Tuesday 22 October 2019

Barry Egan visits Breaffy House - Tall tales from the riverbank in Mayo

A trip to Castlebar, Westport and Breaffy House proves a much-needed getaway for Barry Egan and family

Breaffy House in Co Mayo
Breaffy House in Co Mayo
Barry takes off at Breaffy House
The cycling greenway from Castlebar to Turlough
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

It's not often this happens.

My wife and I had been in a very fancy helicopter earlier (with our pilot Captain Anthony Curran), and now as our two young kids are being minded in the play centre, we're below the radar. Or at least downstairs in the 19th century cellar of the luxury Breaffy House Hotel in County Mayo, having a private, bespoke wine tasting, guided by a man who knows his wines.

Once upon a time, the passageways beneath the old house led to a room full of guns and rifles. These days it is the subterranean home of some exceedingly exquisite wines that my wife and I have partaken of. Not too liberally, but sufficiently to have a slightly guilty feeling that we are doing something in the late afternoon that perhaps we shouldn't be doing.

It would have been rude not to, of course, because they have 28 Decanter Gold Medal Wines from the Bordeaux, Cote du Rhone and Loire Valley regions. Couples come down here to get engaged or to toast their wedding. Aoife and I came down to have a few glasses and perhaps get away from the children for an hour.

Barry takes off at Breaffy House
Barry takes off at Breaffy House

"Before we converted it last September the old cellar was originally the gun room during the time of the Browne family during the 18th and 19th centuries," Wilson Bird, the hotel's general manager, told us. "It's an experience you won't get anywhere else. You cannot help but be impressed by it."

Our four-year-old daughter was possibly the only person not impressed when we returned after our time away. To make up for our absence, we took the child and her 15-month-old brother for an urgent ice cream in the bar and then to the playground in front of the hotel and let them play to their hearts' content.

It was a glorious sunny evening. I'm not just saying that. There was real heat in the sun that evening. It was like our own private heatwave in the West.

So, we had an unforgettable dinner al fresco in the courtyard. Our daughter was able to have a nibble of her dinner, then run back to her new pals on the swings and the roundabout and the crazy golf, before returning to have another nibble of her food. Basking in the sun, her mother and I enjoyed the most relaxing evening together.

The good weather continued the next day. We took the kids on the 8km greenway bike ride from Castlebar to Turlough. With a child apiece on the back of our bikes, it was an enchanting journey along the Castlebar River, mostly, to the National Museum of Country Life at Turlough. We passed swans, lambs, cows and horses variously in green fields, on riverbanks, by lakes and in woodlands among some other beautiful Irish countryside on our trip.

There was a steep hill with a swing gate at the top; we were exhausted when we made it to the National Museum of Ireland - Country Life. Alas, the café was closed (admittedly it was Good Friday) and our daughter was not impressed. This meant no treat for sitting for an hour in a child seat in a trolley on the way there. This also meant we had to turn around straight away and do another 8k back to Castlebar town for a late lunch.

It was worth it when we found The Pizza Brothers - a lovely pizza restaurant down an alleyway in Humbert Mall - before having a nosey around Castlebar. (My daughter was amused that Castlebar in Gaelic - Caisleán an Bharraigh - means "Barry's Castle".)

We visited the 18th Century Christchurch (built in 1739), and then, the Mayo Memorial Peace Park in Garryduff, which recalls and honours the men and women of Mayo who served and died on UN operations, as well in the world wars of the last century.

The following day, we visited one of the most striking houses in the world, Westport House, for a few hours of bliss. What's not to be blissed out about when you see the house (with its gorgeous rooms) to say nothing of the lake, the gardens and that view of Clew Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Our daughter was in awe that in the 16th Century an actual pirate queen, Grace O'Malley, ruled on that sea. Equally in awe was her mother when we enjoyed Victorian afternoon tea in the formal drawing room.

About 4pm, we returned to Breaffy House, had a swim with the kids in the hotel pool, then got ready for dinner. There was a little playground outside our window (we were staying in Breaffy House's three-star sister hotel Breaffy Woods), so our daughter happily played on the swings.

Westport House is the pride and joy of the gorgeous town of Westport
Westport House is the pride and joy of the gorgeous town of Westport

When we made it to Breaffy House's Mulberry Restaurant for dinner, the hotel was bustling. It wasn't always so. In the recession the hotel went into decline, having been a second home for wealthy foreign tourists in its 1980s and 1990s heyday. Sadly, it went into examinership and then receivership in 2011. But since 2014, under new owners, it has risen like the proverbial phoenix from the West of Ireland ashes.

Which is why on a balmy Saturday night, the four-star hotel is playing host to some swanky clientele from far and wide (hence the helicopter rides offered to guests) to enjoy fine wines and food to match in The Mulberry Restaurant. Fancy clientele or not, this was the night that our two kids kicked up.

Our one-year-old son wouldn't sit in his baby seat and roared when I tried to feed him, and his big sister wanted to play in the playground in the sunshine with her new mates.

I sat on a chair in the playground with a cheese board and a glass of wine, supplied by my new best friend sommelier Alessandro Pasqua, and watched the kids at play. My wife enjoyed her delightful meal. I could actually see her spooning down the last of the cheesecake as I lifted the baby on to the swing and watched his sister whack the ball in the crazy golf towards a window.

Not to disturb my wife's after dinner drink at the bar, I put the baby in his buggy and took him and his sister for a walk on the fairy trail set in the hotel's 90-acre estate.

The cycling greenway from Castlebar to Turlough
The cycling greenway from Castlebar to Turlough

Who says women do all the work? Only joking - my hard-working wife is a Mayo-mazing saint.

Getting there

* Breaffy House Resort's Summer Early Bird Offer includes three nights bed and breakfast and one dinner for two adults and two children from €393 in the four-star Breaffy House Hotel, and from €348 in the three-star Breaffy Woods Hotel.

* Large family rooms/interconnecting rooms are available for just a €75 supplement per night.

*The Best Burgundy Wine Weekend from Friday, July 5 will feature the best of French Pinot noir and Chardonnay grapes produced by the Moillard family.

* It will also focus on one of the best Cote de Beaune available to the Irish market and a delicious fresh Pouilly-Fuisse from the Maconnais region.

* Contact Breaffy House Resort in Breaffy, Castlebar, Co Mayo on 094 902 2033 or by emailing info@breaffyhouseresort.com Web: breaffyhouseresort.com.

This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.

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