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Lord of the Lough (for a day or two)

The closest I have ever come in my life to feeling like a monarch must have been waking up in a four-poster bed at Ashford Castle, my consort beside me, and opening the curtains of our high-ceilinged state room to see the sun glittering on Lough Corrib, the largest lake in the Irish Republic.

The closest I have ever come in my life to feeling like a monarch must have been waking up in a four-poster bed at Ashford Castle, my consort beside me, and opening the curtains of our high-ceilinged state room to see the sun glittering on Lough Corrib, the largest lake in the Irish Republic.

Like me, George V - then Prince of Wales - came here for two days, but he enjoyed the shooting so much that he stayed a month. Ashford displays pages of the game book from his 1905 visit, recording his slaughter of the local avian life, as well as anxious letters about his security arrangements, signed by one Neville Chamberlain.

Then the castle was a place of leisure for the Guinness clan. Since the Second World War it has been a hotel, and to linger as long as George did would require a lottery windfall or the revenues of the Duchy of Cornwall. But the baronial atmosphere survives at both Ashford and its sister establishment, Dromoland Castle, near the mouth of the Shannon, where the ancient O'Brien family clung on until the 1960s before surrendering ownership.

The Irish Republic came into being while George was on the throne, and is now enjoying a hi-tech boom - the town of Ennis, near Dromoland, boasts that it has more computers than people - but within the walls of these castles it is still Edwardian summer. Both have their origins much further back, in a time when Ireland had its own kings, but their present appearance dates from vigorous expansion and redecoration in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It is as if the characters of The Shooting Party will appear at any moment, and certain standards are still expected: gentlemen must wear jacket and tie at dinner, though no one reproved the Americans who had forgotten, or ignored, this requirement.

The air of being guests in a stately home is enhanced by limited numbers - Dromoland can take 100 guests, Ashford 83 - and by the fact that the dining rooms are reserved for them. As you sweep past the "residents only" signs at the entrances to both hotels, it is rather like being allowed into the private areas of a National Trust property. If this had been the Home Counties, it might all have seemed unbearably stuffy, but the atmosphere was softened by the natural informality of the Irish staff.

Mention of Irish country houses conjures up pictures of genteel decay à la Mollie Keane, but not here. The plumbing has to satisfy the expectations of a large American clientele, which regards limitless hot water at high pressure as a constitutional right. There is nothing rustic either about the food, in particular at Dromoland, where David McCann is flavouring the local lobster, oysters and lamb with such un-Irish ingredients as polenta, Pak-Choi and pimentoes. (He is aided in his efforts by a French sommelier, who can discuss the encyclopaedic wine list with passion as well as knowledge.)

We stayed first at Dromoland, which is only eight miles from Shannon airport, though no aircraft noise intrudes. Nor does the roar of the heavy traffic racing past the gates on the main road from Limerick to Galway - the castle lies within grounds extensive enough to contain its own lake and an 18-hole golf course. But, sadly, the soundproofing does not extend to the ancestral pile's creaky flooring. As we shook all night to the scurry of staff and the tramp of a large American corporate group and their spouses, all of whom seemed determined to get out on the first tee by 7am, we began to think our room should have been renumbered from 201 to 101.

Still, we had another night of David McCann's cooking, accompanied by a harpist, to look forward to, and something had to be done to work off the previous night's excesses. From a range of activities including tennis, golf, fishing and clay-pigeon shooting (Ashford even offers falconry) we settled for cycling around the grounds, though we could have seen them from horseback as well.

Even with a full-sized golf course, there is enough room at Dromoland for extensive landscaped woods, which the management is gradually restoring and replanting. After two hours of pedalling without straying outside the estate, we felt we had done sufficient penance to switch to exploring the neighbouring countryside by car. This corner of Ireland is littered with ruined castle keeps and monasteries which anywhere else would each be major tourist attractions in their own right: we headed for King John's Castle in Limerick and the neighbouring 12th-century cathedral of St Mary the Virgin, which has 500-year-old misericords carved from bog-oak. There was barely time, though, to look at the villages along the Shannon or the extensive 15th century remains of Quin Friary near the hotel - our dining table awaited.

On the way to Ashford the next day, we stopped at the tiny hamlet of Bellharbour (BealaClugga on the Gaelic road signs) on County Clare's rocky north coast. Here, Maria Kerin has bravely opened the Mrua gallery, uncompromisingly dedicated to the most modern of art, in her grandmother's former home. To be on the safe side, she does teas as well, but her venture did not seem entirely quixotic, since three abstracts had stickers denoting a sale.

After that, we hastened up the less attractive eastern side of Lough Corrib to Ashford. While Dromoland has the edge among gourmets and golfers (its sister hotel contents itself with a nine-hole course), Ashford's setting is supreme. It occupies a narrow neck of land between Lough Corrib and Lough Mask, which is 36ft higher, even though it is only four miles away. The Cong River, which connects the two, encircles the hotel as it flows into the lower lake.

And while the 19th-century rebuilders almost erased the old Dromoland, Ashford incorporates the earlier house, built in the style of a French chateau, and elements of the 13th century castle of the De Burgos family, invading Normans who knew a good location when they saw it. George's host, Lord Ardilaun, had grand plans for architectural unity, but died before they could be carried out. Instead, the west of Ireland's climate is moulding old and new stone into a harmonious whole.

Again, it seemed appropriate to take to bicycles to examine our surroundings - the terraced gardens, with some of the more exotic of the three million trees planted by Lord Ardilaun, his 26 miles of avenues and walkways, the obelisk overlooking Lough Corrib erected in his memory by his widow, and the village of Cong outside the gates, where there is a ruined 12th-century abbey and an ingenious stone fishing house erected over the river by the monks. A net was lowered through the floor, and a bell rang in the kitchen when a fish was caught.

In the afternoon we took a cruise on the lake to the island of Inchagoill, to see the remains of a far older monastery where St Patrick's nephew is buried. His gravestone bears the oldest Christian inscription in Europe outside the Catacombs in Rome. More potent in luring transatlantic tourists to this area, however, is the fact that this is the setting of The Quiet Man. An Oscar-winning drama starring John Wayne as the most unlikely Irish peasant in cinematic history, it still brings thousands of Americans to Cong, where it was filmed half a century ago. Wayne and his co-star, Maureen O'Hara, did not live in a thatched croft during the shooting, of course. They stayed at Ashford, which still runs the movie every day on its video channel.

With only two days at our disposal, we lazily remained within the luxurious cocoon of Ashford and Cong, merely skimming the edge of Connemara, one of western Europe's last great wildernesses, on our way back to Shannon.

Thanks to proliferating air connections, all this is now no further away from London than the Highlands of Scotland - yet year in, year out, the number of British guests at Ashford and Dromoland has never risen above 10 per cent of the total. It is hard to fathom why: the rise of the Celtic Tiger economy means that more locals are now to be seen in these halls of the former Ascendancy.

But then over the past few years the British have not been doing too badly either. One might expect more of them to come and find out what persuaded George to stay so long.