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The real castles of Ireland

There's the storybook version of an Irish castle hotel, all costume and falconry. And then there's a lesser-known sort—family-owned places that are smaller, a bit eccentric, and absolutely brimming with history and charm.
Ballynahinch Castle Hotel
Ballynahinch Castle Hotel, on a 450-acre estate near Galway Bay. Cedric Angeles

"Declan would like to take you up to the castle now," said Cecilia, my waitress, one blindingly clear Irish morning as I plopped down for breakfast in the dining hall at Ballinalacken Castle Hotel. This was the first of several castles along the Atlantic Coast that I planned to explore over the next four days, and, too bad for Cecilia, I intended to take my own sweet time doing it. I nodded OK to her but reached for the coffee anyway, admiring the view of the 700-foot-tall Cliffs of Moher through the floor-to-ceiling windows.

"Before the weather changes," she insisted. "Oh, the sun!" Her point sank in—you mustn't squander blue sky in Ireland—so I ventured outside dangerously uncaffeinated to meet the proprietor, Declan O'Callaghan. He hustled me up a steep knoll to the remains of a 15th-century fortress. Ninety-nine limestone steps spiral to the top of the tower, alive with lichens and moss; the uppermost floor, constructed of vaulted stone, has a commanding view of the cliffs and, on a clear day, the Aran Islands, where Irish (Gaelic to Americans) is still spoken. Away from the coast, the tufted headlands give way to a whale-shaped rocky terrain known as the Burren—sparse home to arctic wildflowers, seasonal lakes, unexplored caves, and miles of walking trails.

Declan pointed out the house in which he grew up, about half a mile away, where his father still farms cattle and sheep. His father owns Ballinalacken; Declan runs the hotel and the restaurant, which are housed in a mustard-stucco 1840s manor adjacent to the tower. The 12-room property has the unfussy air of a B&B, the kind of place where a guest might have to fetch the bartender from ocean-gazing to get a drink. "My grandfather bought 100 acres off the O'Briens, and the castle came with it," Declan said, as plainly as if he were describing how to change a tire. The O'Brien clan is one of the most powerful families in Ireland's history and ruled this part of the country for 600 years. "Castles—there're loads of them in Ireland."

Many Irish castles were razed by Oliver Cromwell when he swept through with his New Model Army in 1649. Some, like Ballinalacken, survived, and others have been built since. Almost all Irish castles now reflect a patchwork of architectural periods—medieval forts adjoining Victorian mansions and stone cottages. I found 27 across the country that are run as hotels, and when I plotted them on a map, a cluster emerged in the western counties. So I stitched together a scenic course up the coast.

I decided to skip the majestic mega resorts of Adare Manor, Ashford Castle, and Dromoland Castle—supersize forts frequented by the motor-coach crowd—because they're more grandiose (and pricier) than what I was after. Instead I chose Ballinalacken and two other family-owned castles that, despite a bit of decay—or perhaps because of it—I suspected would feel more authentic. (For those who want to compare for themselves, now's the time: The challenged Irish economy is forcing even the most luxe properties to offer as much as 45 percent off.) Declan himself certainly has no problem with the likes of Dromoland, just an hour's drive away. In fact, he poached his chef, Michael Foley, from the five-star resort.

Which brings me back to the dining room and the prospect of what to order for breakfast. I passed up the handsome buffet—complete with bologna for the odd German tourist—and went for the pancakes with stewed fruit, a homely description for the delicate crepes and spiced apples that turned up with a fresh pot of coffee. I spent the rest of the morning exploring the Cliffs of Moher and getting lost on roads best suited to shepherds.

I was looking for an excuse to loiter in the Burren when I happened onto Cassidy's Pub, a former constabulary barracks in the hamlet of Carron. Its tart-red shutters, neat stonework, and sign laying claim to THE HEART OF THE BURREN settled the matter. It might as well have been a history museum of the Irish language, the walls adorned with testaments to the native tongue. Reclining in a chair on the back deck, I ordered a Smithwick's and a pepperoni pizza, and watched as tufts of high clouds played charades in the sky. A young couple next to me who had relo­cated from Dublin for a quieter life told me that the expansive prairie in the near distance is actually the bed of a lake that comes and goes with the rain. Which, by the time I polished off my pizza, looked to be on its way. So I hit the road to the next castle.

For about 200 meters, anyway. There was a sign for The Burren Perfumery, and I wheeled down a side road chasing it. The place was a floral oasis of neat limestone cottages girded with roses, irises, and delphiniums. There's an herb garden, a tea room, and a shop that sells delicate potions and lotions. Once made from the distilled essences of local wildflowers—which are now protected as part of a nature preserve—the perfumes created here now rely on essential oils sourced from around the world.

I fulfilled my gift obligations at the perfumery and, for the next hour, sped northeast along undulating coastal roads to Dunguaire Castle, a 1520 tower house right on Galway Bay. Dunguaire is not a hotel but offers tours and holds special events. I arrived just shy of 5:30 p.m., and a young man in a vest and pouffy sleeves appeared from inside and addressed me as "My lord." Inside, a woman at a computer wanted my name. "We don't have you listed," she said, "but we can accommodate you for tonight's medieval banquet if you'd like." Just then, a busload of tourists filed in and filled two long tables. Not the authentic experience I had in mind, so I grimace-smiled and hurried out to my car.

