Saturday 20 January 2018

Tipperary: The warmest of welcomes

JEROME REILLY

The thing about Tipperary these days is that it's not such a long way from the capital. Two hours from Dublin city centre to Cashel -- home of the Rock and the perfect base to have a look around this undiscovered country.

Well, undiscovered by me anyway. Professionally I've visited "the Premier" on dozens of occasions and have taken the train to Semple Stadium for lots of big matches, but downtime usually brings me to the coast, and it's hard to conquer the ingrained conviction that a break is not a break without the sound of, well, breaking waves.

But the last bank holiday brought me to Dundrum House Hotel about 15 minutes outside Cashel, a fine period pile set in the lush rolling lands, blessed with mature trees and within a stone's throw of the magnificent Suir. Anglers standing midstream casting flies in search of elusive spring salmon completed a wonderful pastoral scene.

Moments later, as we pulled into the elegant gravel courtyard, Sean Og O hAilpin and the rest of the Cork hurlers were pucking a sliothar around the place ready to check out and head to Semple. It wasn't to be a good day for the Rebels who got a hammering in the league final later that afternoon from the Kilkenny Cats.

Maybe they were just too relaxed going into the big game after the weekend in Dundrum House. It's a peaceful place.

The hotel, which also includes a golf and leisure resort, is an imposing but comfortable Georgian manor house built in 1730 for the bride of Lord Hawarden, the Earl of Montalt, where the old Irish chieftains, the O'Dwyers of Kilnamanagh once held sway.

At the beginning of the century, a religious order bought the property and it was used at one time for educational purposes. The Crowe family bought the house and rich lands that lie along the Multeen River in the late 1970s and have been there since.

It's clear that this is a family-run enterprise, rather than an impersonal chain hotel. It's first-name terms from arrival to check out.

Whatever the luxury of the surroundings, it is first impressions that count and, more importantly, people. We received a warm welcome as we checked in and that set the tone for the weekend. Later that night, Margaret, a lovely, warm woman, looked after a busy service in the Lady Clementina Restaurant effortlessly. We enjoyed local lamb and beef cooked to the highest standard.

It would have been easy to while away the couple of days enjoying the spa and gym with a couple of games of golf thrown in.

But I was determined to find out why Tipperary people have such a vaunted opinion about their native heath. They really believe it's a cut above buttermilk.

Maybe they're right. We took a spin into Cashel. I'd never had a close look at the Rock of Cashel, which local myth says originated in the Devil's Bit, a mountain 20 miles away. St Patrick banished the devil from his lair and the rock he threw after him landed in Cashel.

That was myth but the truth is that the Rock was, and is, an imposing citadel. For hundreds of years before the Normans cut up rough in this part of the world, the Rock was the traditional seat of the Kings of Munster.

The complex boasts a remarkably eclectic collection of medieval and Celtic architecture.

We lunched in the pretty Victorian square in Cashel and went for a long walk -- something this part of Tipperary is rightfully anxious to promote.

The entire county is blessed with perfect walking country from the famous Glen of Aherlow, the Galteemore Walk which encompasses Ireland's highest inland peak, the Commeraghs or the Knockmealdown routes.

It's also perfect cycling country and, with more people taking to two wheels, Tipperary looks well placed to exploit this burgeoning niche.

That was enough activity for one day. I checked in with Brendan McDermott, a Donegal native and a hugely experienced coach and player who is the PGA professional at County Tipperary Golf & Country Club, which is part of the Dundrum House estate.

I booked a lesson for the following morning and Brendan picked me up in the golf buggy for a hugely enjoyable and relaxed lesson on the Phillip Walton-designed parkland course.

It was also really instructive and Brendan ironed out a couple of serious flaws that had crept into my game. I shall hook no more.

Later, while heading towards Thurles, we took the chance to have a closer look at Holycross Abbey, now restored to its 15th-Century splendour.

The abbey was founded by Donagh O'Brien, King of Thomond, as a Cistercian monastery in 1180 on the western bank of the Suir.

It's well worth a visit and offers a rare glimpse of what 14th and 15th-Century monasteries would have looked like at the height of their powers as seats of faith, learning and political power.

It's a wonderful part of the world and Tipperary has so much to offer that our meagre two day break was nowhere near long enough to explore its many charms.

We hardly ventured outside the north of the county.

Another trip to Tipp beckons, I think.

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