County Clare, Milwaukee, reaches 10th year

The connections between Wisconsin and Ireland are strong, and nobody knows that better than Rip O’Dwanny, who says he has crossed the Atlantic Ocean 108 times since January 1998.
 
He grew up two blocks from one of the four Irish guesthouses that he
owns: Milwaukee’s classy and 29-room County Clare, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this month. Innkeepers will mark the milestone on Oct. 28 with a costume party and music by the lounge band 5 Card Studs.
 
Celtic music also pops up on weekends, like Oct. 21, when the entertainment is Eidir, an Irish music duo with a male Irish dancer.
 
The property combines an Old World feel with modern amenities, such as whirlpool baths and four-poster beds. O’Dwanny also established the 19-room 52 Stafford in Plymouth, 28-room St. Brendan¹s Inn in Green Bay and 23-room Castledaly Manor, near Athlone, Ireland. A son and daughter-in-law, Sean and Jacci O’Dwanny, operate the six-room Rochester Inn in Sheboygan Falls.
 
O’Dwanny says his love of Ireland was influenced by his Irish grandmother, who died in 1989. “We have French and German in our family, too,” the pastry chef would tell him, “but we don’t count that.” She worked at various Wisconsin resorts, and this is how her grandson became familiar with the lodging industry.
         
So when O’Dwanny bought an old rooming house in Plymouth in 1978, he envisioned more than a place to rent rooms. Rich woodwork, comfortable accommodations, fine imported beers in the bar, traditional Irish foods on the menu and live Irish music create a strong sense of place and good cheer.
 
It is the same at his other properties. County Clare’s restaurant-pub is full of sunlight and stained glass. Sit in the Saint’s Snug, where the emerald panes are a tribute to Irish saints. Above the bar is the admonishment that “Profanity makes ignorance audible.” Other bits of Irish humor, blessings and advice are stenciled on plaques and walls.
 
“I’m not in the bar, restaurant or hotel business,” says O’Dwanny, born in 1940. His life is about hospitality, service and entertainment. The inns “just happen to be our media.”
 
Working at one his Irish inns, O’Dwanny says, is “not a stepping stone to something else, but a career” that has attracted college grads who desire a bohemian lifestyle, “artists, people with law and master¹s degrees” who have decided their heart is elsewhere.
 
“There’s a lot of history here,” notes Greg Steffke, manager at County Clare. He is a native of Canada whose grandmother ran a guesthouse in Ireland’s County Clare, so working at the Milwaukee property is a good fit.
 
Steffke notes that his inn, at Astor and Knapp streets (near Milwaukee’s lakefront), used to be known as Jacob’s Corner. The inn was the Acme Grocery Store in the 1940s; Rip earned his first dollars in the neighborhood, as a “wagon boy” who would help deliver groceries.
 
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When we dropped by Ireland’s Castledaly Manor a couple of years ago, all was quiet because guests were on a day trip. Gerry Dunne, general manager, told us about 75 percent of this inn’s guests are from Wisconsin.
 
Weeklong stays at the 220-year-old country estate, on 37 acres, began in 1999. The formerly derelict property has a warm, homey and spacious feel. It is quaint and isolated, peaceful and surrounded by panoramic views of the countryside.
 
Ten of the 23 rooms are in the main house; others are in the adjacent stable block. Each has a private bath, something that is not to be taken for granted at Irish inns.
 
“They get a truly wonderful Irish experience,” Dunne said, of his guests. “It’s not the places you see, but the people you meet that will be your fondest memory.”
 
Seven-night trips to this rural Athlone property, in County Westmeath between Galway and Dublin, are arranged 45 weeks a year. The cost is remarkably low: $1,498 to $1,998 per couple, through May 2007. These totals include airfare from Chicago, lodging and a daily Irish breakfast. 
 
Travelers depart on a Wednesday and return the next week, on a Thursday. The exact price depends on when you visit.
 
Not included is the cost for day trips ($30-40, on average), lunches and dinners (available at the manor) and transportation to Moate and Athlone (the closest towns). There is a bar on the premises, and entertainment by local residents on some nights.
 
Championship golf courses are within 30 minutes of Castledaly Manor. Day trip destinations include Kilkenny Castle, Dublin, The Burrens and the Cliffs of Mohr. There also is a weekly, evening pub crawl to some of Ireland¹s oldest taverns.
 
For more about the inns, and the trips to Ireland:
www.irishinnsandtours.com, 888-942-5273 (County Clare), 800-421-4667 (52 Stafford) and 866-604-7474 (St. Brendan’s Inn).
 
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My recent overnight stay at County Clare was arranged by the Greater Milwaukee Convention & Visitors Bureau, www.milwaukee.org, 800-231-0903.