NEWMARKET- ON- FERGUS, Ireland A long, curving road winds through the golf course toward the castle, its turret rising above crenellated parapets and a multitude of chimneys. As we make the final turn, the wail of a bagpipe greets us and a lone musician in full regalia steps in front of our slow-moving car to pipe us up to the entrance. There, lined up at neatly spaced attention, are eight of the hotel staff.
Welcome to Dromoland Castle, Downton Abbey style.
Dromoland is on the shores of Lough Dromoland amid 410 acres of idyllic woodlands. The very model of a high Gothic-style bastion, it was built in the early 19th century on the ancestral lands of the O’Briens, descendants of Brian Boru, High King of Ireland, and still maintains its grand traditions. Take tea any day between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. in the drawing room under a crystal chandelier and ancestral portraits. Walk through the gallery with its suits of armor, tapestries and coffered ceiling and you might run into Dave Atkinson, Master of Falconry, introducing one of his birds of prey to a group of guests.
At Dromoland, you can live like the gentry and dabble in gentlemanly pursuits you’ve only read about or seen on television. It’s all here, with a modern twist.
These days, along with falconry, scones and clotted cream, a new vocabulary has entered castle speak: Carbon footprint, energy efficient, sustainable. Not the first things you’d expect to hear at luxe resorts, but as I discovered on a recent visit, many of them have a contemporary concern for the environment and are doing their best to make Ireland eco-friendly green.
Unless someone alerts you to the new environmental initiatives, you’re not likely to notice them as you enjoy the castle facilities. Case in point: falconry.
Of the castle’s baronial activities — among them clay shooting, archery, trout fishing, mountain biking and golf — falconry seemed the most exotic. I signed up for the afternoon Hawk Walk in the woodlands where Atkinson taught a group of us about the life and natural history of raptors. Falconry, he said, was simply “taking wild quarry in its natural habitat using trained hawks or falcons.”
After outfitting us with thick, sturdy gloves, he showed us how to hold our hands open so a bird could land on our wrists, how to tether it with thongs between our third and fourth fingers, and finally how to release the bird when he sees prey. Dave put Bruce, a Harris hawk, on my wrist, but before we could bond, Bruce flew to a nearby tree limb. While he looked around for a juicy wild quarry, Dave put a piece of raw chicken on my wrist. Zoom! Bruce was back in an instant.
What Bruce was really looking for was a taste of the castle’s abundant wildlife. Each year some 22,000 fox, deer, ducks, partridges and pheasants, all bred on site, are released on the estate. It’s part of a larger effort to tend the land as a wildlife preserve. Tree planting, for instance, is an active program at Dromoland’s championship parkland golf course and part of its environmental program.
“We plant 1,000 trees a year for our oil boiler carbon offset,” said David McCann, a leader in Dromoland’s sustainable initiative (and the executive chef as well). “We have virtually eliminated the use of fossil fuels for heating, and now we’re buying green wind power electricity, meaning no fossil fuels at all.”