Once upon a time in Ireland…

This is a “just because” cross-post from Mermaids where you can go find out what it’s all about.

HOW I SPENT MY SUMMER VACATION, Or We Go To Ireland

The Truth As I Remember It (With Certain Events Enhanced To Make Them Better Stories, Because That Is The Irish Way)

We left from NY’s JFK Airport on Thursday, July 2, at 10 PM. The flight was run by Spectre Charters and flown by American TransAir and regularly departs on Thursday and Saturday evenings as I understand it, returning on Fridays and Sundays. A lot of Irish citizens and visitors use this flight and it was jammed. 366 people on the plane, I believe, and a line at least 200 people long to check in a full three hours before the flight.

Uneventful flight, not much sleep. Landed first at Knock, of which I had never heard but which turns out to be a religious shrine of some sort (a statue winked at somebody or somebody got cured of something once–who knows?). All the priests and nuns and those families headed up by guys who look like they would have like to be priests (the guys who take up the collection on Sundays, for those of you who share the faith) got off. So did two young girls who apparently thought we were at Shannon and we were on the ground for an hour trying to recover same. Finally did so, hopped up in the air again and soon were at Shannon, about an hour and a half late.

Changed some traveler’s checks into pounds ($1.80 exchange rate, the best we’d see in Ireland), picked up our Renault rental car (stick shift, very small, over $400 for the week–Gackk!) and were off. Since we were late and had been up just about 24 hours at this point (it was about 10 AM Irish time), we decided to forego a planned two hour drive north to the Cliffs of Moher and Galway Bay and instead headed south toward Limerick and our first stopping point, Dingle City on the Dingle Peninsula.

While I mastered the art of driving on the “wrong” side of the road, shifting with my left hand (both relatively easy to pick up) and driving on extremely narrow streets in the city (a lot harder; like many American drivers, I’m pretty sure I clipped a rear view mirror or two on cars parked on the side whenever someone was coming the other way), my wife clutched her armrest and screamed daintily. We stopped for lunch in Adare, perennial winner of the “Ireland’s Prettiest Town” award for its thatched hut cottages. Adare is also home of an annual music festival featuring the likes of Nanci Griffith, Mary Black, James Galway and a variety of big band and classical performers. That was still a week in the future, however, so we pressed on towards Dingle.

I’d selected Dingle as our first stop, scheduling two days there because it is a place devoted to crafts and the like and one of the areas in Ireland where they are trying to preserve the Gaelic language. Seemed an ideal place to get our footing and we had reservations at the Benner Hotel right smack in the middle of town. Going in, we took the northern route over the Conor Pass. It was a) as frightening a drive as I’ve undertaken, with a road so narrow in spots that two cars could not pass and a sheer drop on the outer side, with only a three foot stone wall to prevent going over and b) the most beautiful sight and view we have ever seen. I only wish we’d been awake to enjoy it more.

Dingle was as delightful as expected, filled with music pubs where we spent our evenings. We had dinner the first night at Doyle’s Restaurant, one of the reasons we had come to Dingle (part of our plan, with the hopes of writing about it, was to hit some of the most talked about eating places in Ireland) and it was the finest meal we had the entire trip (which is saying something, believe me). We explored the peninsula during the day (I hoisted a Guinness to you all in the western-most pub in all of Europe), visiting potters and other craftsmen and enjoying spectacular  scenery. Said one potter to me on July 4: “This is your Independence Day, is it not? Is that the day the Brits left.” Replied I, setting him up: “No, that’s the day we told them to leave. Getting them to go takes a bit longer.” He did not let me down, looking first left then right and leaning forward conspiratorially: “Ah, don’t we know  it.”

One thing we missed seeing was the famous Dingle Dolphin, who took up residence in the bay back in 1984 and has never left (most unusual for one to stay this close to land this long). He apparently romps and plays with small boats out there and seems to recognize the swimmers with enough nerve to get into the water with him when they reappear, even if months have passed.

After two days in Dingle, we set off around the Ring of Kerry, one of Ireland’s great scenic drives and it was that (you have to get out early in the AM, though, to stay ahead of the busloads of  tourists), but tempered somewhat for us by the incredible things we had already seen on the Peninsula. Tell the truth, if I had to choose only once scenic experience, I’d choose Conor Pass and Dingle.

