Secret Ireland: Fingal
In the first of a new series on the hidden corners of Ireland, Pol O' Conghaile goes in search of the best north Dublin has to offer, from local vineyards to coastal strolls.
Driving through Naul, I spy a long thatched cottage at the town's T-junction. Outside, there's a cheery sculpture of a man playing the uilleann pipes. It's Séamus Ennis, the folk-song collector and Fingal native, and the cottage is the Seamus Ennis Centre, a below-the-radar venue.
Stepping through the doorway, I find a nice, weekday bustle and order an open ham sandwich on brown soda bread (€5.90) with a cup of tea (€2). The sambo comes with mixed leaves, peppers and coleslaw, and there are thick slabs of boiled ham slapped across the top. It's hearty fare, served up by a fireplace in a room sprinkled with jams and chutneys for sale.
There's no Seamus Ennis exhibition space as such, which is a bit disappointing, but the venue next door hosts regular workshops and concerts (the Return to Fingal Festival kicks off on October 21).
Details: Main Street, Naul. Tel: 01-802 0898; seamusenniscentre.com.
Walkers visiting Howth tend to head for the Cliff Path or Tramline loops. When I ask tour guide Ciarán Gahan to take me off the beaten trail, however, he doesn't think twice. Making a beeline past Howth Castle, he leads me up a winding track on to the heather-strewn Muck Rock.
The trail twists through a thatch of rhododendron and, en route, we stumble across Aideen's Grave, a collapsed tomb named for the wife of Oscar of Na Fianna. Its quartzite capstone is said to weigh more than 70 tonnes, making it the second-largest dolmen in Ireland after Browneshill in Carlow.
After 20 minutes or so, we push through the leaves to a stunning panorama of Dublin Bay. From the crest of the hill, I can see the sea-stacks and Martello Tower on Island's Eye, kite-surfers in Sutton, and even as far as the Mourne Mountains.
Before us lies the entire footprint of Fingal.
Details: Howth Guided Tours. Tel: 086 896 7035; howthguidedtours.com. Tours cost €10pp.
The Farmers’ Market
You may know Skerries is home to a unique collection of working mills (the rusty-red sails of its Great Windmill cut a handsome dash against the coastal skyline). But did you know the Skerries Mills complex is also home to a farmers’ market, held every Saturday from 10am to 4pm?
It’s an inspired idea, putting stalls in the middle of this unique Town Park. One moment, you’re on a tour (€6.50), crushing corn and learning the finer details of sack hoists and pit wheels. The next, you’re walking away with a dozen of Paddy Byrne’s duck eggs, homemade cinnamon rolls, freshly cut local blooms, or chomping on a bratwurst or a crêpe. Nice.
Details: Skerries Mills. Tel: 01- 849 5208; skerriesmills.org.
The €10 dinner...
The House restaurant in Howth is run by Karl Dillon and Ian Connolly — formerly of Gruel and the Mermaid Café — and the vibe evokes a little of both. Complementing the dark wood chairs and tables you’ll find a big, burgundy Chesterfield, walls pinned with dainty crockery, Manu Chao on on the stereo, vases of purple heather and waiting staff wearing shirts, jeans and runners.
I show up midweek, just as a jazz night is kicking off, and order a lemon and rosemary roast chicken main, served with courgette pancake, spinach and smokedtomato relish (€10).
The spinach is pert and fresh and — hallelujah — without a hint of sogginess. The pancake mixes shredded courgette with a soft texture and tangy, charred edges, and the smoked relish is right up my street. The chicken is tender (though the lemon and rosemary notes are a little shy). All told, it’s a bloody good bet for a tenner.
Details: 4 Main Street, Howth. Tel: 01-839 6388; thehousehowth. ie.
The Seaside Stroll
I draw from the internet on Portmarnock's Velvet Strand, downloading an iWalk narrated by Pat Liddy from VisitDublin.com ("the sudden noise of breaking waves may be startling...") It's free, quick to load on my phone and full of nuggets to accompany me. I had no idea, for instance, that a crowd of 10,000 turned up one drizzly day in 1930 to watch aviator Charles Kingford-Smith take off on a daring flight to Newfoundland. But this 3.5km strand is a natural runway -- a flat, inviting expanse bounded by grassy dunes and perfect for a paddle or an evening walk.
