DUBLIN — The Irish may not have originated the bed and breakfast concept but they certainly have taken to it.
For some families, the most difficult part of the B&B system has not been fixing up their extra rooms or adding amenities, but charging money for what they offer.
"The first time we asked people to pay was like a complete revolution," said Nancy Fitzgerald of Knockraha in County Cork. Fitzgerald is one of 20 farm women who started taking in guests in 1965 as an experiment suggested by the Irish Tourist Board.
"Accepting money was not in keeping with our farming family ways," she said, "even though we were only asking 15 shillings (about $1.20) per person ." Today the average rate is $15 to $20, with a maximum of about $50 for a night in a castle setting.
The prices are hard to beat, because a guest gets a clean, furnished and heated room and is welcomed to the family hearth like a long-lost friend.
The rate also includes a traditional Irish breakfast that may include hot cereal, home-baked breads and scones, farm-fresh eggs, bacon and sausages or fresh fish and pots of coffee or tea.
In 25 years, the quality of Irish B&B accommodations has improved significantly. More than 400 farmhouses open their doors to guests, and another 800 homes categorize themselves as "town and country" lodgings.
Rooms are available at dairy, sheep, fish or vegetable farms, as well as in modern split-level houses, seaside villas, mountain retreats, thatched-roof cottages, country manors and the occasional castle.
Staying in a B&B offers guests opportunities that no hotel can provide, such as the chance to share in the life style of the host family.
"People just accept us as we are--no valet service, bellmen or other hired staff," said Fitzgerald, who is chairman of an association of farmhouses.
Fitzgerald's farmhouse, nine miles north of Cork, is a secluded Georgian home known as Ashton Grove. It has been in the family for four generations. The Fitzgeralds open their doors (and four spare bedrooms) to guests from April through October, and concentrate on raising cattle the remaining months.
By contrast, horses are the focus at Horetown House, the B&B of Vera and Theo Young and their three sons. Built in the 17th Century for a Quaker family with 22 children, this 53-room house is set on 223 acres at Foulksmills, about half an hour's drive west of Wexford in the southeast corner of Ireland.
With more than a dozen horses, the Youngs operate an equestrian center that attracts riding enthusiasts from throughout Ireland, as well as the rest of Europe, Australia and the United States.
The Youngs, veterans of the B&B business, were among the original core of farm families to take in paying customers. Horetown has 12 guest bedrooms (no private bathrooms) furnished with hand-carved armoires and chests and beds piled high with fluffy pillows and comforters.
Those who prefer a castle can head south from Shannon Airport to Rathkeale, County Limerick, and down a wooded path to the Earl of Desmond's 15th-Century Castle Matrix.
Now the residence of Sean O'Driscoll (a former New Yorker and Air Force officer with Irish roots) and his Irish wife Elizabeth, this restored stone fortress on the River Deel has welcomed guests for centuries (Sir Walter Raleigh and Edmund Spenser met here), but has been a B&B for only two decades.
Visitors interested in history come to this fairy-tale setting to see the suits of armor, antique musical instruments, 400-year-old furniture, tapestries, vaulted ceilings, rooftop battlements, winding 83-step staircase and dungeon with shackles. In addition, there is a private chapel and a 12,000-volume library, with books on Irish heraldry, mythology, art, architecture, medieval military technology, chivalry and knighthood.
Although this B&B is at the top end of the price scale, guests receive every 20th-Century comfort. Each of the six bedrooms has been modernized to include a private bath/shower; three of the rooms are equipped with saunas.
A couple of hours' drive away the dramatic scenery of the Ring of Kerry draws overnighters to Muxnaw Lodge at Kenmare, a gabled country house built in 1801 and named after a nearby mountain.
Along the shore of Kenmare Bay, this idyllic retreat is the home of William and Hannah Boland, a doctor and nurse team.
Five bedrooms are available, three of which have private facilities, brass beds and views of the bay. A tennis court and three acres of mature garden walks surround the house.
Muxnaw is a small home, with a cozy drawing room where guests congregate each evening, listening to harp, piano and tin whistle music played by the three young Boland daughters--Faye, Nina and Sally Ann.