Forgotten to Forefront

Rosapenna is leading an Irish Renaissance in the dunes of Donegal
Rosapenna

Light / Dark

Listen to a reading of this feature by the author.

On a Thursday morning in April 1878, an hour somehow disappeared in the yonder Irish county of Donegal, and in those missing minutes, a landscape changed forever. 

Someone would have eventually discovered the linksland beside Sheephaven Bay, but it would not have been shaped into golf’s first destination resort had the plan to assassinate the 3rd Earl of Leitrim failed. Maybe it was a housemaid or a butler—nobody knows for sure—but someone pushed the clocks ahead one hour and succeeded in sending Lord Leitrim out the door early, well ahead of his regular police escort. (Conspirators had also arranged for a lame horse to be hitched to his carriage, ensuring he’d be a soft target as he passed.) His fate was thus sealed, and Lord Leitrim met it via ambush just a few miles down the road, where it took a dozen bullets plus the butt of a gun to finally end his reign.

The murder was decried by the Church and the ruling class, but no tears were shed among the denizens of Donegal. Lord Leitrim was considered the cruelest of landlords, one who evicted and abused his tenants, and today a monument marks the spot to recall the three assassins—dubbed the Fanad Patriots, for the Donegal peninsula from which they came—whose heroism “ended the tyranny of landlordism.” The dedication makes no mention of murder or the Earl, nor is there reference to his nephew, the 4th Earl of Leitrim, who would become popular among the local community, undoing his uncle’s evictions and even bringing visitors and commerce to the region by way of a hotel and golf course that both would take the name “Rosapenna.”

Rosapenna

They call it the forgotten county. It’s a label used without malice or condescension; it merely acknowledges the fact that Donegal is isolated from the capital city of Dublin—geographically, culturally, politically—by being tucked into the island’s northwestern corner. It’s a vast region hidden behind the six counties that make up the British territory of Northern Ireland, and to reach it, most routes require passage through a contested province—hardly an inconvenience today, but prior to the peace deal of 1998, such a detour was avoided by most Irish and rarely ventured by tourists.

Donegal remained cut off, for good and for bad. It might have been overlooked by Dublin when it came to infrastructure and expenditure, but it also maintained an authentically Irish character and a fierce national pride. As its own Ireland-within-Ireland, it’s the county where you’re most likely to hear the Irish language being spoken in a pub or to find a man stomping pedals on a loom in the back of his sweater shop. If you thought Ireland was going to look and feel like those scenes from The Quiet Man, you’d best skip Dublin and head for Donegal.

Rosapenna
A new day in Donegal: With the Old Tom links along the water and the roller coaster Sandy Hills course inland, the Casey brothers—John and Frank Jr. (seated)—brought Tom Doak in for a third Rosapenna offering.
Rosapenna
Frank and Hilary Casey
Rosapenna

More and more visitors are doing just that. The golf course that Lord Leitrim (the kind one) had commissioned would be upgraded over the years, its reputation eventually inspiring expansion into some of the rarest dunes in Ireland. One course would become three, and as a collection they offer more links quantity and quality than any spot in Ireland. No matter that Rosapenna’s front door lies nearly four hours from the Dublin airport—the busses are coming, because whether they intended to or not, a family in Donegal has turned their country hotel and its ample acreage into the new Irish home of golf.

 “The original hotel was like a pitch-pine, prefab-type building,” explains John Casey, age 34 and one of three Casey men who today run the hotel alongside their mother, Hilary. “It was built in Norway, unassembled and then shipped and put together here. It was modeled after an Alpine hotel; a rural wellness retreat with a golf course was the idea.”

