Clanard Court Hotel
Consistently rated on Tripadvisor as the No.1 hotel in County Kildare, a visit to the Clanard Court Hotel, Athy, soon confirms why this family run establishment beats some pretty stiff competition, including the K-Club. Located about an hour from Dublin airport, for me, the hotel was easily accessible from Newry – in less than two hours (from Belfast in less than three), and I did not come near to breaking any speed limits.
Knowing that the Clanard Court is situated in famous horse racing territory, I was immediately struck by the sight of two fine horses grazing in the adjoining paddock (which can be used as an event space). It was no surprise to learn that the hotel is owned by members of the horse-racing fraternity, the Fennins. Sweeping into the drive way leading to the spacious carpark (with room for 250 vehicles), we were met by an intriguing sight, Jacob sheep, Alpacas and mini ponies grazing alongside. You don’t have to be a kid to be drawn immediately to these extraordinary animals, digital camera in hand. Well aware of their appeal, an outline drawing of the animals features on the back of the children’s menu in the hotel, a nice touch to keep the little ones actively colouring in as well as a memento of a visit to the Clanard Court to cherish in the future.
After entering an impressive reception area, we were greeted warmly by hotel staff. While my wife checked in, I could not stop myself noticing the many reminders of the famous Fitzgerald family, Anglo-Irish grandees and earls of Kildare. Featuring prominently in the hotel, these include the “Fitzgerald suite and garden ballroom,” the main function room in the hotel. It is a very popular wedding venue, with two wedding receptions occurring mid week during our trip, the garden offering an ideal location for wedding photographs. Separately, there is a smaller “Edward Fitzgerald” suite, in memory of the famous United Irishman who died from wounds in 1798. All of this called to my mind the fate of an Irish heroine, Mary Stuart O’Donnell, grand-daughter of the twelfth Earl of Kildare that I have been interested in for some time. Her mother, Brigid, married Rory O’Donnell, first Earl of Tyrconnell. Pregnant at the time, she did not take part in the Flight of the Earls in 1607. The new born daughter, Mary, never saw her father who died the following year. Dramatically, in 1625, Mary Stuart O’Donnell, as she became known, helped two young Irish chieftains, her relatives, escape from prison in London, before eluding capture herself by travelling to the continent herself, dressed as a boy.
A stylishly modern hotel blending in seamlessly with its rural setting, and yet within easy walking distance of Athy town centre, similar sized rooms come in two categories, Classic and De Luxe. Entering our De Luxe room we were struck by the impressive décor, stylishly modern and yet homely. An ultra modern coffee and tea machine, offering top of the range coffee and organic teas, luxurious toiletries, bathroom robes and slippers all encourage a sense of relaxation and indulgence, complementing the wide range of Spa treatments the hotel has on offer.
On a two-night stay, we opted for the Bailey’s bar menu on our first night, not least to secure our seat for the evening’s popular entertainment provided on Wednesday nights during the summer by Barley Wine, a hugely accomplished Irish ballad and traditional music group. Before the night was over there was a right old sing song. Before that, however, we dined from one of the most extensive bar menus I have seen. My wife enjoyed a medley of Salmon and Seabass while I tucked into a delicious Steak sandwich on the recommendation of a regular guest at the hotel that I happened to exchange some pleasantries with earlier.
After a sumptuous breakfast offering a range of choices, including smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, my wife’s favourite, Day Two of our trip offered the chance to explore Ireland’s Ancient East and some of its many attractions. It is clear that cultural tourism is a big appeal. Helping us to make our choice was an attractive hotel brochure demonstrating what is available. Spoilt for choice with so many attractions, not least the medieval city of Kilkenny – which I regularly visit – just 45 minutes drive away, this time I opted to visit nearby Baltinglass, Co.Wicklow, because of my interest in the Baltinglass revolt in the sixteenth century. And we were rewarded with a tour of the medieval Baltinglass Abbey, founded in 1148 by Dermot MacMurrough, King of Leinster, the man who later invited the Normans to Ireland in 1169. On our way back, as my father came from the Quaker “model” village of Bessbrook, Co. Armagh, founded by the John Richardson, we dropped into the Quaker Museum in Ballitore. Once the location of the famous Shackleton school which included Edmund Burke, the “father of British Conservatism,” among its pupils, the exhibits at Ballitore included a beautiful wedding dress worn by Jane Marion Wakefield – when she married John Richardson from Bessbrook!
Back at the Clanard Court in time for Afternoon Tea, an occasion, and a popular one at that, in its own right, we sampled from a range of tasty treats, including wraps and bruschetta, scones and cakes followed by mini desserts, all washed down with a selection of teas. I have become partial to Ginger and Lemon tea ever since. Keen to keep meeting our target of 10,000 steps a day, we later walked into the centre of Athy, visiting the Heritage Centre with its famous permanent exhibition to the memory of local man, Ernest Shackleton. If you fancy a boat trip along the River Barrow, “Athy Boat Tours” are available.
Having barely scratched the surface of all the local attractions, offering an excuse for return visits, we journeyed home, but not without stopping at nearby Kildare Village, a shopping Mecca. I would recommend taking a slightly longer scenic route via Kilcullen, cutting across the famous Curragh of Kildare. If shopping is high on your must do list, Newbridge silverware is an additional attraction while the nearby town of Carlow contains a range of shopping experiences beyond the standard High Street stores.
During our two days at the Clanard Court hotel we got a sense of it being highly popular with locals and tourists alike. Unusually these days, it was staffed in the main by local people. Centrally located within reach of so many attractions for adults and children alike, not least the Irish National Stud and Japanese Gardens and Tayto Park, the Clanard Court offers visitors a much more cost effective option for exploring the area, compared to the much pricier options in Kilkenny. As a final word of advice, if you want to go to the Punchestown races, attend the nearby National Ploughing championships or sample the delight of Santa’s Magical Trail at the hotel at Christmas, then book your room early!