Family affair at Rosapenna
Casey clan's stunning courses are steeped in history and offer a mecca for golfers and nature lovers.
Published 08/09/2016 | 02:30
If you happen to be slowly (and reluctantly) wending your way home following a few glorious days of golf at Rosapenna in Donegal and take the road from Carrigart to Milford, you will pass the spot where they say the Fanad Patriots assassinated William Sydney Clements, better known as the infamous 3rd Earl of Leitrim.
Lord Leitrim had a grim reputation among the poor tenants who lived on the 95,000 acres he owned across Leitrim, Donegal, Galway and Kildare.
He would become the most hated landlord in Ireland in the mid-19th century, leading to his sticky end. However, his nephew Robert, who inherited his vast estates, was hugely popular. And he was also a great friend to golf.
It was Robert who dreamt up the ideas that made Rosapenna the 19th century equivalent of the Costa del Sol, by using the steamer service that worked the north coast to bring golfing tourists to this shimmering corner of Donegal.
It all began in 1891, when he invited Old Tom Morris over from St Andrews to design a nine-hole course on the grounds of his home in Carrigart.
It was only when Old Tom was brought out for a trip around the locality - and excitedly spied the massive dunes and pristine links land at Rosapenna - that plans to build an 18-hole course were settled.
The Earl began to build a hotel at Rosapenna shortly before his death in 1892. The rest, as they say, is history.
It is a story, not only of the Earls of Leitrim and Eddie Hackett and Pat Ruddy, but of a Donegal family, the Caseys, that has created a little bit of heaven in one of the remotest corners of Ireland and nurtured what has grown to become a true mecca for the discerning golfer and nature lover.
When the hotel burned down in 1962, the adjacent Sheephaven House was transformed into a small 12-bedroomed hotel with bar and clubhouse.
It is here that the Rosapenna Hotel stands today and it has flourished since Frank and Hilary Casey bought the property in April 1981.
Rosapenna has undergone a complete transformation over the years.
The four-star hotel now has 65 bedrooms, including 16 bay view suites, the Vardon restaurant overlooking Sheephaven Bay and extensive leisure facilities, including a spa and indoor pool.
Recent additions to Rosapenna are the second course, Sandy Hills Links, designed by the irrepressible Mr Ruddy, which opened for play in 2003 and saw its 12th green complex redesigned by Beau Welling this year.
An 18,000 sq ft, two-storey golf pavilion was also built just over a decade ago and it is the centre of operations for all visiting golfers hoping to play either the Old Tom Morris Links or the Sandy Hills Links.
The Old Tom brilliantly hosted the Irish Women's Close Championship for the first time in June last year, with Enniscrone's Sarah Helly defeating the title favourite Olivia Mehaffey 6&5 in the final.
Then it was the turn of the men, with the senior Interprovincial Matches featuring the cream of Ireland's male golfing talent taking on Sandy Hills' dune-scape challenge just a fortnight later.
More championship golf is sure to be played, especially since the Casey family acquired the 36 holes of neighbouring St Patrick's Links in 2012 and plans to use that massive site to create a new 18-hole links when the time is right.
It's bound to be a winner.
No less a personage than Jack Nicklaus fell in love with St Patrick's when he first saw it and is reputed to have spent 16 hours there following the 2006 Open at Royal Liverpool - an eternity by his standards.
He was commissioned to redesign the 36 holes there and work did start in November 2006 after Relton Developments had purchased the two courses from the Walsh family of the Carrigart Hotel, who had owned the property since 1976.
The first of the two courses, Maheramagorgan, was originally designed by Eddie Hackett in 1982, but construction did not begin for 11 years and was not fully completed until 1996, when the last piece of sod was laid two months before Hackett's death on October 31.
The second course, Trá Mór, was designed in 1996 by former Royal County Down assistant professional Joanne O'Haire, and is said to be the only course in Ireland designed by a woman.
Now those lands await the arrival of a new architect to take on the challenge of creating a course, but the Caseys are in no rush as they plan something extra special.
The terrain overlooking Sheephaven Bay is truly spectacular, as Pat Ruddy explained in his book on Rosapenna, Beyond His Lordship's Wildest Dream (Ruddy Golf Library), you could spend an eternity on the land, playing a seemingly endless combination of holes.
"Sandy Hills Links has been given four sets of teeing grounds per hole and the Old Tom Links has three per hole," he writes.
"That gives a total of 126 tees for the 36 holes and makes it possible for a player to mix and match tees so as to create more 18-hole combinations than he could ever hope to play, considering that the odds of picking just six numbers from 49 in the lotto are calculated at 13,983,816 to one."
Few know the land as well as 33-year old Frank Jnr, who is, unsurprisingly, a scratch golfer.
"My brother John and I have been brought up in the business and have worked in the hotel and on the golf course since we were 11, 12 years of age or old enough to lift stuff," Frank Jnr explained.
"We spent out summers playing golf here and it's a great place to live."
His parents, Frank Snr and Hilary, spend most of their time at the stunning hotel, where John is also regularly in situ, leaving Frank Jnr the run of the golf pavilion and the links he loves.
The pride both sons have in the resort shines through from the interest they take in their guests, though one suspects both yearn for those childhood days when they had the run of the dunes and the beaches and few responsibilities.
"It's a family business and we do a bit of everything," explained Frank Jnr. "I will cut a green, rake a bunker or spray a fairway. Or I could be in the pavilion taking bookings, or helping in the hotel."
Standing up to his full six foot plus height, he casts his eyes over the spectacular views of sea, sand and mountains, adding: "To be honest, this is where I'd rather be, out on the course. John spends more of his time at the hotel, but either of us could assume the other's role."
Business is good, with regular visitors from Northern Ireland and Scotland boosted by golfers from the United States, France and Germany.
"People come to play Royal County Down, Royal Portrush, Castlerock and Portstewart and then Ballyliffin, Rosapenna, Murvagh, Enniscrone and Rosses Point before heading back to Dublin," said Frank Jnr.
"We are only three-and-a-half hours from the airport so people who come generally get a quick nine and then 18 on the morning and stay for three or four days to drink in the sights here, which are just fantastic."
Eventually having three world-class 18-hole links courses will make Rosapenna a must-visit destination for any golfing enthusiast who loves unhurried golf in a special place, not to mention the great hotel with its fine food, especially its fish and shellfish, from crab claws to freshly caught lobster, picked up by John from the pier in Downings.
It's little wonder that there is great pride locally in what has been achieved at Rosapenna by Downings native Frank Snr, who now employs up to 90 people at the height of the season .
A former Donegal Senior inter-county footballer, Casey Snr began his connection with Rosapenna back to the late Fifties, when he worked at the old Rosapenna Hotel during his school holidays.
When the original hotel burnt down, not to reopen until 1964, Frank Snr did most of his training for the hotel and catering business in London and Paris, graduating to become Rosapenna's Assistant Manager between 1965 and 1972. He then bought the Milford Hotel in 1972 and built up the business before selling in 1977 to help out at his family-run holiday park concern in Downings.
It all changed in 1981 when he took the brave step of purchasing the Rosapenna Hotel and took on massive loan commitments of £500,000 .
"I agree it was a massive undertaking, but I knew the hotel business through and through and I had a lot of confidence in my ability to make the investment pay," Frank Snr said later.
"My wife Hilary also had a lot of experience of the hotel business and thankfully she's still very much involved.
"Back then I was confident that the market had potential and that I could realise it via the business."
He was proved to be correct and while the golf industry is as difficult to master as a long iron from a downhill lie, the Caseys can guarantee that the warmth of their welcome and the jaw-dropping beauty of Rosapenna will never change.