So You Want to Go to Ireland! (Part 7): Eating, Drinking … and Music

This series started with an introduction, and here are parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.

Now, let’s talk about those to-do categories we skipped earlier, shall we? I haven’t forgotten them.

10 Have a drink in a traditional Irish pub
11 Hear traditional Irish music
18 Shop for uniquely Irish items
19 Enjoy the food

I’m going to put off the post on shopping, since this one has already gotten longish. So let’s discuss food, drink, and music! Here’s a little bit of background that will help when you’re planning your trip.

Traditional Music
What you may be calling Celtic is called traditional in Ireland. “Trad.” More than likely, you’re going to find traditional sessions in a pub—look for signs in pub windows. Don’t look for a stage so you can sit close—the musicians will most likely sit at a table somewhere in the room. If you’re an old fogey like me, do be prepared to stay up late: the musicians won’t show up until after 9:00 or even 10:00 pm.

If you love this music—and who doesn’t!—look for music stores in larger towns, where you can pick up CDs by local musicians to take home.

Public Houses
Ireland is the only place I know that exports its pub culture. You can go just about anywhere in the world—even my little town here in Tennessee—and find an Irish pub. (Authenticity is another story. About a dozen years ago I visited one such establishment in Nashville—now defunct—and was dismayed to find the wait staff dressed in caps and vests and short pants, looking like they’d just stepped out of the 1840s. Oh dear.)

You can search the Web or travel guides for well-known pubs in Ireland, but as far as I’m concerned, you can stop into any pub on your route, enjoy the ambience of the moment, and it will be an authentic experience. In his wonderful book, McCarthy’s Bar: A Journey of Discovery in the West of Ireland, Pete McCarthy has a series of travel rules, the first of which is Never pass a bar with your name on it … and this works for me. 🙂 Tourists have subtly influenced authenticity, though, so the further out you get, the real-er they’ll feel. (No pressure to look like an Irish pub for the tourists, you see.)

Unlike England, where you find pubs with names like Red Lion, Goose and Cloud, or Saracens Head, many Irish pubs are named after the owner or a previous owner. (There are exceptions, of course: the Bleeding Horse and the Confession Box, both long-lived pubs in Dublin, are just two.) A lot of social life happens in pubs—celebrations of all sorts, meet-ups, and general relaxation. We have nothing in the United States that approximates Irish pub culture.

With that in mind, here are a few things you should know:

• Belly up to the bar, there may not be a waiter.
• No need to tip the bartender.
• Don’t run a tab. Drinks are bought (and paid for) in rounds; that is, you buy a round for the entire table. And then someone else does.
• It’s pronounced JEM-i-sun (short e), not JAY-mi-sun.
• Remove your hat, young sir.
• Don’t ask for an Irish Car Bomb or a Black and Tan. Please.

Pubs in the larger cities and towns probably offer food—pub grub—throughout the day. More than likely it will be casual comfort food—soups, stews, hot sandwiches and fries—but some city pubs chase the business lunch crowd with expanded menus; in smaller towns you might be lucky to get a cold sandwich. Still, if you’re on a budget, a pub’s a good place to eat.

The local—a good place to meet new friends!

The local—a good place to meet new friends!

Let’s talk about what to eat. Don’t worry about “traditional” food and forget any jokes you may have heard about the quality of Irish cuisine. Some of the best meals I’ve had in my life I had in Ireland.

These, then, are the things that will always be good:

• fish and seafood
• lamb
• potatoes
• pork: chops, sausages, bacon
• brown bread
• dairy: cheese, butter, buttermilk
• fresh fruits and vegetables
• soups and stews: Guinness stew
• breakfast: white and black pudding

Some things are just obvious: you are never far from the sea in Ireland, so fish and seafood are fresh, fresh, fresh. By now you’ve seen the sheep everywhere, so it makes sense that the lamb will be good. Pork too—the locavore movement is in full swing here as in the States; the demand for organic and local foodstuffs supports farmers across the nation. Gerry gets delicious sausage from his local butcher, made to the butcher’s family recipe and available nowhere else.

Speaking of pork, be sure to enjoy the “full Irish” breakfast, wherever you find one; pay particular attention to the black and white pudding, which are really coarse sausages stuffed with oats or barley and pork (pig’s blood, in the case of black pudding). Seriously delicious. And the best B&Bs will be patronizing a local butcher for bacon, sausages, and puddings. Yum. Oh, and about breakfast: you’re not going to find a Denny’s or an IHOP in every town, so if you’re not staying in a B&B or otherwise find yourself in need of breakfast some morning and don’t know where to go, step into the local hotel, where the dining room will bring you a pot of tea and a menu right away. 🙂

Potatoes are served with just about everything in Ireland—fried, boiled, mashed, you name it. They are more flavorful than the potatoes you’re used to, so be sure to sample them. A decade ago we stopped at a pub for lunch and I ordered Guinness stew (a favorite of mine, and always a safe bet if you’re looking for comfort food); when the bowl of stew (beef, onions, and carrots swimming in gravy) arrived it was accompanied by a serving bowl of boiled, peeled potatoes. It was explained to me I should add one potato at a time to my stew bowl. Oh my. I felt like I was tasting potatoes for the first time, tasting ur-potatoes. I’ll never forget that meal. (Oh, and don’t you forget that french fries are called chips, and potato chips are called crisps!)

