Sunday 23 April 2017

Brendan O'Connor at Dromoland Castle: 'It's more democratic these days'

Storming the castle

Dromoland castle
Dromoland castle
Brendan O'Connor in Co Clare
The Burren, Co. Clare
Dromoland Castle
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor finds a welcome for kids and a quality experience for adults at Co. Clare's quintessential five-star.

Our arrival was carefully timed so we would hit the egg hunt.

The children weren't entirely sure what an egg hunt was, but it was Easter, and it was imperative that we get there in time for the egg hunt. And we did. And straight away, you could see that the people in Dromoland know what they are doing when it comes to kids.

I had always presumed that there was a time when your brats wouldn't have been welcomed here. Indeed, I had presumed there was a time when riff raff like me wouldn't have been welcome, and when most of the guests arrived by PJ (Private Jet, please keep up). But the peasants and their kids have stormed the castle now, and while it's still undeniably quite a posh environment in Dromoland, it's more democratic these days.

And that extends to no one raising an eyebrow about kids. They even welcome them in the main dining room in the evening, for the early sitting. Though I'll admit I declined to subject me, my kids or anyone else to that.

The egg hunt took place around the most beautiful walled garden you've ever seen ,and there was practically a staff member per child to walk in front of them dropping little treats onto the ground for them to find. We all ended up in a sunny courtyard, drinking hot chocolate and that was it, half an hour in, and we were settled and relaxed and indulging ourselves and the kids had made themselves at home.

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Brendan in Co. Clare

As far as I could see, some people never leave the environs of the castle. They hang around and eat and then go for a little mooch around the beautiful grounds. I could have easily bedded in there for a few days, not even leaving the room, but I felt obliged to take in the area as well. But first, we got the low-down on the castle.

I know this doesn't sound like the kind of thing you want to do, and it's not the kind of thing I want to do either, but you really should get Sean and Paddy his horse to bring you around the grounds. Sean is a fascinating character, half gillie, half mystic. He spins poetic tall tales as he brings you around on the jaunting car, and explains how the whole estate here was really a clock fashioned to let shafts of sunlight, and nature in general, tell the time of day and year. He also gives you a great sense of the idle tossers that lived extravagant lives on these estates back in the day.

It was up to ourselves to go further afield so the Griswolds hit the road, through the Burren in all its mystical strangeness and then onto Doolin which was hopping on the unseasonably sunny Easter Monday. While the younger one slept, myself and senior climbed across the lunar rocky landscape on top of the cliffs at Doolin and you've never seen a happier little camper clambering back proudly to her mother.

It's true, you know. The little things are the best. And all they really want is your time and your undivided attention.

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The Burren in bloom

We headed on to a packed Lahinch and had chips and ice cream and watched the surfers. I think we all quietly thought to ourselves that we wished we were here for the week. But a sunny day plays those tricks on the mind.

The eating options along the coast here did put me back on an old hobby-horse of mine. Why doesn't someone open up a string of shacks on Irish beaches selling nice seafood in paper cones that you could sit on a bench and enjoy with a beer? It wasn't easy to find a few simple crab claws or a bit of nice fresh fish in any kind of a casual outdoorsy environment. Just because Irish people have traditionally hated fish doesn't mean we shouldn't make more of it for the tourists.

In the event, we had the crab claws back at the castle. And to be honest, you'd nearly resent eating anywhere else when you have the castle to go back to. Because whatever your reservations about hotel food in general, Dromoland will dispel all of them. Every meal we had here was a delight.

The breakfast, which I always find one of the most enjoyable and indulgent meals on a holiday, was superb, with about half a dozen things you'd love. My wife still raves about the beautiful fresh fish she had, while I will always remember the field mushrooms that actually tasted like field mushrooms rather than pumped-up Portobellos. If I had been staying for more than two breakfasts I think I would have ultimately started eating just the mushrooms for my breakfast. The casual bar food was all divine - real chips, amazing homemade batter on fresh fish, gorgeous fresh seafood. And the slightly more formal dining, which we enjoyed one evening, was amazing.

The other thing that can be off about an evening in the hotel, particularly one aimed at the Yanks, is that the bar can tend to not feel like a bar, with one group of Yanks fussing over dividing the tip for three halves of Guinness.

Dromoland has gone for an American-style cocktail-bar experience that owed more to the Algonquin than Jury's cabaret. So, rid of the kids, we had a few cocktails and then we were escorted in for the most amazing dinner. I am not a fan of excessively formal dining experiences, but this wasn't remotely stuffy, while still feeling a little bit special. The food was hearty and sophisticated as against being tricksy for the sake of it.

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Dromoland Castle

We had a babysitter that evening, but there was also a den set up for the kids with movies and crisps and more chocolate, and it was nice and handy to the bar and restaurant where you could pop in and keep an eye, and the kids could come find you if they needed to. There is a great pool and leisure centre a couple of minutes' walk from the main hotel, to work off all the eating, and in general the kids had a great sense of freedom and the outdoors too, which probably helped everyone not to feel too tense or hemmed in.

I'm sure I'll change my tune on this in a few years, but right now I think it's great that places like Dromoland have become so welcoming of kids without compromising the quality of the experience for the adults. And it's not often that parents come home from a weekend in Ireland with their kids feeling relaxed.

For more on family breaks at Dromoland Castle, see dromoland.ie. For inspiration on planning your getaway in Ireland, visit discoverireland.ie.

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