BALLYNAHINCH, CONNEMARA'S HISTORIC CASTLE
In the low light of evening Ballynahinch Castle looked haunted. As we approached up a steep incline the grey stone structure appeared as a wealthy cousin to Charlotte Bronte's 'Wuthering Heights'. In a scene that conjured images from a Masterpiece Theatre Classic, mist drifted down from the Twelve Bens mountain range while a shooting party, back from a day's sport in pursuit of woodcock in the surrounding forests, mingled in noisy camaraderie at the castle's entrance.
I had landed in Ireland just days before and in that short time an Irishman waxed lyrical with “Ah to be sure, Connemara, now that's the place of dreams”. Ballynahinch I was to learn is central to that place of dreams. Its history dates back 600 years in a region wild, beautiful and romantic.
Way back in the mid-1500s, the ground upon which Ballynahinch now stands was home territory to Grace O'Malley who at the young age of 16 married Donal O'Flaherty, a warrior of the O'Flaherty clan. With the passing of time the two Irish rebels, he a fierce Celt and she already a feisty woman, set out to build a piratical empire. In later years, Grace in her maturity was to become Connemara's Pirate Queen. With her elevated status she was to meet with England's Queen Elizabeth 1 to discuss 'business', probably that conducted by Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake who were in fact 'pirates' in the employ of the English queen. As neither of them spoke the other's language – Grace spoke Gaelic and the Queen, English – the two conferred in Latin.
In the 1800s the Ballynahinch property was acquired by Richard Martin, the largest landowner in the British Isles. In his role as a parliamentarian, Martin was responsible for the 'Cruelty to Animals Act' passed in 1822, and for this he was known as 'Humanity Dick'. But there were two sides to Richard Martin. Although he was an advocate for animals, he was not overly fond of his fellow humans. A duellist of some repute, Martin is said to have initiated over 100 duels and survived them all. For this he was also known as 'Hair-Trigger Dick”.
That first evening in the castle, my guide and I dined in the Owenmore Restaurant. After a grand meal – Beef Filet Mignon with forest mushrooms, smoked bacon and brandy cream sauce topped off with a hot chocolate fondant with Iced Parfait and Raspberry Jelly - Irwin and I, over numerous glasses of white wine, discussed Ballynahinch's royal past.
The story goes that in 1924 the castle was acquired by an Indian prince, the Maharaja Jam Sahib of Nawanagar. A cricketer of repute, Ranji as he was called, ranked second in the world to W.G. Grace the finest cricketer of all time. In the cricket world it is still an honour to be presented with the Ranji Cup.
Later, in a conversation with an enthusiastic John Leyne, I learned that “Ranji drew crowds like England's David Beckham. He was also the first to use the 'leg glance'!” Upon seeing my puzzled expression Leyne helpfully re-enacted the 'leg glance' for my benefit.
Each year as the oppressive heat of June descended on his homeland, Irwin described how Ranji set off for a summer sojourn at Ballynahinch. Upon arrival and in the presence of a gathering of staff, Ranji proposed his annual toast; first to cricket, second to Ireland, and finally to the Emperor of India. Knowing that in Ireland a toast to the King of England wouldn't go down well, he hoped that his employees would not know that the King of England and the Emperor of India were one and the same.
In role reversal at his annual birthday party at the castle, Ranji acted the part of a waiter serving drinks to his employees. And then, when all were thoroughly tipsy, he provided a vehicle to transport them home. The Irish castle staff loved this unassuming and generous prince, so they in turn honoured him by placing firecrackers as an explosive welcome on the railway line when he journeyed to the castle by private train each June.
Books lauding Ranji's days of glory are displayed in a glass-fronted cabinet in the castle's drawing room. Exploring Ranji's fame in its elegant setting, I couldn't help wondering what attracted a prince from exotic India to an essentially Irish Connemara, a place that to me seemed so foreign to the Indian soul. In truth the answer was simple. It was fishing. The prospect of endless fishing expeditions with an abundance of Atlantic salmon and free-run brown trout in the swift rivers of Connemara, proved to be an irrisistible attraction for Ranji an avid fisherman.
Small in comparison with castles such as Ashford Castle in County Mayo, Ballynahinch has 40 guest rooms. My suite overlooking the river was old-world and charming. I felt as if I was in a summer garden. The wallpaper was covered with full blown pink roses. Heavy velvet curtains kept out the evening chill. My four-poster bed, big enough for a family of four, would have done justice to the bedchamber of an aristocratic Irish wife.
I must admit though to an eerie feeling that evening as I sat in a pool of light writing my journal. Could there be ghosts here I wondered? I woke at 2 am, pulled back the drapes to check for spectral beings, but there were none. Instead, a coal-black sky splashed with millions of stars formed a glittering swathe of light over a dark garden and the river beyond.
The following morning when chatting with Patrick O'Flaherty, the castle's general manager, my sensitivity to the presence of ghosts was validated “Funny you should ask about ghosts,” he said. “One of our visitors mentioned that when out for a stroll early one evening she had met up with an elderly gardener wearing a black hat and he had named many of the flowers for her. We didn't have a gardener at the time. Our gardener in the past was a man called Morby and it's not the first time he has made an appearance.”
Out for my customary walk before breakfast, the air was strangely still. Mist was rising over the hills. Dew dappled foliage and huge mounds of heather in shades of purple and pink hunkered low against a stone wall. On the road leading down to the river, miniscule plants, harts tongue ferns and tiny alpines peeked out from among the rocks on the roadside. Tree trunks were covered in thick moss and others, enveloped in pale lichen as if from a gothic novel, shimmered in low light.
The sound of rushing water drew me on. When I reached the lowest dip in the road, a stone arched bridge provided egress for a river that crashed and foamed like an enraged Celt. Slithering along a muddy path beside rhododendron bushes, I occasionally caught sight of a silvery fish gliding through bubbling foam. Turning back, the saturated image of sun-tipped trees and the arched bridge with river tumbling forth could have been a romantic painting by an Irish artist.
There is something for everyone at Ballynahinch Castle. Be it guided walks along riverside, lakeshore or in woodland, or even climbing the Twelve Bens or the Maumturk Mountains, the energetic are well catered for.
For cyclists (bicycles are for hire at the castle) there is a great little bookshop in Clifden, a cooling off swim from a coral beach beside the Atlantic, or a treat of Guiness and oysters at the popular O'Dowds Pub in Roundstone.
Golfing, ponytrekking and deep sea fishing can be arranged. For those who long for complete immersion in the Gaelic experience, that can also be arranged. Ferry tours visit the outlying islands daily where holidaymakers can witness first hand, seal colonies in all their raucous splendour. Blowholes erupt at frequent intervals and sea stacks tower above the waves.
If you are of Irish descent or if you love this green and glorious land, a visit to Connemara's historic Ballynahinch Castle will delight even a prince.
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Ballynahinch Castle Hotel, Recess, Connemara, Co. Galway, Ireland
I travelled Ireland from Dublin to Connemara with Irwin Johnston, a tour guide of many years standing. If your plans include a guide with a car, or even a tour bus for a large group, Irwin Johnston, accredited by Failte Ireland, is the man. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org