As noted, you can’t go wrong with a Guinness stew. And soup … OMG. Cooks across Ireland are stirring up the most imaginative pots of soup you’ve ever put in your mouth. I still fantasize about that bowl of parsnip and blue cheese I had in Glandore. Great pub food. You’ll also find delicious fried food in pubs—fish-n-chips, for example, and lovely fried chicken.

Parsnip and blue cheese soup with brown bread. OMG.

Parsnip and blue cheese soup with brown bread. OMG.

You can always count on these types of meals to be served with hearty brown bread and butter. By all means, set your diet aside (you’re going to walk it off anyway) and sample the bread, kids. Heaven!

Or put a slab of cheese on that bread. If your’re a cheese-lover like me, you’re going to love your stay in Ireland; artisan cheeses abound. Be sure to order that cheese tray from the dessert menu, or duck into a farm shop or grocer to pick up cheese to snack on later. (If you’re in Dublin, go to Sheridan’s Cheesemongers and they’ll take fine care of you. Try the English Market in Cork.) I could go on and on about this—one of the magic moments you’ll read about in the next post has to do with cheese—but just trust me: try the cheese.

One last thing: give tea a try, even if you’re a coffee drinker. The Irish drink a lot of tea, and they know how to do it right. And for a special treat, you should consider taking in a “high tea” (or call it “afternoon tea”) at an upscale hotel. (This will include sandwiches and baked goods in addition to your teapot full of joy.) We enjoyed this experience at the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin (read about it here) and have already decided to do it again. It was special—and delicious—and it’s a quintessential Irish experience, so you should consider putting it on your itinerary.

Up next: Let’s go shopping!

The Second Breeze

20 May 2013, Monday

In spite of a late start—about half an hour—from Chicago, my flight still landed right on time in Dublin: eight o’clock in the morning. Early! My bags came off the plane very quickly—more good fortune—and I hustled through customs and out to meet Gerry.

From there we went to the car rental desk, but this time we didn’t have to ride the shutttle to their off-site location; the car was right at the airport. Somehow it’s mellower when you get the paperwork done in the terminal. “You got a very good rate on this,” the clerk said. The hits just kept coming.

We ran right home to Gerry’s place for my first official Irish fry-up. Gerry gets his white and black pudding from a butcher who has his own recipe; the sausages were from a grocery chain called Superquinn. (And when you say “Superquinn” around any of Gerry’s family, you immediately get this rejoinder: “Best sausages in Ireland!” I’m a brand-loyal shopper myself, so I can relate.)

There wasn’t much on the agenda for this day, and that’s a good thing. I’ve never thought I slept particularly well on that Atlantic flight, but there is a big difference between uncomfortable, crick-in-the-neck plane sleep (which is, after all, some sleep) and a screaming baby in your aisle (which is, not to put too fine a point on it, no sleep). I was already exhausted. Normally I get a second wind after my first Irish breakfast … but I couldn’t even locate a second breeze.

So we piddled around. Gerry had gotten me a new camera, and he taught me how to use it. (A little Canon EOS-M—I love it!) Then we went out looking for a few grocery items I wanted to pick up. On my last trip to Ireland, I’d purchased a jar of Sarah’s Wonderful Honey at a farm shop—and loved it. Wanted more. We found three varieties at Tesco. We ran over to Superquinn (“best sausages in Ireland”) to have a look, just in case. Then we went to our hotel.

Hotels are not inexpensive in Ireland (you’ll get a better rate at a B&B), but Americans will find the bathrooms (rooms in general) a bit more spacious in a hotel. Elevators are a nice touch too. And if you’re willing to pay in full in advance, you can find very good rates indeed. I did this and was not disappointed. This trip was to be primarily a Dublin tour, with places to be visited both inside the city centre and a little further out—so I split the time between a city centre hotel and one near Gerry’s place.

That was the airport Bewley’s. It’s a weird parking situation, because they’re in the park-and-fly business too. So the lot (the carpark!) is always active; lots of business travelers. (There’s three places to park—outside, or in the basement, floor A or floor B. You should opt for floor B: fewer cars.) In fact, the lobby is always active too. It’s a busy hotel, and the desk staff tends to be a little terse. It’s not a touchy-feely friendly place, but it’s quiet upstairs, and comfortable enough. (Be sure you take the airport shuttle at least once, as you’ll get a little country tour on the way … a sight you might not otherwise see.)