It was an idea ahead of its time in the British Isles. Until then, golf courses were supported by locals and members; the concept of a golf destination sustained by visitor play did not exist until Rosapenna. Its 1893 opening predates Turnberry in Scotland, as well as Pinehurst’s first course in the U.S. (Next time you’re at Bandon Dunes, raise a toast to Lord Leitrim, destination golf pioneer.) The Lord died in 1892, shortly before his retreat opened, but his son Charles took an interest in the resort and grew it into a popular destination for wandering Victorians. From London and Liverpool they came, lodging at Rosapenna for a fortnight and going around its Old Tom Morris routing each afternoon. Morris had originally been commissioned to design nine holes around the Lord’s home in nearby Carrigart, but a tour of the area revealed the dunes beside Sheephaven Bay, and Old Tom convinced Lord Leitrim that the sandhills demanded golf holes, and a full set of 18.

Over the next 20 years, the course was visited and upgraded by the likes of Harry Vardon, James Braid and Harry Colt. (Braid’s handprint is hard to trace; Colt’s redesign was dramatic.) Its final facelifts would come from two Irishmen of legend: Eddie Hackett, whose designs at Carne, Waterville, Connemara and Donegal brought grand links golf to Ireland’s rural corners, and the magnetic persona that is Pat Ruddy—imagine Dan Jenkins crossed with Pete Dye, wrapped in Irish tweed. 

A golf journalist turned architect turned proprietor (he designed and owns the celebrated European Club links south of Dublin), Ruddy moved the Morris course’s weaker nine onto prime linksland and added the resort’s second full course, Sandy Hills, in 2003. His prolific publishing informs all of the above, particularly his Rosapenna book, Beyond His Lordship’s Wildest Dream. It’s an apt title, considering that the resort was eventually sold out of the Leitrim line and into private hands (the 5th Earl’s great-grandson, Lord Rayleigh, still visits from England and plays Rosapenna on his holidays), and that Lord Leitrim’s wish for nine holes outside his window would burst into 54 holes by the most celebrated names in design. Morris, Vardon, Colt, Hackett, Ruddy and, most recently, Tom Doak: It’s a series of architectural bylines unmatched in links golf, and it didn’t happen by way of a speculating tycoon or a corporate developer. Things don’t work that way in the forgotten county. So goes the Donegal saying: “Up here, it’s different.” Up here it would take a former Rosapenna caddie and his two sons to turn a resort that showed up in pieces into the trip you’re probably planning right now.

Rosapenna
St Patrick’s Links at Rosapenna

Frank Casey was 18 when the original Rosapenna Hotel burned down, in 1962. His father had come to Rosapenna in 1939 from Dublin, where he’d learned the hospitality trade. The elder Casey met his future wife in the halls of Rosapenna when a local nurse named Grace was called to the hotel to look after a wealthy couple from England. Their son was born in 1944, and he’d grow up working in the hotel and carrying golf bags on the Morris course until age 17, when he was sent to France and London to learn his trade in the best hotels in Europe.  

Most of the staff left Rosapenna after the fire, but Frank stayed on to help rebuild, and operations were back up and running within two years. It was a good thing he stuck around: Like his father, he would meet his future wife at Rosapenna, when Hilary visited as the personal assistant to the hotel’s owner. She would eventually be promoted from owner’s assistant to owner’s wife when Frank negotiated a price for Rosapenna that included not just the hotel, but also the acres of sand then above and beyond the existing course. (Hilary politely declined an interview, so it remains unclear if she viewed her new role as a promotion or a significant salary cut.)

“It was all barren duneland that was worth nothing at the time,” Frank explains. “It became worth a lot more when we built a golf course on it.”

But that would take time. When Frank and Hilary took ownership of Rosapenna in 1981, the course was neglected and the rooms were run-down. The greens on the back nine were surrounded by fences to protect them from grazing livestock, and the hotel was far removed from its heyday, when guests had dined in formal attire and danced to the hotel’s own resident orchestra.

To raise Rosapenna up to the standard of the hotels Frank had been trained in, the Caseys got to doing what they did in Donegal: They worked. Hilary put in 15 hours a day at reception while Frank managed the kitchen, rooms and golf course. Tour groups from Northern Ireland kept the doors open, and a new labor force would help keep costs down: Frank Jr., Catherine and John were born between 1983 and ’87. (Hilary didn’t miss more than a week of work for any of the deliveries.) 

