If you can tear yourself away from the exquisite style and comfort of Ashford Castle during your stay, the local area offers an ideal opportunity to see the other monumental castles of County Mayo. Scratch the surface of County Mayo’s fascinating cultural history and you’ll soon discover that behind some of the area’s most spectacular landmarks lies remarkable tales of piracy, power, wealth and war.
Over its long and illustrious history Ashford Castle has remained one of County Mayo’s most grand historic castles. Built in the 13th century as the primary stronghold for the Anglo-Norman de Burgo family, over the years the castle has endured many incarnations, including becoming the Guinness family’s main residence, and even a film location for director John Ford’s ‘The Quiet Man’. Nowadays, guests can take advantage of the expansive grounds by getting involved in clay shooting, archery, horse riding, and the age-old art of falconry. After dark, dine like a royal in the opulent George V dining room, or unwind with a glass of something delicious in the decadent surrounds of the Prince of Wales Room, which dates back to the 1800s.
If there is one location that exemplifies the mystery of County Mayo’s Irish folklore, it is Granuaile’s Castle on Clare Island. It was the ancient abode of one of the most powerful Irish figures of the 16th century, the infamous Pirate Queen Grace O’Malley, whose inherited shipping and trading business was said to be a cunning ruse for piracy, enabling her to rule the seas of Mayo. The towering structure overlooks the rock-strewn harbour with clear views out across the Clew Bay islands. Trek along the Clew Bay Archaeological Trail, which passes other fascinating local historical landmarks, including the 13th century Cistercian Abbey, where the O’Malley tomb holds the remains of the infamous female chieftain.
You certainly wouldn’t be alone in assuming you’d stepped into a fairy tale whilst walking through the lush parkland which envelopes Westport House. Built in the 18th century, the stately building as it stands today is the brainchild of renowned architects, Richard Cassels and James Wyatt. The Browne family, direct descendants of Grace O’Malley, formerly occupied Westport House and the legacy of that connection is commemorated through a permanent exhibition that chronicles O’Malley’s numerous maritime conquests. Children will be pleased to discover that the aptly named Pirate Adventure Park is also situated on site, and is decked out with plenty of fun rides, go karting and an indoor pirate’s play den.
Nestled in scenic Newport, on the shores of Clew Bay (reportedly home to over 365 tiny islands – one for each day of the year), Rockfleet Castle is the perfect vantage point from which to keep watch over Mayo’s (now) tranquil waters. Indeed, you can’t mention Rockfleet Castle without noting its strategic significance to the O’Malley clan. Its distinctive features reveal a notable fortress, standing 18 metres high, which helped the O’Malleys to protect themselves during volatile times. A position which would eventually earn the O’Malley’s notoriety within the English court as a perceived enemy of Queen Elizabeth I, their famous female leader dubbed “a director of thieves and murderers at sea”.
If you’re looking for the perfect example of medieval building then the secluded tower at Kildavnet on Achill Island could quite possibly be it. Despite being built back in the 15th century, it still stands strong on the peaceful shoreline, the grand guardian of Achill Sound and Clew Bay. Today, the waters play host to visitors eager to try their hand at an array of water sports, while back on land the popular Achill’s Atlantic Drive draws those looking to discover the most remote and spectacular corners of the island, from Kildavnet Castle to nearby Currane. Header image © Patryk Kosmider/iStock/Thinkstock