Travel: Galway - Gentle grandeur in land of the Tribes
I have always loved Galway. When I was a very young kid, I used to go there on my holidays every year. The Timeree Hotel in Salthill to be precise. Not one person that I have ever met from Galway has any recollection of said same hotel. That's either a very sad indictment on my age, or I completely imagined it all.
I certainly didn't imagine the Glenlo Abbey Hotel on a recent trip to the West. It was gorgeous. The three ex-flatmates were getting together for a catch-up. One from Kerry, one from Dublin, and me from Cork - and Galway seemed fairly equidistant for all. And the five-star Glenlo Abbey was a perfect choice. Situated just outside Galway on the Clifden road, it's an ideal base for touring Connemara and is very close to Galway city. Recently refurbished, it has lost none of its old-world elegance, while at the same time exuding a wonderful warmth and feeling of bonhomie, due in no small part to the staff. Rory O'Sullivan, from outside Kenmare, is the general manager and couldn't have been more welcoming, along with Sandra on reception.
Sloping down to Lough Corrib it was built in 1740 for The Ffrench family, one of the original 14 tribes of Galway. They lived there for more than 100 years, and during that time built a chapel for the private use of the lady of the house. The Blakes bought the house in 1855 and they lived there until 1897. They were also among the 14 tribes. The Palmers, a wealthy milling family, then took over. With the arrival of the railway and the consequent demise of their milling business, they took to farming the estate. Jeffrey Palmer, who fought in World War I, married Evelyn McNamara from Limerick, who was the main model for Palmolive soap. When the costs for running such an estate became prohibitive, the Blakes sold Glenlo in 1984.
Its gentle grandeur is evident. Grey and cream tartan carpet throughout the corridors, damask curtains, wonderful antique furniture and log fires create a grand but homely feel. Pillows as soft as cotton wool, coffee and tea-making facilities, a jar of homemade shortbread by the bed. What more could a girl want. The grounds are now home to a nine-hole golf course and a 21-bay driving range.
Galway itself is only down the road and is always vibrant. Hopping would be a better description. Old and young, tourists and locals all soaking up the atmosphere. Buskers, markets and two very enterprising young guys who were challenging people to hang by their hands on an overhead bar for 100 seconds, whereby they would be the lucky recipient of €100. The entry cost was €10 and while we were there nobody stayed up more than 70 seconds. I was very tempted but decided I'd only make an eejit of myself and end up collapsing or something. Restaurants and pubs abound and, after a spot of retail therapy and two jumpers later, we enjoyed a very satisfying meal in one of the many quirky eateries.
After a huge breakfast on day two at Glenlo, we embarked on a day of exploring the wonder that is Connemara. Craggy mountains, lakes with lonely boatmen, multitudes of sheep and amazing hues were enough to make us nearly crash on more than one occasion.
And then a visit to Kylemore Abbey. Mitchell Henry and his bride, Margaret Vaughan, visited the hunting lodge - which originally stood where the Abbey is today - while on honeymoon in 1850, and Margaret absolutely loved the views. Mitchell returned and bought the whole 15,000-acre estate for her as a surprise. What a man. They built the castle, had nine children, but sadly Margaret died from dysentery at 45 years of age. He built the Gothic church in the grounds in her memory. Very much an advocate of Home Rule and a great employer to his 125 tenants living on the estate, he died in Leamington in 1910 and his ashes were laid to rest with those of his wife in the grounds of the Abbey.
The Benedictine nuns left their convent in Ypres after the First World War and travelled to Ireland in 1920, much of their journey on foot. They purchased Kylemore and started their school in 1923 and it only closed in 2010. Five of the rooms in the Abbey are open to the public and tell the story of the school with interesting facts like the list of belongings the boarders had to bring with them. Thirteen nuns still live there and must be incredibly busy as the attached shop is full of their chutneys, jams, chocolate, tea blends, toffees, various cookie and scone mixes, pottery and much more. You can join them for Mass and evening vespers on a daily basis. The walled garden is absolutely divine. There's a flower garden and a vegetable garden, the original bothy which would have been home to six workers, but the piece de resistance was the head gardener's house. Beautifully restored with turf fires burning. Entry is €13 and it's a wonderful way to spend a day.
And then it was back 'home', as we had begun to call Glenlo, and dinner in the Pullman Restaurant a few metres from the old house. It comprises two train carriages both beautifully restored. One of them is called Leona and is part of the original Orient Express. I enjoyed a delicious terrine duck leg confit followed by monkfish fillet with broad beans and nameko mushrooms, morteau sausage, sweet potato and black olive and squid. It was all very atmospheric and each time I went out on to the platform for a cigarette, I passed my friends' window with a different murder scene, aided and abetted by Bart our very good-humoured waiter who threw me over his arm and 'plunged' a knife into my heart. All great fun and definitely a place I'll be back to.
Glenlo Abbey is offering a festive package inviting guests to arrive on Christmas Eve, Thursday, December 24, and depart on Sunday, December 27. This three-day programme costs €725 per adult sharing and children's package from €365 per child aged 4-12 years and includes dinner on each day, a sumptuous Christmas Day lunch, along with breakfast each day, activities and entertainment. For more details on Glenlo Abbey Hotel's Christmas Packages and Christmas Gift Vouchers, see www.glenloabbeyhotel.com
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