After completing the Ring, we swept on down to Bantry Bay, which those paying attention will recall was the suggestion of our own Mr. Neil Gaiman, who urged me to spent a night at Bantry House if possible. Done and done. I called before we left the US and we had the finest room in the place, the one they feature in their tourist brochure. Bantry House overlooks Bantry Bay and the view from there is also one of the most spectacular sights these tired old eyes have ever seen. Built in 1739, it houses some extraordinary furniture, paintings and art objects which I’ll detail elsewhere if anyone cares. It’s open to the public for several hours each day but we, as guests, were allowed to take our own private tour the next morning, unencumbered by  tourists or even a guide, identifying and discussing things with help of a mimeographed list the owners provided.

We had another fine meal that night in Bantry (O’Connor’s) and afterwards went to a local pub where “ballads” were being played and all the local families came in to dance and mingle. We were the only tourists in the place, stood out like you’d expect, and had a wonderful time. I’m not much of a dancer but, were it not for the recovering back, might have given it a shot myself. Still, the thing from Bantry I’ll carry with me is the view out over the bay.

Next morning we set out along the coast through several small towns toward Kinsale, the next stopping point, a seaside town that is somewhat touristy but known as Ireland’s Gourmet City. As I said, outstanding meals were part of our agenda. What kind of roll were we on? Well sir, while trying to maneuver the car through the narrow streets of a place called Timoleague that day, I decided it was time to stop for a pint. We parked and walked to the nearest pub, Dillon’s. And what did Dillon’s turn out to be but a place highly recommended for its high quality meals, most especially its Nettle Soup. And what was on the menu that very lunch? You guessed it (my wife said it was fine; I had my Guinness and passed, figuring I could write about a soup made from weeds without tasting same).

On to Kinsale. The Old Head of Kinsale, about three miles south of the city, looks out to where the Lusitania was sunk during WWI and many of the victims are buried in the area). Here we stayed at Scilly House, a neat place run by a California artist (her water colors are all over the place) and a Dublin musician. The effect is sort of California country Irish and it is delightful. In Kinsale I also found Curtin Electric on the main street and went in and tried to convince “cousin Frank” that I was entitled to half the profits, but didn’t succeed.

Where to eat in Kinsale was a big question, given the many highly touted establishments. In the end, we chose none of the well known places and instead followed our hosts’ suggestion that we go to a place about a mile up the bay from where we were staying, because they had enjoyed it so much the previous night. We met the young couple running the place, The Boat House, when they came down to Scilly House later that day to get something or other, and our fate was determined. That evening, we left our room, walked down a series of terraced gardens and paths behind the house, let ourselves through an old gate with the key provided and walked a mile and a half along the water and through the woods and down a narrow street to the restaurant. Sadly, we were about the only ones there. We dined upstairs on an outside terrace, looking over the bay to the rolling hills beyond as the light slowly faded (it’s 10 PM before it really gets dark).

It was a wonderful meal and we got to know our host quite well. At the end he insisted upon treating me to a fine old brandy and, not wanting to create an international incident, I complied. When we got home, I was commenting on how cheap the whole experience was and rechecked the bill. He had forgotten to charge us for the bottle of wine we enjoyed with dinner. I called to tell him and, after a moment’s thought, he said “well, you just come and pay me the next time you’re in Ireland.” I instead left him the money in an envelope with our hosts.

The final stop before joining my wife’s family (you will recall that all of this journey came about when my wife’s parents, to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, decided to  rent an Irish castle and take the entire family on the trip, a venture that has prompted me to forgive them their many sins for a while at least) was at Ballymaloe House, site of a famous Irish cooking school. Given how long this is getting, I’ll just say it was delightful. You get to have a reservation for dinner if you stay the night and every rooms appears to be filled every night, so you get the idea. There’s a very nice shop as well, and it was here that my wife loaded up on pottery for our girls, a sweater for our son and made the foolish promise to treat me to a tweed jacket in Dublin.

Finally, after five days on the road, we arrived at Castle Lismore. This is the Irish seat of the Duke of Devonshire, overlooking the Blackwater Valley and the River Blackwater, one of the famous salmon fishing rivers in Ireland. The castle as it now exists was restored in the middle of the last century but dates back to the 12th century as a site. It was once home to Sir Walter Raleigh and, more recently, had as its mistress Fred Astaire’s sister (pix of ole Fred dancing on the steps are on the walls here and there) and would have been the home of JFK’s sister Kathleen had she and her husband, the then Duke, not been killed in separate plane crashes in 1944-45.  It is surrounded by the most extraordinary gardens you’ve ever seen; these are open to the public afternoons but serve as a private wandering area for guests all the time. Amazing.

