Ashford Castle Ireland offers a Unique Christmas Adventure

Alan Moran is on his tip toes on a big ladder, reaching out to add a shiny silver butterfly to a 25 foot tall freshly cut Christmas tree as Catherine Kenny is suggesting the perfect branch for it to land on.  Trees this large wouldn’t fit into most New York apartment building lobbies but in this case, it’s perfectly to scale in the dark wood paneled foyer of 800 year old Ashford Castle, located in the small village of Cong, midway between Shannon and Dublin Airports.

Ireland’s green, rolling hills; storytelling, ancestry and whiskey enchant visitors at any time of the year but Christmas in a five star castle takes on a whole different flavor for an American exploring the holiday traditions of the Auld Sod. It’s the same holiday, just celebrated differently.

“Christmas Day is very family oriented” says Memphis born Kathryn Slatter, who owns Mount Gable gifts in Clonbur.  “It’s unheard of to not spend the day with family.  Everything is closed, including the pubs.  Most people spend day with friends and family.”

“By the next day,” Eamon Wilson, a Dublin Barrister who I met over dinner at the Crowe’s Nest Pub in Cong says “you’re going stir crazy with family, and many people head out for a meal.”

On December 26th, as part of St. Stephen’s day, families in Western Ireland celebrate “The Wren.”  Kids go door to door singing carols with a little fake bird in a cage, visiting neighbors and getting candy for their efforts and a donation for a local charity.

The celebration might have originated with the Druids, who give us another tradition…bringing a cut tree into the home.  That’s still a favorite family event in Ireland and both Ashford Castle and many local residences, like Catherine and Martin Concannon’s, are decorated with Norman Fir Christmas trees from Fintin Carney’s local farm on Houndswood Cross that has no name.

At 9:30pm on a recent Friday evening, conversation at a pub in Cong comes to a halt as the bartender raises the volume on the television.   Guinness in hands, all eyes are tuned to RTE Channel One as Host Ryan Tubridy and  a bunch of kids singing holiday songs spend the next two hours introducing the hot toys of the season.

The first Friday in December is eagerly anticipated by all of Ireland, young and old. The prime minister of Ireland was going to address the country about the growing European financial crisis, but he knew better than to compete with the Late Late Show.  His speech was put off til Sunday.

The Late Late Show is Ireland’s most popular television program and is the longest running chat show in the world.  Hundreds of kid’s toys are presented over the next few Fridays and there isn’t a single Santa believing lad in the Emerald Isle that doesn’t drag his parents in front of the telly to watch.

I hitch a ride back to the Castle with some pub mates.  It’s a majestic site as modern LED lights glow blue on the Christmas trees on the bridge leading to the castle.  With a bit of imagination it’s easy to imagine knights on horseback returning to the manor, crossing the River Cong to the fortress that sits alongside the shores of Lough Corrib.

Walk past the small nativity scene in between two suits of armor and up to the private reception area.  Paddy, the bellman is pleased to lead you through hallway labyrinth of corridors and stairways and the five giant doors that separate your palace sized room from the main lobby.

This place is gargantuan, inside and out.  Ashford Castle’s grounds sprawl over 450 acres and the giant rooms, fit for, well, royalty, offer 20 foot high ceilings, four post beds, and sofas the size of small foreign cars. There have to be ghosts here. Hell, if I was a ghost, I’d live here.

Morning comes and the sun rises after 8am.   After walking around the castle, built in 1228 in County Mayo, I stop for a full Irish breakfast, which is included in my room rate. There’s smoked salmon, black and white pudding, smoked kippers, freshly baked white soda bread and brown bread and eggs, sausage, bacon and fresh pastries, a heavy start to an outdoor day that promises unique adventures.

The weather is surprisingly good during my visit I’m often reminded that last December brought a rare snow storm that paralyzed most of Ireland.  Bright sun and mostly clear skies are perfect for a round of golf, an horseback riding lesson at the equestrian center, fly fishing, clay shooting , a walk through the gardens  or a cruise past the small islands that dot Lough Corrib accompanied by live music.

I meet Eoin Connolly, of Ireland’s Falconry School, who introduces me to a female adolescent Harris Hawk named Joyce. She’s about a foot tall and surprisingly light, with strong talons.
We go walking through the woods surrounding the castle, a leather glove on our left hand.  Joyce wears a small bell attached to her talon, which allows us to hear a Christmas sled sound when we can no longer spot her as she is flying high up over Ashford or sitting on bare branches of trees. Her eyes are always in motion, perfect vision scanning for prey or predator.

I sweep my left arm forward at shoulder level and Joyce goes off, a beautiful sight as her wings extend and propel her to the skies.  Eoin instructs me to turn my back to the bird, extend my arm and he places a small piece of meat in between my leather covered thumb and forefinger.  The ringing of the bell is the only indication that Joyce is returning.  Swooping down from the trees at speeds of up to 240 MPH, she comes in low and fast, just over the grass.  Rising at the last second, wings spread in a menacing fashion but she gently reaches down and grabs her reward from the glove with her sharp beak.

Despite the sun, the air is damp and cold and as I return to the Castle, I remember the sage advice of Niall Stewart at Jamesons Distillery in Dublin.   “Christmas in Ireland is usually a cold time of year,” he said, so “an Irish coffee or hot spiced whiskey is a great winter warmer.”

In search of the perfect winter warmer, I stopped in at The Old Kilbeggan Distillery.  Kilbeggen is the oldest continually licensed distillery in the world, dating back to 1757 and was conveniently on my route from Dublin to Ashford Castle.

I was lucky to meet Distillery manager Brian Quinn and Innovation Manager Alex Chasko.  The two share a passion for quality, a respect for  history and the desire to try something new and different with their whiskeys.    Today they are the only Irish owned Irish Whiskey company and are turning back to two centuries of distilling experience to create new versions of old spirits.

They took me through the distillery and I had the chance to try whiskeys that are not exported to the US.  Most notable was their Poitín, known as moonshine here.  Poitin is a clear Irish spirit famous for its alcohol strength, usually 130 proof, and is traditionally distilled in a small pot still.  They produced only 1800 bottles, and  have distributed none beyond the factory and one Dublin liquor store.

I celebrated the twelve days of Christmas in one day and the only bottle of Cooley Poitin in the United States is sitting on a shelf in my home now.  Merry Christmas to all, and to all, a good night!
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Guinness Cranberry Muffins
4oz cranberries (cooked in 2oz castor sugar)
6oz castor sugar
4oz butter
2 eggs
7.5oz Guinness
10oz Plain flour
½ teasp salt
½ teasp bread soda

1.       Cook cranberries in sugar
2.       Cream butter & sugar till white & fluffy
3.       Add 2 eggs slowly and keep beating
4.       Mix in the Guinness
5.       Fold in the flour, salt & bread soda

Bake for 20-22 minutes at 180C

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