I’ve always been a fan of movie star John Wayne. I think it stems from my dad’s love of westerns.
I remember as a boy sitting with him glued to the screen overdosing on Fanta and Tayto cheese and onion watching the likes of Rio Bravo, The Sons of Katie Elder, True Grit and the truly brilliant The Searchers.
But it was the Wild West of a different kind that sealed the deal for me and The Duke.
There are few people in Ireland who haven’t seen The Quiet Man and to me it still has the best line spoken in any film — EVER.
“He’ll regret it till his dying day, if ever he lives that long.” Quiet Man fans will immediately recognise it as having been uttered by fierce-tempered farmer ‘Red’ Will Danaher, played to utter perfection by the legend that was Victor McLaglen.
Danaher is the big brother of beautiful redhead Mary Kate (Maureen O’Hara) who steals the heart of retired boxer Sean ‘Trooper Thorn’ Thornton (John Wayne), who had killed an opponent in the ring in the States.
Despite Danaher’s best spoiling efforts, helped no end by the colourful villagers of fictional Inisfree in the west of Ireland, Sean, who was born there but grew up in Pittsburgh, woos and weds Mary Kate and then has an epic fist fight with his new brother-in-law.
Directed by John Ford and shot in the summer of 1951 and released the following year, it sparked a phenomenal influx of tourists eager to see the sights of the west of Ireland. Wayne, O’Hara and the cast of the Hollywood blockbuster stayed at the majestic Ashford Castle while filming took place.
Many scenes were shot in and around the neighbouring village of Cong, Co Mayo, so you can probably appreciate just how excited I was when I got the chance to stay at this amazing five-star property with my family for two nights.
In many ways driving up to Ashford Castle is like arriving on a movie set — albeit one that can trace its history back to 1228.
The royal adventure truly begins as you travel through the grand stone gates and start the long meandering journey to the castle itself.
As you cross the bridge over the River Cong to reach the hotel you’re greeted by courteous staff who immediately welcome you like a long lost friend.
And when you first see the hotel it literally does take your breath away — so much so my four-year-old son immediately asked (perhaps hopefully): “Does a princess live here?”
Eye-wateringly beautiful, this stately hotel — the home of the Guinness family until 1939 — has been wowing visitors from across the globe for many years.
Celebrities seem to love the place. John Travolta and Brad Pitt have both stayed there while Pierce Brosnan and our own Rory McIlroy got married in the castle. Even US President Ronald Reagan dropped in for a visit in 1984 during a tour of Ireland.
As you walk up the steps to the reception you quickly realise this hotel` is something special.
The oak hall creates a perfect first impression where you are greeted warmly by the guest services team — you may even get to meet the hotel’s two popular pure-bred wolfhounds, Cronan and Garvan.
The hall also houses a library of over 800 antiquarian books including an extensive collection of reference works from the late Victorian period into the 20th century.
Ashford Castle — now part of the The Red Carnation Hotel Collection — has 83 guest rooms and suites, all of which feature original art and antiques, luxurious fabrics, stunning chandeliers and hand-crafted furniture.
Many rooms overlook Lough Corrib, some with an exposed castle turret, and all include high speed wi-fi and luxury bathrooms.
We were lucky enough to stay in one of the hotel’s staterooms. Located in the oldest part of the castle, it was simply stunning, boasting spectacularly high ceilings, a smart TV and an original fireplace now housing a cosy gas fire.
The bathroom was perfect with a huge freestanding bath complemented with walls of marble, toasty underfloor heating and a rain shower that cascaded like a waterfall.
In all honesty it was a real struggle to actually leave the room but there is so much more of the castle to explore.
Steeped in 800 years of history, the grounds have provided a vast playground for its owners and their friends over hundreds of years. It’s fair enough to say that it is currently one of the finest sporting estates in all of Ireland. Spread over 350 acres, it lends itself perfectly to a range of activities such as horse riding, bike rides, history tours, archery, fishing and clay pigeon shooting, to more modern activities such as golf, zip lining and kayaking.
