€75m spent on Ashford Castle labour of love
Published 17/04/2015 | 02:30
Round the clock security for Princess Grace's $15m in diamonds. Secret Service divers combing Lough Corrib during President Reagan's 1984 visit.
And a three-day wedding for James Bond after actor Pierce Brosnan who fell in love with the former Guinness clan holiday home while filming 'Remington Steele' in Cong.
If the walls of Ashford Castle could talk, they would regale us with a rich catalogue of secrets and gossip, from the famous Guinness family to the Prince of Wales shooting party in 1905, and stays by Hollywood stars and politicians in recent years.
The castle on 350 acres of grounds straddles counties Mayo and Galway and while Stanley and Bea Tollman, owners of the Red Carnation Hotels Group, have invested a fortune of €75m - €20m on the purchase price and over three times that in refurbishment - they are giving a little bit extra too.
When Taoiseach Enda Kenny sits down for lunch with them today, the meal will include courses from Mrs Tollman's cookery book, 'A Life In Food', and the South African-born hotelier has shared recipes for her famous chicken noodle soup and rice pudding with the chefs.
The design team was headed by Mrs Tollman, her daughter Toni and architect Philippe Bonino. Giving the Irish Independent a tour, Toni heaped praise on the workforce.
"What you can't see are the new electrics and plumbing, every window was leaking, the roof was leaking, the basement was flooded," she said, recounting the extent of the labour of love.
Three teams of workers operated around the clock and the hotel reopened before Easter for a wedding.
Lots of the staff are from families who have worked at the castle for generations. Waiter Mark Gibbons (18), whose great-grandfather Martin worked on the 1905 Ashford shoot for the Prince of Wales, last year worked on the reenactment shoot with George V's direct descendant, Peter Phillips and his father Mark.
In the revamped castle you tread bespoke carpets and admire art on the walls, including Pauline Bewick's canvases - which formerly hung at Anglo Irish Bank.
Guests will pay between €490-€2,500 a night in high season, but pampering is the name of the game - from Lego room service for children to the new spa, billiards room and cigar terrace.
Outside, Lady Ardilaun's gardens, which Oscar Wilde dismissed as "dull" in 1878, are now manicured and restored by Arthur Shackleton from Abbeyleix.
Back when the Guinness clan convened at Ashford, the dray horses wore leather shoes so as not to mark the turf when cutting the grass. A seaplane once sat on the dock outside, but now there's a helipad.
John Wayne's room 408, where he stayed when he was filming 'The Quiet Man' in Cong in 1951, is still requested by fans of the iconic movie.
Room 500, where Maureen O'Hara slept, has also been refurbished, while the Squire Danagher's house in the movie is on the property, close to the falconry where guests can enjoy the sport of kings.
Traditional leisure now falls to Irish wolfhounds, Garvan and Cronan, who will accompany guests on early morning walks.
Brian Brennan, who worked on the refurbishment, laughed that the owners had joked: "No more castles."
But watching the family tour the property with their dogs, it's clear they've savoured every moment of their Ashford refurbishment.