What Does an Erstwhile Maharaja of Gujarat Have to Do with a Village in Ireland?

Driving to Ballynahinch Castle to learn about one of the finest batsmen of all time, Ranjitsinhji, the Maharaja of Nawanagar.  
The river flowing by Ireland’s Ballynahinch Castle is a favourite among anglers. Its waters are rich in sea trout and salmon, which is what brought Maharaja Ranjitsinhji here in the early 1900s. Photo: Rishad Saam Mehta

I expected whiskey, rugged cliffs, and plates piled high with roast lamb. But I didn’t think I’d be hunting down a Maharaja in the heart of Ireland. My Irish friend Dervil O’Reilly, whose house I had stayed at a few days ago, had told me of a “drop-dead gorgeous castle in the district of Connemara,” just 85 km from her home in Clonboo. More importantly, she revealed that the place had a link to Ranjitsinhji, the Maharaja of Nawanagar in Gujarat and one of the finest batsmen of all time. Intrigued, I am now driving to Ballynahinch Castle to verify her story.

Now, a five-star hotel with fantastic food and a luxurious spa, the regal stone mansion is perched on the bank of the Ballynahinch River. It’s a handsome structure surrounded by 350 acres of wooded grounds, perfect for long walks and salmon fishing. Its link to India dates back to 1924, when the illustrious Maharaja visited the newly formed Irish Free State. By then retired from cricket, Ranjitsinhji chanced upon Ballynahinch on a fishing trip, and was bowled over by the grounds. In true royal style, he promptly bought the property.

Photo: Rishad Saam Mehta

Ranjitsinhji, the Maharaja of Nawanagar in Gujarat, still features prominently on the walls of the Ballynahinch Castle. Photo: Rishad Saam Mehta

In the last decade of his life, Ranji made the trip from Jamnagar every year. He spent ten happy summers in this corner of Ireland, throwing lavish parties and bestowing gifts upon neighbours. It is said that every time he returned to India, he would leave two cars behind—one he gifted to the church’s Catholic priest and the other to the local Protestant minister. Locals anointed him the Maharaja of Connemara.

But Ballynahinch Castle made news long before its Indian benefactor arrived. In the 17th century, the property was an inn run by the Martin family, one of whose members was particularly famous. Richard Martin, a member of parliament, was known to challenge people to duels, especially if they mistreated animals. He went on to introduce the Martin Act in the British parliament in 1822, to prevent cruelty to domestic animals. As a consequence, King George IV gave him the moniker: Humanity Dick. Martin’s efforts in animal welfare led to the establishment of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (R.S.P.C.A) two years later. Martin’s Inn did fair business until Richard’s death in 1834. The magnificent manor lay largely ignored for nearly a century after, until it caught Ranji’s fancy.

Both men feature prominently on Ballynahinch’s walls. At the hotel’s Fisherman’s Pub, I see pictures of the smiling, moustachioed Ranji as well as portraits of a scruffy-looking Martin. The hotel grounds are still known for its fishing spots. There’s even a Ranji’s Rock, a marker of the cricketer’s favourite spot, accessible only by boat. Guests at the hotel can spend their day there, soaking in lush views and baiting salmon, just like the Maharaja of Nawanagar did 90 years ago.

Appeared in the June 2014 issue as “Ranji’s Irish Trophy”.

The Guide

Ballynahinch Castle Hotel is in County Galway, in the west of Ireland. It is 440 km/5 hours from Belfast and 280 km/3 hours from Dublin, the capital of Ireland. Visit www.ballynahinch-castle.com for details.

  • Rishad Saam Mehta is a travel writer and photographer. He is the author of two books, the latest being "Fast Cars and Fidgety Feet" (Tranquebar, 2016).

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