If there’s one experience that cannot be missed in Ireland, it’s the opportunity to stay in an Irish Castle. These intriguing buildings blend centuries of history with an extraordinary level of comfort. An experience we finally crossed of the travel list this very year. Situated only one hour from Dublin, Kilkea Castle in County Kildare, was the chosen one. It has long being on my wishlist, and Kilkea Castle really lived up to all expectations.
The castle is quite close to the M7 motorway and there are only a few country roads to overcome before arriving at its gates. The entrance is precisely what you want it to be for an estate of this grandeur. The gates are open wide and welcomingly and both entrances have immaculate gatehouses. From there it’s a drive through rows of birch trees, with the expansive golf course beyond. Then the battlements of the castle loom into sight, all 800 years of it. It’s a stone monstrosity, as any beautiful castle is.
We arrived early in the day, around noon, not with the intention of checking in but to meet Reamonn the business development manager of Kilkea Castle. I had reached out to the castle after making a booking, and they agreed to work with us. Part of that was an introduction to the castle by Reamonn, a tour, and a full lowdown on the history of the castle. Sweet.
While this blog was produced as a result of a collaboration with Kilkea Castle, all views expressed are my own.
THE HISTORY OF KILKEA CASTLE KILDARE
The castle was built in 1180 by Hugh DeLacey, who seems to have built half the castles in Ireland. Obviously he had a knack for it. This one he built for Walter de Riddlesford a knight from the Norman invasion. It would soon become the stronghold of the Fitzgerald family for 740 years, from the 12th century on. As probably the most powerful house in the country, their influence and legacy is well known in Ireland. The castle was situated on a 1200 acres estate right on the border of the area known as the Pale, which was controlled by the British. Frequent attacks and looting by the maniacal Irish was a way of life for the residents.
The castle was also the location of the first ever Irish Parliament. Kilkea Castle vies with Malahide Castle (whose history you can read via the link) for the accolade of oldest inhabited castles in Ireland. In some ways their stories are not dissimilar. The last Earl of Kilkea Castle sold the property in 1963, and moved to Australia. It has operated as a hotel pretty much ever since.
Of all the castles residents one in particular stands out. The 11th Earl of Kildare, Gerald Fitzgerald, or as he is more commonly known, the Wizard Earl, was an interesting character. He was the half brother of Silken Thomas, who rebelled in 1534 against the crown and marched on Dublin, for which he was beheaded in 1538. Anyway back to the Wizard Earl, whose intriguing story started from youth.
WIZARD EARL OF KILKEA CASTLE
The Earl was known for having a pet monkey, which later became the symbol of the castle. His close bond with the monkey was shown, when the earl attended a party at the nearby Woodstock Castle in Athy. Most likely during a round of flaming sambucas, the castle caught fire, and the Earl was trapped. Seven knights failed and died in their attempts to save him. When all was seemed lost, the monkey appeared at the door carrying the Earl to safety. If you think this sounds a little far fetched, then cast your mind back to the end of Gulliver’s Travels. Isn’t all fiction based on strange fact somewhere along the line.
His story got stranger from here. Yes really! After some time travelling Europe he found himself in Renaissance Italy. After mixing with the Medicis and studying arts he was said to have then dabbled in alchemy. Possibly even mixology. Its from this the mystery surrounding him grew and the moniker the Wizard Earl became attached. Perhaps it’s because he was said to be highly intelligent and studied arts. That was close to witchcraft for common folk back then too.
The Wizard Earls story ends on a superstitious note too (of course it had to). Said to have vanished into thin air, the Earl reappears every 7th year, on the seventh day of the seventh month, and rides with 7 knights from the nearby Curragh to the castle. I’m a little more sceptical about this one.
THE MODERN DAY KILKEA CASTLE
Kilkea castle is now under American ownership, and the owner Jay Cashman has shown a real determination to take the castle back into the elite. With a €35 million investment over the last decade, it’s very visible. The castles rooms are divided into three distinct sections, from one of 11 classical and uniquely styled bedrooms of the castle itself, to a more modern Carriage Bedroom of the courtyard, or a family friendly self catering lodge bedroom near the golf club. Booking direct via the Kilkea Castle Website is recomended.
