Go Golfing: South East Ireland
It’s July but outside the rain is falling. The humidity of the day has broken and now people are hurrying through the door, sheltering under their jackets.
It’s after midnight and inside Matt the Millers Bar and Restaurant, The Kilkennys are playing a gig in their hometown. After a decade of touring, the quartet know how to work a crowd, and the pub is filled with an intense vibe as a stunning Irish balladeer gets you out of your seat, then the thumping of the bodhran starts feet a-stamping.
An Irish girl, talking outside the pub later I discovered she was called Aine, grabs my hand and we join the dance at the centre of a crowd, which rises and falls as one. Condensation drips down the window, the walls shake with energy, and I find unlooked-for a true Irish spirit which I thought had faded into memory.
Here, in the country’s lesser visited south-eastern regions of Kilkenny, Waterford and Wexford, is the Ireland that the Irish know and love. To take a tour of the country, hire a car, or larger parties can hire an executive coach, such as that of our driver, Ciaran, who offers personalised tours of the country through his family company, Ganter Chauffeur Drive.
Our first stop on the journey had been Mount Wolseley, the home of the Wolseley family from 1725 until 1925, when it became the headquarters of the Patrician Order. Today the country house is a large 40-bedroom hotel that brings instantly to mind a wedding venue.
It hosts a large number each year, and at the conclusion of a stunning round of golf, our tee shots on the 18th are skewed into the left-hand rough so as to avoid the newly married couple posing for pictures beside the water hazard on the inside of the dogleg.
I’m assured that Ireland has more golfers per capita than anywhere in the world, but walking through Kilkenny, it is Gaelic sports which are most evident. Yellow and black banners hang from many buildings, signifying allegiance to the county’s hurling team. Despite maintaining amateur status, the players of this and Gaelic football are local heroes, adored by their fans.
On a street corner, with a flick of their wrist, two teenagers pass a sliotar between each other, rarely dropping it to the floor. Dame Alice le Kyteler was born in Kilkenny in 1263 and her inn still serves some of the highest-quality Irish dishes available in the city.
After making her way through four husbands and acquiring a considerable fortune, she was forced to flee to England to escape being burned as a witch.
There’s a statue of Alice at the entrance to the pub, and owner Nicky Flynn believes her spirit still resides within its 740-year-old walls. “You have to be nice to her,” he says. Our night in Kilkenny ends in a bar, where a man plays a single guitar. He trots out the usual Dubliners inspired anthems.
But at the conclusion of his set, his obligations fulfilled, he unleashes an incredibly haunting rendition of Ennio Morricone’s The Mission, finishes with a rousing verse of the Irish national anthem, The Soldier’s Song, and calls it a night.
No pub musician has any right to be so surprising and haunting. It stops us in our tracks and makes us take notice. And such it is with Ireland’s east coast, patiently awaiting its opportunity to showcase itself to the world. Passing through Waterford, famous for its crystal, there’s evidence of economic resurgence.
Grievously wounded by the recession, Waterford’s harbour front is enjoying a renaissance, although the old Jury’s Inn hotel, now derelict, sits atop the adjacent hill and acts as a reminder. There are 4,000 castles in Ireland, a relic of the ancient conflict and attempts by the English to quell these unruly neighbours.
The privately run ferry takes you across a fast-flowing river to an island where one of these, Waterford Castle, sits beside The Island golf resort. The resort was formerly a farm, but with a £2m investment in recent years, there’s a tangible feeling of good times ahead.
Forty deer, a badger sett and two foxes that sneaked across on the ferry populate the island, which measures 380 acres and sits within a meander of the River Suir and its King’s Channel. The water doesn’t come into play as much as you would expect, with the holes running through mature woodland and parkland. Returning north towards Kilkenny, our bed for the night is at Mount Juliet.
I’m going to put my cards on the table – if you’re thinking of somewhere to spend your honeymoon, check out Mount Juliet. It’s made for it. There are just 31 rooms in the five-star manor house, so you’re guaranteed solitude if you want it, while activities include horse riding, archery and falconry, enough to keep you entertained until the evening when meals at Kendals Restaurant are incredibly well priced – the early bird menu starts at €28 for three courses.
The French brasserie’s monkfish medallions, followed by trout from Goatsbridge, just a mile down the road, and finished by a board of Irish cheese, makes for a sumptuous meal.
A former host of the Irish Open, the course is an expansive design by Jack Nicklaus, his only Irish course, and is, quite simply, massive. Each hole sprawls out, yet in typical style Nicklaus has gone easy on the putting surface so your chances of rolling one in from 20 feet are decent.
The 3rd is a highlight, shooting across a lake and natural stream to a well guarded green, but there’s not a hole on the entire course that doesn’t feel like an event in its own right.
At over 7,200 yards it’s a long round, occasionally blighted by the heavy rain showers which keep the country lush and green. My card blotted with a horrific final hole, I loosen off my legs with a stroll through the early evening, down to the riverside where a fisherman has waded into the stream. I cross the bridge to fields where cows and horses graze.
I take a moment to enjoy the stillness of the air and note how it is in stark contrast to the heady scenes in the pub the night before. Taking a deep breath and turning back towards the manor house, the journey home begins.