BALLINA, Ireland — You say you want to go fishing and your wife wants to go to Europe? You say your mouth is watering for salmon and your wife has continental cuisine in mind? You say you hanker for the great outdoors and her all-time dream has been to stay in a castle by the side of the river?
The answer to your collective prayers just might be Mount Falcon Castle near Ballina on the west coast of Ireland.
By the River Moy in County Mayo, Mount Falcon Castle is both a fisherman's paradise and a historic delight. The Moy is chockablock with Irish salmon (yes, there is a difference) and grilse, the young salmon making their first return trip to fresh water from the sea.
The castle is a gray stone mansion built in 1876 by James Franklin Fuller, architect to the Church of Ireland. It has only 10 residence rooms and is the centerpiece of what has been carved down to a 100-acre farm. Originally it was the manse of John Knox, not the Scottish reformer but the biggest landholder in County Mayo in the 19th Century.
Converted to Resort
Since 1932, however, Mount Falcon has been the domain of Constance Aldridge, who came there from England as the teen-age bride of Maj. John Aldridge. They converted the mansion into a fishing and hunting resort catering mostly to British and French sportsmen, many of whom have been returning annually to Mount Falcon for more than 20 years. Reservations are often made a year in advance, but there are some openings each year.
The widow Aldridge stayed on to run the castle after the death of her husband in the '50s. And run it she does. It's still a working farm with cows and chickens and a variety of fruits and vegetables. Flowers from the extensive gardens are personally arranged by the owner and adorn all the public rooms of the castle.
While Constance Aldridge no longer cooks the meals, she oversees the kitchen and plans the lavish menus. Then she presides over cocktail hour in the library and the evening meal at the long mahogany table in the dining room, a long narrow room heavily chandeliered and bordered by antique sideboards filled with the china your grandmother wished she could afford.
Preside is the right word for the bubbly Aldridge. She advises on the selection of food (always two main dishes, fish or fowl and one red meat) and wines (ample cellar, mostly French). She clucks at reluctant eaters and pontificates on world events from her place at the head of the table.
"It's like having friends up for the weekend," she'll tell you. "I really don't feel like an innkeeper. Indeed, some of these people have been coming here so many years that it's like having the family visit."
The heavily laden evening table is like Christmas dinner, and Aldridge trusts everyone as only a mother would. The fully stocked bar is a do-it-yourself arrangement in a pantry off the dining room. You pour your own, then mark your own tab. That is what you will be charged for on checkout.
Credit Cards Accepted
Speaking of checkout, all major credit cards are accepted and rates for bed and a proper English breakfast are from 25 to 30 Irish ($37.50 to $45 U.S.) per person per night, value-added tax included. The sumptuous dinner is an additional 15. Complimentary tea is available in the parlor during the afternoons. Lunch on request.
Aldridge's manner and very British accent suggest Mayfair or Kensington, but the matriarch of the mansion can talk fishing with the best of the backwooders. She owns fishing rights to 7 1/2 miles of the river and has access to the Loughs Conn and Cullen, a pair of lakes on the Moy. She can tell you the best spots on the river, best rods, best reels, best flies and best lies.
Apparently, exaggeration is not really needed when recounting the glories of the Irish salmon. It easily passes the proof-of-the-pudding test, and the tales the anglers tell around the log fire at night indicate that the fish are testy as well as tasty.
The season opens the first of February and closes Sept. 30. There are runs of fish all through the season, the river having spring salmon, grilse and an autumn run of salmon known locally as harvest fish.
Spring salmon average 10 pounds, and fishing is best from early June to mid-July. The grilse average five pounds and run from late May until mid-August. The autumn fish arrive in late August and average eight pounds.
The lakes abound with wild brown trout. Fishing is best during September, but no matter what time of year you try it, bring your rain gear. There's a reason Ireland is so green.
A fishing license on the Mount Falcon property is 5 a day (about $7.50 U.S.) or 35 ($52.50 U.S.) for the season.
Hunters take over the castle in the winter months with the chief targets being woodcocks, the fireplace and the pantry bar. Pike fishing, horseback riding and golfing are nearby.