A visit to Ireland's Ashford Castle

John Ford's film 'The Quiet Man' paints an idealised picture of Ireland. All red-haired colleens and jaunting cars. Yet at Ashford Castle, near where the film was shot, you can glimpse this other world, says Sir Christopher Frayling
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The Independent Travel

At the beginning of John Ford's classic film The Quiet Man, the American Sean Thornton (John Wayne) steps on to the platform of Casteltown railway station and asks the assembled locals: "Could you tell me the way to Innisfree?" It soon becomes clear to him that the village of Innisfree is not to be found on any road map of the West of Ireland. The village belongs more to the poem about a lake isle by W B Yeats as filtered through the lyrical imagination of director John Ford: impossibly green, always sunny, a never-never land of jaunting cars, thatched cottages and red-haired colleens, which has very little contact with the modern world. It is in a time warp.

The Quiet Man could be taking place any time between the 1920s and the early 1950s when it was filmed. The original story on which the film was based, first published in 1933, was set during the Civil War that followed partition. In her autobiography 'Tis Herself, Maureen O'Hara - the other big star of the film - recalls "removing the politics from the story and focusing it on romance and comedy".

Although the village of Innisfree is not on any map, its image has dominated perceptions of the west of Ireland and its people - especially among Irish-Americans - ever since The Quiet Man was first released in summer 1952. At the National Museum of Country Life, near Castlebar, Co Mayo, which opened to the public a few years ago, visitors enter the various exhibitions about the hard grind of Irish rural existence from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries through an entrance gallery entitled "Romanticism and Reality". To get to the museum proper, you have to walk under a poster for The Quiet Man and a brightly coloured John Hinde postcard dating from 1960s - of a whitewashed cottage against a Mediterranean sky, with a mother greeting her two children who have arrived with donkeys and creels. "Well into the 20th century," says the caption, "postcards and posters have promoted an idealised image of peaceful and pleasant rural life".

The transition from fantasy to history is a clever idea, one which is also at the heart of Marie Jones's triumphantly successful play Stones in His Pockets - a two-man show about the making of a Hollywood epic called Quiet Valley at a small village in today's Co Kerry. One of the characters is "the last surviving extra from The Quiet Man", who entertains the film crew with stories about how John Wayne once called him by his first name half a century ago. The real-life tragedy of a local lad who takes the myth too seriously for his own good is not allowed to intrude for a moment on the hectic shooting schedule.

Quiet Valley seems like a belated sequel to The Quiet Man. Between the two came the film ET in which the alien famously decided to phone home; what gave him the idea was a celebrated scene from John Ford's film which happens to be showing on television - the scene where Sean Thornton returns to his wee humble ancestral cottage in the Galway countryside called White O'Morn.

Ford had originally intended to shoot the film in "the ancestral stamping ground of my people" around Spiddal in Connemara. But he eventually opted for the village of Cong in Co Mayo and the estate of nearby Ashford Castle on the north shore of Lough Corrib, which was the former home of brewer Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness but which, since 1939, had become a luxury hotel. When they arrived in June 1951, the Hollywood film crew brought to the neighbourhood - for the first time - electricity and a telephone service. Cong became the village of Innisfree, the Church of Ireland building on the Ashford Estate became its Catholic church - causing some comment at the time - and various old farm buildings and views near the castle became the picturesque Technicolor settings for the American boxer's return home and attempts to rebuild his life.

When first he saw the rushes, producer Herbert Yates asked: "Why do they always look so green?" Here was living proof that green grow the rushes-oh. It was a good question. While making the film, John Ford liked to bark his orders in Gaelic - a language which, again according to Maureen O'Hara's autobiography, he could not really speak - to extras who came from Cong and surrounding villages. The veteran Irish actors in the cast consoled themselves with the thought that they were really making a Western set in Ireland rather than a film that had much to do with the real place.

The Quiet Man opens on a shot of Ashford Castle, with Lough Corrib in the foreground. This was where Ford and his cronies stayed during the shoot. Arriving there today for a short visit is in some ways like stepping into the world that John Ford was striving to create, only this time round with five-star hospitality and elegance. The first thing I noticed, on the golf course in front of the hotel, was the sainted turf where John Wayne catches sight of Maureen O'Hara (as Mary Kate), while she herds the sheep. "Hey ... is that real?" he says in the film. "She couldn't be." Wayne stands under a massive beech tree, and lights a match on the sole of his shoe as he witnesses this apparition. It remains, as critic Philip French has said, one of the most poetic moments in the history of film.

The location was in 1951 in the deer park of Ashford; today, it is on the third fairway. Ducking golf balls one sunny morning, I recognised the spot at once. John Ford never liked to stray far from the nearest boozer - even when he was filming in Monument Valley on the Arizona-Utah border - and Ashford Castle itself is just over the next green.

The castle site goes back nearly 800 years, and its complex of buildings is now like a potted history of luxury architecture: part 18th-century French chateau, part- Scots baronial, part-Irish fortified country house with terraced gardens and follies and fountains constructed in Victorian times. Inside, the drawing room - where traditional afternoon tea with delicious cakes is served - overlooks the gardens and the green-tufted islands of Lough Corrib beyond. There's a lot of oak panelling, large wood-carved fireplaces and dressers, family crests and patterned carpets - Victorian Gothic, only with the light touch of the Arts and Crafts movement. Our palatial bedroom had a four-poster bed and heavy damask drapes plus a vast bathroom with brass fittings. Breakfast there - porridge with cream and soft brown sugar - was seriously good.

