Casey family builds golf kingdom on Ireland’s northern coastline

Rosapenna/Larry Lambrecht

Casey family builds golf kingdom on Ireland’s northern coastline

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Casey family builds golf kingdom on Ireland’s northern coastline

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of Golfweek

DOWNINGS, Ireland – Once upon a time, a capricious and uncompromising land baron ruled over large swaths of County Donegal. William Sydney Clements, the 3rd Earl of Leitrim, was known to evict tenants for the mildest of transgressions. Lord Leitrim was so unpopular he often traveled with armed guards. He was right to be wary.

One brisk morning in April 1878, as Lord Leitrim made his way from Carrickart to Milford, his carriage was ambushed by three men near Mulroy Bay. His driver and clerk were shot dead. Lord Leitrim, a powerful man even at age 72, was shot several times but summoned the strength to fight two of his assailants. He finally was felled by a mortal blow from the butt of a gun.

Lord Leitrim’s land eventually passed on to his nephew, Robert Bermingham Clements. Unlike his uncle, from whom he had been estranged, Robert was popular among the people of Donegal. As 4th Earl of Leitrim, he restored many evicted tenants to their homes, sometimes provided seed for their fields and often traveled alone because, unlike his uncle, he felt safe among the locals.

Shortly before his death in 1892, the 4th Earl recruited Old Tom Morris to build a golf course on his estate in Carrickart. Old Tom toured Clements’ parkland estate, then wisely steered him to a different site nearby: the dunes along Sheephaven Bay.

Lord Leitrim never got to enjoy Morris’ great links, which opened at Rosapenna in 1893, nor the lovely Old Rosapenna Hotel he commissioned. But his son Charles, the 5th Earl, championed the project as a young man. He oversaw expansion of the hotel, then returned to Donegal to spend many of his later years there.

Next year will mark the 125th year golfers have been coming to Rosapenna, which has grown from a humble little inn and links to a 45-hole destination with one of the finest hotels in the north of Ireland. And there’s more to come. Rosapenna owns some of the most-coveted linksland in Ireland – St. Patrick’s Golf Links – which sits dormant just south of the 14th green on the Morris links, waiting for some fortunate architect to come along and turn the site into Ireland’s next great trophy links.

• • •

For the vast majority of Rosapenna’s existence, two families have been central to its existence. The Clements clan developed the land and first brought golfers here. And 36 years ago, Frank and Hilary Casey bought the resort and continue to run it.

The Caseys history with the property, however, dates to the 1940s, when Frank’s father worked at Rosapenna. Sixty years ago, Frank began working here as a caddie at age 13, getting 5 shillings (about 30 cents) a loop. It wasn’t long before he was working in the hotel, where he found his calling.

“I knew then this is what I wanted to do,” he said.

As a young man, he spent his winters learning the business at the great hotels of Paris and London, then returned to Ireland to work the bulk of the year. By 28 he had bought his first hotel, in Milford, not far from Rosapenna.

But Rosapenna kept intervening in his life. One night he stopped by the hotel for a soirée and, he says simply, “I saw this girl.” He and Hilary were married in 1981.

That year the Caseys paid £500,000 to buy Rosapenna. It was a risky proposition on several fronts. Frank Casey recalls that the hotel and Morris’ old links were “badly run down.” Greens were lined with fencing to prevent grazing cattle and sheep from walking on them.

This also was at the height of The Troubles, with security checkpoints stifling movement between the Republic and Northern Ireland. And on top of that, Frank Casey recalls interest rates were 23 percent at the time.

The saving grace was a steady group business drawn to the area for castle tours, Glenveagh National Park and other attractions.

“Those were very precarious times and we were dependent on that coach business,” Hilary Casey said. “That was the backbone of the business.”

