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!

A Man’s Home Is His Castle

Day 9 / Wednesday, 19 September 2012 (part 1)

This was my third visit to Ireland, Alli’s second; Margaret and Jill had never been before. So about three months ago, armed with not much in the way of guidance (Alli wanted to go to Dingle, I’d heard), I’d created an itinerary of places to go and things to see on our walk-about. I wanted to make sure my sister and friend would get to see “one of everything”—a large country house, a monastic settlement, a cathedral, a stone circle, a prehistoric edifice of some sort, an original high cross, beautiful scenery … and on and on. Things Ireland is well known for. I also wanted to revisit certain places myself—and see some things I’d never seen too. I passed this itinerary around, offered choices, updated it. I also arranged for lodging at the places we would stay.

And now the day had arrived: we were going to go, as Dubliners say, down the country. Four gals, four suitcases, and our Ford Mondeo. (I was the driver.)

Our first stop would be Castletown House in Celbridge (Co. Kildare). This Palladian-style mansion was built (between 1722 and 1729) for William Conolly, Speaker of the Irish House of Commons. The house remained in the hands of his descendants until 1965; ownership of the estate is now divided between the government and private concerns. (We would be here all day if I tried to explain the family tree and the various Conolly women who influenced the way the house looks now; you can read about them at the site linked above.)

So we set off. It was about a thirty-minute drive to Celbridge, a town with a population of about 19,000. Castletown House lies within walking distance of town.

I don’t know that I’d ever seen the Palladian style in person. (Well, OK, in Washington DC.) Frankly, I don’t know that I could have defined it, although I can now: it’s an architectural style derived from the designs of the Venetian architect Andrea Palladio (1508–1580), which was based on the temple architecture of the ancient Greeks and Romans. In other words, formal, symmetrical, and large.

Like, really large. Castletown House consists of the main building and two wings (one is the kitchen, one is the stables), which are connected to the central edifice by curving porticos. The car park is near the kitchen wing (which is also the visitor entrance; you see the house by guided tour only), and we walked past it to look at the front of the house.

Walking past the kitchen wing at Castletown House. That’s Alli.

And then you see the house. Holy mackerel, it’s huge. This unadorned front yard is much like what it would have been in the 1700s.

Jill and Alli decided to get a little fresh air; they walked back to town through the Castletown House grounds. They are lovely.

Taken on the grounds of Catletown House, September 2012. (Jill’s photo.)

Taken on the grounds of Catletown House, September 2012. (Jill’s photo.)

Meanwhile, Margaret and I took the house tour. It starts in the entrance hall, which is two stories high. (The entrance hall in our house in Tennessee is two stories high, too, but what you see at Castletown is on a different scale altogether!)

The grand entrance hall at Castletown.

It’s two stories high. This makes the room seem bigger than it is.

The ceiling of the entrance hall. Look at that plasterwork! Don’t forget, too, you can click on this image, then click again to zoom in.

Imagine visiting the home in the 1720s. Your carriage would pull up to the wide staircase out front, and you’d ascend the stairs easily, as the rise is very gradual. The door would be opened, and you’d enter this grand hall with its polished limestone floor in a checkered design. It would be virtually empty of furniture, as it is today. This was simply the place to divest yourself of your outerwear and wait while your host was fetched by the servants. He or she would lead you down the hall to greet the rest of the guests.

From the entrance hall, look to the right: you might go up this staircase to the view the paintings in the long gallery.

The staircase hall adjacent to the entrance hall is a testament to the rococo-style ornamental plasterwork for which Ireland is famous. In this case, all created by Philip Lafranchini, who, with his brother, Paul, was renowned, then and now, for his artistry. No, it’s not exactly my personal style—but it’s quite impressive.

Seriously, look at this. This was a country home, so you’ll see pastoral themes—vines, fruits, flowers—in this incredible plasterwork.

Before we go upstairs, look back: that’s the entrance hall beyond this arch.

This staircase at Castletown, made of Portland stone, is one of the largest in Ireland. The solid brass balustrade is inscribed (in three places) by its manufacturer, Anthony King, who was later Lord Mayor of Dublin.

The staircase hall wasn’t built out until 1759–60. (Margaret’s photo; she notices things like this.)

Let’s go up the stairs. Plaster frames were even created for works of art. (Margaret’s photo.)

Look closer. This is a portrait of the man of the house.

The Bear Hunt, by Flemish artist Paul De Vos (1596–1672).

We went through all the downstairs rooms (which is misleading, really, because there is a floor below the level at which you enter—for servants, I guess): the dining room, the butler’s pantry, the brown study (originally used as a bedroom or perhaps a closet), the red drawing room, the green drawing room, the print room (more about which in a moment), the state bedroom, the map room (originally a closet, one of eighteen in the house). Then we went upstairs to the long gallery, the pastel room (anteroom to the gallery), the boudoir (three rooms), and the blue bedroom (also a three-room apartment).

