From a brown trout to Rory McIlroy’s wedding: the saving of Ashford Castle

For years, Ashford Castle was in the doldrums – but a €75 million refit has put it back on the map, and it has been winning international acclaim and awards ever since

Ashford Castle sits on 365 acres overlooking Lough Corrib. Photograph: Keith Heneghan/Phocus

Ashford Castle sits on 365 acres overlooking Lough Corrib. Photograph: Keith Heneghan/Phocus

 

As I pull up at the door of Ashford Castle and eyeball the beaming man in the racing green top hat and tails making his way towards my car, I marvel at how times change.

The last time I was in (or at least in proximity to) the castle in Cong was for Rory McIlroy and Erica Stoll’s wedding last April as part of a not-always-hugely popular press pack sent to report /spy/collect gossip from the couple’s private bash.

Not since The Quiet Man more than half a century earlier had a wedding in the sleepy little village straddling the Galway-Mayo border attracted such attention. But, sadly – for the journalists at any rate – the groom-to-be declined to drag his bride-to-be from a train and up a country road before getting into a fist fight over a dowry – as John Wayne did to prove his love for Maureen O’Hara in the John Ford film.

Instead, we all just stared morosely at the imposing castle walls for days and quietly cursed the mean-looking, high-vis-jacket-wearing men with clipboards who snarled every time we approached guests or gates.

John Lane, porter at Ashford Castle. Photograph: Keith Heneghan/Phocus
John Lane, porter at Ashford Castle. Photograph: Keith Heneghan/Phocus

But it’s a different story today. Today I’m here by appointment and am being welcomed effusively by a man in a green top hat and tails.

He calls me Mr Pope and asks if he can carry my bags. I tell him there’s no need for misters in our world and assure him that when it comes to making my way to hotel reception 50 metres away without assistance, I’ll be grand.

He looks crestfallen when he sees my tatty rucksack. Castle guests do not normally, I suspect, arrive in Ashford with ragged luggage. Nonetheless, he repeats his offer to carry it for me.

“Ah no, sure I’m here to work,” I tell him. “Like you.”

“Of course you are, Mr Pope,” he says with cheer in his voice and doubt in his eyes.

“I’m here to work,” I tell the receptionist as she hands me my room key. “Of course, Mr Pope,” she says as she walks me to the Kennedy Suite where the hotel has decided to put me. I’m genuinely mortified as she shows me round my lodgings which are almost the size of my house and a whole lot swankier.

Everything here is.

Conor Pope with head pastry chef Paula Stakelun. Photograph: Keith Heneghan/Phocus
Conor Pope with head pastry chef Paula Stakelun. Photograph: Keith Heneghan/Phocus
Conor Pope goes foraging with head pastry chef Paula Stakelun. Photograph: Keith Heneghan/Phocus
Conor Pope goes foraging with head pastry chef Paula Stakelun. Photograph: Keith Heneghan/Phocus

Hard years

It nearly wasn’t. In fact, were it not for a brown trout caught on Lough Corrib in the 1980s, Ashford Castle could well be the trophy home of a Russian oligarch today or a crumbling relic with its best days behind it.

Galway maths teacher turned property mogul Gerry Barrett bought Ashford and its 365 acres overlooking Lough Corrib from a group of Irish-Americans in 2008. He paid €50 million and planned to spend more millions making it a castle fit for a queen or a king. Within three years his dream had turned into his nightmare. As one of the failed Anglo Irish Bank’s biggest debtors, his loans went into the National Asset Management Agency (the “bad bank” set up by the government to deal with the financial crisis) and his hotel went on the market for a fraction of what he’d paid.

I’m introduced to the two Irish wolfhounds. I am told they could outpace a wolf and knock an armed man off a horse before ripping his throat out

Niall Rochford was Ashford’s general manager then and now, and he recalls “hard years when the product was on its knees”. He remembers when “we were actually allocating rooms based on wind direction because the windows were just so badly damaged”.

Although in disrepair, Ashford still had allure and as soon as the “for sale” sign went up, inquiries flooded in, with suitors seeking to exploit a fire sale. All told, 36 potential buyers were shown round by Rochford, with each visit “like a job interview for me”, he says.

“There were some who clearly just wanted to buy it and flip it and one Russian oligarch who came in and was like: ‘I don’t know what I could do with something like this, maybe I could turn it into my home.’”

A buyer

Then something magical happened. Brett Tollman, of the Red Carnation hotel chain, happened to be in London and he heard that Ashford was for sale. He recalled it was in its shadow, on Lough Corrib, that he caught his first fish as a 10-year-old boy and resolved to buy it – or at least to suggest his parents, the owners of the group, take a look.

Red Carnation was founded in the 1950s by a formidable South African woman called Bea Tollman. As a teenager, she and her husband Stanley had started out with a B&B and gone from there. She named her company after Stanley’s favourite flower, one he liked to wear in his lapel.

Ashford Castle general manager Niall Rochford: he recalls “hard years when the product was on its knees”. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
Ashford Castle general manager Niall Rochford recalls “hard years when the product was on its knees”. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

The Tollmans now have 16 high-end hotels in the UK, South Africa, Switzerland, the US and Ireland. And Stanley still wears the flower in his lapel.

Ahead of their visit, he was not keen but was won over by the castle setting. Bea was won over by its staff, Rochford says.