After we got settled, we went for an early dinner at a place just up the coastal road in Clontarf. As in any large city, there are neighborhoods that were once villages in their own right, and that’s the case here. Clontarf used to be an isolated, sleepy little fishing village right on the sea just north of Dublin Port. It’s grown to be a nice, upscale Dublin suburb but it is still quiet and has that village atmosphere.

Margaret and I had looked in at the Sandbar Trattoria last September when we were here, and everything looked fresh and good. The restaurant sits right at the intersection of the Clontarf Road and Vernon Avenue, in the heart of the village.

The Sandbar Trattoria, Clontarf Village, Ireland

The Sandbar Trattoria, Clontarf Village, Ireland

Gerry had pizza. It was lovely. I ordered a calzone that could have fed both of us.

Gerry had pizza. It was lovely. I ordered a calzone that could have fed both of us.

After dinner we walked a couple doors down to have a look at the church, which is St. John the Baptist’s Catholic church. In his wonderful blog, my friend Patrick Comerford offers this bit of history on the church—

The church dates to the appointment of the Revd James Callanan as Parish Priest of Clontarf in 1829. He bought a house that is now home the Holy Faith Convent, and approached Colonel Vernon of Clontarf Castle for a site for a new church. Archbishop Murray laid foundation stone on 16 June 1835, and it opened in 1838. The church was designed by the prominent Dublin architect, Patrick Byrne. The church was enlarged in 1895, with the addition of 17 ft at the chancel end, a new high altar, pulpit, altar rails, sacristy, bell and belfry.

—and a nice photo taken when the gates were open. (They were not when we were there.)

St. John’s Church, Clontarf

St. John’s Church, Clontarf

I’m thinking that must be John on the left of the photo, but who is the other fellow? I don’t know. St. John’s Church, Clontarf

I’m thinking that must be John on the left of the photo (looking a bit like a Georgian street person), but who is the other fellow? I don’t know. St. John’s Church, Clontarf

Then we walked across the street … to the sea.

St. John’s Church, Clontarf, from across the street. It’s lovely, really.

St. John’s Church, Clontarf, from across the street. It’s lovely, really.

There’s a beautiful walk along the beach: paved, well-lit, and scenic.

Looking east along the beach at Clontarf.

Looking east along the beach at Clontarf.

And then I recognized a landmark that Gerry had told me about long ago: the Poolbeg Chimneys, Dubliners call them. They are part of the ESB’s Poolbeg Generating Station at Ringsend, on the south bank of Dublin Port. The thermal station chimneys—number 1 is 680 feet 9 inches tall, number 2 is 681 feet 9 inches—are some of the tallest structures in Ireland, and you can see them from all over Dublin city. There’s been a power station on this spot since 1903, but construction for the Poolbeg station began in the 1960s. Tower number 1 was completed in 1971, number 2 in 1978.

A new, more efficient station was built on the site in the 1990s, so the towers are no longer used or maintained; the ESB wants to tear them down. But for folks born in the last fifty or so years, they are a powerful symbol of home. (Look here if you want to see more.) So … they remain, for now. And there they were, right there!

The Poolbeg Chimneys. Number 1 is on the far right. (Remember, you can click on the image—and click again—to zoom in.)

The Poolbeg Chimneys. Number 1 is on the far right. (Remember, you can click on the image—and click again—to zoom in.)

After that I was pretty much done. I’d been up more than twenty-four hours. So we went back to the hotel and crashed.

If It’s Wednesday, This Must Be Dublin

Day 2 / Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Air travel is … well, not fun. Prices are fairly reasonable but now most airlines make us pay to check even one bag and bringing a second* runs anywhere from sixty to a hundred dollars more. This forces us to carry things we’d rather not (I actually packed my Canon EOS—something I would never normally do—because it’s pretty heavy and I couldn’t bear the thought of carrying it). Which is why the airport looks like a refugee camp, and the overhead luggage racks are scenes of intense territorial warfare. From the full body scans to the shrinking leg room and the recycled but unfiltered air that simply assures every germ on the plane is shared with every person on the plane, it’s no wonder we’re all cranky about flying.

So I’d like to propose a few rules of conduct:

1. Be polite, for heaven’s sake. Be friendly. Make eye contact. Smile. We’re all in this miserable experience together.

2. Don’t be so stinkin’ demanding. This means you, middle-aged Irish lady, moving back into the plane against outbound traffic trying to retrieve a carryon stowed a dozen rows behind your seat, loudly demanding we move out of your way. Just wait until the aisle has cleared; it’s the polite thing to do.

3. Be kind. We’d all like to get where we’re going, so don’t think your rush is more important than my rush.

4. Be humble. You may be a Master of the Universe in your Wall Street world but to me you just look like an arrogant jerk in a suit if you’re not polite, kind, and humble. And would you mind obeying the rules about the amount of carryon? You’re not that special.

