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The magic of Ireland comes to life through its golf courses and castles

Jason Scott DeeganBy Jason Scott Deegan,
Senior Staff Writer
Killeen Castle Golf Club - hole 18
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The 18th hole at the Killeen Castle Golf Club, which hosted the 2011 Solheim Cup, sits in the shadow of Killeen Castle. (Jason Scott Deegan/TravelGolf)

The 2011 Solheim Cup introduced the dynamite Killeen Castle Golf Club to the world.

The Jack Nicklaus course in County Meath, just outside Dublin, proved to be an excellent tournament venue as the Europeans won in dramatic fashion. But let's be honest. The course wouldn't induce such awe without the majestic 12th-century Killeen Castle hovering over the final green.

Castles and courses mix magically on the Emerald Isle. It's believed that more than 500 castles in various stages of ruin and repair -- from stumps to luxury hotels -- dot the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

When the Normans invaded Ireland in 1169, they began building castles primarily as dwellings of military defense, symbolizing intimidation and power over the natives. Many of these stone fortresses were built on hillsides or near water as impenetrable strongholds. Castles went out of style in the 18th century as the advancements of weaponry made them susceptible to attack and as people sought to live peacefully in more comfortable homes.

Today, most castles are places for touring and relaxation instead of war. Teeing it up in the shadows of a historic castle tends to propel any game of golf to a whole new level of sensory overload, especially for Americans not used to such treasures.

Ireland offers dozens of courses with the word "castle" in their names. Only a few are legitimately "castle courses." There are also several gorgeous stone structures that look like castles to the untrained eye. Carton House in County Kildare and the Adare Manor Hotel & Golf Resort in County Limerick are home to photogenic courses and stunning centuries-old manor houses that are just as mesmerizing as castles. And yet they're still technically not the real thing.

Castle ruins on Ireland's links gems

Golfers encounter scenic castle ruins on several famous links.

Arnold Palmer designed the terrific Tralee Golf Club in County Kerry in 1984. Although the back nine is regarded as best nine-hole loop in the Republic, the signature hole remains the par-3 third, the "Castle Hole." Golfers can actually explore the castle turret that dates to the 1190s behind the third green, walking inside to see the staircase and "murdering hole," where boiling water and other dangerous devices were tossed down on intruders. More stone ruins lie across the inlet from the par-4 eighth hole.

Castle Dough provides the perfect line off the tee of the par-5 12th on the Old Course at Lahinch Golf Club. This lone remaining castle wall with five windows dates to 1306, standing next to the seventh hole of the Castle Course.

The 13th-century ruins of Dunluce Castle along the steep cliffs of County Antrim in Northern Ireland can be seen in the distance from the fifth and six holes of the Dunluce Course at Royal Portrush Golf Club, the only Irish club to host the British Open.

Castle golf resorts in Ireland

Many Irish castles have been restored into fabulous golf resorts.

Dromoland Castle in County Clare dates to the fifth century, although the main building that is now the five-star Dromoland Castle Hotel was completed in 1835 and opened to guests in the 1960s. Guests can reconnect to the past by listening to a harpist at dinner in the Earl of Thomond restaurant or by practicing falconry, one of the oldest forms of hunting, on the grounds of the estate. Ron Kirby, one of the original architects of the Dromoland Golf and Country Club, and Irish golf legend J.B. Carr completed a $5 million renovation in 2003 to spruce up one of the best Irish parkland playgrounds.

Dromoland's sister golf property -- part of an alliance called the Dromoland Collection -- is the Castlemartyr Luxury Hotel, Spa & Golf Resort in County Cork. A reported 90 million Euros were spent to renovate Castlemartyr's 17th-century manor house and build a separate hotel wing before opening in 2007. The resort centers around the ruins of a 13th-century castle originally owned by the Knights Templar, a Christian military order. These ruins can be seen from the 6,740-yard Castlemartyr Golf Club, a playable inland links designed by Kirby.

The Deer Park Hotel Golf & Spa, on the grounds of Howth Castle, and Luttrellstown Castle Resort both reside near Dublin. The first hole at the main Deer Park golf course, designed by Fred Hawtree, plays directly toward Howth Castle, a private residence built in the 15th century. Amazingly, it's been in the same family for more than 800 years.

The Luttrellstown Castle Resort sprawls across 560 acres in the Liffey Valley. A new owner recently refurbished the castle's 12 bedrooms to enhance their appeal for weddings, films and private corporate functions. Because the date of the castle's birth remains a mystery, its architectural influences are a complex, eclectic mix, including both Tudor and Gothic Revival. Soccer legend David Beckham and his wife, Victoria, exchanged vows there in 1999. The castle can be seen from the 11th and 16th holes of the nearby 7,347-yard Luttrellstown Castle Golf & Country Club, designed by Tom MacKenzie and Donald Steel.

The Waterford Castle Hotel & Golf Resort in County Waterford (home to the famous Waterford Crystal) offers a unique escape: A private island resort accessible only by a ferry crossing the River Suir. Irishman Des Smyth, a former Ryder Cup player and assistant captain for the victorious European team at the K Club in 2006, used 200 acres of the island's 320 acres to create the Waterford Castle golf course in 1992. The 500-year-old castle houses 19 luxurious bedrooms and the award-winning Munster Room Restaurant.

