California were staying there. We joined them for a drink in the bar. I shouldn’t have been surprised at the extensive menu of bar drinks, but until that moment it hadn’t actually dawned on me that I lived surprisingly close to a place where one can get a martini cocktail prepared to perfection. (In most places in Europe, ordering “a martini” will get you a glass of vermouth.) James Bond should definitely have felt at home there.

Ashford Castle’s web site features a list of the famous and noteworthy who have stayed there over the years, and it reads like a “who’s who” of the Hollywood glitterari and international politics. The list includes, naturally enough, the likes of Quiet Man stars John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, as well as other Hollywood legends like Gene Autry, Fred Astaire, Bob Hope, Donald O’Connor, Jane Powell and Rod Taylor. Also included are more contemporary stars like Jack Nicholson, Russell Crowe, John Travolta, Sharon Stone, Brad Pitt, Robin Williams, Jason Priestly and Christina Ricci. It even boasts of hosting actors like Molly Ringwald and Daniel J. Travanti. Irish entertainers on the list include pianist Phil Coulter, singer Chris de Burgh, comedian Brendan Grace and actor Gabriel Byrne who is listed with his then-wife, Ellen Barkin (presumably in happier times). Political guests include British prime ministers John Major and Tony Blair, as well as former President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan. Along with the Reagans, other prominent Irish-Americans figure in the list, including Senator Ted Kennedy, his sister Jean Smith (former U.S. ambassador to Ireland) and Mia Farrow (daughter of Irish-born actor Maureen O’Sullivan of Tarzan fame), listed with Woody Allen (again, presumably in happier times).

Royal visitors include George V of Britain, Prince Edward, the Duke and Duchess of Luxembourg, and the late Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco. Princess Grace (nee Kelly) would have been coming back to her roots, as her family’s ancestral home is in County Mayo. The same is true of Nancy Reagan. Also among American celebrities with roots in Mayo is Regis Philbin, but there is no record of him having stayed at Ashford Castle. Rock ‘n’ roll royalty that has stayed there includes Liam and Noel Gallagher of Oasis and Rod Stewart (with Britt Eckland, once again presumably in happier times). Also listed is simply U2. Presumably, this includes The Edge, which means he was within a mile or two of a house that he owned or used to own. There is a house near the castle with a lovely view of Lough Corrib that, I was once told, belonged to The Edge’s estranged wife and which had once belonged to Oscar Wilde.

There is one name on the list of famous Ashford guests that particularly intrigues me. It is “Barnie Miller.” Is there really a famous person named Barnie Miller? Or does this refer to actor Hal Linden, who starred in the TV sitcom Barney Miller? Or perhaps even fictional characters occasionally like to have a holiday in a real-life Irish castle?

-S.L., 7 April 2005

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