More to Kildare Than Stud Farms

Whip in hand Colin McAlpin mounts up and explores County Kildare... the heartland of Irish horse racing

NAAS, Punchestown, The Curragh, the Irish National Stud … and along almost every road and lane you’ll find a stud farm. So this must be County Kildare, just a half-hour drive from Dublin. But if all you know about horses is that they have a leg at each corner, do not despair for on offer there are intriguing and historic towns and villages to explore and there is also Kildare Village retail outlet awaiting to assault the credit card.

You will, of course, require the perfect place in which to relax from cheering on the winner of the 3.30 or finding that to-die-for handbag and that’s to be found in the lovely and historic Killashee Hotel and Spa, just a couple of miles out of Naas.

It’s a positive gem of elegance, quality service and charm set in acres of lovingly tended gardens, woodland walkways – promising, no less, fairies and delivering countless bouncing bunnies – a butterfly garden, tinkling fountains. And quite possibly a radiant bride for the Killashee is popular for romance and weddings.

And if you love a bit – or in this case a lot – of history the Killashee delivers. So we start the lesson with Saint Patrick who in the fifth century founded the local church while the area derives its name from Saint Auxillius, thought to be the nephew of Saint Patrick. He completed and governed the church until his death in 459. The ruins can still be seen.

Killashee has been the master building of multi-tasking for throughout the 17th and 18th centuries it was the home of the Belling and Graydon families and was designed as a grand country house by the noted architect Thomas Turner. It was, over the years, to become convent for the French order of La Sainte Union Sisters who ran it as a prestigious school and in 1961 locals were concerned that it was going to be turned into a women’s prison they bought it and continued it as a school until 1998 when it became the hotel of today.

Aside from the spa and locally popular health centre the hotel is renowned for its food and the relaxing surroundings of the Turner Restaurant, the lively Bistro – where we were looked after by the delightful Sorcha – and The Snug, offering all the warmth of a traditional Irish pub.

Killashee is a unique building offering countless crafted details of design and art and craft, of nooks and crannies to explore.

The gardens are a wonderland of walkways and a colourful explosion, all lovingly tended by Head Gardiner Tony who recently celebrated 30 years at Killashee. There is, too, a tranquil Nuns’ Cemetary at the peaceful far end of the gardens.

The always helpful staff could not have been more helpful in pointing out places of interest, one of which is the lively town of Naas. We called into Swans on the Green, a most amazing emporium of food, drink and hospitality – everything from, it seemed, everywhere in the world – at High Street for coffee and a mountain of delicious sarnies.

Out of the Killashee driveway take a left turn and along the road is the little town of Killcullen, with a special place in the history of world motor racing. The Gordon Bennett Cup was staged through the town in July, 1903 and marked the birth of the sport.

Going further back the town began as a monastic settlement in the fifth century, was long associated with the Kings of Leinster and was raided twice by the Vikings. The late media mogul Tony O’Reilly lived at Castlemartin. Killcullen is set on the Liffey and the town has a lovely riverside walk.

Exploring further afield you simply must throw yourself and your bank account on the mercy of the 100+ outlets at Kildare Village. It is a mecca for spending at shops boasting the word famous names beloved by we fashionistas: Armani, DKNY, Karen Millen, Ralph Lauren, Swarovski. The sort of outlet, even on discount, where if you have to ask the price you shouldn’t really be in the shop.

The interesting dilemma of such a place seems to be this: where’s the financial advantage if an item initially priced at £400 is reduced to £300? My travelling companion, Brenda, kindly rescued a Swarovski gold neckless from its glass case. And, not to be outdone, I bought a packet of seven blades in a nearby Tesco … I’m just a hopeless spendthrift!

Do restore yourself by visiting Kildare itself. It’s one of Ireland’s oldest towns, established in 480AD and full of history: Saint Brigid’s Monastic Site and Cathedral, the 108ft Round Tower, one or all of the three 13th century abbeys and the Heritage Centre.

But this is very much horse country and a visit to the Irish National Stud is absolutely essential. Horses are today a major Irish industry and the Stud, founded in 1900 by Colonel William Hall Walker, lies at the heart of it.

Walk around and you will see frolicking foals who might one day win you a fortune on the world’s tracks, or former champions now living in splendid retirement. Even if you are a strange creature to whom a horse means nothing you will, I guarantee, fall for the beauty and grace of the establishment’s residents. You will also be enchanted by the famous Japanese Gardens, laid down by the astrologically-minded Colonel Walker. Enter, then, at the Gate of Oblivion to the Cave of Birth, the Island of Joy and Wonder, the Well of Wisdom, the Bridge of Life and finally the Gateway to Eternity.

County Kildare and the grand Killashee Hotel/Spa should be on everyone’s must-see list … so stop horsing about and go!

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More to Kildare Than Stud Farms