Discover Ballynahinch Castle, Ireland

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Good Things’ Travel Editor Georgina Wilson-Powell falls in love with Ballynahinch Castle – the life and soul of Connemara’s rugged landscape for centuries.

Once a fortress on a lake, Ballynahinch Castle has been intertwined with Irish history since the 14th century. Home to famous pirate queen Grace O’Malley, this peaceful spot at the foot of the Twelve Bens mountains has attracted poets, authors, politicians and celebrities ever since. Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney wrote often about the place he holed up, including in his poem Ballynahinch Lake:

‘So we stopped and parked in the spring-cleaning light / Of Connemara on a Sunday morning / As a captivating brightness held and opened / And the utter mountain mirrored in the lake / Entered us like a wedge knocked sweetly home / Into core timber.’

When I arrive, this land of yellow gorse and lichen-covered stone shines in the sun, glossy from recent rain. The castle is now more grand manor house, with a family home feel. A wide wooden door, worn flagstones and a typically hearty Irish welcome awaits; some staff have been here for more than 20 years.

Many things make Ballynahinch special, not least the true community feel which has remained over the centuries. Rather than being kitsch, the on-site pub is full of faded photographs of local fishing triumphs, while today’s catches are weighed on the pub scales – a practice engaged in and encouraged by general manager Patrick O’Flaherty.

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Out here the cloud-dappled sky changes in minutes, cycling through entire seasons in mere hours. After an afternoon exploring a few of the estate’s forested 450 acres and clay pigeon shooting under the beady eye of a tweed-coated Irishman, the rains set in and we retreat to the Ranji Room for  freshly-shucked local oysters, thick steaks and lashings of Irish whiskey.

Royal connections
It’s not only Irish nobles who have made Ballynahinch home. In 1924, His Highness the Maharaja Jam Sahib of Nawanagar – better known as Ranjitsinhji, or Ranji Prince of Cricketers – bought the estate. Each June, he arrived transporting a fleet of cars via the local railway, on which he had his own train carriage. On his birthday, he’d throw a party in the present-day bar, serving his staff himself. Ranji’s generosity to his adopted Irish community seems to have known few bounds, and his presence still hangs over the estate – the gardens were landscaped and most of the riverside fishing huts built during his tenure.

Nature’s elements
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The second day dawns as grey as the previous afternoon, thick curtains of sideways rain whipped by the wind. We head out in 4x4s to see the Connemara coastline in its agitated state. Windswept beaches, hills like worn corduroy, swollen lakes  and rivers, clouds hanging low over the mountains – this harsh landscape holds unimaginable majesty. Over the years, the land’s epiphany light and Ballynahinch itself has attracted authors and poets including Margaret Atwood, William Thackeray, and Ted Hughes.

‘It has always been an accessible house’, explains Des Lally, the hotel’s resident literary expert. In the 1950s, Ballynahinch was a beacon for Ireland’s marginalised gay community – a secret space of acceptance, art and ideas. Famous painter Gerard Dillon lived with his friends on the nearby tiny island of Inishlacken, self-exiled from society, and used the castle as a second home. His work still hangs in the Owenmore dining room.

Given a brief and merciful break in the weather, we head out to Inishlacken. Our tiny boat stops via a few lobster pots, before we land on what was once an inhabited island. Today, the traditional single-storey croft homes are nothing more than triangles of stones. Goats and sheep wander through the former kitchens and rock pools dot the island’s sandy fringe.

Although deserted, charm still clings to the salty air, and we settle in for a glorious lunch in the old school house – lobster and local beer by candlelight. I feel a lurch of the soul when we come to leave. Connemara makes even the rainiest days romantic, and Ballynahinch is its beating heart; the lifeblood of culture and community, a living history book waiting to be opened.

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Book your adventure
Daily flights from London Heathrow to Shannon – click here for more. Luxury round-trip transfers can be booked though Pat Keogh Transfer Chauffeur Service by clicking here.

For more information on Ballynahinch Castle Hotel & Estate and to make a booking, click here.

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