There are 82 bedrooms, including six suites, and - I was told - when Ronald Reagan came to stay in 1984 every single one of them was taken by fellow heads of state, advisers and bodyguards. That was in addition to the security people who put down netting over large swathes of the Lough to put off undesirable frogmen from the evil empire. Ashford Castle has for many years acted as a magnet for senior politicians and film stars. In fact, there's a whole room in the Castle devoted to photographs of them - from Princess Grace and Gene Autry to Sharon Stone, Russell Crowe and Pierce Brosnan, whose wedding and reception took place in the hotel. One such celebrity, who visited in 1905 - when Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness was still in charge - was the Prince of Wales, later King George V, in search of some top-notch shooting and fishing. He expected to be there for two days, but stayed a month. As a result the main dining room - nouvelle cuisine irlandaise - is still called the George V room, with the king's face on the menus, and the cocktail lounge, specially built for HRH's visit, is called the Prince of Wales Room. We chose instead the Connaught Room - just seven tables, an original part of the 18th-century chateau - in my case for chargrilled scallops, fillet of beef smoked over turf and an excellent Chateauneuf du Pape (from a list of 324 wines). The helpful wine waiter also knew a lot about the finer points of dry-stone walling, which was reassuring.

Meanwhile, downstairs in the Dungeon Bar, there was a lively singalong - Irish ballads, rebel anthems, songsheet provided - with resident harpist, pianist and singers. Midway through "The Fields of Athenry" an elderly man from Scottsdale, Arizona, who had taken one Guinness too many and who, as they say around these parts, had a great welcome for himself, asked me, at the top of his voice, "Why the hell do you Brits come over here - they don't like you do they?" At which point a musician on the stage reminded him of the house rule "a bit of hush for the singer and one singer one song please". Actually, his question was way off the mark. The atmosphere of the hotel is very friendly and attentive - aiming to be more like home on a vast scale than a hotel - and during dinner, a cook who resembled Mrs Cadogan in The Irish RM walked around all the tables asking how things were going.

But the man from Scottsdale was in one way right to be confused. I mean, British royalty upstairs, rebel songs down in the dungeon? And, all around, memories of The Quiet Man and the image of the West. You can even enjoy an excursion in the original horse-drawn jaunting car and trap used by Wayne and O'Hara in the grounds of Ashford Castle in summer 1951. As the high-volume American observed to me, during a lull in the singalong, "That movie is up there on St Paddy's Day with It's a Wonderful Life at Christmas and Yankee Doodle Dandy on the fourth of July." In other words, it's become more than a movie: it's become a ritual.

Without wishing to lower the tone, I let him know that in Britain The Quiet Man had been associated with an ex-leader of the Tory party who didn't say very much. We shook hands on the thought that for a long time people have visited the West of Ireland to get away from both the North and the South. Brits have been doing that at least since the days of the Celtic Twilight. There were many, many reasons for the Brits to "come over here". And Ashford Castle was definitely one of them.

To clear one's head the following morning, the vast grounds of Ashford Castle offer a very impressive range of activities: golfing, horseriding, tennis, fishing, scenic walks through different styles of garden, a cruise round Corrib - one of the largest lakes in Ireland - on one of the launches from the QE2 and even Ireland's first school of falconry. I was taught how to handle and fly a Harris hawk called Burren - in the terraced garden and wood of the castle - and the sense of achievement when the bird returned from the faraway trees to my gloved hand and a piece of chicken was one I'll remember for a very long time.

Or, for confirmed Quiet Maniacs, one can always drive to the other locations using Ashford as a base: the railway station at Ballyglunin (unchanged since 1951); the stone bridge over which John Wayne passes, in his jaunting car - a couple of hundred yards off the Galway-Clifden road; the strand at Lettergesh in northern Connemara where the horse race was filmed (when the tide was out, as I discovered). Or a walk into Cong and a visit to the Pat Cohan Bar (which was a corner grocery store until the sign was put up for the film).

On the way, there are the 12th-century ruins of Cong Abbey and the delightful fishing house where medieval monks used to catch their supper. Or, after a visit to the hotel's upmarket boutique at the top of the grand staircase, a shopping expedition to O'Maille's, next to the King's Head on Galway High Street where most of the traditional-style costumes for The Quiet Man were made - and where the fashion for Donegal tweeds and Aran sweaters was originally created: if you've always craved a thorn-proof tweed suit, this is the shop for you. There's a large photo on the wall of Wayne and Ford proudly wearing two choice examples.

But as John Wayne discovered, you'll search in vain for a village called Innisfree. The west of Ireland in The Quiet Man was a place of the imagination rather than of grid references. A visit to Ashford Castle provides a very stylish and luxurious glimpse into that other world, and much else besides, for a day or two. A piece of magic. As John Ford once had one of his characters say - and the old rogue should know - "print the legend".

Ashford Castle (00 353 94 954 6003; ashford.ie) offers double rooms from €417 (£286) per night, based on two sharing. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) offers return flights to Knock from £55. A week's car hire through Argus Car hire (00 353 1 490 6173; arguscarhire.com) costs from £87.

My best view

Persuade a boatman from Rossaveal in Connemara to take you to the Atlantic side of the Aran Islands - rather than the usual Galway side. Then, braving treacherous sounds, take a close look from the sea at big waves crashing against the almost unbroken cliff-face of the three islands. And marvel at the dramatically sited Iron-Age forts, and the webbing of dry-stone walls that still separate small-holdings, where most of the soil has had to come from somewhere else. The experience really blows your heart wide open.

My favourite restaurant

Moran's Oyster Cottage (00 353 91 796113; morans oystercottage.com), overlooking the weir of Kilcolgan River in Co Galway, used to be a cramped front-room bar where porter was dispersed from a ceramic jug. It is now a small seafood restaurant, still located within a vernacular Galway cottage and still owned by the same family. There is nothing in the world like sitting outside (rain permitting), watching the sun set over the river and bay beyond with half a dozen oysters and a pint of Guinness.

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