The Sixties was the decade that liberated a generation and changed the world in so many ways. The Russians sent Yuri Gagarin into outer space in 1961, whilst Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the moon in 1969. The Beatles were revolutionising the music scene with Love Me Do and Beatlemania was rife, whilst Mary Quant was doing the same for fashion with the miniskirt and hot pants.
In Ireland, people were in awe and excited by A-listers visiting Ireland. Prince Ranier and Princess Grace of Monaco came in 1961 to visit her ancestral home, and President John F Kennedy arrived two years later, a few months before his assassination. In addition, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton resided in the Gresham Hotel during the making of the movie The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Visits like this were magic for Irish tourism, attracting people from the USA to come and trace their ancestral roots.
The year of JFK's visit, 1963, was also the year that Dromoland Castle opened as an iconic hotel at the upper end of the market. As a young girl I remember hearing of Dromoland Castle as somewhere 'way up there', visited only by very wealthy Americans – it seemed to have a golden glow around it.
Dromoland Castle is celebrating 50 years of hospitality this year and, whilst as iconic and magical as ever, it is also very warm and welcoming, with great characters on the team, and in my book is one of those great institutions of Irish tourism which demand respect. Overlooking formal gardens and lakes, every corner of Dromoland Castle – once a stronghold of the O'Briens – is memorable and tells a story.
Brian Boru ruled Ireland as High King from his throne in Killaloe from 1002-1014. His son, Donough O'Brien, controlled Dromoland when it was a defensive stronghold, apparently similar in structure to Bunratty Castle, also an O'Brien stronghold. For the next 900 years a branch of the O'Briens ruled from Dromoland Castle.
In 1962, Lord Inchiquin sold the castle – along with some 330 acres of surrounding parkland with hunting and fishing rights – to an American industrialist, Bernard McDonough. Following major renovations, it opened as a resort hotel in 1963. In 1987 a consortium of mainly Irish-American investors purchased the castle and estate, and many were present at a lavish celebratory dinner last week hosted by managing director Mark Nolan.
Mark is a well-known name at the top level of the hotel industry. He graduated from Galway Mayo Institute of Technology in 1981. Having spent a year in New York with Dunfey Hotels, he returned to Ireland to that other great bastion of Irish tourism, Ashford Castle at Cong, Co Mayo, as duty manager, advancing quickly to assume the title of deputy general manager. Eight years later, Mr Nolan took over the role of general manager at Dromoland Castle.
Mr Nolan become managing director of Dromoland Castle in 1996, and now works closely with "the balance of the seven-member board to maintain Dromoland Castle's reputation as one of Europe's finest resorts, and recently welcomed the Clare Inn Hotel to The Dromoland Collection".
Mr Nolan's boundless energy also extends to Hallmark Management, a company he created to undertake small design and fit-out projects at other five-star hotels, the regional advisory board of Irish Business and Employers' Confederation, the Atlantic Connectivity Alliance, Clare Tourism Forum and Shannon Chamber of Commerce.
His philosophy for hospitality and the continuing success of Dromoland Castle is positivity, and striving to review and reinvent the product. "I surround myself with a team of professionals striving to be the best we can be – the motto 'good enough' will never be good enough' is our mantra. At interview we would always look for a person with that special bit of character or personality, that would be more important than their competence, as we can always train them to our standards. We always try to do something differently and listen to what our customers are telling us."
We have all been through difficult times, and we are still going through difficult times, and Mr Nolan says that what is important is "trying to get economies of scale, better utilisation of resources by sharing labour costs, for four years [with the former involvement] at Castlemartyr and now with
our purchase last July of the newly named 'The Inn at Dromoland'. We also shared winter advertising costs with a perceived partner, Ashford Castle, even though there is no owner relationship. We are constantly reviewing and reinventing the product – recent additions are the golf academy, falconry, 12km biking trails, paddle boarding on the lake, all to extend our market base and also conscious of the ageing customer base that we have managed to change with the above initiatives".
As part of the 50th celebrations, the hotel has produced the colourful Dromoland Castle Cookbook (€30) which features more than 100 classically based recipes, simplified for home cooking, from executive chef David McCann, who has been leading the kitchens of Dromoland since 1995. The book is available at Dromoland and through its website, www.dromoland.ie. Dishes included in the new cookbook were highlights of the 50th anniversary celebratory dinner.
We kicked off the evening in the stately Brian Boru Hall with a choice of Malbay crab and smoked salmon salad or perfectly pitched roast quail, McCarthy's Black Pudding and an apple and ginger pickle. Next up was piquant carrot and coriander soup followed by lemon sorbet with thyme and gin. Mains offered a choice of delicious roast dry-aged Irish fillet of beef, tomato and pineapple salsa, oyster mushrooms and spinach, with red wine sauce; or superb pan-fried halibut, cabbage etuvee, with tomato and marjoram nantaise. Caramel parfait ensued followed by coffee and petits fours – and yes, you get the recipes in the book. This was washed down by a very accessible and aromatic multi-layered Walnut Block, Sauvignon Blanc 2012, and Luis Canas Crianza 2009, finishing off with Chateau Vari Monbazillac 2007.