Rebecca Baldridge returns to Ireland’s County Kildare
for another luxurious adventure.
Darling, how would you like to go to Ireland with me?”
Darling can speak volumes in a single word.
“It won’t be like last time.”
“No endless stud farms, no tack shops, no muddy gallops, no riding?”
“Well, maybe one ride. I’m only human. But it’s a castle! Built in the 12th century! We’re going to stay in a castle and bask in luxury. You don’t even have to clap eyes on a horse. The castle is called Kilkea. Look it up online. I’ll wait.”
As you may have gathered, Darling is not an equestrian. While his patience with my obsession is that of a saint, every man has his limit. I waited. I had visited the website. I knew what was coming.
And so it was that several months later, Darling and I found ourselves speeding through the familiar countryside of County Kildare, this time in the back of an S-Class Mercedes. With Kilkea’s professional driver at the wheel, the chance of spontaneous stops at equestrian emporiums wasblessedly reduced. Besides, we were both wild with excitement to see the castle.
Located five kilometers northwest of Castledermot in County Kildare, Kilkea is the oldest inhabited castle in Ireland. Built in 1180, it served as the medieval stronghold of the Fitzgeralds, the earls of Kildare. The castle remained in the family’s hands until the 1960s, when it was sold for its first incarnation as a hotel. However, the Fitzgeralds have not entirely given up their claims on the castle. It’s said that Gerald, the 11th Earl of Kildare, a gentleman known for his interest in alchemy and presumed magical powers, returns to the castle every seventh year astride a silver-shod white charger.
At the risk of sounding trite, arriving at Kilkea is like entering a fairy tale. The castle sits on 180 acres of woodland and gardens. As we approach the castle from a beech-lined avenue, I imagine archers positioned along the crenellated walls. The drive passes over what I suspect was once a moat and we roll to a stop in front of a surprisingly small wooden door.
Once inside, it’s full-on baronial splendor. The reception area flows into a high-ceilinged gallery where leather sofas and colorful velvet chairs cluster around a capacious fireplace. It’s just the spot to curl up in front of the fire with a good book and a glass of fine Irish whiskey. My explorations reveal a snug in the far corner—a tiny room furnished with a carved wooden table and chairs where a small group of drinkers or a couple can retreat from the more public area.
The castle boasts 11 bedrooms, each decorated in its own unique style, as well as a number of carriage bedrooms attached to the castle and several lodge accommodations accessible from the courtyard. The lodge rooms are particularly well-suited for families, as children can be expelled directly into the yard for a romp.
We are to be accommodated in a carriage room, which entails a trip up a spiral stone staircase and passage down a long stone hallway lined with small windows. It’s deliciously medieval and one imagines bodiced chambermaids rushing up and down the passageway. Our room, however, is anything but medieval. The door opens into a small seating area decorated in muted shades of gray. The bedroom is styled in the same muted shades, and a pair of charcoal armchairs are positioned to offer a view of the verdant castle grounds. Although I had been hoping for something a bit more 15th century, the ambience is so restful that I can overlook the stylish modernity.
But restful though the room may be, there’s no time to waste in exploring the castle and grounds. A formal garden surrounds the castle, but pass through a hedge at the rear and yet another fairytale vision appears. The River Greese, larger than a stream but charmingly small to merit the title of river, flows through the grounds. Weeping willows bend gracefully over the water, and ducks quack from the underbrush. Follow the river as it flows downstream past the castle and you’ll find the stony ruins of a church and graveyard. Most of the headstones have aged beyond legibility, but the name Fitzgerald can still be read on a few.
While the more romantic may be happily occupied by roaming the grounds and dreaming about knights of yore, Kilkea offers plenty of entertainment for those less inclined to flights of fancy. One of the crowning glories of the resort is the 18-hole golf course with stunning views of the castle. The clubhouse boasts the Bistro with a selection of beers sufficiently varied to please my thirsty English darling, while the more formal Hermione’s restaurant offers a sophisticated dinner menu and is renowned for its Sunday lunch.
If golf isn’t your sport, there are plenty of other activities on offer at Kilkea. While there is not a stable on the grounds, it is Ireland, and a variety of equestrian activities are close at hand. It was my great pleasure to enjoy a cross-country charity ride on the nearby Munny Trail, but lessons, a hack or an outing with the Shillelagh Hunt can also be arranged. Traditional Irish country pursuits such as fishing, shooting, archery, and falconry are available for the asking.
Ironically, it’s a pair of Americans we have to thank for the glories of Kilkea. Boston-based Jay and Christy Cashman fell in love with Kilkea during their travels in Ireland and bought the property with a view to not only turning it into a luxury hotel and resort but making it a second home for themselves and their friends. Jay, a construction mogul, and Christy, an actress, writer, and accomplished equestrian, bought the castle in 2012. After five years and millions in extensive renovations, Jay and Christy have succeeded in preserving an important piece of Irish history, while creating a welcome retreat for their family and their guests.
Indeed, our stay at Kilkea felt like nothing so much as a country house party at a grand estate. When Jay and Christy are in residence (they try to visit about every six weeks), they relish playing host to guests. After a full day of country walks and horseback riding, we dressed for dinner in the grand Restaurant 1180. The gallery-style dining room is decorated in warm hues of old gold and royal blue and dominated by a long dining table swathed in white linen. Christy and Jay had assembled an eclectic group of family and friends, and the conversation flowed as freely as the wine.
Beautiful countryside, stunning medieval architecture, and a raft of country pursuits certainly combine for a cracking-good weekend. But thanks to Christy and Jay Cashman, Castle Kilkea offers something extra, an atmosphere of warmth and camaraderie that makes a stay at the castle truly a visit with friends.