Joe Russell, manager, The Lodge at Doonbeg, Co Clare
Joe Russell, general manager of The Lodge at Doonbeg and Doonbeg Golf Club. Photograph: John Kelly
The only understatement at the Lodge at Doonbeg is in the name. A lodge suggests a modest building annexed to a larger, much grander one. The Lodge at Doonbeg, a vast €150 million development that combines golf course, purpose-built hotel and on-site houses, dominates part of the skyline along the south west peninsula of Loop Head in Co Clare.
“This place isn’t like anywhere else in Ireland,” manager Joe Russell stresses. “You can’t really compare it. We describe ourselves as a luxury hotel, but we are not compatible with a grading system.” Developed over the last decade after land was bought from local farmers, it is owned by an American partnership. The country-club style development is unusual in Ireland, but quite common in America. The initial draw is a scenic celebrity-designed golf course – in this case, by Greg Norman – with purpose-built high-end clubhouses.
“We’re still a young business, and we’re not a castle property, but we’re continuing to grow,” Russell says. He’s showing me around the imposing baronial-style dining rooms and bars, one of each which are for members only: membership of the golf club is €60,000?. All have striking, uninterrupted views of the nearby Atlantic, and are on the same immense scale as everything else on the development.
There is a range of luxury accommodation, some within the lodge and some on-site in the grounds, in “suites” ranging in size between one and four bedrooms, all with kitchens. Some of these have be bought outright, then put back in a rental programme managed by the lodge’s owners, who sell them as guest rooms to the public for those months of the year their owners are not resident.
Contrasting with the luxury is a feature donkey cart with turf on display outside the main entrance, and a reproduction of a small thatched cottage, where people check in. “The Americans love it,” Russell explains. At Christmas, the cottage doubles as Santa’s Grotto.
Also on the estate is the Shebeen, which Doonbeg advertises as “An authentic Irish experience of times gone by” As Russell says, “We do a two-hour show for guests in the Shebeen, and they love it. Knickers over the fireplace, everything authentic.” The evening also features young girls Irish dancing. Their tights used to be new, and now they’re deliberately torn before being worn. “Marketing told us that if they wore torn tights, it would look better,” Russell confides, as an example of Doonbeg’s attention to detail.
In 2003, when the suites at Doonbeg first went on sale, 15 of them sold off-plans in the first 24 hours. At the time, a one-bed suite was €450,000 and a four bed was €1.6 million. To buy a unit, you first had to have that €60,000 club membership. There are 13 suites in the Lodge, 13 in the inner couryard and 19 in the outer one. On the grounds, there are 28 links cottages, all decorated and finished to a high standard. Of the 28 links cottages, seven remain unsold. The last one that sold, a four-bed, went in 2011 for €800,000, plus a membership fee.
At full capacity, the resort can sleep 420, but the most it has hosted to date is 395.
“Initially, golf was the attraction, but we have had to make the transition over time. We could not have survived on being a golf destination alone. When it comes to golf, competition is in the regions, not in individual properties. The west of Ireland is up against Scotland, for instance.”
Once 2007 arrived, the resort diversified into weddings. There is an on-site marquee that can sit 250 for dinner. This year, they will host 27 weddings, which are “mostly two-day events”. Last year, their client base was 52 per cent Irish, 36 per cent US, with the rest of the world making up the remainder. They get a lot of families, as well as the leisure sector. A double in the Lodge is €450 a night mid-week.
One initiative that didn’t work out was having chickens and rabbits on-site, a pet farm as part of an attraction for children. “Bloody animals got at them and ate them. It was a nightmare. It was a dog’s dinner we won’t be serving up again.”
In the high season, Doonbeg employs 240 people, and 90 in the low; very significant numbers in such a rural area. There are still loans out on the property, which has yet to operate at a profit, but as Russell points out, “we are still a young business. We need to come out of the slump.
“What do I want for the future? I need to sell a few more houses. And we could do with some bloody good weather,” he says grimly.