When is a castle not a castle?
When it’s an 18th-century fishing lodge that can count among its former owners an animal-loving MP for Galway and a fishing-mad Indian prince.
The original castle, a round tower on Ballynahinch Lake, was once home to the Pirate Queen herself, Gráinne Mhaol. The current Ballynahinch Castle, built in 1786, has long been a favorite of wealthy Americans, but is growing in popularity with Irish residents looking for a slice of Connemara chic.
Shortly before Covid hit, a new general manager, Eoin Walsh, was appointed and a major refurbishment of the bedrooms in the new guest wing took place. It has also joined the Relais & Châteaux luxury collection. On weekends restrictions are about to ease, we hit the road and head west to check it all out…
Arrival & location
Located on Connemara’s main road, Ballynahinch Castle is now a pleasant hour’s drive from Galway city, thanks to recent improvements to the N59.
A winding, tree-lined approach offers just a glimpse of the sprawling 700-acre estate. As I push open the imposing front door, I can’t help but notice the bizarre “fox head” door knocker. An ode to a fox called Freddie who frequented the property, it inspired a guest in the late 1990s to write a children’s book of the same name (a few copies may still be available online, I’m told).
Once inside, we are greeted by a burst of heat from a roaring open fire and a buzzing atmosphere. A multi-generational shooting party prepares to depart as cheerful guests (a mix of couples and a few families) stroll around in various states of relaxation. There is a soft din of a group supping creamy pints by the fireside. It’s a bit like stepping into an episode of Glen Monarch. 9/10
We are staying in one of the upgraded superior rooms facing the river. Spacious with a soothing pastel palette, inviting four-poster bed, and thick carpeting, there’s not much to complain about except perhaps the lack of a free-standing tub. (I notice on the website that other rooms have stand-alone tubs, if that’s your thing.) The real selling points, though, are two cottagecore armchairs facing the huge bay window. Order drinks to your room, sit back and watch the babbling Owenmore River do its thing. Be warned, though, the proximity to a riverside path means that if you don’t want to close the curtains, be prepared to see other guests passing by. 8.5/10
Service & style
This is where Ballynahinch really comes into its own. As you walk through the property you are greeted with genuine warmth and inquiry into how your day is going. Staff at many hotels do this, but few make it felt more than lip service. Impeccable service comes second only to style, or what I’ll loosely call Ballynahinch’s great vibe.
A series of interconnecting lounges strike that happy medium between stuffy and scruffy, meaning you’ll feel right at home lounging the afternoon in mud-splattered walking gear while sipping an after-dinner cocktail in the your Sunday costume.
In the main house, a wood-paneled hallway lined with black-and-white photographs of the former owners and their guests means I end up stopping to drink a little more history every time we return to our room. And it’s a hotel steeped in its own history, from WB Yeats’ writing desk to the framed letter penned by former owner ‘Humanity Dick’. And the walls are a veritable who’s who of Irish art history, from the superb oil painting by JB Yeats near reception to a huge Cubist landscape by Mary Swanzy near the stairs. But Ballynahinch manages to wear his storied past lightly and with immense pride. And that’s something to admire. 10/10
It’s not often that a hotel can treat guests to dinner with Eric Clapton… well, sort of. At Fisherman’s Pub and the Ranji Room (dedicated to the aforementioned Indian prince, Ranjitsinhji), our seat sports a plaque stating that the guitar maestro dined here and a nearby photo shows him fishing with his catch of the day. Speaking of which, we dined on a solid fish and chips and a slightly disappointing chicken and leek pie that lacked flavor. As the pubs go, however, this one ticks all the boxes and more, and there’s even traditional music. But the real dining experience is reserved for the following evening, when we grab a table by the window of the Owenmore Restaurant. Under the direction of Executive Chef David Bodas, the kitchen offers first-class gourmet dishes, including pie au parfait with chicken liver and delicate black sole on the bone. After three courses, coffees and petit fours, we waddle for a last drink. 8/10
Clay pigeon shooting, fishing and guided walks around the estate are all on offer, but why not hop on one of the hotel’s free bikes and explore the 6km segment of the planned greenway from the Connemara which passes the doors of the hotel.
Diamond Hill is a popular loop walk just a 25 minute drive away. But Errisbeg at nearby Roundstone is closer and quieter. We booked a guided hike with Ballynahinch’s super friendly activities manager, Josh. Be warned, it’s seriously swampy in places and the route to the top isn’t always obvious. A pint and bowl of steaming chowder afterwards at O’Dowd’s is a must.
The bottom line
People I know who have been to Ballynahinch have been raving about it for a long time, and it does not disappoint. A stellar food offering (did I mention the breakfast? Suffice it to say there’s a whole gammon and bowl of delicious prunes reminiscent of a certain Etto dessert beloved by Irish foodies), a stately stack and grounds to get lost in, the real draw of Ballynahinch is its past, which greets you at every corner and wraps it around you like a warm, historic embrace. And it’s nice to hear from manager Eoin that there are works planned to preserve the original castle on the lake. Taking care of his past so carefully, Ballynahinch’s future looks very bright.
B&B from €235 per room per night; two nights in B&B plus dinner from €580. Rachel was a hotel guest. ballynahinch-castle.com