This is the dining room, minus the dining table. The original table was probably large; but you can find online photos taken at the turn of the last century that show a much smaller table, dwarfed by this room.

The ceiling of the dining room.

It was just Margaret and me on the tour, which was fantastic, because we were able to linger and talk with our guide, a young woman who was a delight. We got the sense that it was the end of their season; we may have been the only tourists they saw all day. The house is constantly being refurbished. The green drawing room, for example, has new (silk) wallcovering, while the red drawing room’s wall coverings are a couple centuries old. “Do you like seeing it old, like it was?” our guide asked. “Or do you prefer the green, which has been restored?” Thereafter followed a conversation about refurbishing (fixing up) as opposed to restoring (replacing and making it new, although faithful to the original).

Standing in the green drawing room, looking back down the hall through the red drawing room and the brown study at the end. The windows—you can see the light from them—look out on the (ahem) backyard.

I’d never seen anything like the print room, but Margaret knew what it was immediately. (She is a retired antiques dealer.) “Ladies have always had their crafts projects,” she said, eyes twinkling. “Today women are scrapbooking; in the 1700s, they had print rooms.” Or, as the guidebook says, “It became popular for ladies to collect their favorite prints [of famous works of art, of celebrities, and so on] and arrange and paste them onto the walls of a chosen room, along with decorative borders.” They’d purchase books of prints and borders, or individual prints, cut them out carefully, and a servant would paste them up. Basically—découpage. On the walls. Of course, tastes and fashion change over decades, and there are very few print rooms left in the world. The one at Castletown is the only fully intact eighteenth-century print room in Ireland. I’m so glad it was left alone.

The print room. (Margaret took this.)

Not as good a photo (I was trying to not use the flash) but you can get an idea of the size of the room.

Next we went upstairs to the long gallery. This type of room—a long gallery of paintings, prints, and other art—was in vogue when the house was first designed and built, but by the time the interiors were completely finished in the 1760s and ’70s was old-fashioned. Thus it became a space for informal entertaining. What we saw is unchanged (although refurbished) from that time.

The long gallery at Castletown House.

The guidebook says this is Pompeian-style decoration. Pompeii was being excavated at that time (1770s), so it was all the rage. 🙂

As on the floor below, the windows here in the long gallery overlook the pastoral backyard.

Castletown House was built on a 550-acre demesne, or estate, and the windows along the back of the house look out on what might seem like a grassy wilderness to untrained eyes. But no. This is a formally laid out landscape; every tree, every blade of grass was planned. (That may be an exaggeration; I’m sure trees and grasses were already there.) Vistas were created so that no matter from which window you looked, there was something to see. The woodlands beyond the lawn have meandering paths. Everything orchestrated for a bracing walk. 🙂 Windows in the green drawing room become doors, which allow guests to step directly onto the lawn.

Taken from the windows of the green drawing room. The central piece of lawn here is significantly lower, thus the stairs in the foreground and further on. Note the visual line formed by the stairs continues on through the trees in the distance.

This is taken from the same spot, only one story higher—from the long gallery. Note, again, the visual line and the point in the distance.

See? Two miles away (and no longer a part of the estate) is the Conolly Folly.

The Conolly Folly was built to provide employment for the tenants, who were suffering in the famine of 1739–40. The Wonderful Barn was similar project. Unfortunately we didn’t see either of these in person, but I’ll have time next May to revisit Castletown House, and will do so then.

After the tour, we met up with Jill and Alli in the café, which is situated in what was originally the kitchen. It was a nice space, bright, and the food was delicious. We each had soup (the day was cool-ish); mine was cream of vegetable. (I am still trying to re-create it in my kitchen at home.) In the center of the room was a display of desserts—various baked goodies—but somehow we all resisted.

And then it was time to get back on the road. One last photo, taken from the car park: it wasn’t mentioned on our tour but I wonder if it is the ruins of the small church built on the estate sometime in the early 1800s. A small school was also built, so perhaps this is that. I don’t know.

A ruin on the Castletown House property. Perhaps the old church?

And a last note: many of the old country homes are in ruins, sometimes from lack of money at some point, but often because they were torched during one or another of the Irish rebellions aimed at driving out the English. Many more burned during the Irish civil war. But Castletown was not, although republicans had it in their sights in 1922: they were informed the owner was Irish and Irish money had built it, and the house was spared. Thank goodness.

It’s only lunchtime—the day isn’t over! But this post is. I’ll tell you about the rest of our day in the next one.

This Morning’s Image

Everywhere we have been (and everywhere we will go), we see fantastic-looking (and tasting) baked goodies. From the wonderful Irish brown bread to scones to apple tarts, everything looks scrumptious. You can find fancy desserts but I prefer the rustic pastries. The Irish are wonderful bakers.

