Amid great walking trails, fantastic fishing, and literary heritage, Ballynahinch Castle hotel delivers the best of Connemara – and you don’t need to be a poet to appreciate it
There are few things I’d rather do, on a cold December morning, with ice in the puddles and a crisp blue sky overhead, than go rambling for an hour or two in the woods around Ballynahinch Castle hotel in County Galway.One of the most romantic places to stay in Ireland, Ballynahinch sits at the base of the Twelve Bens mountain range in the heart of Connemara. It has its own lake, and a river runs right past the dining room, weaving its way down to the Atlantic coast at Roundstone, six miles away. There are no fewer than 700 acres of grounds to stretch your legs in.
The paths are muddy when I head out for my walk, and my ears and nose are red with cold, but I have a couple of incentives to keep me going. There is a hot whiskey waiting for me when I get back, and a roaring fire in the bar, and I want to feel that my rewards have been properly earned.I cross the bridge on the main avenue and walk along a section of the old Galway-to-Clifden railway line, which hasn’t encountered a train since the 1930s. Along the way my companion Josh Mcgloin, who runs activities at the hotel, is on the lookout for fungi. With a basket in one hand and a penknife in the other, he leads me to secret clusters of ceps, burnt-orange chanterelles and hedgehog mushrooms, all of which end up in my lunch the following day.Reaching the immaculately preserved station building, we loop back and follow the river past the main building, an 18th-century manor house, and on up to Ballynahinch Lake.This is angler’s heaven. At Beat No 1, just below the lake, wild salmon take a breather. Evidence of this can be seen in the hotel bar, where some of the most staggering catches of recent decades – including a spectacular 20lb specimen landed by a lucky first-timer last year – are mounted for posterity.
There is deep history here. On the far side of the lake, on the site of a 2,000-year-old crannóg, or artificial island, lie the ruins of a 16th-century tower house – the original Ballynahinch Castle. This belonged to the once-powerful O’Flaherty clan, who owned the land before it was taken away by the British.
The beauty of this spot didn’t escape the poet Seamus Heaney, a regular visitor to the hotel before his death in 2013. In his poem Ballynahinch Lake he recalls stopping by the water “As a captivating brightness held and opened / And the utter mountain mirrored in the lake / Eked into us like a wedge knocked sweetly home / Into core timber.”Heaney loved the hotel bar, to which we repair when the rain sets in and the need for hot whiskeys becomes urgent. I’ve heard people describe the Fisherman’s Pub at Ballynahinch as the most beautiful bar in Ireland, a hard claim to dismiss when you settle in by the crackling log fire, glass in hand, and survey the artful jumble of paintings and photographs on the wall, each with a story to tell. (I would, however, make a competing case for a wonderful pub in Drogheda called Clarke’s.) “This is an egalitarian sort of room,” says the hotel’s gregarious manager Patrick O’Flaherty, noting that ambassadors and local sheep farmers have been known to bond over a couple of pints at the bar and get animated about the state of fishing.
In the lull before dinner, I gather that Seamus Heaney wasn’t the only literary figure to patronise Ballynahinch, which marked its 70th anniversary last year. Edna O’Brien is a regular, and O’Flaherty invites artists, such as Dorothy Cross, to “stay at the castle and record their response to the landscape”. The resulting work is published by Occasional Press and some of the art ends up on the well-furnished walls, where you’ll also find paintings by Paul Henry, Louis le Brocquy and Sean Scully.It would be easy for a place like this to feel stuffy, given the weight of its history but Ballynahinch feels informal, almost bohemian in character. The food, too, is carefully constructed without seeming fussy. At dinner, fat scallops are served in a delicate dashi with sea vegetables and a roe cracker. Roast duck breast from Skeaghanore in Cork – probably the best I’ve ever had – comes with several types of beetroot, cooked to the tenderest pink.
None of this comes cheap: Ballynahinch is a place for special occasions and is perfect at Christmas time. As well as woodlands to explore and rivers to fish, you can go cycling or climbing – the Diamond Hill near Letterfrack has spectacular views out to Inishbofin island – and it’s worth driving a little further up to Killary Harbour, Ireland’s only fjord, to have lunch at Misunderstood Heron, a food truck serving fresh mussels and lamb samosas right down by the shore. Closer to home, Roundstone Ceramics, Rosemarie O’Toole and Séamus Laffan’s lovely workshop, is highly recommended for its pretty pottery.The following day we head to Roundstone Harbour to meet our skipper John O’Sullivan for a boat trip to the island of Inishlacken. There’s no longer a community here, only the remains of their limestone cottages. The island gradually emptied out during the 20th century but a few of the houses have been restored and (yet more) artists come to the island each year in search of inspiration.You can see why. The island is fringed by beaches of white sand, giving way to tufty dunes and bogland strewn with wildflowers, the territory patrolled by a number of temperamental goats. By the old schoolhouse, with its bright blue door and high windows, Patrick produces a Thermos flask filled with broth from yesterday’s haul of wild mushrooms. We drink it all in. Not every afternoon in Connemara is this picture perfect, but even in the deepest midwinter, with rain driving in from the Atlantic, this is an extraordinary place to spend a couple of days or more.
Way to go
Doubles at Ballynahinch Castle from €185 B&B a night low season, €300 B&B a night high season. Ryanair flies Gatwick to Knock from £31. For more information, go to discoverireland.ie. The Guardian.