Sunday 26 May 2019

Brendan O'Connor visits County Clare: Five-star life at a canter

'It's like five-star but with a hint of Clare/Limerick crack and madness to it,' Brendan says of Dromoland Castle

There's nothing quite like a dander around Dromoland Castle on the back of a fine beast on a balmy February morning
There's nothing quite like a dander around Dromoland Castle on the back of a fine beast on a balmy February morning
Brendan and Black Jack take a jaunt around Dromoland
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

The hysteria is contagious.

One is nervous and terrified about the horse, because she is predisposed to taking longer to adapt and adjust to new circumstances and things. The other is just a bit of a nervous nelly anyway. So they feed off each other. But Sean is cool as a breeze about it.

When I suggest that maybe we should just forget about the horse riding, he asks me straight out if the younger one will eventually come around. I tell him she will, but I can't say when. That's fine so, he says. We have plenty of time.

Sarah and I had said we wouldn't be getting on horses that afternoon, because we would be needed to keep the kids calmed. But then, in the name of calming the kids, it was agreed that brave dad should lead the way. Great.

So I had to show them there was nothing to be afraid of by mounting Black Jack.

When you're up close, horses are big, powerful beasts. But Jack was a docile old crathur. He's retired more or less, and even when he did work, it was for a monk, who still comes for a visit.

Brendan and Black Jack take a jaunt around Dromoland
Brendan and Black Jack take a jaunt around Dromoland

Sarah got up on one next, and soon enough, Sean and two endlessly patient teenage girls he had helping him had coaxed the children along and suddenly we were trekking through Lord Inchiquin's forest.

As it happened, it was a rare beautiful day in late February, so lovely dappled light came through the trees.

I had an overwhelming sense of serenity as Jack moseyed along.

When I attempted to explain the allure of it to a millennial friend later, she said: "Of course you felt good. You were forest-bathing. It's a thing. Look it up, granddad."

And it turns out it is. And it works.

Sean, who now runs a yard with stables right next to Dromoland Castle, courtesy of Lord Inchiquin, tells me he switched off from the news months ago, and he seems happy.

After the jaunt, we are ready for something to eat. Obviously, we're hungry after sitting on our arses on a horse for an hour, so it's just as well tonight is our fine dining night for us in Dromoland Castle.

Well, the adults will be fine dining. The kids will be looked after in the bar first.

Danny, who has become my go-to guy for food and beverage and any other matters in the short time I've been here, sorts us a table in the bar where the kids can eat while I have an excellent Negroni.

This is the thing about Dromoland. You're in a swanky five-star hotel with all that entails. What's more you're in one favoured by Yanks, so they have to do things properly, like cocktails. But equally it's all very casual and relaxed and human.

So you can have your Negroni, in a beautifully appointed bar, but the kids can also eat their fish and chips at the table.

And later on, there'll be music, and one of the barmen will even do a Frank Sinatra routine. It's like five-star but with a hint of Clare/Limerick crack and madness to it.

Even the fine dining, in the Earl of Thomond room, which is beautifully ornate, with massive chandeliers and an air of grandiosity, isn't remotely formal, or austere.

A finished bedroom at Dromoland Castle
A finished bedroom at Dromoland Castle

The food is fantastic, and they lift the silver cloches off dramatically to present it, but you know, there's nothing stiff about the whole thing.

I suppose what I mean is that there's a sense of relaxed warmth about everything.

For example, Dromoland offers falconry as an on-site activity, which I didn't do, being more of a horseman, don't you know.

But when I saw the falconer up with the birds one of the mornings, while the kids pedalled madly around a tennis court on go-karts, I wandered up to him. He chatted away for Ireland and had me petting owls, and learning all about the sex life of the falcon.

You could mosey around for the whole weekend just enjoying being in a castle and its beautiful wooded grounds.

When the natural beauty is this nice, even wandering up and down to the pool in the golf club is awe inspiring. But I had a mission while I was down in this part of the country. I wanted to swim in the Pollock Holes in Kilkee. I'd heard so many Clare and Limerick people, and Kilkee summer folk, boasting about the Pollock Holes, but I needed to see these tidal pools myself, to understand what exactly they were.

It was only after my swim in them that a guy gave me a bit of local knowledge, which is that you have to wait for the rocks to dry off a bit before you head across them to the holes. It's a flat walk, but at the time we did it, a slippy one.

I looked back at one stage and saw that the family had given up and were heading back, some of them possibly having fallen, but at that stage it was every man for himself and I forged ahead.

The pool I swam in was lovely, crystal clear and warm, relatively speaking. I trekked back across the slippy rocks, satisfied with myself.

Don't ask me what the point of it all was, but it's presumably similar to the instinct a dog has to mark his territory. I wouldn't have felt I had actually been in Kilkee if I didn't get semi-naked there. A nice walk on the beach and we were getting peckish again, so back to the hotel.

Obviously a weekend away like this involves doubling, possibly trebling your normal volumes of food. I went down with some idea that I might have a sensible breakfast at least, but then you think how rarely you have the full Irish and then you see all the scones and whatnot laid out and it'd be a shame to let it all go to waste. I actually took to needing a lie down after breakfast.

We rolled out on Sunday after one last feast feeling like we'd had a holiday, having tried new things, having immersed in nature, and having had for us the romance, and for the kids the magic of living castle life for the weekend. Much more fun and less stuffy than I worried it would be.

And everyone swears we'll be forest-bathing and family horse-riding again.

Getting there

Enjoy a Royal Family Falconry Experience at Dromoland Castle which includes the opportunity to learn about and handle and fly the birds during a one-hour family falconry experience.

From €495 per room, the package includes: Two nights luxury accommodation in a deluxe family room; full Irish breakfast each morning; one-hour family falconry experience for two adults and two children.

Deluxe Family rooms in Dromoland from €315 per room per night.

For more information visit dromoland.ie

This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.

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