Just Another Day in Paradise … Er, an Airport

Day 3 / Thursday, 13 September 2012

Today my sis, Jill, and her daughter, Alli, were arriving—Jill from the family home in California and Alli from London. I’m so proud of my sweet niece: she’d just spent the last six weeks traveling in England, Scotland, and Wales … all by herself (mostly). With a tiny little suitcase. (Those of you who know what a clotheshound she is might be surprised. I’m just impressed.)

Alli’s an experienced singer/songwriter and also is a member of her community choir (Monterey Peninsula Choral Society). MPCS was one of just six choirs in the world invited to perform at the 2012 Olympics in London; they pieced together a little tour that included three dates in Paris (here’s a video of one song; Alli’s the female soloist in the foreground just right of center) and a few more in London, including one at the Olympic Park. After that, the choir went home—and Alli stayed, knowing she’d be coming to Ireland for a wedding soon.

Yes, Gerry has been a part of my family for a long time, too, and his nieces stayed with my California family a few years ago; later that year Alli flew to Dublin, where she became close with Eoin and Tracy, the couple whose marriage we’re all here to celebrate.

Margaret, Gerry, and I drove in from Laytown. Jill was already on the ground, and from her we learned Alli’d missed her early morning flight, so we had a forty-five minute wait. (The airport had several shops, so I bought postcards and stamps while we waited.) Although we’d thought we might go into Dublin, we were all still very, very tired, so we scrapped those plans. Gerry cabbed it home and we gals drove out to Portmarnock village, where the wedding reception would be held (at the Portmarnock Hotel and Golf Links). We’d all stay there Friday night; Jill and Alli were checking in today.

It’s a beautiful hotel. (Be sure to check that link. Wow.)

This is the lobby of the Portmarnock Hotel and Golf Links. Gorgeous day!

More of the hotel lobby.

Looking out those windows toward the back, with the sun streaming in. I really liked this room.

And it has a beautiful view. I’d seen Ireland’s Eye (a small island in the Irish sea, just north of Howth) from Howth (pronounce this with a long O, like hoe-th), but never from this angle.

Ireland’s Eye from the Portmarnock Hotel.

That’s Howth Head in the distance.

I would definitely stay there again.

It was quiet in the midafternoon. All the golfers were out on the links. So when we simultaneously realized we were hungry, we had the dining room almost to ourselves.

Alli and Jill in the dining room at the Portmarnock Hotel and Golf Links. So tired! So happy to be here!

Tea, please! And then: May we see a menu? I had the most wonderful vegetable soup I think I’ve ever had; it was pureed.

After lunch, Jill and Alli checked in to rest, and Margaret and I drove back to Laytown via the Coast Road, which took us through Malahide village. We stopped here, took some photos and bought some Kleenex, as Margaret had unfortunately come down with a ferocious cold.

Margaret was charmed by the beautiful windowsill flower baskets in Malahide. She took this photo.

We were back in Laytown in time for the races. And Neil and Maureen’s subdivision is right across the R150 from the strand where the ponies run.

Walking up the street into Neil and Maureen’s subdivision.

The Laytown Races are unique in all of Europe: it’s the only horse racing event run on a beach under the Turf Club’s Rules of Racing, which it has been doing since 1868. It’s a huge event in tiny Laytown village, with as many as ten thousand people showing up to eat, drink, place bets, and watch magnificent Irish thoroughbreds run on the beach at low tide in the late afternoon.

Margaret was exhausted from travel and being sick, so I walked down to the races by myself. There are bleachers, but many people just stand along the edge of the beach to watch. This is where I found myself, since I didn’t really know where to go; I asked a gentleman standing near me, and he gave me the down-low.

Laytown Races 2012. The only sanctioned beach races in Europe (and possibly in the Northern Hemisphere).

Walking the horses down to the starting gate.

Here they come! Laytown Races 2012.

Turns out he’d come all the way from England for race day. We had a lovely chat. When he heard I was from Nashville (and this is my standard response when asked where I’m from; everybody has heard of Nashville) he waxed poetic about Duane Eddy (he’s a fan). Then he mentioned the flood we had in 2010, which surprised me, since it barely got any coverage in the national news.

I watched a few of the races (I didn’t buy a program, so I can’t tell you which horses I saw, really), and then I walked around a bit. There were all sorts of folks there, from the very well-heeled horse people—who were dressed up in suits and dresses and, yes, elaborate chapeaux—to folks like me in casual clothing. I bought an ice cream cone and ate it on my way back to the house.

A day at the races.

Some folks watch the race on the big screen. And then they watch the replay. And the replay of the replay.

Margaret and I made simple sandwiches for dinner—to tired to go out—and I discovered Maureen’s stash of chocolate in the fridge. Dessert!

There was trouble with the wifi here—Neil had been bickering with his service provider for days prior to our arrival, but the fix never did come—so I caught up on my notes, did a little work on the manuscript I’d brought with me, and then we called it a night. Tomorrow (Friday) was the wedding, and it would be a long day.

Today’s Observation

No matter where you are in the world, an airport is a great place for people-watching. 🙂