It’s got stunning scenery, fine food and superb courses... so why have so few golfers discovered this part of Ireland’s joys, wonders MARK THOMAS?
IRELAND has long been a popular destination for golf breaks – but it is to the south and west of the Republic that most of us flock to. Head north out of Dublin for a couple of hours, however, and you quickly escape the tourist hordes and discover golf courses whose names may be unfamiliar to your ears, but which offer a fantastic challenge to all levels of player, in the prettiest countryside you could wish for.
The base of operations for our mission to explore this relatively uncharted golfing territory in March this year was the Slieve Russell Hotel, Golf and Country Club, in Ballyconnell, County Cavan.
The hotel itself is a grand and imposing building, a very agreeable blend of elegant classic decor and sophisticated, up to date facilities.
Our executive suite, complete with sitting room, jacuzzi bath and 7ft four-poster bed, really was the last word in comfort.
The hotel is set in 300 acres of beautiful countryside, 50 acres of it lakes, and the carefully manicured 7,000 yard Championship golf course weaves its way through these picture-postcard waterways, presenting you with shots that will test your nerve even as you admire the view.
On the second hole, Aghover Leap, even a good drive over the edge of a lake will leave you with an uphill, 200-yard shot to the green. I had left myself well short of that, and managed to hit my second shot into what, from a distance, looked like a ditch, but turned out to be a 30ft-wide brook.
I took a drop and redeemed myself a bit with a decent approach shot, but was relieved to limp away with a double bogey six and one ball lost.
It is a parkland course, and the sculpted topiary work is a delight to behold, immaculately trimmed and maintained.
I was losing my personal battle with the water hands down, and the 16th is one hole where there really is no option but to take it on. The Mourning Pond is a 170-yard par three, with a stretch of water that extends from tee to green’s edge.
When I flushed a four iron that was out of all context with my golfing form to land within 10 feet of the flag, I felt as if I could have walked across the lake to take my putt.
Reality returned as I left the ball a couple of inches short, but a tap in par three still put a spring in my step.
If Slieve Russell was parkland perfection, an altogether more rugged beauty awaited us at Concra Wood, an hour or so’s journey away outside Castleblaney, County Monaghan. We arrived on a stormy day, but the mists cleared to give us a panoramic view of the course and the hills beyond from the hilltop clubhouse that was nothing short of awesome.
Designed by Irish golfing legends, nephew and uncle Christy O’Connor Junior and Senior, the course weaves its way across 240 acres of sloping wooded hillside leading down to the 425 hectares of island-dotted water that is Lough Muckno.
Several of the holes follow the banks of the lough, and there is not a fairway that does not boast a heart-stoppingly beautiful view of the hills, the water and the islands.
The weather made this day’s golf particularly challenging, with a strong and biting wind and fairways squelching from weeks of winter rain and snow, but even on the most benign of days this is a course that will test you as much as the setting will inspire you.
Many of the tees are elevated, and for me the third hole was a trip highlight. The 385-yard par four, Hope Castle, runs sharply down the hill, with the green guarded on the right by a pond, and the lough lurking in the background.
It invites a good drive down the hillside, and a decent six iron second shot left me with a comfortable two putt par, and a rare chance to enjoy the view without grieving over my score.
Our third destination on our whistle-stop tour was Farnham Estate golf club, a delightful and demanding 7,700-yard course in a natural setting on a sprawling 300-acre country estate outside the town of Cavan.
The development is a work in progress, with a new club house under construction when we visited, but if it is anything like the stylish contemporary hotel where we enjoyed lunch after our round, it should be splendid.
The course itself has two contrasting nines. You go out through rolling meadows, and return through dense woodland, with some fairways dominated by towering lines of tall trees. The overall feel is of a more natural, less manicured course than the others we explored, but one that demands, accurate shots.
Here I should say a word about the greens. Our visit came when all three courses had been battered by some of the worst winter weather seen in years, yet on all three courses the greens were true, quick and a delight to putt on, a credit to the expertise of the greenkeepers at all three venues.
Our visit focused on the golf, but this part of Ireland has much more to offer, as our non-golfing partners were pleased to discover while we battled the elements on the fairways.
A tour of the medieval town of Carlingford on the Cooley Peninsula will fascinate golf widows thanks to its pretty harbour views, ancient buildings and glut of quirky pubs.
Despite an aversion to the local oysters, my other half feasted on Guinness pie at PJ O Hares before exploring King John’s 12th-century castle.
Talking of historical adventures, a trip to Strokestown House in County Roscommon is a must due to its grand gardens and museum telling the story of the 1840s famine. Of course, if tootling around the Irish countryside isn’t an option, they can always relax in the spa at the Slieve Russell Hotel.
And the dining to be had is memorable. We enjoyed a sumptuous dinner at the Slieve Russell, and another at the Portmarnock Hotel and Golf Links, where we stayed overnight before our early morning flight home from nearby Dublin Airport.
But the outstanding meal for us had to be at The Olde Post Inn in Cloverhill, County Cavan, close to the borders of Counties Monaghan and Fermanagh.
It has been awarded Best Restaurant in Ulster by the Restaurant Association of Ireland, and awardwinning head chef Gearóid Lynch, who owns the Inn with wife Tara, wrote his own cookbook, My Glutenfree Kitchen, after being diagnosed with coeliac d isease in 2013.
It is a delightful, cosy restaurant, and my smoked cod, sea bass, salmon and scallop starter, roast rump of Cavan lamb with garlic mash and mint jus, and warm rice pudding with local vanilla honey and meringue were a little piece of heaven.
If you fancy a new challenge next time you plan a golf trip to Ireland, and particularly if you also want to discover new and beautiful destinations for the whole family to explore, eat well and unwind, a trip to these beautiful border counties has much to commend it.
There is not a fairway that does not boast a heartstoppingly beautiful view... On Concra Wood’s course
Manicured beauty: Slieve Russell’s course
Natural feel: Fanham
Rugged joys: Concra Wood