5. Must you recline your seat during “dinner”? You are tempting me to spill mayonnaise on the top of your head.

6. Be considerate. No matter how slim you are, if you’re in the window seat, you’re going to make two people get up and stand in the aisle when you decide to go to the loo. We will do this more cheerfully if you’ve been nice to us (as opposed to grumpy and resentful) and if you do it, say, right after dinner and before they’ve turned the lights out. You know you’re going to have to go, right? Don’t wait until we’ve finally managed to doze off a couple hours after lights out; that only makes us despise you. I, for one, will not be held accountable for the look on my face.

Thanks for letting me get that off my chest. 🙂

And yes* I brought a second bag, because I now travel with a CPAP machine, which is both bulky and heavy. Additionally, I would be attending a wedding, so I had to bring clothing and shoes I’d only wear once. Not to mention the things I’d be bringing for my Irish family. (I’m not legally a member of the fam yet—that’s a US Immigration issue—but Gerry and I have been together for more than ten years, and as far as I’m concerned, these delightful people are all my in-laws. What a happy, happy day it was that brought me to them!)

We landed at 9:40am. Ireland at last! We got our passports stamped, walked unimpeded through customs (on my previous two visits, that station was actually manned, but it wasn’t this time—although I’m told we were, in fact, being watched), and found Gerry waiting for us.

Caught a shuttle to the rental car location, where we learned our car wasn’t ready for us yet. (“You said it would be noon when you picked it up.” What? You had my flight number and arrival time. You’re located at the airport. What business are you in again?) We were dealing with a woman who was probably from somewhere in Eastern Europe but who’d been living in Ireland for some years—strangest accent ever, with a nasal voice like Fran Drescher. I kept saying, “I’m sorry—what?” and eventually she was a little put out with me. She offered me a different car (a Volkswagen Passat station wagon) than we’d ordered (a Ford Mondeo) but when we got in it and I started driving, it was so uncomfortable that I simply drove it around the block and returned it.

Needless to say, we were at the Budget Car office a lot longer than we wanted. This ended up being the Trip of the Ever-Changing Itinerary, and this day was only the beginning. Traditionally we drive back to Gerry’s for a fry-up (part of the Big Irish Breakfast), but that became brunch instead. Don’t know what a Big Irish Breakfast is? Oh, let me explain. 🙂

There’s a thriving B&B industry in Ireland, and it’s lifted the humble breakfast to state of the art. I know a lot of folks who don’t eat much (or any) breakfast, but that’s a mistake, in my opinion. How could you resist, anyway, when you wander in to a cheerful dining room whose central table is groaning with … two or three fruit juices and milk in pitchers, fresh fruit, canned fruit in bowls, a variety of yogurts, at least three cereals, often freshly baked scones, Irish brown bread … and are greeted with, “Tea or coffee?” You stroll over and spoon some muesli into a bowl, pour yogurt over it, and call it good. Pears are in season, so you pick one up for dessert. Tea arrives. And then your hostess asks, “Would you like a fry up?”

There’s more?

Oh yes. An Irish fry up typically has two rashers (very lean bacon; more like a slice of ham than what we Americans call bacon), two sausage links (also leaner), two eggs, a grilled tomato half, and a piece each of black and white pudding. Don’t be misled by that pudding—these are pieces of sausage whose secret ingredient is oatmeal. And don’t turn your nose up at black pudding, either; it’s delicious. As in the States, there are various mass-made brands of sausages and puddings (I particularly enjoy the Clonakilty brand), but most butchers make their own blends. And I’ll just say Gerry’s butcher is skilled in this capacity.

Now that we’d eaten and relaxed and gifts had been presented and the luggage divested of things I was asked to bring from the States (just call me www-dot-Jamie-dot-com), we were ready to see where we’d be staying for the next few days. One of Gerry’s nephews, Neil, and his fiancée, Maureen, had generously offered to let Margaret and I stay at their home in Laytown, in County Meath (pronounce this MEED). I’d met Neil on previous trips, and spoken to him on Skype in between. I know him to be smart and funny. I’d been Facebook friends with Maureen, but hadn’t met her yet. Margaret and I were extremely grateful for this kindness.

About twenty-six miles north of Dublin, the village of Laytown sits right on a beautiful beach; Neil and Maureen live in a lovely subdivision called Inse Bay. And we only drove around lost a little bit. 🙂 After we were settled in the guest rooms and had the instructions on how to turn on the hot water and the radiator, we all went out to dinner in Drogheda (pronounce this DRAH-hedda), a good-sized town just ten minutes north of Laytown.

Neil recommended the Black Bull Inn, and we were in time for the early bird special (we would find this all over Ireland): a special price for two or three courses, usually for diners arriving between 5 and 7pm.

The Black Bull Inn: no shirt no shoes no service. (Margaret took this photo.)

The place was cozy—and busy. And the food was wonderful. (This was no surprise to me; I’ve had wonderful meals in Ireland. If you enjoy good food, you can find it here.) I had a steak. And apple tart (that is, pie) for dessert.

