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Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Ashford Castle, the Abbey and Cong: An 800 year relationship of blood, sweat, tears and kisses

                                                            A view of Cong

William De Burke was a Norman invader who was born in 1160 and became the founder of the Burke/Burghos dynasty in Ireland and the conquerer of the Kingdom of Connacht without actually ruling there. Cathal O’ Connor, younger brother of Rory and the 2nd last High King of Ireland, kept him busy fighting to keep it that way, which saw De Burke’s title watered down later to Lord Of Connacht. At best, De Burke had a foothold in the West rather than a dynasty and managed at least to build a few fortresses about the place, and one of these was a fortress built in 1228 at what is now known as Ashford Castle today, right beside the village of Cong and its famous Abbey. These three places have been an appendage to each other throughout written history of what is known to us, then and now, and continues to be a positive and mutual dependancy of interrelated needs and wants of a benign commercial nature today, leaving out the blood and sweat of yesterday.

Cong Abbey was built in 623, by, you guessed it, Conobite Monks. Cong village grew up naturally around the Abbey afterwards and both fed off each other and the Lough Corrib and Lough Mask that coiled through them. The Abbey burned down in 1114 but the O’ Connor clan threw their weight and money about to rebuild it again over the next two decades. Unfortunately it was destroyed again and likewise the O’ Connor’s rebuilt it once more. In fact, the elder brother, Rory, lived the last 15 years of his life in the Abbey and was buried there in 1198.

                                                           Ashford Castle

The pesky De Burke was not too far away though and attacked the Abbey in 1203 and again it was rebuilt. In the winter between the end of 1205 and the beginning of 1206 William did the only decent thing in his life: he died at the age of forty five years old, and it may be agreed that at the very least it was a painful death as chronicled in this piece just after his demise: “William De Burke plundered Connacht, as well as churches and territories; but God and the saints took vengeance on him for that for he died of a singular disease, too shameful to be described.”  

Of course there was still the matter of the De Burke/Burghes clan descendants who still had that Ashford fortress that was built on the borders of the Abbey and that had cast a silhouette over it’s grounds and a greater shadow over the West of Ireland for almost the next 360 years. The bloody honeymoon was finally about to be over for the De Burke’s and a bloodier one was about to begin in the form of the British forces in 1589, not to liberate, but just enough to make a changing of the guard an English one. 

Cong Abbey

Over time, Ashford became a Castle rather than a fortress and passed through different private ownerships through the succeeding generations because of a pen rather than a sword until Benjamin Guinness purchased it in 1852 along with 26,000 acres. Ben also turned his hand to restoring Cong Abbey yet again and did. Finally in 1939, Ashford Castle was gifted back to the Irish Government from a grandson of Ben. 

Today, Ashford Castle is one of the finest hotels in the world and run by one of the best hotel dynasties in the world: the Tollman family. The only tears shed here these days are for the loss of a daughter to marriage and kisses for the son that they have gained at the many weddings ceremonies played out at the Castle every month and at it's cousin hotel, The Lodge, done the road on the same grounds. The Tollman's reign may very well last even longer than the De Burghos and their relationship with Cong and the Abbey is sure to flourish with it. 

'The scenery around Cong never alters with the passing of time unlike man who ages with the years.'  Oscar Wilde in 1878

Barry Clifford