‘Nothing going on for a long time’: Locals ready for Ashford Castle’s reopening

From oyster producers to local boat operators, 150 days of enforced closure have bitten hard

Ghillie and boatmaker Frank Costello: ‘I used to have a few of my own clients but over the years I have been busier with people from the hotel and when that closed that was pretty much it.’ Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

Ghillie and boatmaker Frank Costello: ‘I used to have a few of my own clients but over the years I have been busier with people from the hotel and when that closed that was pretty much it.’ Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

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Ashford Castle is known for its service, sprawling grounds and well-heeled guests. But it is more than just a swanky hotel. For almost a century, it has been part of the fabric of a community straddling the Galway-Mayo border.

Many staff come from Cong and the surrounding area and the hotel prides itself on sourcing produce from local suppliers.

However, many of these businesses found themselves in trouble when it closed late last year due to Covid-19 restrictions. Whether it is the oyster and pork producers or the ghillie who brings guests out on Lough Corrib searching for brown trout, this has been a lean time.

But as the hospitality sector prepares to emerge from more than 150 days of lockdown, those who rely on Ashford Castle are starting to see light at the end of the tunnel. They hope that light never goes out again.

John Ward, who grows oysters in Streamstown Bay in Cleggan, says one of his biggest challenges this year has been stopping the molluscs losing the run of themselves.

“I have nearly two years worth of stock in the water and they just keep growing,” he says. “I have been able to slow down their growth by pushing them higher up the shore. They can only get so big before we can’t sell them any more. I can slow their growth by 70 per cent but it is hard work and of course there is no income in it.”

Ward says his business has been “absolutely devastated” by the closure of much of the hospitality sector for so long.

“It has been a disaster and we have got no real support from the State at all. We were just told that we were farmers and could keep working.”

He says it was easy to fear the worst at times, but with hotels reopening he is starting to feel more optimistic.

‘Surviving’

David Milestone, a Glenamaddy-based pork farmer originally from Yorkshire, admits it has “just been a case of surviving” so far this year. Milestone and his wife, Diana, own Andarl Farm, which supplies all the pork products for the famed Ashford Castle breakfasts.

“I actually think we would have been better if we had closed completely, but our name wouldn’t haven’t been out there,” he says. “We are looking forward to a better summer, but we can only do so much and we are afraid to take anyone else on just in case [a locdown] happens again.”

Boatmaker and ghillie Frank Costello says the pandemic restrictions have “hit me every way”.

“There was nothing going on for a long time,” he says, before pausing and adding, “Well, actually, I was always kind of busy because we have 18-month-old twins, so I wasn’t short of things to do during the lockdown.”

Ashford Castle in Cong, Co Mayo
Ashford Castle in Cong, Co Mayo

In normal times Costello’s boat business would start taking off in March and continue through until October. He missed much of last year’s busy season because of a lockdown and, if anything, the year to date has been worse again.

He estimates that some 90 per cent of his customers come from Ashford Castle. “I used to have a few of my own clients but over the years, and particularly since the Tollman family took over the hotel, I have been busier and busier with people from the hotel and when that closed that was pretty much it. It is such big employer for such a small place.”

Community

Ashford Castle takes its role in the community seriously. The hotel has implemented a “pobal” concept (Irish for community), built around its network of local suppliers and used its social media reach to promote them.

“When we had to close we were very conscious of our suppliers and we felt a sense of responsibility to them,” general manager Niall Rochford says.

“We need to keep them going because this hotel is not just about local people, it is also local produce. People don’t necessarily want to come here and have mango and avocado salad, they want locally sourced produce and by the end of this year, 80 per cent of our products will be local.”

Rochford is hopeful that today will be the last “reopening” for Ashford Castle.

“It feels different this year,” he says.

The interiors have been repainted, the chandeliers and wood polished, and the staff have been prepared. “I have been using two words more than any others when talking to our staff in recent days – patience and kindness. That is what we all need now.”

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