Dad’s Diary

A happy hiatus in a castle in the midlands

We were somewhere deep in the midlands, lost on a dark January night. Suddenly, we glimpsed it through the trees, the dark and austere silhouette of a castle, with several windows warmly lit. I pulled the car in by a pair of unassuming gateposts bearing the name, ‘Clomantagh Castle’. This was to be our home for the next few nights.

Dublin seemed far behind us, as I slid open the bolt in the night air and pushed back the creaky metal gate. We drove slowly up the driveway towards the tall keep, built in 1420. As a boy, I had always loved castles and something of the same childhood thrill rose in me as I knocked on the old door, to hear the sound reverberate within.

The Fitzgerald family were convening for a weekend at the castle to celebrate my mother’s birthday. We were the last to arrive and soon we were ushered in to explore the surprisingly cosy and warm rooms, where a fire burned and whitewashed walls were brightly lit.

Despite having slept for the journey, the kids were now bright as buttons, scampering about in their pyjamas hugging grandparents, uncles and cousins. Soon, they were drawn by the allure of the stone steps of the spiral staircase and were off, discovering routes through the castle and the adjoining 19th Century farmhouse. The farmhouse had intact the shutters, doors and floorboards of the era, and that tangible sense of generations past. However, the atmosphere in this house was more ancient still – and no wonder, as it was built where the banqueting hall of the castle once stood. Naturally, there were rumours of ghosts.

I had to admire the Landmark Trust, the charity which owns the castle, and its efforts to preserve such historic structures with a brilliantly simple funding model: rent out wonderful old buildings as holiday lets and use the income to fund their preservation.

As we sat and chatted by the fire, and the children slowly began to settle, we were a world away from our ordinary lives and – because this was no hotel – it was also something of an adventure, into these unexplored regions of Ireland near Urlingford. It was a treat to stay a while in those subtle landscapes we had so often passed through hurriedly on the road from Dublin to Cork, and to find them so rich with history and heritage. Indeed, the castle had Fitzgerald connections – it may even have been that some distant ancestor dwelt there once.

Another great benefit of a weekend in a castle is that those eight foot think walls, built to withstand cannon-fire, also withstand our modern torments: the constant barrage of news, texts, tweets and emails that entice and then harass our minds and our souls. We settled into an easy peace.

The next night we had our own little banquet as we gathered around to celebrate the birthday of our much loved mother, nana, mother-in-law and wife, respectively. The kids were delighted as presents were given – a brief reprise of Christmas, except this time they could be the givers. I was reminded why birthdays are so great: they allow us give those close to us some small glimpse of how much we love them – and have fun at the same time!

The last day brought yet another encounter with history, as it was the 70th anniversary of a little-known footnote of the Second World War – a day in 1944 when an American B-17 bomber crashed in the fields outside Johnstown. The village was filled with historic military paraphernalia and people dressed in World War II uniforms. And so it was that from that vaguely surreal scene that we dispersed back to our ordinary lives after a happy hiatus in a castle in the midlands.