The Hacker: Greens and fairways awash with history on Emerald Isle


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The Independent Online

One of the joys of playing this game, as I've said before, is the opportunity to enjoy the flora and fauna that can flourish in what quiet tracts of countryside. After all, at the plankton end of the golfing food chain there has got to be something to enjoy when things are perhaps not going quite as planned on the sporting front.

Many courses, aware of their responsibilities, now produce guides to the conservation and management of wildlife; that available for this year's Open at Royal St Georges's was as fascinating as the action on the mown stuff between the habitats. But as well as nature study, there are other subjects on the golfing timetable.

History, for instance. On some courses, there is as much past as present. Take Killeen Castle, site of the modern transatlantic battle that was last month's Solheim Cup. The golf course is only three years old; the house and lands have existed, in some form or another, for more than eight centuries.

That part of Ireland, Royal Co Meath, is rich in heritage, be it that of the prehistoric tombs at Newgrange, the hill of Tara that was the heartland of the ancient high kings, or the site of the battle of the Boyne. And although Ireland is justly famous for its wonderful links courses, those fashioned from the great estates created by the Anglo-Irish aristocracy that arose after Henry II began to take an active interest in the country that his Norman buddies had invaded during the 12th century.

Killeen, with its square turrets and fortifications, was built as part of the defences of Leinster and looks like a castle, now forming the most picturesque of backdrops to the 18th. More typical, perhaps, of the family seats that have, of necessity, survived by going down the commercial leisure route are the elegant Palladian mansions of the 18th century.

Places like Carton House. The first owners of the estate – today it stretches over 1,100 acres – near Maynooth were the FitzGeralds, their reward for siding with the Normans in the invasion of Dublin in 1170. The family acquired land and power, virtually ruling Ireland as Earls of Kildare by the end of the 15th century.

And though the recent development of Carton House as an hotel and two golf courses was criticised by Irish heritage groups, legacies can still be enjoyed by both those on the fairways.

Of the two, the newer Montgomerie course is an inland echo of links. The O'Meara course is classic rolling parkland, skirting the waters of the Rye, a tributary of the Liffey, at its lowest points and providing stunning views towards the Wicklow mountains at its highest, where the Tyrconnell Tower, medieval in origin but rebuilt as a famine relief project, is a reminder of grimmer times.

Infinitely more decadent are the connections with Queen Victoria, such as the Chinese Boudoir, where she used to sleep, and Shell Cottage, from which the royal personage once enjoyed private views of Rye Water Lake.

The cottage now overlooks the 15th green, approached over the river, and the short 16th, entirely over the lake. I was fortunate enough to play Carton House before watching how it all should be done at Killeen, and unfortunate enough to send balls serially into the water on both holes. And no, ma'am, I was not amused either.