Again because this whole story is running incredibly long, I will flash through the castle experience here and discuss it in bits and pieces in the days to come. There were 12 of us in all, each couple with their own huge bedroom, private bath and incredible view up or down the river far below. It was here that I plugged in my portable computer and had the transformer blow up a few hours later (I thought for a moment I’d created a wall fire that would destroy the place and was prepared to pitch myself on it rather than face anyone, but the only loss was my own).

Basic life in the castle consisted of a full breakfast, a full lunch, an afternoon tea that had to be seen to be believed, and an even fuller dinner. The food was extraordinary, most of it grown on the grounds and the fish caught in the river. All of this was overseen by Dennis, the butler, to whom one had to but murmur a request to have it come true. When there were are no guests about, Dennis apparently is chief maintenance man and carpenter as well; up by the Castle’s “fishing lodge” (i.e., a smaller auxiliary castle) is a beautiful carved bench which he built. This is very much an Upstairs/Downstairs situation. Dennis’s sister is married to the Duke’s butler in England, his wife was one of the cooks until she got pregnant, other family members abound. When the Duke comes to visit, his butler takes over that position and Dennis steps down to whatever level is below that for the duration.

Lismore turned out to be a wonderful town, with a great old cathedral and some delightful pubs. Mr. Madden and Mrs. Foley both seemed more than willing to adopt me and since their establishments were side by side, I was able to accommodate both, ordering a Guinness in the first I enter and then going to order another next door, coming back to find the first pour completed and so on. We also took side trips for a hurling match, for golf, for shooting (not I, of course), sightseeing and the like. It was on one of these ventures that I experienced perhaps my most memorable moments in Ireland.

After a long day going to shops and farms and craft places that my wife and mother-in-law had selected, the six of us in the van were tired and ready to get back to the castle. We stopped for gas and,  as the rental agent has urgently and pointedly instructed, filled  up with diesel. But this weren’t no diesel engine and, half mile out of Newcastle, on an empty road, we came to a smoky, final stop at 5 PM on a Saturday afternoon.

And thus we met, after a half mile walk back to town, Noel O’Keefe, garageman extraordinary. He took us under his wing, towed the car back, put us in touch with the rental people to tell them to come get the van and send a replacement to the castle. We called the castle to ask for a car to come and get us and I shook Noel’s hand in thanks and said “I guess we’ll wait in the pub over there.” He was indignant. “You will not,” he said, “it’s a dirty shabby pub and I won’t have you going there.” With that, he swept us up and walked us up the hill to his home.

His wife produced, with seemingly no effort, pots and pots of tea and trays brimming with cookies. We were introduced to their ten year old daughter as “long lost relatives from America who’ve come to stay with us” (to many giggles), met the family puppy and soon were engrossed in a video of the local inter-pub musical competition (which their favorite pub, five miles up the road, won). When our driver arrived and I went outside apologetically to say “Sean, I’m afraid we’ve just started tea,” his response was an eager “I’ll have a cup” and he joined the party. It was like we were old friends, if not close family. Extraordinary people, a wonderful experience.

Two days later it was over and wife and I were on the train to Dublin, where we stayed at a nice little hotel just off St. Stephen’s Greene. With the university right there, we saw a diversity of faces (black, oriental, Indian) and styles (punk, hippie,  academic), a mix that had been missing out in the countryside. We went to the Abbey Theater (tickets eighth row center, through the efforts of the inimitable Dennis) and, at intermission, I went upstairs for the glass of port I had reserved and stood looking out the window at an empty alleyway. Suddenly, as if the city was sending me a message that this was a different world indeed, down that alley came a hunchbacked dwarf, followed in short order by a large hairy sort in Daniel Boone buckskins. Surreal…and perfect.

We saw a lot of what we should, missed a lot more, and did prodigious shopping for friends and family (got me a tweed jacket). Our last day, we had lunch at Davey Byrne’s Pub where Molly Bloom used to spend some time and a simple pub dinner at Foley’s Pub (the fish in my wife’s fish ‘n chips was salmon; my Irish stew was perfect) and listened to a very good duo upstairs playing traditional music until it was time to go. Across the street was O’Donoghue’s, probably Dublin’s most famous music pub (the Dubliners were formed there some 30 years ago and there are two bands each night, one at either end of the place) but it was so crowded that the revelers were spilled over into the streets as early as 7 PM and just too much of a struggle for a middle aged couple on their last legs.

Flight home was late, crowded, uncomfortable and getting though NY Customs was every bad thing we all know it can be. A whole series of electronic disasters awaited at home as well. Not a problem. I’d do it all over again tomorrow….

 from The Comics & Animation Forum, COMPUSERVE, July 1992

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