Back in Laytown we lingered, talking with Neil and Maureen, until late (for two gals who’d been up for thirty-six hours). Once Gerry and I got upstairs, though, another disaster: I got out my adapter and we realized it was the one we keep at home in Tennessee for Gerry’s Irish things; the adapter I’ve used in Ireland in the past now lives at Gerry’s house so he can plug in electronics purchased in the States. Like his iPad. Ha. So … the CPAP machine was looking like a dim hope and I was close to tears, because I love that thing (I should say: I love the quality of the sleep I get with it). But while my mind was mush at this point, Gerry remembered he’d brought Neil a Kindle from the US. They were still up, thank goodness, and the adapter was procured posthaste. By then it was 11pm and I was completely worn out. Tomorrow, though, would be a better day.

Today’s Image

While we were waiting for our car at Budget, we watched people arriving to pick up their rentals. This was one: a woman, bleached blonde hair down to her rear end, dressed in a schoolgirl getup. No joke. It was all whites: a white/black plaid pleated skirt  that barely covered her important bits, a long-sleeved blouse and little shortie vest. Plus thigh-high boots with sky-high heels and white stockings. Heavily made up. I would say she was forty-two to forty-five, but trying to look ten years younger. It was … an eyeful.

Come Dance With Me in Ireland

8 February 2006, Wednesday / Co. Dublin

Unlike the last time I traveled to Ireland, my Aer Lingus flight from Chicago wasn’t very full. I read a little and then slept (as much as one can be said to sleep on a plane), and flew through the night. We arrived in Dublin Wednesday morning at seven—and I was surprised to note it was still dark! (This must be a consequence of Ireland being so much further north than Tennessee is, but I never did get used to this late-lingering darkness that completely disrupted my internal alarm clock.) Nonetheless, the well-lit city was pretty from the air, especially the lights along the water’s edge in Dublin Bay.

I breezed on through Customs and found the Irishman waiting for me on the other side, and it was very nice to see him indeed!

At last—someone to help with the luggage!

We picked up the rental car (EuropCar this time, arranged by my AAA travel agent, as I’d read it was cheaper to rent from America than from Ireland), and off we went. I am rather blasé about these things now, although many of you will remember that on my last trip I was quite apprehensive about driving on the left. There is a certain comfort in returning, as I have, knowing it’s not all that odd, really, driving on the other side, knowing I can do it without trouble. We even got a free upgrade this time, from a Ford Focus to a Mondeo, which was considerably roomier and definitely more uptown in terms of looks.

It was cold and windy, but I was prepared for this. I’ve lived in the American South for a long time, and before that California, so I’m not by nature used to the chill, but the answer is, simply, layers: a camisole, a turtleneck, a vest or another shirt, a lightweight coat. You’d be amazed at how much warmth is held when you wind a scarf around your neck, too, even if you’re inside (a habit I got into). And don’t forget a hat and gloves when you don your coat!

The Irishman’s neighborhood is only about fifteen minutes from the airport, but we were making the journey in the middle of the morning rush hour, and it took considerably longer. It was fun to watch everyone scurrying off to work or school, knowing I was just beginning a long, leisurely vacation; the bumper-to-bumper situation bothered me not one whit. You’ll recall there’s a B&B just around the corner from Gerry’s house, and I’d made reservations to stay there again, at the Blaithin (Bla-HEEN) House.* It’s homey and comfortable and convenient.

We stashed my bags at Blaithin and went off to the Irishman’s for a nice big Irish fry-up, and kids, I’ve been waiting for this for two-and-a-half years: bring on that white pudding! White pudding, you may recall, is an important part of that Big Irish Breakfast—and it’s the best part, as far as I’m concerned. Popular in Scotland as well as Ireland, it’s a large-diameter sausage made of finely ground pork, suet, bread, oatmeal, and traditional spices (though each butcher has his own recipe). Sliced off in rounds and fried, it has a soft, spreadable consistency, which makes it delicious on toast. I could make a meal of it! (The traditional Irish fry-up consists of rashers [lean bacon], eggs, broiled tomato—which the Irish pronounce toe-MAH-toe—sausage links, black pudding [blood sausage], plenty of brown bread, and white pudding—more than enough to keep one going right on through ’til dinnertime!)

Thus fortified, I’d caught my second wind and was anxious to start my vacation! In practical terms this meant going into Dublin (the Irishman lives in a neighborhood in north Dublin, so, yes, technically I was in Dublin; but what I mean is go downtown to where the action is—or, as the Irish would say, go into the city center). We mostly wandered around the Temple Bar area, which stretches along the River Liffey. Essentially an arts district, the area is home, by day, to art galleries, theaters, funky shops, street vendors, and trendy restaurants and pubs, and at night is packed with people partaking of the craic at the many nightclubs and pubs. (You can read more about it here.) We also wandered through the Grafton Street area (this is Dublin’s main upmarket shopping area; the major department stores and designer shops are here) to get to Trinity University, as I wanted to hit the gift shop there.

