Hostel climate – An Irishman’s Diary on the rich history behind An Óige’s hostels
In terms of architectural heritage, the most outstanding An Óige hostel is undoubtedly Trá na Rossan, near Downings in north Co Donegal, which was originally designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens
An Óige has 24 hostels in its network and some of them have considerable architectural history, not to mention history itself, attached to them.
In terms of architectural heritage, the most outstanding is undoubtedly the Trá na Rossan hostel, near Downings in north Co Donegal. The building was originally designed by the great Anglo-Irish architect Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens, whose other Irish works included the mansion on Lambay Island and the Irish National War Memorial Gardens at Islandbridge, Dublin.
During the 1890s, the five acres of land on which the hostel stands were bought for £40 by the Hon Mr and Mrs Robert Phillimore of London. They commissioned Lutyens to design a holiday home for them, which they subsequently used for many years. After her husband died, Mrs Phillimore continued to use the house, but in 1936, decided to dispose of it. By March the following year, the house had been handed over to the An Óige trust.
The organisation was a mere six years old at that stage and until the Co Donegal acquisition, its properties had been exclusively in the Dublin and east coast area. The first hostel to open had been at Lough Dan in Co Wicklow.
The other hostel of much architectural significance is the one just outside Killarney. Aghadoe House had been built in 1828 , with very wide eaves, at a cost of £12, 000. The Ordnance Survey name books of the 1830s described it as being “a very fine building, densely shrouded with trees” .
During the War of Independence, local republican volunteers commandeered the house, which was burned down in 1922. It was rebuilt to the original plan, and just over 20 years later, it was noted that the house was being extensively renovated by the then owner, Robin Hilliard. It subsequently came into An Óige ownership.
One historic hostel among the 15 franchised by the organisation is the Rowan Tree hostel in the centre of Ennis, overlooking the river Fergus. It started life as an 18th-century club for aristocratic gentlemen, and as a recent acquisition, it has been extensively refurbished.
Yet another franchised hostel is Sheila’s in Cork, once the first non-church school in the city, Scoil Ite, founded by Mary and Annie, sisters of Terence MacSwiney.
The Old Mill hostel in Westport, near the river, opened in 1991 and is also franchised.
The building dates back to the 18th century; the original warehouses here were used for a variety of purposes, including as a brewery, as a storehouse and as an animal shelter.
Other hostels have interesting provenances. One of the three Co Wicklow hostels, Knockree, had been built in the 18th century as a farmhouse. It opened as a hostel in 1938 and in recent times, has been rebuilt, although the original farmhouse was incorporated in the rebuild.
The Dublin international hostel, at Mountjoy Street in Dublin, also has an historical heritage. It’s in a converted 19th-century convent and the old church is now the breakfast room.
The hostel that appeals to me most is also in Co Wicklow, at Glenmalure. It was built in 1903 as a hunting lodge, constructed in the style of a traditional farmhouse. Even today, it still has no running water, no electricity, no landline phone and an intermittent mobile signal, making it the ideal place to escape today’s “ always on” world.
Around a century ago, this place was a holiday getaway for such noted personalities as Katherine Lynn and Maud Gonne, and it still has a wonderful escapist air.
Other hostels, too, are located in the most scenic locations, such as the one on Cape Clear island, once a coastguard station, where visitors can enjoy the island birdlife and the profusion of marine species in its waters.
In other hostels around the country, facilities couldn’ t be more modern. The hostels in Dublin and at Errigal in Co Donegal have e-car charging points so that people staying there can recharge their electric cars. Errigal may have wifi, but it also has a more traditional talking point, a “green lady” ghost.
There are six more hostels in the North, run by a separate organisation, Hostelling International Northern Ireland, with which An Óige has a good working relationship.
At one point, An Óige had 55 hostels, and just over 10 years ago, at a time of financial crisis in the organisation, eight of its hostels were closed and sold off.
But these days with record tourist numbers and new attractions, such as the Wild Atlantic Way and Ireland’ s Ancient East, the present hostels are securely based and retain their architectural and historical resonances in abundance.