We chose a one-hour private hawk walk which was quite simply incredible.
Ireland’s School of Falconry in the castle grounds was set up back in 1999 and is the oldest established falconry school in Ireland. It’s also home to the largest and most diverse collection of Harris hawks.
I guarantee you will never forget the first time one of these spectacular birds swoops down from a tree and lands on your gloved fist.
During the 60 minutes our instructor Mel took us through the forest and taught us how to handle and fly the hawk while explaining about the bird’s exceptional eyesight, their speed and their incredible agility in the air.
Her passion for her job, knowledge and genuine love for the hawks was obvious and very infectious. Whatever the castle is paying her it’s not enough.
Equally fun was our history boat cruise around Lough Corrib, run by brothers Patrick and David Luskin (www.corribcruises.com).
Lough Corrib is the largest lake in the Republic of Ireland and reputedly has 365 islands — one for every day of the year.
Patrick obviously enjoys his job and took great delight in telling us and the other passengers about the history and folklore of the lake and the surrounding area. During the cruise you get to experience the breathtaking scenery of the Connemara Mountains and see Ashford Castle from the water. A visit to The Old Steamers Quay and views of Lord Ardilaun’s Obelisk are also not to be missed.
No great hotel is complete without great food and Ashford truly excels in this department.
There is a variety of delightful options but we chose to eat at Cullen’s At The Cottage on our first night.
This traditional thatched cottage, which used to be Cong Cinema, and was the first place to show The Quiet Man even before it was shown in Hollywood, today provides a relaxed dining experience with a casual dress code in which to enjoy international and local dishes.
It’s a short stroll over the bridge from the castle and has a great reputation for good reason. I can certainly vouch for the quality and taste of the slow-cooked pork belly with cider reduction and sweetcorn puree and pan-fried sea bass with turmeric potato and tamarind broth. Even my son’s pasta kid’s meal was cooked to perfection.
No visit to Ashford would be complete without a fine dining meal in the formal George V Dining Room, however.
Ashford Castle has been hosting distinguished guests for almost 800 years — one of the most prominent being the Prince of Wales, who subsequently became George V. In honour of his visit in 1905, the Guinness family built a special dining room which still bears his name proudly to this day.
The graceful setting (which is also where you go for the hotel’s delicious breakfast) has panelled walls and spectacular Waterford Crystal chandeliers and really bestows a grand sense of occasion.
The hotel’s resident pianist plays softly in the background while diners relax and enjoy exceptional dishes from the kitchen of acclaimed chef Philippe Farineau, recently awarded two rosettes by the AA Hospitality Awards, combined with much-loved recipes of Beatrice Tollman and complemented by a fine selection of wines from chief sommelier, Robert Bowe. Here is it impossible to choose badly off the menu as each dish is truly exceptional.
Our beetroot and blue cheese salad and Achill sea salt cured organic salmon was delicious as were the seared scallops and yoghurt and lime sorbet.
But we were transported to an entirely new level when our mains arrived. Without a doubt the John Dory and clams with smoked onion, new season leeks and Ballymakenny potato and Dillisk butter and Rings Farm free range chicken with Jerusalem and globe artichoke and Pomme Anna were among the best dishes I’ve been served in the past 10 years.
We didn’t have room for desserts but with options like Nyangbo frozen chocolate mousse served with estate grown crabpear gel, chocolate cremeux and pear and vanilla sorbet and salted chocolate crisp, you really can’t go wrong.
The next morning in an attempt to burn off all the calories from that brilliant food, we chose a trip to the spa — recently awarded ‘Ireland’s Best Hotel Spa’ for the fourth year in a row in the World Spa Awards.
I’d love to say we were successful but we ended up just lounging around the beautiful relaxation pool and admiring the views over the lake — no better way to live the life of a Quiet Man.
Ashford Castle is a member of The Leading Hotels of the World so it’s no surprise it keeps winning awards and accolades.
Here are just a few from 2019:
For more information about the hotel, head to www.ashfordcastle.com or call 00353 94 954 6003.