“I’m not just saying this but she is probably the most inspirational hotelier I’ve ever met. I’ll never forget when they came to speak to the staff after the sale. Mr Tollman said three things. He said the hotel is now debt-free, your jobs are now secure and we want to make this the best hotel of its kind in the world.”

Tollman was as good as his word and since the takeover – and a €75 million refit – the castle has been winning international acclaim and awards.

Conor Pope, right, with James Knight and his Irish wolfhounds Cronan and Garvan. Photograph: Keith Heneghan/Phocus
Conor Pope, right, with James Knight and his Irish wolfhounds Cronan and Garvan. Photograph: Keith Heneghan/Phocus

Gone to the dogs

After meeting Rochford I meet the castle dogs. Seconds after, I’m introduced to the two Irish wolfhounds who are an Instagrammer’s dream. I am told they could outpace a wolf and knock an armed man off a horse before ripping his throat out.

Then hotel guests start feeding them coffee. The dogs seem delighted but I wonder if caffeine is what such potentially lethal beasts need.

“Oh, they love it,” James Knight, their handler, says in a booming English accent. Each day, Knight leads a group of guests on a walk with his wolfhounds. “This was never meant to be a guest amenity. All we do is walk, but so many people love it, it’s like dog therapy for them.”

As we walk back through the woods I meet Judi Dickerson, a guest at the hotel. “It is just magical here,” she says. “But there are so many Americans. Mind you, I’m from LA so who am I to talk?”

Talking is what Dickerson does for a living. She works with British, Irish and Australian actors and teaches them how to speak American. I ask her why she is here. “It’s our ‘Oh f**k it’ vacation,” she tells me. “My husband lost both his parents in a two-month spell earlier this year, so we just thought we’d go for it. We are loving the people here, although they do ask us a lot about Emperor F***wad – he is the most heinous thing to happen, it is so distressing.”

The George V restaurant: not a meal goes by without mention of ‘The Quiet Man’. Photograph: Keith Heneghan/Phocus
The George V restaurant: not a meal goes by without mention of ‘The Quiet Man’. Photograph: Keith Heneghan/Phocus

Famous stars

Back in the hotel, maitre d Martin Gibbons is in the George V restaurant. Like many castle lifers – he started working in Ashford in August 1974 – he’s from Cong and full of stories. “I’ve seen four owners, from Mulcahy” he pauses. “I mean Mr Mulcahy, to Mr Charles Feeney to Mr Barrett and now the current owners.

“The first big star I saw was Johnny Cash, ” Gibbons tells me. “He came with June Carter. Robert Shaw used to come for his birthday, he lived not far from here and was very grumpy. Peter Ustinov would have half a bottle of Mumm champagne for lunch and if the temperature wasn’t right he’d throw the bottle at you. Fred Astaire? A great man. Sharon Stone cycled up on a bicycle. And John Wayne stayed in room 500, Maureen O’Hara stayed in 408. There is not a meal that goes by without The Quiet Man getting a mention,” he says.

Gibbons is not finished. “Ted Kennedy came here a lot, Robin Williams stayed here. His nanny was from Limerick and she wanted to go home for a holiday, so he took his whole family to Ashford.”

Our guests are not demanding, but they expect a certain standard and that is what we do. If we can accommodate them then we will

Patrick Luskin is a second-generation castle boatman who takes guests cruising on the lake daily. He recalls all the activity around the McIlroy-Stoll wedding and says he was approached multiple times by cash-waving paparazzi and journalists (not this one, to be clear) who wanted to use his boat and knowledge to get close to the ceremony.

“I said no to them all. I have a long-term relationship with the hotel and that is important. But so is a couple’s privacy. They are entitled to that.”

Conor Pope squares up to a suit of armour. Photograph: Keith Heneghan/Phocus
Conor Pope squares up to a suit of armour. Photograph: Keith Heneghan/Phocus
Ashford Castle: the hotel is full of breathtaking touches. Photograph: Keith Heneghan/Phocus
Ashford Castle: the hotel is full of breathtaking touches. Photograph: Keith Heneghan/Phocus

Guests’ demands

Room manager Catherine Kenny is on the frontline of guest wants. As we speak, I marvel at the demands people have and try to imagine having a preference for a particular wall colour or a particular pillow in your hotel. Or what it must be like to be a person who wants a particular brand of bottled water so badly that they want it imported into the country just for their stay.

“Would people not be absolutely mortified making such demands? I know I would be,” I tell Kenny. She looks at me, puzzled. “Oh no, our guests are not demanding, but they expect a certain standard and that is what we do. If we can accommodate them then we will.”

Before I leave – without having done a tap of work – Rochford takes me to the cinema, a feature added to the hotel’s attractions in the Tollman era. Despite its place in a hotel full of breathtaking touches – from the rooms to amenities to service – the cinema still takes the biscuit. It is a red-velvet throwback to tinseltown’s golden age.

Rochford suggests we watch a film. “The Quiet Man?” I ask. Not today – although that is shown every other day. Instead he puts on a short film about the rebirth of the castle. “Mr Tollman is a hardened businessman and 85 years old, and he told me, ‘I haven’t cried since I was four years old and you made it happen.’”

Rochford pauses. “Even now when I see it I have a lump in my throat,” he says. “The hotel is that important to us all.”

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