John Mulligan’s, Poolbeg Street, Dublin. Late afternoon.

From Trinity we made our way to Poolbeg Street and Mulligan’s pub, an unpretentious, old-fashioned real Irish bar. We sat near the front, with the sun streaming in the windows; it was quiet in this late afternoon lull before the after-work regulars began to arrive. So it was here I had my first sip of the black stuff upon my arrival in the Republic … and oh, it was good, so very good to be back.

You’ll be interested to know that Chinese take-out restaurants in Ireland serve curry, an anomaly I find intriguing (since I generally think of curry as being Indian food). Of course, they also serve chips (fries to us Yanks) too. I know all this because we ordered Chinese in that night … later while Gerry cleaned up, I sat on the couch, holding up one-third of the conversation and pretending to be awake.

Then, just as I thought I might have to be carried “home” to my B&B, a very special treat arrived in the person of one Orla H. The Irishman had introduced me to his youngest niece (and her three older siblings—Neil, Eoin, and Clare—children of his older brother, William, and his wife, Gwen) via phone a year ago, and we’d been friends and e-pals ever since. Orla is, in a word, fun. But why stop at one? She’s bubbly, she’s funny, she’s bright, she’s sweet, she’s eighteen years old. And did I mention gorgeous? Her brother Neil was content to let Orla rule the conversation, but, Dubliner that he is, he got his subtle licks in. I found him intelligent and witty, as all my favorite Irishmen are.

The highlight of my evening? Learning how to tie my winter scarf like an Irish girl! You see, here in the South our woolen scarves are more decoration than protection; an homage to Jack Frost, perhaps, but little more. We wind them once around and throw the long end down our backs (we did this in California, too, where I grew up). In the Midwest, where scarves can be essential in a blizzard, they use a double-wrap maneuver, with both ends hanging forward, often to be pinned firmly under a coat. But in Ireland (and Paris, too; more about which later), they do it differently.

In my last visit to the Republic, you’ll recall, I learned that the Irish can spot us Yanks a mile away: ye shall know them by their clothing, you might say. Well, let me assure you, in Dublin in February they know us, in part, by our long, flopping scarves. And since I want to try to blend in as much as possible, I asked Orla: “How do you tie your scarf?” She knew immediately what I meant, of course, and promptly gave me a demonstration. It’s simple, really; embarrassingly so. Ask me sometime and I’ll show you.

So that’s it. We haven’t really gotten started yet, you know! Tune in next time, when I’ll try to refrain from whinging about the shower at my B&B.

* It’s closed now, sadly.

The Happy Green Island

I met Gerry eighteen months ago, and he’s already been to the States twice to visit me. Now, after much discussion and planning, I’ve made my very first trip to Ireland. I was excited beyond excited.

Some of you may recall my England Chronicles, wherein my British friend, Anna, gave me a journal to record the minutiae “because you’ll forget the little details when you get back home.” What a great idea! I carried the same journal back across the ocean with me on this trip, and every evening faithfully recorded the day’s activities.

Wednesday, 10 September 2003
Nashville (BNA) to Chicago (ORD)
Actually, I started writing in my journal in the Chicago airport, during a long layover between Nashville and Dublin, where I found myself at the center of a good six-dozen geriatric Ireland groupies (at least three separate tour groups, judging by the matching T-shirts). American Airlines had moved my flight up from 2pm to a noonish departure, which is how I ended up with the long layover.

So I found myself at the Aer Lingus gate of the international terminal at O’Hare, in the center of a raucous group of retired folk (who knew seniors could be so frisky?), one group of which didn’t know the translation of the Gaelic phrase on their embroidered golf shirts (I asked). Sitting next to me, however, was a young college boy (a junior, from Wisconsin), going to study philosophy at UCD (University College Dublin, one of the two major universities in the city, the other being Trinity College) for a semester. And on the other side, a fella who hummed as he read. Oh, goodness.

We were all headed to the Happy Green Island together … in September. Yes, I was going to be in an airplane, over an ocean, on September 11, and good grief, a new audio/video of Osama bin Laden had just aired, with CNN gravely reporting that new “statements” from OBL tend to surface just before an Al Qaeda attack.

But there are a couple good reasons for choosing September to visit Ireland. September is one of the nicest months, climatically speaking, in Ireland. (Later I was to learn that an inordinate amount of weddings happen in Ireland in September for the same reason.) Also, the actual full-on tourist season (with the higher prices) is April–August (and I did encounter some tourism sites that were closed or operating on reduced hours, tho’ not enough to matter), so there are fewer crowds to contend with too.

With a generally mild climate year ’round—warmed by the Gulf Stream current, the temperatures on the island rarely fall below freezing—Ireland does get about 300 days of rain per year. If you do the math, that’s about five out of every six days … so I bought a rain slicker. During September, average temps are low- to mid-60s, so I took my fleece jacket … but I hardly needed either. Ireland was in the middle of that European heat wave we’d all been hearing about, and except for the last couple days of my seventeen-day stay, it never fell below 72 degrees or so.

