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.”
Five years ago Dromoland and its sister property, Castlemartyr Resort, formed an environmental action team to target waste, energy and water management. Guests might not realize the hotels are now using non-toxic cleaning supplies, paraben- and sulfate-free guest toiletries, low-energy light bulbs and water-saving fixtures, but I was startled to find a brown paper Recycling Bag in my Castlemartyr marble bathroom. The set-up was a far cry from the familiar plea to hang up used bath towels.
At both resorts improved recycling and waste management have saved eye-popping amounts of landfill (10 tons), carbon emissions (1,200 tons), and greenhouse gases (500 tons every year). These projects helped the hotels reach their carbon neutral goal in 2011 and win several prestigious Green Hospitality Awards, a national effort funded by the Irish Environmental Protection Agency.
It’s no surprise that local sourcing is virtually a mantra throughout the resorts. At Dromoland’s spa I arrived for my “Pamper Me Please” appointment, and even before the full body exfoliation, my therapist explained that the spa uses only seaweed-based certified organic products that are hand harvested on Ireland’s west coast by Voya, an Irish company.
Chef McCann, who was classically trained in French cooking, is particularly passionate about the kitchen. “It’s very important that we use local producers and products,” he said. “We have the best beef and lamb in the world, Burren lamb; seafood from the Atlantic — lobster, turbot, brill — all of it sourced locally and available locally. Vegetables, herbs from the Royal Garden. Whatever the garden grows I’ll use.” What it doesn’t, he encourages local farmers to supply.
At Castlemartyr, an 18th-century manor house near Cork on the southern Irish coast, a major draw is its unique golf course. In 2007, when the hotel converted a former boys’ school to a high-end resort, of course they planned a course. In Ireland, a resort without golf is like coffee without Irish whiskey.
Castlemartyr chose a links-style model (true links are surrounded on three sides by water) to give guests an alternative to the more familiar manicured parkland courses in the area. Ron Kirby, the course designer, contoured the flat pastureland into typical dunes with hundreds of gorse plants, and covered the newly formed lows and hillocks with native grasses.
The links-style course was superbly suited to the sustainable philosophy Castlemartyr was embracing. The hillocks drain into the fairways, which aren’t watered at all; the pest-tolerant, low-maintenance fescue grass needs less fertilizer and water.
If you’re not a golfer, the way to see the course, and the whole estate, is with Castlemartyr’s carriage man, Roy Daily, in a cart pulled by a pair of his Kerry bog ponies. He’ll take you along the course where you might see groundskeepers propagating the existing gorse or planting indigenous saplings to create more woodlands, attracting more animals and birds. Castlemartyr has found that protecting wildlife habitats is not only good land management, it keeps the 220-acre estate lush and leafy for guests as they go hiking, clay shooting, fly casting and fishing.
The trap ride turns into an historical tour as the ponies trot past Castlemartyr’s formal gardens and elaborately patterned hedges designed by the great landscape architect, Lancelot “Capability” Brown, and through the property’s 800-year-old castle ruins that, Roy points out, Oliver Cromwell shelled during the 17th century Cromwellian Wars.
Both Castlemartyr and Dromoland have ambitious green plans in the pipeline. Pretty soon, electric golf carts may be plying the courses and solar panels heating the bath water.
How nice that living well at Irish castles is also living green.