“WHEN THE SPIRITs go in, the truth comes out.” So goes the saying in Ireland.
In last week’s column, I recounted the “now famous” Dublin rendezvous, when four deserving moms met under the clock at the Shelbourne Hotel for a week-long adventure. Jilli (the former Oakland-based writer, who turned 50), Affie and Sooze came thousands of miles for this momentous affair. I, myself, journeyed many long hours by plane, bus and foot — rolling my over-stuffed bags through the cobbled streets of Dublin.
The famed Shelbourne Hotel has seen many a reunion, but I dare say we made our mark. We left knowing half the city — at least the half that wandered in and out of the pub that night.
Squeezing into our little blue rental, we drove in the dark to the Bel Air Hotel in County Wicklow. Jilli had special memories of this 15th-century equestrian estate, having stayed here as a child, but nothing prepared us for the welcome we got when we arrived. “Come in and sit down, girls, and I’ll get you some drinks and grilled sandwiches,” said Fidelma Freeman, the kindly proprietor. She’d waited till the midnight hour for us to arrive.
What happened next couldn’t have been more perfect, had it been staged. Two guests of the manor, both local men, took it upon themselves to put on a show. They sang and danced and told tall tales — all to our great amusement. I especially enjoyed the kissing song, which was punctuated by two leprechaun-like pecks on my cheek. Sooze, an actress back home in St. Louis, was so caught up in the antics, she joined the men in an Irish jig.
Up at the crack of noon the next day, we took our tea in the lobby of the grand old estate, where cattle graze just beyond the front door and horses are saddled for the day’s ride. I brought my old Montana cowboy boots and jeans and assumed I was ready. “We’ll have to take you out separately,” said the stable manager. The rest of the group, including Jilli, would be galloping wildly through the forests and meadows of Wicklow.
In an English saddle, it was all I could do to hang on in a trot. But by the grace of St. Peter, I got out there and gave it a go. Through the fields of Fox Glove and Clover I moved to the rhythm of the steed. Up and down, clip and a clop, faster and faster we rode. I was high on a ridge overlooking green pastures and an ocean of azure and blue. I was doing what I’d come here to do.
I was also popping Advil into the evening, nursing both a sore neck and a sore bottom. But it did nothing to stop us from burning the midnight oil in Dublin’s famed Temple Bar district. Here, pubs like the Hairy Lemon and the Auld Dubliner play traditional Irish folk music late into the night. Fiddles, flutes and Elbow pipes stir the soul with the primal beat of the Bodhran drum.
Some of the songs you will know, like “Dublin’s fair city…cockles and mussels, alive alive-oh.” But the ballad that brought us to our feet was the heartfelt ode to the beloved River Liffey. You see, the Irish love their rivers, and liken the Liffey to a beautiful woman who stirs the flames of passion. So we danced round and round, arms linked and legs stepping high with strangers who felt like friends.
We had good craic in Dublin that night. Craic is pronounced “crack” and is Gaelic for conversation. You’d have to be dead not to have good craic with the Irish. They love Americans, and they love to talk. (Almost everyone in Ireland has a relative “in the states.” Many have been to the U.S., since it’s only a few hours by plane).
Often, the stories you hear are of hardships, which were evident all over Ireland until the recent economic boom. The Catholic Church is another favorite topic. Men have their stories of being “chosen” for priesthood and then falling from grace in the seminary. “I was rescued by the lady with me tonight,” one man told me. “She lured me from a life of celibacy,” he said with sparkling eyes. But more often than not, these days, it’s politics they’ll be talking about in the pubs of Ireland. If you engage in this topic, be prepared to stay a while.
As prolific as the pubs are the castles and ruins of Ireland. They’re part of the landscape, everywhere you go. On one misty day, in weather the Irish call “soft,” we explored the ruins of Glendalough, where St. Kevin built his monastery in 550 AD. From the round stone tower where the monks used to hide from invaders to the tiny cells where these early Christians lived, Glendalough is often called the cradle of religion in Ireland.
Every region has its castles, and some are open for touring and medieval meals. Malahide Castle is one of the favorites, only 9 miles from Dublin with the only medieval hall in Ireland that’s preserved in its original form. It’s a picture-book palace surrounded by botanical gardens and parkland.
Steeped in Irish history is the long list of writers who’ve been born on these shores — men like Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett and Frank McCourt, to name a few. Their sayings are on many a pub wall, and their books can be found in towns big and small. It was Wilde who wrote the words: “We’re all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars,” a quote that seems to embody the spirit of Ireland.
To truly give life to these words, you should hear them spoken by the author himself or at least a good impersonator. The best place to do this is the Writer’s Museum in Dublin. Here you can see a one-man show where the actor reads passages from great Irish books, impersonating the authors and captivating the audience.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the gardens of Ireland. County Wicklow is renowned for its gardens and celebrates with a festival each May through July. The moist climate, tempered by the Gulf Stream and fertile, sun-kissed soil make Wicklow a lush land.
Two of the county’s best gardens are Powerscourt and Mount Usher. Completely different in nature, Powerscourt is one of the great gardens of Europe, with fountains and ponds and antique sculptures, all laid out grandly in the shadow of Sugarloaf Mountain. Mount Usher, on the other hand, is a relatively small natural garden — a more modest showing of nature along the banks of the River Vartry. It doesn’t attract the hoards of people that flock to Powerscourt and for that reason, it is truly a restorative place.
Among the many changes happening in Ireland these days is the food. You can still find the traditional Irish breakfast of cured ham, poached eggs and black and white pudding. But all over the cities and towns you will see restaurants serving everything from Italian to Chinese cuisine.
The girls and I had a stunningly good meal in Ashford at Restaurant O Sole Mio, where the pasta was perfect and the vegetables were crisp and flavorful, not “done to a turn” like in the Ireland of old. Curry is big in Ireland, and you’ll find it served with fish and chips at a multitude of “take away” cafes.
But don’t make the mistake we made and wait too late to eat dinner. While the sun is up until well after 10 p.m. in the summertime, most restaurants and pubs stop serving food at 9:30.
Just a little about the traffic in Ireland, which can be quite bad in the environs of Dublin. With housing prices that rival the Bay Area’s and a booming economy, more and more people are moving to the suburbs. There’s highway construction all over the area, and traffic jams are now the norm. So avoid driving during peak commute times.
Also, be prepared to get lost, as some new highways simply stop with no signs marking detours. It’s part of the price being paid for prosperity.
But like everything else, it’s taken in stride for the Irish are survivors, and laughter and wit will carry them through.
This column is dedicated to all my Irish readers, who’ve come to Oakland to make a new life. Thank you to Mark Dunne and Tom Hennigan for helping me plan my trip, and for the guys at McNally’s Irish Pub on College Avenue for giving me “a taste” of Ireland before my travels. A special blessing to “Romey” White, a Montclair contractor who passed away recently. His friends took his casket all the way back to his homeland and saw that he was buried next to his family — in Ireland’s oldest cemetery.
God bless the people of Ireland and America. We are forever connected by a history of friendship and respect