Rounding the bay westward through the city of Galway transports you into Connemara, a lush and boggy fairy-tale place punctuated with bald granite peaks and stands of hardwood forest. The region is bound by a rugged coastline on a peninsula veined with rivers, which is itself nearly cut off from the rest of Ireland by the freshwater Lough Corrib.

Just off the main road, Ballynahinch Castle Hotel stands as a haven for the traveler and the local alike. The 450-acre estate's drive wends over the Ballynahinch River. As I pulled up to the three-story crenellated mansion, the only sign I saw was for the Fisherman's Pub—not a bad sign at all. Whereas Ballinalacken's perch on a bald hill offers expansive views, Ballynahinch feels like the bustling center of a mysterious forest straight out of Tolkien. The arched door of the main entrance was propped open and flanked by benches and two obedient black Labs. From that inviting threshold, I could see straight through to the dining room, past the quiver of fishing rods along the stairs, to the wall of windows overlooking the river.

The atmosphere was genteel without being prissy. I arrived too late to want a full dinner, so I ordered a sandwich and an Irish whiskey at the bar. James Faherty, my fresh-faced young bartender, suggested Redbreast instead of my usual Jameson. Above the bar, a battered wooden sign warned locals not to poach on the river or they'd face HARDENED GAMEKEEPERS ON DUTY. It was signed Hair Trigger Dick and dated 1749.

That's around the time this hotel was built, and the place has been serious about fishing ever since. Ballynahinch owns the fishing rights to the river, which is divided into sections, or "beats," and the hotel limits the number of anglers per beat to two. Ballynahinch is also serious about the guided walks it offers around the grounds, so I booked one for the next day.

My third consecutive sunny day in Ireland began with a perfect mound of scrambled eggs topped with sprigs of crunchy greens. The foot traffic out in the lobby was already picking up: Rubber fishing boots squeaked, cycling shoes clacked. Ballynahinch is the sort of place where you'd feel just as comfortable showing up in a three-piece suit as in cargo shorts and wellies. I sought out my walking guide. Instead of the wizened sage I'd imagined would stroll me through the history of Ballynahinch, I found a fresh grad from Trinity College. Brian Forrestal, 22, was an environmental sciences major who was forced by one of the worst economies in the European Union to create a job for himself here. "I'd shake your hand, but I'm oily," he said. He'd been fixing bikes.

Our first stop was the neglected walled garden, which he was trying to reclaim in stages to one day supply produce for the restaurant. There was an herb garden and an experiment to see which potatoes grow best in this soil—Kerr's Pinks, Old Englishes, Roosters, Home Guards, or Golden Wonders. Over the next three hours, Brian taught me details of salmon spawning, why rhododendrons are a curse in the wild, and how to tell a spruce from a fir. Near the end of the walk, he pointed out an abandoned old granite-and-limestone tower set on an island in a small lake. This was the original Ballynahinch castle, he said, built some 200 years before the current one. In Irish, Ballynahinch is Baile na hInse, "settlement on the island." Castles, he explained, change and renew themselves over generations. The same could be said of wise old walking guides.

If it took a morning walk to accept Brian as the keeper of Ballynahinch, there was no such difficulty establishing Patricia Cooper's credentials at Markree Castle. Patricia is part of the 14th generation of the family that took over the castle after Cromwell's invasion. Her family, it turns out, is actually a branch of the O'Briens—the same clan who sold Ballinalacken to Declan's grandfather. She grew up sleeping within these turreted stone walls, and guests get to do the same.

Markree is in County Sligo, which is about two and a half hours up the coast from Ballynahinch. This is W. B. Yeats country, whose lakes and lonely hills inspired the poet's work. Sligo's small population and its location off the main tourist routes give the area a bohemian cast. Some of the best surfing in Europe can be found in Strandhill, a town set on a sandy cove 20 minutes from Markree.

Guests enter Markree up a forbidding flight of stone stairs and emerge in a cavernous hall overlooked by a giant stained-glass window. The existing building was designed and built by Victorians to look medieval, complete with battlements and geometric gardens. The dining hall was refurbished by Italian plaster craftsmen, with ornate details painted in gold leaf. My room was massive and round and looked directly over the garden.

That night at dinner, I ordered a venison, ricotta, and spinach puff pastry with tomato sauce, which looked fittingly fancy but tasted like a pretty good Hot Pocket. I should've had the salmon—Irish cuisine has come a long way, but the classics are classics for a reason. Indeed, the next morning the full Irish breakfast was exactly what I'd been looking for.

Patricia would be the first to say Markree is not five star, and that it doesn't pretend to be; imperfections like crooked floors and drafty windows are part of its appeal. Still, Markree attracts all sorts with its combination of character, diligent service, and imposing surroundings. Johnny Cash stayed here in 1993 to record a song, and the Rolling Stones' Ronnie Wood was a recent guest. "I think they appreciate being left alone," Patricia said. "Everyone gets treated the same here."