The small, picturesque town of Ballyvaughan sits on Galway Bay just east of where it meets the Atlantic Ocean. It’s in the northwest area of County Clare known as The Burren. There’s nowhere else on earth like this rocky area. It contains a unique ecosystem where rare plants and insects found few other places flourish. You’ll find Alpine and Arctic plants growing next to Mediterranean ones. It’s a place where ancient churches have Celtic fertility symbols carved over doorways and prehistoric sites are found everywhere. It’s a center of traditional Irish Music and home to the beautiful, daunting Cliffs of Moher.
Gregan’s Castle Hotel, a country-house hotel* offers visitors to the area 4-star award-winning accommodations. It’s a great choice for your base while exploring The Burren. The family-owned property prides itself on its high level of hospitality and its strong commitment to providing guests with a memorable lodging experience. It’s a wonderful old house with an interesting past, but it’s obvious as you approach that it’s not a castle. So how did it get its name? That’s a long story that hotel owner and Managing Director, Simon Haden will be glad to share with you. The short story: there’s a castle across the road dating from 1,300AD for which the house and hotel were named. The castle, once part of the Martyn Family holdings (as was the house), was sold off during difficult financial times. The Martyns had a long, interesting history in the area. It’s a great story to be told on a night at Gregan’s, in front of the fire, with a glass of Bushmills in hand.
The house, built in 1740, with an addition that dates to around 1860, sits on 15 acres, half of which is planted in gardens. “It’s a lush oasis in the Burren,” Haden says of the extensive gardens which include a pond. His father called them “borrowed gardens” as many of The Burren’s native plants flourish here. A gardener who’s been with the family for over three decades maintains this mini-Eden. In 1991, an addition with three suites and three superior rooms was added bringing the total number of accommodations to 20.
Haden grew up here. His family acquired the hotel in 1976 when he was 10 years old. He followed in the family footsteps and chose the hotel business as his life. After graduating from hotel school in nearby Galway, he spent time at hostelries in Ireland, England and Switzerland. In 1991, he returned home to work at Gregan’s. He bought it from his parents in 2003.
Haden and his wife, Freddie, a Connemara woman, married in 1997. She’s an interior decorator and her artistic stamp can be seen throughout the hotel. Gregan’s Castle offers four categories of accommodations. Each room and suite has its own unique, country house décor courtesy of this talented designer. All accommodations offer views of the countryside. A few suites have private gardens.
In 2007, the hotel turned its attention to their restaurant. The intention was to make it and the hotel a food destination. In early 2008, Haden hired talented Finnish chef, Mickael Viljanen. The now, award-winning restaurant, The Dining Room, has according to Haden, “the best food of any country house in Ireland.” There is a firm commitment to fresh and local and the best of the country’s bounty from both land and sea shows up on the menu. Viljanen has been succeed by his second in command, David Hurley. Under his stewardship, the use of fresh and local has been expanded with an emphasis on the natural flavors of the ingredients used. While staying at Gregan’s Castle or elsewhere in The Burren, treat yourself to dinner here and discover his exquisite cuisine. In addition to dinner, they serve breakfast (included in the room rate), lunch (every day but Saturday) and afternoon tea.
Visiting The Burren? Gregan’s Castle will provide a memorable Irish country-house experience for you.
Things to do in The Burren:
While you’re in the area, there is much to see and do. If you need arrangements for a tour or other activity, the hotel staff is there to assist.
If you are interested in learning about the unusual flora and fauna of The Burren and its history, Haden suggests taking a ½ day guided walk into the hills with his neighbor sheep-farmer, Shane Connolly. This Renaissance man studied archeology, botany and geology while at school. And if that’s not enough, to make him the prefect guide, he has, according to Haden, a great sense of humor.
The Aillwee Caves were discovered in the 1940s by a local farmer. Visitors can view an underground stream, a waterfall, stalactites, stalagmites old bear remains. It may have been the last bear den in Ireland. They also have a bird of prey center at the site.
Burren National Park contains examples of all the major features of The Burren including habitats, geological features and the flora and fauna that makes this wild place so unique.
The 1,500-year-old Catherconnell Stone Fort offers a great view of the area. This was probably the deciding factor for original inhabitants. It allowed them to see their enemies approaching from all directions.
The rough,steep, Cliffs of Moher, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, offer views of the roiling sea below, the Aran Islands and more. They are one of the most popular destinations for visitors to Ireland. There is no feeling like standing on a ocean-side cliff in Eire, listening to the pounding waves and looking out to sea. There’s something timeless and primal about it.
Corcomroe Abbey is an early 13th-century monastery, a few miles from Ballyvaughan. This is one of my favorite places on earth. Every time I visit, I break into spontaneous tears.
Killinaboy Church has an interesting paradox. There is a sheela na gig (pagan fertility symbol) carved into the doorway.
Kilmacduagh Cathedral Churches and Round Tower near Gort, is a wonderful spot to discover as you drive around County Clare. There are several church ruins, a 7th century monastery ruin, and other buildings.
The haunting Poulnabrone (hole of sorrows, in Irish) is a prehistoric dolman dates to the Neolithic Period. This area served as a burial place.
If you want to see a holy well, ask your hosts. There are wells all over the area, but they can be a little tricky to find. Locals are apt to know where they are. I’m told there’s a secluded one at Slieve Carron that’s worth the search.
Do you have any favorite places in The Burren to share with us? We’d love to hear about them.
*A country house hotel is s lodging situated in the country, perhaps in a pastoral setting surrounded by private gardens that was formerly a family home that is now family owned and managed. They offer a personal level of service and offer a country lifestyle enhanced by their surroundings, They can have up to 30 rooms.
Writer’s note: I interviewed Simon Haden of Gregans Castle over the phone one afternoon in New Mexico and late evening in Ireland.
Editor’s note: As often happens with great chefs, they move on. Chef Mickael Viljanen is now cooking at the Greenhouse off St. Stephens Green in Dublin.