How Ireland's Historic Ashford Castle Became One Of The World's Most Luxurious Hotels
“If you choose to stay in a famous castle building, you really want to feel like you are staying in a castle,” says Beatrice Tollman when asked about her design vision for Ashford Castle in County Mayo, Ireland.
The founder and president of Red Carnation Hotels spent two years restoring and refurbishing one of Ireland’s historic treasures, and the results are stunning. The beloved and iconic Ashford Castle is truly fit for royalty. The combination of luxury and stellar service with a hearty dose of warm Irish hospitality and an array of authentic sporting experiences are what make Ashford Castle unique in the world of five-star resorts.
The village of Cong, on the Mayo-Galway border in the west of Ireland, is primarily known for its starring role as the setting of John Ford’s 1951 classic movie, “The Quiet Man.” A statue of the film’s stars, John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, stands proudly opposite the ruins of Cong Abbey and the road between the two monuments is the favored local route to Ashford Castle. The curving narrow road through the forest emerges suddenly on the castle grounds, and like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the view of the sprawling Medieval fortress backed by the waters of Lough Corrib is a gasp-worthy surprise. The original 13th-century stronghold, remnants of the walls from a British fortress, a French chateau addition and two large Victorian extensions, added by Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness, have created a magical palace in the heart of Ireland’s lake district.
(The masculine vibe of the billiard room with leather club chairs and subdued lighting makes it the castle’s “man cave,” complete with an adjacent cigar terrace.)
The castle’s rich history—dating back to the Anglo-Norman invasion in 1228—comes alive with a treasure trove of antiques that span the centuries and the globe. The Grand Oak Hall, named for its original ornate paneling and oak coffered ceiling, is home to a German suit of armor and a 24-light Belgian Val Saint Lambert chandelier, one of Tollman’s favorite pieces. The castle’s collection of 130 sparkling chandeliers, including 11 of Waterford’s finest in the George V Dining Room, add an elegant sparkle to antiques from around the world, specifically chosen for each space. Bespoke is the byword here, with sumptuous fabrics and carpets in regal reds, royal blues and dreamy pastels. But don’t be fooled by the castle’s “wow factors,” like the Grand Oak Hall. The guest experience here is as much about fish and chips as fine dining, seamlessly integrating country pursuits like lake fishing with modern amenities such as European facials. It’s at once regal and rustic, both relaxed and refined, and crowned with the open-handed friendliness of the Irish people.
(Toni Tollman loves the opulent Kennedy Suite with its 19th-century carved bed and Victorian exuberance. )
The eclectic mix of the interior design mirrors the amalgamated styles of the exterior architecture. Tollman and her daughter, Toni Tollman, created unique spaces within the castle that reflect its diverse history. These include the British-style “old boys’ club” vibe of the Prince of Wales Bar and the Billiard Room, the Victorian-inspired Connaught Room and the Gilded Age public spaces imbued with French and Italian flair. Even the new spa was designed to weave together Gothic elements with contemporary amenities. Arched windows and a color palette of grays and creams, which mimic the castle stonework, are combined with traditional Celtic mythology including a mosaic that depicts a great oak tree surrounded by woodland creatures.
To the Manor Born
Guarded by two stone wolfhounds and a doorman in full regalia, the entrance to the castle is impressive, yet subdued—a notable contrast to the grandeur of the Oak Hall.
The stone wolfhounds come to life when their canine counterparts, Irish Wolfhounds Garvan and Cronan, stroll through the lobby each morning to mingle with guests. Ireland’s first school of falconry is located on the castle grounds and the hawk walk experience is unforgettable: watching the magnificent Harris’s hawks swoop through the forest and then land light as a feather on your outstretched arm offers an indescribable thrill. Not only is falconry the ancient sport of medieval nobles, but it also inspired best-selling author Nora Roberts’ recent romantic trilogy, set on the castle grounds and in the nearby village of Cong. Horseback riding, golf, tennis, sport shooting, lake cruises, kayaking, cycling and guided fishing excursions are also offered on the vast 350-acre estate.
Attention to detail is paramount at Ashford, with thoughtful touches like a shower and changing facility near the gift shop so that golfers and sportsmen can go directly from their pursuits to grab a drink or casual meal at the nautically-inspired Cullen’s at the Cottage. And while the castle offers fine dining at George V under glittering chandeliers and a traditional afternoon tea in the exuberantly Victorian Connaught Room, living the aristocratic life in the Irish countryside is more about quality than formality.
