CONNEMARA has long been regarded as the real emerald of Ireland and to experience this picturesque countryside, I headed west out of Galway City and along the N59 on the 1h 12m drive to the beautiful Ballynahinch Castle Hotel and Estate, a fairytale castle in the woods, overlooking the Ballynahinch River.
From the rugged Twelve Bens, also known as the Twelve Pins mountain range in the north, through lake-rich Roundstone Bog to the golden beaches reaching out into the Atlantic Ocean, you’ll know you’re in Connemara by the light that constantly changes the mood and tone of the landscape.
This natural terrain and unspoilt environment offers the visitor a wonderland of sights, experiences, adventure and activities.
On entering the castle I was greeted by general manager Patrick O’Flaherty, originally from Cork, but with now well-settled in the west of Ireland. Patrick is the perfect host with his many anecdotes of the castle going back years. A man who thoroughly enjoys his job.
Patrick is a distant descendant of the O’Flahertys who owned the lands originally, one of whom married Grace O’Malley, the pirate queen.
Ballynahinch is close to Recess in Co Galway, on the route of the former railway line to Clifden.
The castle, a hotel since 1946, was built in the 17th Century for the Martyn family, one of whose members was ‘Humanity Dick’, founder of the RSPCA.
Today it is known as a high-end hotel with a focus on fly fishing for salmon, as well as clay shooting, walking and hiking.
The food is terrific at Ballynahinch too. Head Chef Xin Sun takes fine local ingredients, including locally-caught fish, and cooks them with care.
One of the great stories of this historic castle centres on a previous owner, His Highness Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji, Jam Saheb of Nawanager, a small state in north-western India.
He was known as Ranji, the cricketing maharajah of Connemara, and was the first non-white man to play cricket for England.
Ranji had a love of salmon and sea-trout fishing and rented the castle in 1924 on a visit to Ireland.
Ranji fell in love with Ballynahinch and decided to purchase the estate with its 30,000 acres of land, lake and river.
Many celebrities have stayed at the castle over the years, including former England Test cricketer Ian Botham and guitarist Eric Clapton, who caught his first ever salmon there in September, 1987.
There’s a framed photo of Botham and Clapton together in the Castle Pub.
While sitting in the pub I met Des Lally, a member of the team at Ballynahinch. Des, who described himself as the ‘night porter’, is not only top of his game in terms of hospitality and warmth, but co-editor of a beautiful book of poetry, An Afterglow: A Gallery of Connemara Poems.
Ballynahinch Castle has 40 rooms, almost half of them classic rooms in the main house itself, some with river views over the Ballynahinch River, with the other superior and luxury rooms and magnificent Riverside Suites spread between two luxurious wings to one side of this distinctive property.
During my visit I took a tutorial on fly fishing from experienced guide Cyril Biggins. For those who have never tried their hand at fly fishing, the castle conducts on-site tutorials for one or two people for a half or full day.
One of the certified guides will teach all the basics, from casting techniques to fly selection. Prices start from €140.
Later I took part in clay shooting along with instructor Shane Bisgood of the Connemara Shooting School. The castle has developed a wonderful sporting clay shoot on the estate.
The highlight of the trip though, was the visit to Inishlacken, an idyllic island of stone walls, white sandy beaches, nesting sea birds and ruined houses. With a population of nearly 200 in 1900, the last islanders left in the 1980s.
Packages from June and valid for the coming months include: Island and Lobster packages; two nights’ bed and breakfast and a half-day boat trip on the Nancy Lee II from €295.
Packages at Ballynahinch Castle Hotel and Estate include: Stay and Discover the Estate: Two nights’ bed and breakfast, dinner on one evening and 2½ hour guided walk from €310 per person; two nights’ bed and breakfast and a half-day fishing tutorial for one person with expert guide from €290; two nights’ bed and breakfast and a half-day clay shooting tutorial from €295.
For more details visit www.ballynahinch-castle.com or ring 095-31006.