The Maharaja of the Moors

A writer explores the hallowed heartland of Ireland's Connemara at the former castle of a legendary maharaja, whose erstwhile home lives on as a hotel.

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The Maharaja of Nawanagar first came to Ireland on a fishing holiday in 1923 and fell in love with Ballynahinch Castle. By 1924, he’d bought the estate, along with its extensive fisheries. Photo Courtesy: Ballynahinch Castle Hotel

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Ballynahinch Castle Hotel, one-time summer home to His Highness Shri Sir Ranjitsinhji Vibhaji, Maharaja Jam Saheb of Nawanagar, overlooks an eye-catching river and mixed woodlands to its south. On its north side, the house commands a view of the quartzite, pyramidal peak of Benlettery. The Maharaja of Connemara, or Ranji, as he’s affectionately known in the area, is the most talked-about of the estate’s former proprietors.

That’s not to say there was anything non-descript about its previous occupants. There were the Berridges who made their money brewing beer; the Martins, who built the house in 1756—the last of whom to reside at Ballynahinch was known as ‘Humanity Dick,’ for establishing the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Before all of these came the ‘Ferocious O’Flahertys,’ Connemara’s mightiest clan, who controlled the region for hundreds of years. Its chieftainship fell into the lap of Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen, when she married in. The O’Flaherty castle, a 15th-century ruin, sits on an islet in Ballynahinch Lake, a few minutes walk from where the crenelated mansion now stands.

 

Memories of a Maharaja

Ranji came to Ireland on a fishing holiday in 1923 and fell headlong in love with Ballynahinch. By 1924, he’d bought the castle and estate, along with its extensive fisheries, from the Berridges. Some say that when the Galway-Clifden train pulled into the local station, Ranji’s wrist would start twitching in preparation for the fishing. He had hoped, I’m told, of retiring to Ballynahinch, or ‘the most beautiful place of all,’ as he described it.

On one of his return trips to Nawanagar, he carried a china tea set embossed with Connemara’s mountains and rivers. Whenever he felt lonesome for his West of Ireland hideaway, he’d drink tea from it. That was in the mid-1920s and early-30s. Nowadays, Ranji thrives on the tongues of locals. The castle has become a hotel, and its tributes to him, the Fisherman’s Pub and Ranji Room, display photographs of the maharaja aplenty. In one, he’s draped in royal finery. In another, he’s dressed in tweed and plus-fours. The bookshelves carry on the Ranji theme. The Jubilee Book of Cricket, written by the ‘Prince of Crickateers’ himself, was a widely read ‘how-to’ book in its day: advice on wholesome living includes, “The ordinary pleasures of life, partaken of moderately, will not interfere with cricket.”

 

 

 

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After a day spent exploring the vast estate, a restful whiskey in the Hunts Room warms the spirit. Photo courtesy: Ballynahinch Castle Hotel

 

Lapping up Lore

One afternoon at the beginning of September, after checking-in at the hotel, I take myself on a walk around Ballynahinch’s grounds. My first stop is the walled garden. This is the head gardener’s pet project and is equal parts elegance and practicality. There’s the roof-trained pergola and radiating pathways that draw footfall and warm stone walls, newly restored with the help of local stonemasons, that raise the ground heat to an optimum temperature for growing apple and pear trees, strawberries, figs, mulberries among other berries, and a great variety of vegetables. Mushroom compost, seaweed, and green manure complete the job of turning the garden into a larder for the hotel.

Nearby the greenhouse, I overhear a gardener chatting to guests about Ranji. “Every year, before he left, he’d give away his cars,” he tells them. “And cars were hard to come by around here, then,” he adds. The gardener goes on to say that he’s taken up enough of their time. I get the impression that I’ve missed out on a longer Ranji tale. Folk memory, as I discovered in the garden, is easy to find in Connemara. A little while later, in the castle’s library room, I meet Des Lally, a historian and former staff member at Ballynahinch. A log fire crackles in the fireplace as Des starts to tell me about when he began working at Ballynahinch, beginning in 1983. Back then, people who had worked for the maharaja were still employed by the hotel. “Frank Cummins drove Ranji’s car and was his ghillie (attendant) here,’ says Des, recalling that ‘his eyes used to light up when he spoke about him, and he’d still refer to him as his highness.”

Towards the end of Frank’s life, Des recalls visiting him and hearing him recount, wistfully, how he’d lost “the ruby cuff-links that the highness gave me.” His highness’s generosity was extended to people from all rungs of society. When the former Taoiseach (Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland) Garret Fitzgerald visited the castle in the 1980s, Des remembers their conversation about the bale of golden silk that Ranji gifted to the leader’s father. “I don’t know what happened to it, but I’d love if I had it to make a sari for Joan (the then Taoiseach’s wife),” Fitzgerald told Des. The roughly one hundred workers on his payroll were, too, at the receiving end of his goodwill: employment was much needed in a region hollowed out by a war of independence, a subsequent civil war, and emigration; altruism, most likely, not business sense, motivated Ranji’s hiring policy. When he threw parties for the workers, Martin O’Halloran, another former ghillie, would say that “there was enough drink to sink the Titanic.”

