by Padraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua
Up here it’s different!
Pat Gallagher of the late lamented Goats Don’t Shave wrote a cracking song called “Las Vegas in the Hills of Donegal”. The chorus goes like this:
And if I could I’d build a wall around old Donegal
The north and south to keep them out, my god I´d build it tall
Casinoes, chicken ranches, I’d legalize them all
We´d have our own Las Vegas in the hills of Donegal
Yeah!! Las Vegas in the hills of Donegal
It’s a fun, novelty song but in its crazy juxtapositioning of Vegas and Donegal – two more different places on earth you could not find – it provides an insight into the unusual mind set and twisted psyche of this unique place, the fourth largest county of the Republic of Ireland, surrounded, on one side, by Northern Ireland and, on the other, by the raging Atlantic.
A world of its own
Donegal is, and has always been, its own place, different, set apart, moving to its own melody and dancing to its own beat. Its history is populated by warriors and chieftains whose fighting spirit can be witnessed today in the ferocity of its football team and the unbridled passion of its supporters. There’s a beautiful wildness too about the landscape in Donegal, its jagged coastline lashed by the Atlantic, its remote hills skinned by icy gales. I love the cantilena of the Donegal accent, its whispering musicality and quirky turn of phrase and I love how connected it is to its traditions, particularly the Irish language.
Donegal has always been amongst my favourite places to visit in Ireland but, strangely, the place I have gone to least frequently. Relative distance is definitely a reason for this but so too is infrastructure – the county has tended to lack the standard of accommodation and supporting services demanded by our core market, discerning corporate groups. However, a visit there last week to the spectacular Lough Eske Castle Resort has significantly altered my perception as it genuinely provides organisers of corporate meetings and events with wonderful new options amongst the hills of Donegal.
Introducing Lough Eske Castle
The front elevation of the present structure dates from 1861 when Thomas Brooke built an Elizabethan style mansion close to where the powerful O’Donnell clan had resided from the mid 1500s. Thus pedigree, tradition and legacy are in great abundance around Lough Eske. Passing quickly through the hands of various owners, the Castle served as a hotel in the 1930s, was burnt to the ground in 1939 and eventually fell into abandoned disrepair before being rescued from certain oblivion by Donegal man, Pat Doherty, founder of Harcourt Developments. Doherty invested €40m over 2 years, restoring the original building to an elegant country manor and converting the former courtyard and garden buildings into luxurious guest rooms and a spectacular spa facility. He also added extensive meetings and banqueting facilities to the west of the period structures in a new wing sensitively integrated into the overall architectural profile. Doherty may not quite have built his own Las Vegas in the Hills of Donegal but Lough Eske Castle offers levels and depths of tradition, heritage and authenticity unknown in the Nevada city.
Solis Hotels and Resorts
Doherty signed Solis Hotels and Resorts to manage Lough Eske Castle. Founded by Horst Schulze, the man who, arguably, defined the quintessential luxury guest experience during his time at the helm of Ritz Carlton, Solis is a small but growing sub-brand of Capella Hotel Group (CHG) focused entirely on small luxury hotels. The Solis “promise” is worth quoting in full:
…Service that is always sophisticated but never formal, worldly but never pretentious, an expectation that is always delivered.
Singular destinations that promise local colour and a global palette, cosmopolitan comfort and inspiring cuisine, every destination an authentic world of its own, experiences that stay with you time after time.
Lough Eske delivers the Solis Promise
Lough Eske delivers 100% on the Solis promise due to an exceptional leadership team drawn together by General Manager, Jeroen Quint and featuring the charmingly garrulous MICE industry veteran Paul Shorthall as Sales and Marketing Director. Paul himself and Sinéad McGowan, Sales Manager at the property, walked me around the property last week. The 95 guest rooms are split between deluxe (65) and courtyard (14) rooms with an additional 16 suites of various sizes, two of which are located in the original period building. Guest rooms are large by Irish standards with over-sized bathrooms including both shower and bathtub and double vanity units. Floors combine wide hardwood boards with lightly patterned carpets creating a natural, airy feel. WiFi is free and power sockets are provided for UK, EU and US appliances.
The public areas comprise the ground floor of the original restored period building and a newly built facility hosting the main restaurant, Cedars, and 640sqm of event space including a beautifully proportioned ballroom which opens onto terraced landscaping with a capacity for 300 banquet style. There are two bars, The Gallery Bar and the Oak Room offering diverse settings, one high ceilinged and light filled, the other more cosy and intimate with stone floors and log fires. A striking feature of Lough Eske, continuous with the Solis promise to provide “local colour” and “an authentic world of its own”, is its amazing fine art, most pieces coming from the private collection of owner, Pat Doherty. Pride of place goes to Lucian Freud’s 2006 portrait of Pat Doherty himself simply called “Donegal Man” – it expresses magnificently that duality in the Donegal psyche of gentleness and steely resolve, casual informality and ruthless determination. There are also some wonderful Hughie O’Donoghue abstracts in the reception area and, outside, over 70 three dimensional pieces in bronze from Judith Holmes Drewry and Lloyd Le Blanc.
Eating at Lough Eske
The Sleeping Beauty and I also enjoyed some great food at Lough Eske. Studiously avoiding the often suffocating “fine dining” weariness of 5 star resorts, Cedars adopts the grill room concept and presents locally sourced produce with simple panache. We particularly delighted in a limited edition, line caught and locally smoked, salmon dish that our server suggested we try. Breakfast is also served at Cedars combining an extensive, self-service buffet with the chirpy, cheerful dynamic of a live egg and pancake station. Again, artisan produce features prominently on the buffet – Glenilen yogurt is a personal favourite!
Lough Eske Castle is a world of its own – like it says on the Solis promise – but it connects seamlessly into its hinterland of the lake itself, Lough Eske, the Ardnamona Nature Reserve and the surrounding uplands and hills. Donegal town is 5 minutes drive, there’s a world class surfing beach at Rossapenna, 10 minutes away and glorious golf on the links at Murvagh, also 10 minutes away. If Donegal has been somewhat lacking in infrastructure and services for MICE visitors in the past then the addition of Lough Eske Castle has radically changed this situation.
Padraic Gilligan and his business partner Patrick Delaney own SoolNua, a boutique marketing consultancy working with destinations and hotels on the strategy for the MICE sector.
The featured image of Lough Eske Castle (above) is credited to Tony Clayton Lea to whom I also attribute my recent delightful immersion in the songs of Peter Bruntnell – thanks Tony, on 2 accounts!