In early March 2020, right as the COVID pandemic was really starting to spread around the globe, I received news that I would be covering a historic castle in rural western Ireland that had been turned into a world-renowned luxury resort hotel. Being completely oblivious to the severity of the outbreak taking place, I was thrilled at having the chance to travel.
Europe had never really been on my bucket list. My entire life, I had always gone west. I was a pioneer, an adventurer, an explorer. From my hometown in Ohio, I first moved to Chicago, then Los Angeles, and eventually Australia and New Zealand. Before long, I was tackling Asia, and I loved it. Everyone looked different from me, I didn’t know the languages, the food was unique, and lush jungles bumped into towering metropolises. One time in Singapore, a giant six-foot monitor lizard crawled out of the sewer right in front of me. You just don’t get that in Ireland.
This isn’t to say I had anything against the continent, it’s just that Europe always seemed regimented and trapped in the past. But, I’m a traveler. I love the thrill of the chase. If there’s an assignment in Omaha, Nebraska, I’ll gladly go because Nebraska is someplace new to me, and that’s all I need to inspire another adventure.
My mother was thrilled when I told her I was headed to Ireland. She always said we were Irish, however, my mom says a lot of things. But then again, she was raised Catholic, so I suppose there was tangible evidence of Irish heritage. I promised her I’d take pictures, bring home a souvenir, and tell her all about it when I returned.
The first sign that my mom might be right about our heritage came during the flight over to Ireland. I was flying the nation’s flag carrier, Aer Lingus. On long flights, I love to wander the plane. I like to inspect the galley, see how the food is made, and ask the flight attendants questions like, “Have you ever had a moment where you thought the plane was going down?”
I was standing in the rear galley waiting for the bathrooms to open up when one of the stewardesses walked back. She reached into her purse and pulled out a water bottle, then asked, “So, did you have a good trip to America?”
“Oh…” I replied, “I’m American. I’m actually just starting my trip.” She looked surprised. “Really?” she said, “Well, you look Irish. You’ll blend right in!”
After landing in Shannon, I met with my group of fellow travelers and boarded a van to make the hour-long journey up to the famed Ashford Castle (www.ashfordcastle.com). The estate has quite the history. The original structure was built in 1228. From there, it was continually added to more and more. In the mid-1800s, the Guinness family bought the property and built even more additions to the now-sprawling castle. Throughout Ashford’s history, it was home to nobility and even hosted numerous members of the Royal Family.
As we arrived I truly couldn’t believe my eyes, and in all honesty I still can’t believe this place exists. It’s massive. It’s stately. It’s glamorous. I immediately began worrying about me. I am not stately, nor glamorous.
My biggest concern was the dinner that was scheduled for our final night. It was going to take place in the castle’s formal restaurant, the George V Dining Room (named so because George V used to vacation with the Guinness family at the castle.) The restaurant has a formal dress code that requires a suit and tie for men. I had never worn a suit and tie before. I literally had to go out and buy a suit, shirt, shoes, and a tie, just for this dinner alone. To say I was somewhat anxious would be and understatement.