On Emerald Trails

A horseback-riding adventure from Kinnitty Castle is full of Irish charm.


Cover Story

March 14, 2004|By Cooky McClung | Cooky McClung,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

We emerged from the thickly forested crest of Slieve Bloom Mountain to emerald sweeps of pastureland unfolding down the hills, edging crystal streams and serpentine trails in one of those pastel Irish panoramas that stun the senses.

Bewitched as I was by this lush vista, clearly it was "same-old, same-old" for my traveling partner, who stood patiently snoozing in the sun while I etched the moment into memory.

A chestnut horse blessed with the build of Arnold Schwarzenegger and the disposition of Mother Teresa, Fifer was my companion and transportation throughout an exploration of County Offaly that offered sightseeing on the hoof -- and in the process uncovered a treasure trove of Gaelic nooks and crannies unseen by tour bus or car.

An active rider in years past, I was intrigued by a brochure that arrived last summer from Cross Country International, a company in Millbrook, N.Y., that offers equestrian trips around the world. Although nine grandchildren and three knee surgeries had passed since I'd last settled in a saddle, the trips sounded enormously appealing.

All Cross Country International staff are seasoned riders who personally evaluate each program. A call to the firm's reservation department assured me that even a rider who'd collected as much rust as I had would be provided with a horse to carry me safely through the countryside.

As a Marylander, history buff and granddaughter of Irish immigrants, I had no problem deciding where to go riding, and in less than a heartbeat I chose a package of five rides based from the legendary Kinnitty Castle in the spectacular midlands of southern Ireland.

With a history that stretches back to the 1200s, the castle has been destroyed and rebuilt over the centuries. In the 17th century, Kinnitty was one of three fortresses belonging to the O'Carroll clan, ancestors of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, signer of the Declaration of Independence. The castle had been rebuilt in 1630 by one William O'Carroll. More than a decade ago, the current owner, Con Ryan, renovated the massive palace into a "four-star castle."

From the moment my Aer Lingus flight touched down in Shannon, Ireland, on a bright September morning, cead mile failte (a hundred thousand welcomes) sprang to life. The customs agent greeted each sleep-deprived arrival offering up a passport with, "Sure, it's a glorious morning and don't you have a lovely smile!"

The final vestiges of my jet lag evaporated when I met Kinnitty Castle driver Seamus O'Reilly, who insisted we stop for a bacon and egg sandwich -- his treat -- before the two-hour ride to the castle.

The self-proclaimed "greatest gossip in all of Ireland," O'Reilly kept me in stitches as we headed along the picturesque roadway skirting rolling farmland and postcard-perfect villages. At one point, O'Reilly pointed out a 1,000-year-old cathedral, still used by the Church of Ireland for services and orchestra concerts.

I switched centuries the moment I stepped across the medieval threshold at Kinnitty and was welcomed into the fortress like a long-lost relative.

The castle incorporates modern luxuries without sacrificing historical or architectural importance. After walking up the grand staircase, past suits of armor, I entered a buttery-yellow suite complete with all the creature comforts, from a working fireplace and tasseled four-poster bed to a claw-foot tub in the bathroom that was so big you could do the backstroke in it.

Beyond the delicious sound of wind whistling through the turrets, tranquillity reigned, and for the next six nights I would revel in palatial luxury.

I was more eager to take a ride than a nap, and quickly changed into boots, britches and a heavy sweater. The daily Irish weather forecast unfailingly calls for "rain and shine," and visitors should prepare for both, though showers usually skid rapidly across the landscape rather than settle in for a long soak.

Rule No. 1 when riding in Ireland: Never tell the Irish what an accomplished equestrian you are, just in case they believe you. Horses are to the Irish what the ballet is to the Russians, and many youngsters learn to ride before they can walk, making the Irish among the most accomplished horse folk in the world.

Fortunately, Kinnitty riding guides Suzanne Murray and Sharon Coleman have the good sense to insist that guests "take a wee lesson" in the sand ring adjoining the castle's stables before heading into the countryside.

"We've found it's a good idea for people to take a few turns around the arena before we go out on the trails," Murray said diplomatically. "That way we won't have any surprises when we get into the forest -- and neither will they."

There was a wide choice of cross-bred Irish draft horses, thoroughbreds and "Cobs," (sturdy, small Irish horses) in the stable, and Murray and Coleman are expert at matching experience and temperament of horse to rider.

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