It is 7 a.m., the start of my 40th birthday celebration. I'm quietly wandering around 12-room Kilcolgan Castle. Everyone else is asleep, so I have the run of the place. Dating from the 11th century and situated just outside Galway City on Ireland's west coast, the castle comes with the requisite gray limestone walls and three-story turret.
It's quiet and grand, melancholy in a way. That's Ireland for you. The Kilcolgan River runs rapidly by the castle's back as it hurls itself toward Galway Bay. Skies are gray, winds are high, but none of that matters. It's my day and my castle, at least temporarily.
When my husband, Cliff, asked what I wanted to do for my 40th, I pondered a visit to the Grand Canyon or a tropical island. But my favorite spot in the world is Ireland, the country of my grandparents' birth, and I knew it was where I had to go. With invaluable help from Karen Gustafson of Kilcolgan Castle and her blarney-blessed Uncle John, who can tell a yarn with the best of Irishmen, the excursion was one for the books, as my grandmother used to say.
I know Karen from our mutual love of horseback riding in Virginia. A native of Massachusetts, she inherited the castle five years ago after the death of her father, W.N. Gustafson von Hillerstamm, a former Swedish consul to the U.S. He had purchased Kilcolgan in 1988 as a retreat where he could fox-hunt and entertain friends. To defray the high cost of maintaining the property, Karen opened it to the public. It's nice to have a friend who owns a castle. Of course, you don't need an "in" with the owner to stay in an Irish castle or manor house. A variety of travel agencies and Web sites specialize in renting these properties, and they cater to all tastes and budgets (table).
All told, 40 of my friends and family from seven states put on their party shoes and made the trek across the pond. Even some Irish friends came from Dublin. With traffic, it took them longer to drive then it did for us to fly.
SHARING PINTS. It was a giant house party for four windswept days that culminated in the running of the famous Galway horse races just down the road. It was a bit damp, and most of the guests had never met before, but by the end of our stay, everyone was sharing pints of Guinness and tales of adventures on sheep-clogged roads.
This part of Ireland offers a little something for everyone. Guests went horseback riding at the stables adjacent to the castle, fished for salmon, faced the gusty winds atop the majestic Cliffs of Moher 710 feet above the Atlantic, and explored the Burren, a lunar-like region of limestone and wildflowers. I mostly stayed tucked inside by the peat fire, gazing through the rain-splashed windows at the green fields, talking to my parents, and making sure the party plans were on track.
It took five months to plan, and I didn't want a detail to go awry. With my travel agent's help, many guests took the same flights and shared cars from Shannon Airport, 45 minutes away. Those who didn't stay at the castle--it sleeps only eight and rents for up to $6,000 a week--stayed at nearby cottages and bed-and-breakfasts.
I opted for a cocktail party the first night with a harpist in the drawing room, a grand setting with a stone hearth, an oriental carpet, and antiques. Then it was off to a famous waterside thatched cottage, Moran's of the Weir, for oysters and fish chowder. On the big day, a traditional Irish music duo and Aideen Smith, an Irish step dancer, entertained us at the castle while we dined on fresh salmon and rack of lamb.
My highlights: dancing a jig with my 80-year-old dad and the William Butler Yeats poem my husband read as a toast. The narrator wishes for the cloths of heaven to "spread under your feet: But I, being poor, have only my dreams." For four days, my dreams came true at Kilcolgan Castle. By Kerry Hannon