Located just an hour’s drive from Dublin, Kilkea Castle is the oldest inhabited castle in Ireland. Originally built in 1180 by Hugh de Lacy, the Earl of Ulster and chief governor of Ireland, for Sir Walter de Riddlesford, a Norman knight, the castle was the seat of the Fitzgeralds, the Earls of Kildare, for almost 800 years.
Since falling out of the Fitzgerald ownership in 1960, Kilkea Castle experienced a number of different owners before being purchased in 2013 by Jay and Christy Cashman – an American businessman and his Hollywood actress wife – who then went about restoring the castle to its former glory, opening it as a luxury hotel in 2017, following a $30 million restoration and refurbishment. Together with its golf course, rose garden and courtyard, the resort covers over 200 acres through which the River Greese flows.
The following video gives a nice overview of what to expect before stepping inside…
I was in Dublin with work prior to our stay but the hotel kindly offered to collect us from the city for the one-hour transfer to the castle which meant for an effortless arrival. We were made to feel very welcome and given a personal tour of the castle once we had settled in which provided us with many insights into the castle’s past.
Its history is a fascinating one, with stories ranging from a pet monkey saving the first Earl from a fire when he was a baby (which accounts for a monkey featuring on the family crest), to the 11th Earl of Kildare, who was known as the ‘Wizard Earl’ due to his interest in alchemy, and who is believed to visit the castle on horseback on the seventh day of the seventh month of every seventh year.
We were also shown some interesting features in the brickwork of the building, including a monkey’s tail and the ‘Evil Eye’. The latter is a rather bizarre medieval carving built into the quoin of the guard room close to the gatehouse, that depicts a man embracing a semi-human beast while another beast appears to be having sexual intercourse with him; it was designed to ‘ward off’ unwelcome visitors, blighting them by its evil influence. Thankfully our welcome was a much more orthodox one!
The castle is home to eleven uniquely-designed bedrooms. Additional accommomdation can be found in bright and airy carriage rooms in the courtyard or in self-catering lodges overlooking the golf course and just a stone’s throw from the refurbished clubhouse.
We were fortunate enough to stay in the Fitzgerald Suite at the very top of the castle in the Round Tower which enjoys views all around the estate.
The décor is very in keeping with the grandeur of a castle, with heavy curtain fabrics and bold-patterned wallpaper. A separate lounge area greets you as you enter the suite, with its own fireplace, chaise longues, gilt-edged mirror and chandelier.
The spacious bedroom is decorated with dark mahagony furniture that complements the rich, toned fabrics of the bed and chair. This room looks out over the 18th green.
The bathroom is a circular room located inside one of the castle’s turrets. In it is a free-standing bath and a separate shower inset into the thick tower wall.
Fluffy gowns are provided and Elemis is the toiletry brand of choice at Kilkea Castle, used also in the hotel’s spa.
The bathroom’s arrowslit window looks out over a beautifully-maintained Italianate garden.
Kilkea Castle offers a number of dining venues, from fine dining to less formal options elsewhere. We loved the portcullis castle-style and informality of The Keep bar but The Bistro also offers an informal all-day dining experience for golfers or guests, with a choice of light bites and wholesome main courses.
Restaurant 1180 is the formal dining area within the castle, led by David McKane, former Head Chef at Adare Manor. It is yet to earn its first Michelin star but that is surely just a matter of time.
We had the signature tasting menu which began with a chicken and truffle terrine with a truffle aioli and pickled mushrooms. Often the flavour of truffles can be a little overpowering but this was delicately done.
A crab ravioli followed, set on a bed of spinach and with a delightful shellfish bisque.
Next up was seabass with a wondefully crisp skin, served with fennel and a chive braisage sauce.
Our main course was Dexter beef – cooked very pink, just how I like it – with artichoke, shallot, king oyster mushroom and a rich jus. Dexter is a rare breed with its origins in Tipperary, to the south-west of Kilkea. It was very tender yet full of flavour.
A blood orange with vodka and granita followed as a palette cleanser before a lemon meringue dessert. I wouldn’t normally regard myself as a dessert person but this was definitely worth it – a sort of deconstructed lemon meringue pie with isolated tastes of meringue, lemon curd, lemon sorbet and biscuit crumbs that worked really well together.
The 1180 Restaurant is also used for breakfast for guests staying in the Castle Bedrooms.
There is a buffet selection consisting of cereals, fruit, pastries and more, set among the book shelves of the dining room, but also a breakfast menu for any cooked orders.
I can heartily recommend the poached eggs and avocado on a brioche muffin!
Additional facilities at Kilkea Castle include an 18-hole, 6,700-yard Championship golf course that cleverly uses the River Greese as a natural hazard on almost every hole. Two lakes further add to the challenge, plus there’s a practice range, putting green, golf shop and clubhouse.
The hotel also has its own spa where we both enjoyed a very relaxing massage. Guests of the spa may use the hydrotherapy pool, sauna and steam room ahead of their treatments. Available treatments at the spa include facials, hot stone massages, salt scrubs, detox wraps and more.
In the immediate vicinity of the castle, guests can enjoy use of the golf course or take a leisurely walk of the adjoining Mullaghreelan Wood. Equestrian excursions can also be enjoyed as part of an all-inclusive stay at Kilkea Castle. Two miles away is the Moone High Cross Inn, an Irish pub famous for its its craic and live music that is reputed to be Clint Eastwood’s favourite pub in the whole of Ireland.
They even have a bar named after him. Other distinguished visitors to the pub have included Bono, Sandra Bullock, Johnny Depp and former Republic of Ireland footballer and manager, Mick McCarthy. Photographs of some of these famous guests adorn the walls.
Kilkea enjoys a number of other fascinating connections; for instance, Ernest Shackleton was born to a Quaker family in the area. It’s an area with some 5,000 years of history. Places to explore nearby include Burtown House & Gardens, Mondello Park, the Irish National Stud and Gardens, The Curragh Racecourse, Punchestown Racecourse and Castletown House & Gardens.
Other nice touches
We were made to feel very welcome throughout our stay. Our hosts very kindly gifted us some Kilkea Castle branded bobble hats which we were able to put to immediate use as there was quite a cold wind in the air, and macarons and chocolate brownies were delivered to our room when we went for a stroll one afternoon.
Rates start from €115 per night for Carriage Rooms. Castle Bedrooms start from closer to €340 per night, with the Fitzgerald Suite starting from €1,490 per night.
The best bit
Why… staying in a castle, of course! There’s a certain charm about staying in such a grand building with such a fascinating history.
The final verdict
The other wonderful thing about Kilkea Castle is that the new owners are giving this historic building all the love and attention that it truly deserves; no expense is being spared and no corners are being cut, in order to ensure it returns to its former glory. A fitting restoration is being put ahead of profits which, in the long term, I feel is sure to bring Kilkea Castle further deserved success.
Disclosure: Our stay was sponsored by Kilkea Castle.