CONG, Ireland — Maureen O’Hara was one of the biggest movie stars of the 1940s and ’50s, the Angelina Jolie or Kate Winslett of her day.
Everywhere she went, she went in style. First class on the Queen Mary or Pan Am, the best restaurants, the best hotels. So when she came to Cong to shoot what would become the movie classic The Quiet Man she must have been shocked when she was shown to her room.
“It was very beat-up, with holes in the carpet and wallpaper peeling off the walls,” the actress recalls in her autobiography ‘Tis Herself.
The hotel was cold and drafty, too, so much so that director John Ford developed a severe chill that meant the second-unit director had to take over for a few days, while, as O’Hara writes, she “kept heating up hot-water bottles” for Ford.
That was in 1951.
The hotel was Ashford Castle and it was, obviously, not the most luxurious lodgings (but the best that Cong could offer). What a difference 60 years make.
Today, Ashford Castle is arguably the poshest hotel in Ireland. It regularly appears on any tourism “best of” lists: such as Condé Nast Traveler’s 2010 Readers’ Choice Awards, where it was named both Top Resort in Ireland and Top Resort in Europe.
The hotel, a symphony of turrets, arches, galleries and battlements, has been called “the apogee of Victorian neo-Gothic in Ireland.”
It began life in 1868 as the home of Lord Ardilaun, formerly Sir Arthur Guinness, who spent a fortune, earned from Ireland’s greatest industry, on the project.
It became a hotel in 1939, but the real turnaround came in 1970 when new owners embarked on a massive restoration and expansion, doubling the size of the building — but following the same architectural ideas — building a golf course and developing the grounds and gardens.
The owners aimed unabashedly at the upper end of the luxury market and their bid paid off. In the past 40 years there’s hardly a celebrity in politics, industry or show business who hasn’t stayed here. A wall of pictures and letters in an upstairs corridor bears testimony to this.
There’s a “thank you” note from then-U.S. president Ronald Reagan and photos of Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco, Prince Edward of England, Russell Crowe, Pierce Brosnan (the James Bond star held his wedding reception here), Barbra Streisand, Tony Blair … the list is endless.
The hotel stands in 100 hectares of rolling parkland, on the banks of Lough Corrib. It goes without saying that, as you’d expect for $500 a night and up (way up), the rooms and suites are magnificent, the dining superb, and the overall ambience splendid.
Then there are the amenities: tennis, golf, a health centre, horseback riding, fishing, lake cruises and lessons in falconry and archery, among others. And you can ride in a traditional jaunting car, perhaps to view sites where Sean Thornton, the quiet man, (John Wayne) romanced Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara) during that summer of 1951.
For more information on Ashford Castle visit its website at ashford.ie.
For information on travel in Ireland visit the Tourism Ireland website at www.discoverireland.com.