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OUR TOUR OF KILKEA CASTLE KILDARE
Following our captivating look into the castles history, Reamonn took us through the floors of the castle, and it’s grounds. Even in these difficult times the castle is striving to provide the excellent service it always has. We had begun our tour in the Keep, a snug, warm and homely area where the castles bar is found. It was a breezy and chilly July day in Ireland and the cappuccinos by the snug hearth were a welcome tonic.
The castles two main dining areas are Restaurant 1180 (dinner and breakfast) and the Drawing Room which hosts afternoon tea. We would indulge in that later, but with a very different Kilkea Castle slant on things. Throughout the building keep an eye out for the monkeys, the family symbol often appearing in random places.
The hotel has expanded well beyond the castle, as far as the stunning ballroom, and meeting room with its impressive audio visual set up. Beneath the area is the spa, with multiple treatment rooms, and its small but stunning relaxation pool. Covid restrictions mean that the sauna and steam room remain currently closed. The spa and hotel use Elemis beauty products throughout, We would return here later for some treatments compliments of the hotel. Check this link to their site for the full list of treatments.
OUR ROOM AT KILKEA CASTLE
Our upgraded room was in the castle itself. The castle bedrooms take their names from the characters who left an impression on the building over the centuries. Our room was the Lady Elizabeth Grey room, who was the mother of the Wizard Earl, stepmother of Silken Thomas, and sister of Leonard Grey. The latter had crushed Silken Thomas’ rebellion and had him sent to London, where he was executed. And I thought my family had issues.
The first thing that struck us as we entered was the wallpaper. Flowery and bright we would never have it in our home. Here, it was absolutely perfect. A large decorative mirror hung on the wall, that you can imagine the Lady Grey admiring herself in. The king size bed was of course the focus of the room. The bed was a little bare, but this was a relief as in covid times less is more. The hotel is currently running at 50% guests occupancy to ensure a higher standard of cleaning too.
As this was the castle proper, the windows were set deep in the castles walls. There was enough room to fit in an arm chair and foot rest in the space. Just to give you an idea of the thickness of the walls. Those windows overlooked the old church and golf courses, and the views were splendid. The bathroom was snug but had bath and shower, and those aforementioned Elemis cosmetics.
The room is also equipped with modern conveniences such as flat screen TVs and the free wifi has good bandwidth.
THE STUNNING CASTLE GROUNDS
The castle grounds are dominated by its golf course, but if like us your idea of a walk doesn’t involve swinging a club, then there’s still quite a bit to see. A river flows through the grounds and formed a natural defensive boundary for the castle lawns. Those lawns are the primary focus of any pleasant stroll. Formal rose gardens give way to plush green lawns. A pergola to the side is rich in the fruit of apple trees. Beyond are the herb gardens of the castle, whose produced is used within its kitchens.
Looking deeper there is more to see. Statues peep from behind bushes in the gardens. Then there’s the castle. Besides it’s obvious traits, looking deeper brings its own rewards. The walls contain some notable carvings, the most notorious of these being the evil eye stone. This depicts a sexual act between man and beasts, which no doubt brought terror to those looking to bring harm to the castle. The evil eye stone can be found about the Baun entrance.
On the edge of the golf course an old medieval church lies in what is the wildest part of the estate. I took a wander inside naturally. This graveyard is the final resting place of many of the Fitzgeralds. A hunt will bring up more of those carved medieval stones, with a monkey stone being the most vivid. One of my most endearing finds was the gravestone dedicated to Jessie (which i found laying under a tree), whom I presume to be a dog who left us 1893. The poem mourning his loss will touch even the hardest of hearts.
FURTHER AFIELD FROM THE CASTLE
Of course to truly appreciate the castles history it’s worth exploring the areas nearby. The village of Kilkea is at the gates to the estate and it’s classic stone houses, school and buildings would not look out of place in the English countryside. Oddly I couldn’t find a pub. I guess it still relies on the castle, but these days to quench a thirst, rather than for protection.