Upon boarding around 9pm, my plan was to eat my dinner and sleep; however, my seatmate—a lovely Irishman returning home from a business trip—was a chatter. We talked about our families, our kids (which should surprise no one who knows me), the educational systems in our respective countries, books … you name it. Finally I got out my pillow and managed to shut my eyes (tho’ not actually sleep) for a couple hours. We landed around 3am (local time was 9am, of course). Since I’d gone in to work for a few hours before my flight, I was now working on twenty-two hours without sleep. So far.

Jamie’s First Travel Tip: A messenger bag (as opposed to a purse) is a handy item. You know what I’m talking about: those bags worn slung diagonally across the chest, with the business end of the bag hanging either front or back. It’s always secure, and never slips off your shoulder. I loved-loved-loved my messenger bag.

Thursday, 11 September 2003
Dublin, Co. Dublin
Landing was like something out of a movie—you know, the credits roll and the camera pans across a large metropolis seen from the air. The cloud formations were simply magnificent as we took a wide, sweeping pass from west to east over the lovely Georgian city that is Dublin. (Georgian refers to a style of architecture, characterized, for one thing, by the beautiful half-circle windows, called fanlights, over the front doors of Georgian townhomes, as well as symmetry in overall design, and ornamental cornices based on classic—Greek or Roman—forms. The style takes its name from the English kings who reigned during the period of time from 1700 to the early 1800s during which this architecture was popular: Georges I, II, III, and IV.)

The plane ended up over the Irish Sea, then curved back around over a spit of land called Howth Head (pronounce this with a long O, as in garden hoe), with its marina of boats—dozens of silver capsules packed together like anchovies in a can. Then we turned back to the airport, landing, finally, east to west.

The marina at Howth, 2003.

The marina at Howth, 2003.

Baggage claim and customs were a breeze, and Gerry was there with a grin to escort me to the Avis counter, where we picked up our flashy little grey Ford Focus. Loaded the luggage in the back, and all the while I was taking deep breaths: I was about to pull out in the center of Dublin, driving a standard transmission automobile, sitting on the right side of the car, shifting with my left hand (think about it, y’all!), driving on what amounts—to me, anyway—as the wrong side of the road!

Getting all squared away. I was sloppy traveler, but I’ve gotten better.

Getting all squared away. I was sloppy traveler, but I’ve gotten better.

The good news is I made it … but not without clipping the left curb (spelled kerb in this neck of the woods) and a few trees and bushes. The streets are narrow! Folks drive unbelievably fast (well, it seems that way when you’re a novice driver, doesn’t it)! And—heaven help me—they make liberal use of roundabouts, those handy devices that make it possible to do without traffic lights or stop signs. “Go straight,” Gerry would say as we approached one of these marvels, as if going straight on this circle of pavement with five roads intersecting it at various angles made perfect sense to me. Let me tell you, straight is a relative term when referring to a roundabout!

We went first to my B&B, just around the corner from Gerry’s house.

Jamie’s second travel tip: In Ireland, B&Bs are less expensive than hotels, and they’re absolutely everywhere. Of course, the style and degree of comfort also varies wildly—sometimes it’s just a bedroom in someone’s home, using a communal bathroom (just like home! ha!), while sometimes the owners have really gone out for the B&B trade and added on whole wings. But that’s part of the adventure, I think. We never knew what we were gonna get—except for the warm welcome and the big Irish breakfast (generally served between 8:00 and 10:30am). Those are guaranteed.

What? You don’t know about the Big Irish Breakfast? (This is my term; it’s not official.) Here’s a definition:

In the dining room, a table laden with fresh fruit, such as bananas and apples, and sometimes canned fruit … several kinds of dry cereals, always including corn flakes and always including muesli … fresh yogurt (and not the overly sweet kind we Americans insist on, but real, heavenly, tart yogurt!) … at least two kinds of fresh breads (oh, I could rhapsodize on the lovely bread!) … whole milk in a pitcher, and always juice (at least orange, but often orange and apple and cranberry or tomato). Everything is beautifully displayed and in serving dishes; there’s nothing in a carton. One is expected to help oneself to the cereals (I always started with muesli stirred into a dollop of yogurt), fruit, bread, and juice whilst the owner makes note of one’s appearance in the dining room. “Good morning! Would you like tea or coffee?” (Surprised look when I answer tea in my obviously American accent.) Tea is served in a teapot (similarly, coffee is usually served in a press), and is usually accompanied by toast. Just as you’re feeling full, the owner reappears with the query, “Would you like a cooked breakfast?” and, because you’re starting to really get in to this Big Irish Breakfast thing, you say yes. The cooked portion of your program consists of an egg (I was only once asked how I take my eggs, which, happily, was the way it was inevitably served: over-easy) surrounded by two slices of bacon, two to four links of sausage, a grilled tomato half (sometimes two), and a slice each of both black and white pudding (more about which in a moment). Bacon is a misnomer: in the States our bacon is a strip about one inch by ten inches, and it’s mostly fat; in Ireland it’s about three inches by eight inches, and is all meat. They grind their sausage much finer over there too. As for the pudding, don’t be fooled by that moniker—it’s a sausage, purchased in rounds as bratwurst would be, and sliced off an inch-and-a-half or so at a time. Black pudding is blood sausage, and white pudding is … hmmm, a different kind of sausage. Both yummy.