Every pound the hotel made went back into improving the facilities. A pool was added, along with luxury suites, and by the time the Casey kids were ready to start bussing tables and pushing luggage, Rosapenna had been transformed into one of the top-rated hotels in Ireland. But there were still improvements to be made. Frank had been playing in its dunes since he was a child, and he knew Rosapenna’s hills had more to offer.

Planning an Irish golf trip was once a straightforward endeavor to the country’s southwest. Start with tee times at Ballybunion and Lahinch and fit in Tralee and Waterville around them, squeezing in Dooks and Dingle if you could. You’d be bunking in Killarney, of course, and whether to splurge for Old Head was the only real debate among your foursome. Convenience and quality ensured that this region lorded over golf itineraries, and its proximity to Shannon Airport (along with 2027 Ryder Cup host Adare Manor) ensures that it probably always will. But when peace came to Belfast and more golfers started venturing north, followed by Dublin Airport opening a new international terminal that stole transatlantic routes away from Shannon, the golf map of Ireland opened up.

“If you drew a line from Dublin across to Galway, south of that line was the main tourist area for Americans for a long time,” Frank explains. “Gradually, when peace did come to Northern Ireland, the tourists followed.”

Royal County Down is just 90 minutes up the road from the runways at Dublin. Portrush isn’t much farther. And if you’ve gone that far, you might as well complete the loop and stop in to see Donegal and Sligo, and play places like Ballyliffin and Enniscrone and Carne. Today a golf trip to Ireland has come to mean more than Ballybunion, and with Doak’s St. Patrick’s Links added to Rosapenna’s menu this year, one wonders if the stock Irish golf itinerary should now be eyed as a top-down affair. If so, Rosapenna shouldn’t get all the credit; Donegal’s golf renaissance has been underway for some time. Ballyliffin brought in the European Tour for the 2018 Irish Open, Narin & Portnoo (two towns, one course) was recently transformed by a Gil Hanse overhaul, and more tweeting golfers are finding their way to wee Cruit Island, the most compelling nine-holer in Ireland, if not the world. Add the beach-cove bliss of Portsalon and the rumpled fairways of Murvagh outside Donegal town and a strong case is made for Donegal becoming more than a seasoned traveler’s detour. Throw Rosapenna in the mix and the county goes from forgotten to forefront.

Rosapenna
St Patrick’s Links at Rosapenna

While Morris nibbled around the edges of the duneland at Rosapenna (who can blame him? His gear would have been no match for those hills), Ruddy went right through them with his Sandy Hills links. Its twists and tight corridors are a seaside ramble that takes you past long bay views, twirling you ’til you’re lost in a links fun house. Its opening in 2003 pushed Rosapenna’s name into global rankings, but it would take a grander splash to grab the golfing world’s full attention, including an injection of some new blood. Frank was not opposed to letting his boys leave their mark on the Rosapenna landscape.

“[Frank Jr. and John] were very involved in spearheading this course,” he says. “From the beginning, they knew it was Tom Doak who was going to do the design, and I didn’t argue.”

Same as their father, John and Frank Jr. grew up learning the hotel business from the front lines. “A regular day during the busy season when we were growing up, we could be in the kitchen or in reception,” Frank Jr. explained as he poured pints from a tap set up outside the St. Patrick’s Links temporary clubhouse. “We might be on the golf course or in the pro shop or out caddying. I used to caddie a lot as a kid. When the bus groups would come in, you might be working the line in the kitchen, and you’d be told, ‘Right, you have to go out and caddie.’ We loved it. It was great fun.”

As they practiced each niche of the family business, Frank Jr. gravitated toward golf and pursued greenskeeping at school (he’s currently director of golf and a plus-handicap) while his younger brother completed a master’s degree in accounting and finance before focusing on the management of the hotel. (Sister Catherine works and lives a few hours south, in Galway.) The brothers are near twins in appearance, but the similarities pause there: Frank Jr. seems ready to talk golf right through your tee time, while his younger brother’s tie reveals John as the sibling who’s watching the resort through its spreadsheets. Like his father and grandfather before him, John met his fiancée at Rosapenna, a local girl named Claire who first came to the resort as a waitress. She went on to complete a degree in accountancy and now works alongside her future in-laws in the Rosapenna office. When it came to their nuptials, John could name one place where the reception would not take place.

