The castle was built in 1228 by the Anglo-Norman de Burgo family following their defeat of the O'Connors, the Royal House of Connacht, who are still extant in the person of the O Connor Donn. The de Burgos would build several such castles throughout the province, including one on the mouth of the River Corrib around which was to grow the City of Galway, but Ashford would remain their principal stronghold in the vastness of a wild and untamed province. The principal legacy of the native O'Connors is to be seen at the gates of the estate in the form of the magnificent Romanesque Augustinian Abbey of Cong. It is in this abbey that Ireland's last High King Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair died and from which came the greatest relic of his Court, the Cross of Cong, created to hold a piece of the True Cross and now in the National Museum of Ireland.
After more than three and a half centuries under the de Burgos, whose surname became Burke or Bourke, Ashford passed into the hands of a new master, following a fierce battle between the forces of the de Burgo's and those of the English official Sir Richard Bingham, Lord President of Connaught, when a truce was agreed. In 1589, the castle fell to Bingham, who added a fortified enclave within its precincts. In 1715, the estate of Ashford was established by the Browne Family (Baron Oranmore), and a lodge in the style of a 17th-century French chateau was added to the medieval splendour of the castle.
The Estate was purchased in 1852 by Sir Benjamin Guinness, who extended the estate to 26,000 acres (110 km2), built new roads, planted thousands of trees and added two large Victorian style extensions. The castle was drawn for Sir William Wilde's book about Galway. On his death in 1868, the estate passed to his son Lord Ardilaun, an avid gardener who oversaw the development of massive woodlands and rebuilt the entire west wing of the castle. He also subsidised the operation of several steamboats, the most notable of which was the Lady Eglinton, which plied between the villages of the Upper Lough Corrib region and Galway City, thus opening the area to increased commerce. In a time of agitation by tenant farmers in the Land Wars of the late 19th century, epitomised by the action of tenants at nearby Lough Mask House (home of Captain Charles Boycott), he was considered by many to be an 'improving' landlord. Some of his efforts were unsuccessful, particularly the Cong Canal also known as the "Dry Canal", which was built to link Lough Mask and Lough Corrib but was a failure, due to its inability to hold water. Despite such setbacks, the love borne by him and his wife Olive, daughter of the 3rd Earl of Bantry, for the castle and the estate was deep and best epitomised by that fact that when he was ennobled in 1880 he derived his title from the island of Ardilaun, which formed part of the estate on Lough Corrib. The Castle passed to Ardilaun's nephew Ernest Guinness, who sold it to Noel Huggard in 1939. He opened the estate as a hotel, which became renowned for the provision of its country pursuits, such as angling and shooting.
In 1951, the film director John Ford came to the west of Ireland to film what would become a movie classic The Quiet Man starring John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara. The grounds of Ashford Castle as well as nearby Cong formed the backdrop for much of the action in the film. In 1970, Ashford Castle was bought by John Mulcahy, who oversaw its complete restoration and expansion, doubling its size with the addition of a new wing in the early 1970s, building a golf course and developing the grounds and gardens. In 1985, a group of Irish American investors, which included Chuck Feeney, purchased Ashford. The Castle was sold by these investors for €50m in 2007, and is now in the possession of the Galway-based property investor Gerry Barrett and his family.
In its time the castle has played host to many notable guests, including: John Lennon, George Harrison, HM King George V of the United Kingdom, his consort Queen Mary, Oscar Wilde (whose father, Sir William Wilde, had an estate adjacent to Ashford, where the writer spent much of his childhood), LPGA Golfer Mindy Miller, U.S. President Ronald Reagan, HRH the Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy, John Wayne, Brad Pitt, Pierce Brosnan, HSH Prince Rainier III of Monaco and his consort HSH the Princess Grace.
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