 

The interiors of Ballynahinch Castle mesmerise, be it the sweeping staircase (top right) or the charming suites (bottom right) framing vistas that pose outside the window panes and sleek heritage accents (left). Photos courtesy: Ballynahinch Castle Hotel; Photo By: Aileen Blaney (staircase)

 

A Loved Legend

In the Owenmore Restaurant, a little later, wine-drinkers consign these Guinness guzzlers to history. My own glass of Picpoul goes down nicely with complimentary appetisers—squid tartlet and apple and ricotta roulade—scallop starter, and entrée of black sole on the bone in an orange and cardamom beurre blanc. To my right, a young American woman is pulling up her male companion, from Dublin, for presuming to know her wine choice. She’d had to override an order he placed for a glass of Chablis with a red Bordeaux. If I look from this privileged indoor setting to the outdoor one, the river view looks almost too good to be true, much like the one from my bedroom. The head gardener put it well when he compared its exquisiteness to a river designed by Capability Brown, the 18th century landscape architect who, driven to perfect nature’s design, engineered English estates to appear ‘blessed’ with cascading rivers, deep lakes, and wooded demesne.

This river is very real, though, and so is its identity as one of Europe’s finest salmon and trout fisheries. Fish stocks, though, aren’t what they were in Ranji’s time. The menu echoes this. Printed below the list of main courses, it states, “As part of our salmon conservation programme we only serve wild salmon when available and caught sustainably.” From Des, I’d learned that Ranji was content to eat whatever his Irish cook made for him—there were ‘loads of fish,’ and game was hunted on the estate. He had, on occasion, however, the chance to eat food from home. “His nieces would head into the kitchen to do something special, something from home,” Tim Heanue, Visitor Experience Supervisor at Kylemore Abbey, tells me the next day. This is where the maharaja’s nieces came to board, a fairytale castle built in 1868 by an affluent cotton merchant from Manchester, after honeymooning with his wife in the area.

My car ride through peat bog, the 12 Pins mountain range, and glassy lakes to Kylemore, a granite mansion rising from the base of Druchruach Mountain with Lough Pollacappul aproning out before it, is mesmeric. The house’s gothic façade reflected on the looking glass lake would have been very familiar to Ranji and his entourage. Kylemore became an abbey and internationally renowned boarding and day school after Benedictine nuns, who had fled Belgium in WWI’s Battle of Ypres, moved in. Ranji wanted his nieces to be treated the same as other students there, and by Tim’s account, they had no problem fitting in with the likes of farmers’ daughters. Ranji, he tells me, had a good rapport with the sisters, who he’d gotten to know on jaunts across to Kylemore to take his nieces for spins around the countryside. When he sent a lorry to collect his nieces and their friends for one of his birthday parties, it came back full.

From misty fly fishing lessons (bottom) to the bucolic setting of the fishing lodge (top), these elements work to make the estate ‘the most beautiful place of all,’ as the Maharaja termed it. Photos: Aileen Blaney (lodge); Courtesy Tourism Ireland (fishing)

Later in the evening, back at Ballynahinch, Ranji’s birthday is again a subject of conversation. “Did you know it’s Ranji’s birthday in a few days?” asks the barman. “I want to do something special for it,” he tells me. “I think I’ll put on a special cocktail, something Indian.” Fishing mementos take up a lot of the available space in this bar— glass cases hold taxidermied salmon, and the walls have rods and photographs of anglers with their big catch. The fishing theme puts me in the mood for ordering Dooncastle oysters, an excellent decision, and turbot. I wash it down with the locally brewed Bridewell Ale. As I’m enjoying my crème brûlée and a dessert wine from Dublin, of all places, the manager stops by my table to check on everything.

The conversation swings to Ranji as he tells me about the Maharaja’s habit of leaving that year’s Rolls Royce with the Parish Priest, who would in turn sell it on and share the money in the community. The stories about Bentleys still buried in the forest are a bit far-fetched, he admits. No more than local lore about a nearby mound acquiring its shape when Ranji buried his elephant. I’m reminded of my conversation with Des, when we’d stationed ourselves on the terrace overlooking Ballynahinch River, within easy eyeshot of a tiny island. “There’s a story that he had an elephant and two bears, that’s called Bear Island, and there were supposed to be two bears in cages,” Des had said. The next day, when the taxi pulls up to take me the short distance back to Galway, my hometown, I think of Ranji packing his teaset, wishing he could stay a little longer.

 

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Essentials

Ballynahinch Castle Hotel offers seven classes of accommodation, with rooms starting at ₹23,600.

https://www.ballynahinch-castle.com/

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  • Aileen Blaney is a film professor at Flame University, Pune. She feeds her travel bug with places that are off the beaten track. For her, the sea is always a bonus.

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