The young couple was a good team – Frank managing the rooms and restaurant while Hilary handled the reservations, marketing and other business items. Each year they made upgrades, gradually transforming it into four-star hotel with one of the country’s largest golf operations. Their approach hasn’t wavered: This year the Caseys plan to finish four new penthouse suites.

“Everything we’ve put into the hotel, we earned it,” Frank Casey Sr. said.

Like their father, Frank Casey Jr., 34, and brother John, 30, grew up in the business. (Their sister, Catherine, lives and works in Galway.)

“We don’t know anything else,” Frank Jr. said.

The Caseys (from left): Frank Jr., Frank Sr. and John at the Rosapenna starter’s shack. (Rosapenna/Larry Lambrecht)

Also like their parents, the brothers complement one another. Frank Jr. has been the director of golf since Rosapenna opened its golf pavilion in 2005, and John handles hotel operations. Eventually, they’ll run the business.

“It needs new blood at this point, new ideas,” Frank Sr. said.

• • •

The back nine of the Morris Links is about as pure a stretch of links golf as you’ll find on the island. The first five holes track the contours of the bay before doubling back. Years ago the routing used to cross the R248 and climb the hill on the other side of the road. Guests still can play those holes, but they were supplanted by a new front side built by Eddie Hackett in the 1990s.

That project gave birth to one of the Caseys’ most ambitious plans: an additional course that would give touring golfers a reason to stay an extra day or two. In 2003 Rosapenna opened Sandy Hill Links, designed by Pat Ruddy, who has been prolific over the past two decades and perhaps is best known for designing The European Club near Dublin.

Sandy Hills was well received – it ranks No. 23 on the list of Golfweek’s Best Modern Courses of Great Britain and Ireland – but it’s a serious test. Perhaps too serious – in recent years it has undergone some softening. Green complexes on Nos. 12-14 and No. 18 were reshaped, and some greenside bunkers deemed too penal were filled in. There are thoughts of expanding some fairway corridors.

“Sandy Hills is very much an evolving links,” Frank Jr. said. “It’s a very difficult golf course, and we’re very much a resort and retail golf and repeat business. People walking off the course saying, ‘That’s the hardest course I ever played. I lost six golf balls. I don’t want to play it again,’ isn’t exactly what we want.”

No. 5 at Rosapenna’s
Sandy Hills Links (Rosapenna/Larry Lambrecht)

When the Celtic Tiger was in full roar, an ambitious developer acquired St. Patrick’s and hatched plans to build two Jack Nicklaus courses on the 380-acre site.

“Everything was going mad in Ireland at the time,” Hilary Casey said. “Everything was just loopy. Everything had several (zeroes) at the end of it. Everybody just lost their minds. There was sort of a hysteria.”

The developer offered the Caseys $32 million to acquire Rosapenna in 2007. They quickly dismissed it.

“It was a silly offer,” Frank Casey Sr. said. “It was far too much. It wasn’t worth $32 million.”

The dining room
at Rosapenna (Rosapenna/Larry Lambrecht)

Within a year, the Irish economy crashed and the redevelopment of St. Patrick’s stalled. In 2012 the Caseys acquired St. Patrick’s. They still mow the two courses, but that’s merely to preserve the land’s golf status for a time when they’re ready to transform it into what Frank Casey Jr. envisions as Rosapenna’s “crown jewel.”

Even his soft-spoken father can’t hide his excitement over the site, with its views of the Horn Head peninsula across the bay.

“The land has unbelievable potential, beautiful views and dunes to die for,” he said.

The Caseys are moving cautiously; that’s what you do when you’ve built a family business one golf hole, one hotel room at a time. They know they’ll need to upgrade the road onto the St. Patrick’s site and build a clubhouse there. They’ll need to add 40 rooms or so, which would take them to about 100. But they’ve had architects look at the site, and it’s clear the Caseys, particularly Frank Sr. and Jr., are itching to start construction.

“Going forward, golf is what we want to develop,” Frank Sr. said. “If the demand is there, we won’t hold back type.”

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