Ashford Castle is home to Ireland’s first school of falconry, and the hawk walk experience is one of the most popular activities at the resort. One of the falconers holds a Harris’s hawk, known for its ability to navigate through dense forests in search of ground prey.
Creating a Magical Castle
Redecorating one room in a home is daunting, so restoring and decorating a sprawling castle is an even greater challenge.
“We had no idea of the extent of the work that was required to bring it to the standard that a discerning 21st-century guest expects, and when we realized what we had taken on, we were in a state of shock,” Tollman remembers. “We had to replace all 800 of the windows, re-lead the roof, repoint the façade, move the kitchens, reinforce the balconies and much, much more.”
(The elegant George V Dining Room features a collection of 11 Waterford chandeliers.)
A hallmark of the Red Carnation brand is the company’s respect for the historic value and original integrity of all of its properties. The castle was no different. “We always look at what is already there and see if it can be preserved and enhanced. Good examples are the 11 Waterford chandeliers in the George V dining room, the original wood paneling in the Oak Hall and the fireplace in the Prince of Wales Bar that bears the Guinness family motto,” Tollman says.
The Devil in the Details
Although remaining true to the ambience and history of the building is the cornerstone of the design process, Tollman said they had a “little fun with things” including the antiques, artwork, furnishings and fabrics. Everything didn’t have to “match” or be from the same design period or country as long as it remained true to the main inspiration for the space.
“We left the key features in each room, like the 19th-century blue and white tiles we discovered in the Inglenook underneath the woodwork painstakingly restoring or treating them and building the rest of the design around them. And we wanted to work with true artisans who shared our passion to do it right,” she says.
(The indoor pool backed by a Celtic-themed mosaic mural is part of the stunning new spa wing.)
(The stone Irish wolfhounds that guard the castle’s front door have canine counterparts who socialize with guests in the lobby areas.)
Many Irish craftsmen worked on the restoration, and materials like the Connemara marble in many of the bathrooms were sourced locally. Although there were some antiques and artwork already in the castle that had been preserved, Tollman and her team drew from her own collection, as well as acquiring specific items at auctions. One of her favorite finds was the Roebling dinner set that sits next to Inglenook in the entrance to the Connaught Room. It was designed by Washington Augustus Roebling, the civil engineer responsible for the Brooklyn Bridge, and it comprises more than 1,000 pieces.
“I painstakingly acquired it practically piece-by-piece from auction because I knew it would sit perfectly in that space—there is a lot of natural light and the silver gilt catches it beautifully,” Tollman says.
Her daughter loves the Kennedy suite with its 19th-century Italian walnut bed decorated with carved cherubs, a Victorian rosewood table with a marble top and an 18th-century Spanish walnut armoire.
( The cinema room was recently added to the castle during the renovation process. It’s also used for special presentations and events. )Modern details are also important to the Tollmans’ vision, as evidenced by the new state-of-the-art cinema room, full-service spa and the billiard parlor with a cigar terrace. A wine cellar housed in a disused tunnel underneath the castle is also available for private dining. Thoughtful amenities like a children’s Lego room service menu are indicative of the time and effort dedicated to anticipating every possible guest’s need.
“I’m completely involved in every aspect of the hotel operations at all of our properties from food and service to amenities and flowers,” Tollman says. In fact, some of her own personal recipes grace the menus of the hotel restaurants including her chicken noodle soup, honeycomb ice cream and famous cheesecake.
Like Cinderella at the ball, Ashford Castle has gone from being a little-noticed historic site to the belle of the luxury hotel world.
If You Go:
Ashford Castle Hotel & Country Estate
Cong, County Mayo, Ireland
The Chesterfield Hotel
Red Carnation Hotels
The Palm Beach-Ireland Connection
You wouldn’t think Florida and Ireland have much in common; however, Palm Beach is home to Red Carnation Hotels’ only U.S. luxury property. As with Ashford Castle, The Chesterfield exemplifies the company’s commitment to preserving the historic integrity of its properties.
A member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, this boutique hotel located near the upscale shopping mecca of Worth Avenue was modeled after a European bed and breakfast—albeit with luxurious touches such as a Rolls-Royce car service. While there are no canines guarding the entrance, The Chesterfield—as are all Red Carnation properties—is pet friendly.