Years ago, while on a golf trip to Ireland, I arranged to meet my friend Paddy O’Looney for a game at Tralee on the west coast. Rain first forced us to delay teeing off and then to abandon golf and head for a restaurant in town for lunch. On the way, I saw a shop, ducked inside and came out 15 minutes later carrying a longcase clock. It is to my left as I write and has not struck a chime since the day I bought it. It hasn’t kept time either, but that does not lessen its importance in my life. It is my link to Ireland, and every time I glance at it a smile spreads over my face.
A more recent trip to Ireland was also for golf, to three of the Emerald Isle’s lesser courses. Everyone knows about a pair of “royal” courses in Northern Ireland – Portrush and County Down – and Ballybunion and Portmarnock in the republic, as well as Adare Manor, where the Ryder Cup will be played in four years, and the K Club, which staged the 2006 Ryder Cup.
But Glasson Lakehouse, Portumna and Esker Hills golf clubs? Who has heard of them? But that was the point of the trip. It was to see some of Ireland’s hidden gems, which, while obviously less well known than their famous siblings, are less expensive, good fun and worth playing. Our base was the Glasson Lakehouse Hotel in Athlone, which is as near as you can get to the middle of the island of Ireland – roughly 80 miles from Ireland’s east and west coasts – and with its large and well-equipped rooms (baths and showers), gym and good food would be a commodious hub for a golf trip.
The hotel’s golf course was designed by Christy O’Connor Jr, an Irish golf hero. The outward nine is on the land above the hotel; the inward nine winds its way down to the shores of Lough Ree. Good as the outward half was, the inward half was better. The par-4 14th required a climb to a ski-jump tee and a hefty drive to get past some trees in order to be able to see the green, which sits at 45 degrees to the fairway. There is something very satisfactory about teeing off perhaps 50 or 60 feet above the fairway. And it may not be coincidental that all of us in our group hit good tee shots.
The par-3 17th, a beauty at 185 yards from the back tee, played across an inlet strewn with reeds. From the tee, the green looked small and intimidating. When you got to the green, you realised it was small and intimidating.
It had been an early start from London’s Heathrow Airport that morning, and by the time we had finished our rounds I was tired.
I made my way slowly to my room, and as I lowered myself gingerly into my bath I was reminded of a skiing holiday I had once spent in France when, as dusk fell outside and my face burned with the effects of the sunshine, I faced a tricky decision: balance my glass of champagne on the left side of the bath or the right?
The next day we travelled about an hour south to Portumna Golf Club in County Galway, a graceful parkland course where deer would sometimes stand in the middle of the fairway or emerge from woods and scoot across a fairway. An old lime kiln was a prominent landmark near the seventh. Back in the clubhouse, we came across a group of men from Porthmadog Golf Club across the Irish Sea who, like us, were on a golf tour of this part of Ireland.
Before they left, they sang the stirring Welsh song “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau” which, for the few of you who can’t speak Welsh, means Old Land of My Fathers and is sung at all important Welsh occasions. Hearing this sung by a group of men who could have doubled up as a male voice choir was far better than most of the golf strokes that had been hit hours earlier.
For the three days of our visit we travelled to and from our golf courses in a van. Our driver was a broth of a man who had both a smile on his face as well as a pair of glasses that often looked as though they were about to fall off his nose. He was a good storyteller and a safe driver, and for three days he kept track of our golf clubs and our luggage without missing a beat. His name was Seamus O’Brien. Of course it was. This was Ireland, after all.
Given that this trip was to some of Ireland’s hidden golf courses, it seems appropriate to point out that on our way to Portumna we visited Birr Castle in County Offaly, the home of the Earl and Countess of Rosse. For 400 years, the Parsons family had lived in this impressive castle, and their name in the annals of science, engineering, astronomy, botany and photography ought to be as well known as that of the Morrises in golf. It isn’t however. This seemed of a piece. On a golf trip to discover some hidden gems of golf courses, we had hit upon a hidden gem of a discovery.
In the early years of the 19th century, members of the Parsons family built a wire-cable suspension bridge, and the one at Birr Castle is one of the earliest still surviving in Europe. The family also built a turbine house that provided electricity for the castle and eventually 500 houses in the town, and a lunar heat machine that measured the temperature of the moon. The temperatures recorded on the moon in the late 19th century were later confirmed as accurate when American Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon, in 1969.
Perhaps Birr Castle’s most striking exhibit is the Great Telescope that the inventive 3rd Earl Rosse designed and had built in the castle’s workshops in the 1840s. For years, it was the biggest in the world, with an aperture of 72 inches, and is supported by two 15-meter-high (about 49 feet) walls containing gothic arches designed by the 3rd Countess of Rosse. There is now a radio telescope at Birr Castle that is part of the largest network of low-frequency radios telescopes in the world, one that stretches from the west of Ireland nearly 2000 kilometres (about 1,240 miles) to Poland to the east.
“Gosh,” we said as we walked around the 100 acres of grounds of Birr Castle and inspected the telescope and some of the other inventions. “We didn’t know about this place.” But as visitors, there is no reason why we should have. “Gosh,” Seamus said. “I never knew about this place.”
And so, on our third and final day to Esker Hills, near Tullamore in County Offaly, which was the greatest surprise of all, the greatest hidden gem. It’s the home club of Shane Lowry, the 2019 Open champion, where he grew up and learned the game and, in case you didn’t know, there are signs announcing this and photographs of him everywhere. I can best describe the holes as sporty, resembling holes in the Alps, testing but really good fun.
The views are breathtaking. The Slieve Bloom Mountains were clear in the distance. Clara Bog, a nature reserve adjoined the course, and near to the second hole was Croghan Hill, an extinct volcano. Look to the southwest of County Offaly and you might see Moneygall, a speck of a village where Barack Obama’s great-great-great maternal grandfather lived in the mid-19th century, a village the Obamas famously visited in 2011.
In his novel “Trinity,” published in 1976, Leon Uris wrote, “For you see, in Ireland there is no future only the past happening over and over.”
There might have been no future then, nearly 50 years ago, the “Troubles” in the north having just begun and national morale was low. But there is a future now, one that includes golf. The Ryder Cup will be held at Adare Manor in County Limerick, 43 kilometres (about 27 miles) from Shannon Airport. Go, and don’t forget to stop off at Glasson Lakehouse or Portumna or Esker Hills. Oh, yes, and use Seamus as your driver. He won’t disappoint.
Top: No. 4 at Esker Hills
PHOTOS COURTESY THE AZALEA GROUP