Ashford Castle in County Mayo sports just nine holes. Still, the five-star resort dating to 1228 remains a magnificent retreat for golfers. Some wild links -- notably Enniscrone Golf Club and Carne Golf Links -- are within reach.

Castle ruins rest near the Darren Clarke-designed Castle Dargan Golf Club at the Castle Dargan Golf Hotel and Wellness Resort in County Sligo. The 170-acre resort features an elegantly restored 18th-century house that debuted its Icon Spa, the Hall Door Restaurant and four-star rooms in 2006.

A haunted castle gives the Galgorm Castle Golf Club and the nearby Galgorm Resort & Spa some spooky charm. Galgorm Castle, built in 1618 in County Antrim in Northern Ireland, overlooks the 10th green of this picturesque 6,736-yard course.

Looking for more castle haunts? Golfers playing the K Club in County Kildare should consider dining inside the intimate Barberstown Castle, a 13th-century castle down the road once owned by guitar legend Eric Clapton. Only the brave ones should attempt to spend the night, though.

Unfortunately, not every Irish castle resort is thriving today. The plans to make Killeen Castle a luxury hotel have been on hold for years, and the Kilkea Castle Golf Resort in County Kildare is closed and currently for sale.

Ardglass Golf Club's haunted castle clubhouse

Members at Ardglass Golf Club in County Down in Northern Ireland call a castle-turned-clubhouse home. One remaining wall of Horn Castle directly behind the first tee dates to around 1377. Many regard this first shot among the best in golf, rising uphill over the rocky shores of the Irish Sea.

After the round on this photogenic cliff-top course, players should head to the upstairs bar in the clubhouse to enjoy the nuances of the castle. Ask members about the 13th-century shield unearthed during renovations or the spellbinding view from a hidden patio. Rumor has it the clubhouse might even be haunted.

"We've made the claim that it is the oldest clubhouse in the world," member Peter McEvoy said in 2010. "The R&A have been here, and they’ve not disputed it."

Ireland's lesser known castle courses

Some lesser-known courses -- Kirkistown Castle Golf Club and Scrabo Golf Club, both in County Down in Northern Ireland; Ballinlough Castle Golf Club and Delvin Castle Golf Club, both in County Westmeath; Bandon Golf Club in County Cork and Ballyheigue Castle Golf Club in County Kerry -- offer more castle views.

The nine-hole Ballyheigue Castle course opened in 1996 on mature woodland surrounding an 18th-century castle constructed in phases. Pat Ruddy, a legendary Irish architect, designed the Ballinlough Castle Golf Club in 1998, serving up views of the Ballinlough Castle from the first, ninth and 18th holes. The castle, built in 1614 with a significant extension around 1790, remains popular for weddings.

The Delvin Castle Golf Club was founded in 1993 on the grounds of Clonyn Castle, dating to 1639. The ruins of the original Delvin Castle, dating to 1180, remain nearby.

The impressive three-story tower at Kirkistown Castle, now open to the public, was constructed in 1622. The links is a relic by James Braid. Just 16 miles away, the Scrabo Tower, a landmark Scottish-style watchtower erected in 1857, overshadows the Scrabo Golf Club, a par 71 of 6,227 yards founded in 1907. It looks similar to the smaller stone folly, a castle-like tower, on the par-4 12th hole of the O'Meara Course at Carton House.

Set on the undulating slopes of the Bandon Valley, the Bandon Golf Club in County Cork meanders around the ruins of the stately old Castlebernard, built in 1798 and enlarged in the 19th century.

Some castle ruins remain unseen by golfers. Ruddy admits to unearthing castle ruins in the eighth fairway at Portsalon Golf Club in County Donegal during a redesign decades ago. Instead of worrying about an archeological dig, he covered up the big bump in the fairway and kept on working.

Ruddy's tale proves that courses with castles can be found just about anywhere in Ireland. They're just waiting to be unearthed by golfers seeking that next special round.

More photos

Dromoland Golf and Country Club - hole 18Tralee Golf Club - hole 3Ardglass Golf Club - hole 18Lahinch Golf Club - Old Course - hole 12

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed more than 700 courses and golf destinations for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Twitter at @WorldGolfer.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Killeen Castle

    Roddy Carr wrote on: Feb 23, 2012

    The Solheim Cup showdown at Killeen Castle was one of the great BATTLES AT THE CASTLE in it's 800 year history.


      • RE: Killeen Castle

        Leslie Eu wrote on: Apr 29, 2012

        According to the write-up, the hotel development has been put on hold for a number of years.
        Are there any immediate plans for development? Are the owners planning to sell, invite foreign investment or offer to join with foreign venture capitalist to develop this wonderful facility. If so can we initiate a dialogue?


  • Golf Courses and Castles

    Xavier Medas wrote on: Feb 22, 2012

    Good morning Jason,
    Thank you for your mention of Castle Dargan (Sligo)
    Please feel free to get in touch if you happen to visit the region for a game of golf.
    Kind regards,
    Xavier Medas