The large country town of Athy is the nearest one to Kilkea and is certainly worth a wander due to its relevance to the Kilkea story. It’s here you’ll find Woodstock Castle, the scene of the heroic monkey story. It’s not all there is to Athy, the river Barrow ensuring it has historical significance. Whites Castle is a large tower house that was built to guard the Crom a Boo bridge. But the towns finest building is the Athy courthouse, an 18th century architectural marvel which seems at odds with all around it.
Kilkea Castle is not far from the motorway from Dublin to Cork. It’s an under appreciated road and perfect for a historical road trip. Take a look at my suggestions on how to enjoy the trip best from Dublin to Cork.
SAMPLING THE HOTEL FACILITIES
We spent most of our time soaking up the castle atmosphere though. Sometimes you travel to a destination and stay nearby. Sometimes where you stay is the destination and there’s nothing else you could possibly need.
Kilkea Castle, when all is in full swing is one of those places. The castle works with a whole host of local suppliers to provide falconry, archery, clay pigeon shooting, off-roading, equestrian and fishing. On top of the tennis and golf courses. Unfortunately the curse of 2020 has limited the provision of most of these, while a safe working environment is put in place. The golf course was in full swing though and there was a regular racket coming from the tennis courts.
Kilkea Castle were kind enough to offer us a half hour massage each and after the trials of 2020 it was just what we needed. Beata opted for a hot stone massage while I went the more traditional route. The precautions taken by the spa staff were very intensive to ensure the safety of all customers. The pool can only be used by those due in for treatments, for social distancing purposes. Despite all this the treatments were of a high grade. The option to choose your grade of massage impressed me. I bypassed gentle and normal, and settled on firm rather than deep tissue. Firm it most certainly was. Emma my masseuse was excellent and the 30 minutes were the most relaxing I had in months.
DINING IN AT KILKEA CASTLE KILDARE
When we booked our stay Ireland was only coming out of lockdown. It would be our first stay away. This was something new for the hotel too. At that time they were only serving food in Hermione’s restaurant in the golf club house near the lodges. When the hotel called to offer a 3 course dinner for €25 per person, we jumped at the chance.
The restaurant was open by the time we stayed, but we stuck by our original plan. Hermione’s was also where we ended up following our tour. We had a relatively light lunch, of chicken wings, chips and a Caesar salad for Beata. All were exceptionally tasty and gave us an idea of what we could expect from dinner.
We returned that evening for our pre-booked dinner at 8pm. This time I sampled the delicious Caesar Salad as a starter, before we both opted for the sirloin steak and Lemon Tarts as dessert. It was perfectly accompanied by a nice bottle of Argentinian Malbec, and we received excellent service from Ryan throughout the evening.
We did find ourselves in the castle restaurant for breakfast the following morning, but we decided against being too gluttonous for fear of ruining our foodie main event.
…AND DINING OUT- A PICNIC AT KILKEA CASTLE
As I said Kilkea Castle do afternoon tea with a twist. And what a twist it is. Provided it’s booked in advance, you can have your afternoon tea all wrapped up in a wicker basket and it comes with a blanket to boot. Then all you have to do is find a nice tree, or our preference, the beautiful castle lawn. Is there a better way to enjoy that view?
What a spread they fit into that basket! There are a few picnic options and we choose the lighter one without the Prosecco. Inside there was 7ups, water, two types of sandwiches, scones, muffins, macaroons, lemon tarts, Oreo cakes (takes a breath), pears, apples and strawberries. Oh and some of those branded Kilkea Castle chocolates. To be honest we were still polishing it off a few days later.
While the food was great, the real pleasure here was in the experience of the picnic in the garden. It will remain our fondest lasting memory of our stay. Memories like this are what Carpediemeire is all about.
Kilkea Castle Kildare was one of our finest staycation experiences in Ireland. To stay in an environ so rich in Irish history, and with such luxury was wonderful. It’s one not to be missed by tourists, or Irish alike.
Have you ever stayed in a Castle hotel? Tell me your experiences in the comments.