The Big Irish Breakfast will fortify you for any adventure, and will take you right on through until dinnertime, most days!

My Dublin B&B (Blaithin—pronounced blah-HEEN) was run by the gentleman Kevin (in his sixties, tho’ not looking it, retired for nearly twenty years after twenty-three years in the Irish Navy) and his wife, who went off to work every day (and whom I startled on Saturday morning, showing up in their dining room at 7:50: “Oh, you gave me such a shock, I t’ought I was seein’ a ghost! No one gets up d’is airly on a Saturday!”). They have two daughters, ages fourteen and seventeen, whom I neither heard nor saw except in photos. Kevin sings while he prepares your breakfast, and he comes out to the car and carries your bags in … which he did this day at around 10:30am.*

Then we walked around the corner and down the street to Gerry’s house, where I had a nice chat with his seventy-two-year-old mother, Bridie. Don’t let that number fool you, kids: she is spry, still beautiful with gorgeous gams, full of life and always smiling. While we were getting acquainted, Gerry was in the kitchen, preparing a traditional Irish fry-up (the cooked portion of the previously defined Big Irish Breakfast). This was good, because I was starved, having gotten my second wind sometime during the exciting/scary trip from the airport. (If driving on the left hand side of the road in bumper-to-bumper traffic doesn’t wake one up, nothing will.)

After this feast, the three of us drove along the Coast Road out to Howth so I could practice my driving skills. As you might expect, the homes along the Coast Road—with a fabulous view of Bull Island in the middle of Dublin Bay, as well as Howth Head off in the distance ahead—are pricey and lovely. I had to stop every five minutes and take pictures, so charmed was I by Every. Single. Thing.

Situated thirteen kilometers (about eight miles miles) northeast of Dublin, on a peninsula that forms the northern boundary of Dublin Bay, Howth is a picturesque working fishing village (although, I must be quick to add, celebrities and wealthy others own property out there, it’s that beautiful). Known for its rhododendrons, it is a favorite destination for picnickers and hikers, affording spectacular views of Dublin city and the Wicklow Mountains to the south, and Carrigeen Bay (in which lies the tiny island known as Ireland’s Eye) and, further north, Lambay, an island and noted bird sanctuary. Lambay means Lamb Island, the ay being the Danish word for island, one of the more benign relics the Vikings left behind. Other versions of the word are ey as in Dalkey (Dalk Island) and eye as in Ireland’s Eye (Ireland’s Island). It is incorrect, some locals say, to say Lambay Island: it’s redundant.

I have better photos of Ireland’s Eye but I thought this one was interesting because you can see Lambay in the distance.

I have better photos of Ireland’s Eye but I thought this one was interesting because you can see Lambay in the distance.

The road ends quite literally at Howth Head, a massive cliff. And the village is charming, buildings painted in pastels and jewel tones, a pub or two, the marina and a jetty stretching far out into the ocean.

Looking back at Howth village from the marina.

Looking back at Howth village from the marina.

Walking along the jetty. The wind was fierce.

Walking along the jetty. The wind was fierce.

Just a few hours earlier, I’d been looking at this very marina (and knew what I was looking at, too, I’d spent so many hours poring over the map). We got out and walked atop the jetty in a strong ocean breeze, just strolling, with ice cream cones. (In every town or village, you’ll see a store—a grocery, a pharmacy, a newsstand, a convenience store, perhaps—with a four-foot-tall plastic ice cream cone standing out front, like the old cigar-store Indians; inside, the most delicious ice cream!)

Back at Gerry’s, I (ahem) took a nap while simultaneously watching a DVD of Bend It Like Beckham. Delightful movie. (No, really! It was!) Later we had delicious Indian takeout … and by then I was fading fast, it being nearly 10pm local time. A brisk walk back to my B&B to journal and write postcards did me in. Final score for me: thirty-six hours, no sleep.

*Note: Kevin retired completely not too long ago, and the home is now a private one.

A note about the photos: In 2003 I was using a 1970s-era Canon F-1. Portable digital cameras had been introduced in the mid-1990s but I couldn’t justify the cost when I had a wonderful professional-grade camera that took beautiful photographs on film. However, with film you snap and hope you got a good image; I didn’t know what image I’d captured until long after I’d returned home. Affordable technology to convert film to .jpg was also new then, so the photos you’ve seen and will see are of that in-between era. By the time of my next trip across the Pond, I’d gone digital.