Details: Strand Road, Portmarnock; visitdublin.com/iwalks.
The Talbot family lived at Malahide Castle for 800 years, a private home until 1973, when the last Lord Talbot died. One thing this bunch did not have was a great playground in their backyard. Kudos to Fingal County Council -- between this and Newbridge House in Donabate, they've built two of the best playgrounds in Dublin.
I visit with my four-year-old daughter, Rosa, and we lose little time in whooshing down two fantastic tube slides. These go way beyond your standard playground spec, dipping for a good 10 metres before spotting us out in a fit of giggles. Afterwards, I have to promise Rosa an ice cream in Malahide village to coax her off the zip-line.
Details: Malahide Castle; 01- 846 2184; malahidecastle.com.
The Man on a Mission
David Llewellyn pulls on his wellies, walks me towards the polytunnels in his long back yard, and proudly pulls back the plastic. A row of small, sweet, deeply purple Cabernet Sauvignon grapes is revealed, and a grin writes itself across his face.
"A few are dabbling," he says. "But as far as I'm aware, I'm the only one with wine for sale."
With its favourable climate and nourishing soil, I expected Lusk to throw up some fine fruit and veg. What I didn't expect was an Irish wine. But that's what Llewellyn is producing. Along with apples, pears, cherries, balsamic vinegar and cider, he sells bottles of Lusca (the Irish name for Lusk) for around €30 at weekend markets in Dun Laoghaire and Temple Bar.
Details: Chapel Road, Lusk. Tel: 087 284 3879; fruitandvine.com.
The Culture Shock
The last thing I expect to find stashed among the malls, retails parks and 7,000 parking spaces of Blanchardstown Shopping Centre is a Jack B Yeats painting. But there it is, taking centre stage in an exhibition aimed at Leaving Cert students at the Draíocht Arts Centre.
The painting is 'Chairoplanes', a carnivalesque canvas in which punters fly through the air in an expressionist flurry. And it's bang in the middle of Ireland's largest shopping centre.
"We believe this is your arts centre too," reads the first line of Draíocht's Children's Charter and, during my visit, hordes of school kids pile in for a theatre show (on October 30, watch out for a stage adaptation of 'The Very Hungry Caterpillar').
When you're done, the Betelnut Café does some pretty great curly fries with sweet-chilli sauce and garlic mayo (€4.50).
Details: Draíocht, Blanchardstown. Tel: 01-885 2622; draiocht.ie.
The Surprise Package
Blanchardstown's Crowne Plaza Hotel opened in 2008, just as it was officially announced that Ireland had tumbled into recession. Not exactly a good omen, and when I park outside and make my way towards the glossy façade, I expect to find a zombie hotel.
I couldn't be more wrong. The lobby is over-designed to my taste (glass butterflies, broody wallpapers, backlit quotations) but I'm surprised at the effort this hotel is putting into winning family business. Smiling receptionists and free parking make a good impression.
Then I learn that a child eats free with every adult meal purchased. On weekends, that meal can be a pizza they make themselves at the Forchetta Restaurant. A family package combines B&B for four with a choice of tickets to Dublin Zoo or the nearby National Aquatic Centre; €124 per room. Throw in the shopping centre and Leisureplex and you're made.
Details: Blanchardstown Centre; 01-897 7777; cpblanchardstown. com. For more on what to do in the area, visit discoverireland.ie.
The Best Bite
It's a rough afternoon, with the boats in Skerries Harbour tossed about like toys in a tub. I take shelter in Stoop Your Head, a gastro-pub whose large windows are speckled with sea spray, and the customers come thick and fast, even at 3pm on a Wednesday. With Dublin Bay prawns caught (and presumably landed) close by, I order them on an open sandwich (€11.95) and pull up a stool at the bar.
Holy shellfish! Within minutes, a succulent plate of pinkish-white prawns is served up with a dollop of Marie Rose, a sprinkle of paprika and a grab-bag of fresh leaves. They're refreshingly chilled, almost powdery to the bite and super-fresh. Stoops ain't cheap, and the service can be hectic at weekends, but this is a prawn sandwich brigade even Roy Keane couldn't resist.
Details: Harbour Road, Skerries. Tel: 01-849 2085.