“We’re so hands-on that if the wedding was in our hotel, it would be more like a day’s work than a wedding,” he said. “Dad would be worrying about the food and service. Mom would be worried about rooms. I’d be worrying about everything. We just wouldn’t enjoy it.”

When asked what his big brother would be worried about—tee times, perhaps?—John didn’t hesitate: “He wouldn’t be worried at all.”

As one plays through the three courses at Rosapenna, you can feel the passage of time in their shape and style, from the quiet quality of the flattish Morris holes behind the hotel (they feel more Scottish in nature—subdued, not unlike golf in St. Andrews) to Ruddy’s Sandy Hills drama, a bold dune battle similar to the landscapes visitors rave about at places like Tralee and Ballybunion. And, in 2021, Rosapenna unveiled a new sort of ambition at the St. Patrick’s Links, where perhaps the most recognizable name in contemporary design had been hired to fulfill his dream of placing pins in an endless acreage of unspoiled linksland. Doak was so eager to get his shot at the property that he helped enlist founding members whose investment pushed the project forward. Other architects might have done the same, but few would have brought the renown and résumé the Caseys were seeking for their new venture.

In 2021, Rosapenna unveiled a new sort of ambition at the St. Patrick’s Links, where perhaps the most recognizable name in contemporary design had been hired to fulfill his dream.

“I don’t know if this is going to sound brash,” John said, a phrase that triggers all journalists to check that their phone is recording, “but what we wanted with this course is that, if you talk about St. Patrick’s now or next year or the following year, people know where it is. They know where Rosapenna is. A lot of people in Britain and Ireland knew where Rosapenna was, but we wanted something that was going to mean that people, when somebody says, ‘Have you been to Rosapenna?’ they knew what you were talking about. That’s really what we’re hoping that St. Patrick’s is doing. We’re hearing a lot of conversations. We want to be in all of the conversations about golf.”

Enlisting Doak to design the last links in Ireland would achieve as much, at least for a while. But had the Caseys made a move that would merely stir up buzz, or would it add another chapter to the story of Irish golf? The holes will decide over time, but I’ve played it once, and I believe that in a country that changes slowly, in a county that moves with less hurry than most, the St. Patrick’s Links at Rosapenna might achieve more than its creators intended.

When I heard that the Caseys had negotiated the adjacent property out of receivership, I’ll admit that I was pulling for an Irish architect to get the work. I have a soft spot for Ruddy and his extravagant expertise, and I admire Ken Kearney’s restorations and updates all over the island. (Full disclosure: Kearney has also written one of The Golfer’s Journal’s finest essays, titled “Shrink the Game.”) But selecting Doak was a decision that was about more than making a splash or enlisting the easy, bankable choice. Doak had been eying those dunes well before the Caseys owned them, and the brothers had been keeping tabs on his work as well.

“Tom’s designs and his philosophies were exactly what we were after,” Frank Jr. explained. “What he’s done before when he’s had sand and the sea on a great site like this—he has a good track record. The way he uses width—I love the contour, the way the contour in the fairway flows into the contour in the greens. The bunkering is different from anything in the U.K. and Ireland. They’re rugged bunkers at the end of the dune faces, and then a lot of waste bunkering. It reminds me of what he did at Barnbougle; I think that’s really what this is most like, but again, there’s more sense of scale here. The dunes are a lot wider from the sea back. Barnbougle, especially the front land, is only two holes wide, whereas here, we come the whole way back. We’re nearly as far back from the sea as possible. The sense of scale here is off the charts.”

Scale is the word at St. Patrick’s, and Doak was aware of the rare tableau he’d been provided. It was a property that once held two golf courses unaffiliated with Rosapenna: a Hackett design and a routing by Joanne O’Haire, the only woman to have designed a golf course in Ireland. The property went by the name St. Patrick’s, but its developer put too much golf on one parcel (and added a caravan park). 

The courses failed at just the right time. The first owner made a massive profit selling at the top of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger boom in the early 2000s. The next developer brought in Jack Nicklaus, who claimed he’d found the greatest piece of land he’d ever come across for a links course. But it wasn’t great enough to dodge Ireland’s bursting economic bubble, and the project went belly up before Nicklaus’ team could do much more than bulldoze some of the precious marram grasses that hold dune ecosystems in place. Such carelessness created huge sand blowouts that Doak’s design would overcome and incorporate, but first the Caseys had to plant their flag on the land.

The dunes remained in the government’s toxic-asset penalty box for five years, until John saw a notice in the newspaper that the land was going up for sale. It took a year to wind through the bureaucracy of a government short sale, but by 2012, the Caseys had doubled the size of their property. Most importantly, they’d acquired land on which golf holes already existed.

Ruddy imparted some wisdom to his friend Frank, advising him to keep mowing the course even if they weren’t planning to play golf on the land for years. Maintaining some semblance of fairways and greens made all the difference and was the reason St. Patrick’s will likely be the last links in Ireland. Acquiring planning permission for a new course in sensitive dunelands is a thing of the environmental past. But if your land already held golf holes, well, rearranging them wouldn’t require permission at all. 

“I’ve wanted to build a course in Ireland—and by that I mean a proper links—since I spent a month there on my overseas scholarship after college,” Doak explains. “Because St. Patrick’s already had a golf course, I understood that it offered a rare opportunity. I spent time at Old Head back in the 1990s and contributed some routing ideas, but didn’t get the job, and Bill Coore and I both spent time working on a plan for 36 holes near Castlegregory in the early 2000s, which made me keenly aware of how impossible it is to get planning permission for golf on undisturbed linksland.”

The job always belonged to Doak, but the Caseys took their time plotting with him and his associate, Eric Iverson. The first question to answer: With enough space for two courses, should they dare stop at one?

“With 350 acres, the Caseys naturally thought about more than 18 holes, but one of the main things I learned from [Bandon Dunes and Cabot owner] Mike Keiser is to focus on one thing at a time,” Doak says. “The goal is always to build the best course you possibly can, and if that’s successful, then you do that again with the land left over. So I made the case to the Caseys that one exceptional course would be more valuable to them than two pretty good ones, because it might change the narrative for overseas visitors on where they want to go. With Portrush having hosted the Open, more golfers are heading north, and once they go that way, St. Patrick’s and the rest of Donegal are closer at hand than doubling back to Ballybunion and Lahinch. If St. Patrick’s is successful, I think it will be good for the whole region, and for now, at least, it’s a lot more accommodating toward playing multiple rounds than the famous old places.”

As I stepped off St. Patrick’s final green, my mind still trying to make peace with the mirage that was its 17th green (none of us had ever played anything like it: a putting surface floating on the horizon, with no discernable beginning or end), I found myself not replaying the holes I’d just traversed—I’d do that later, in my sleep—but recalling the route that had brought us here, keenly aware that it was about to become a well-worn path.

We’d cruised from Dublin out to Carne in County Mayo’s northwestern corner, then stopped in at Enniscrone and rolled through Sligo for a visit to Yeats’ grave. We pushed north into Donegal and enjoyed the gentle walk at Murvagh, then stopped in at Portsalon to sample the second hole with its double-carry over a stream that slips out onto the beach. Ballyliffin wasn’t far away, but we’d save its two championship routings for another trip; this time, we wanted to see what Hanse had done at Narin & Portnoo, because the chance to play Hanse and Doak on back-to-back days in Ireland is something Donegal can now shout from its clubhouse rooftops. And as we pulled away from St. Patrick’s the next afternoon—still pondering the grand expanse of a golf course that felt utterly vast and strangely intimate, a boundless sort of golf that didn’t seem planted in the dunes, but poured across them—I wondered how long it would be before you’d hear someone talking about their upcoming trip to Ireland and how they were headed up to Donegal to play the famous old places. 

Rosapenna