There's no place like home: What do you love about Ireland?
From the River Barrow to Schull, Sunday Independent columnists extol the virtues of Ireland.
The Schull Effect
You know that feeling you get when you come out of a really noisy nightclub or a busy bar, and you feel like you can't actually hear because it's suddenly so quiet and everything seems so, I don't know, surreal or something - like you're in a silent movie?
Well, that's the feeling I get after a weekend in Schull in west Cork - the 33rd county or the Irish Riviera, as I also like to call my home county.
I find two days in Schull is like a week's holidays anywhere else.
Let's call it The Schull Effect.
I just love the laid-back lifestyle, and now I really value the beauty and importance in the quietness of country life.
This is a big leap for someone who formerly lived on Grafton Street and couldn't sleep without hearing the hustle and bustle below her apartment window!
My partner Will is the same, thank God. He rockets down the road from Dublin at a million miles an hour on the Friday, but by Sunday evening, on the road back, he's so fecking relaxed, he's nearly horizontal, and practically lying in the back seat with the trees almost overtaking us.
Filled up with Fields sliced pan, Gubbeen cheese and Clonakilty black pudding, washed down with endless cups of Barry's tea from my mum's magical teapot, and my brother Aidan's fresh, creamy milk from his farm, I often reminisce as we go along the road.
Memories of summers spent on the beach in Barleycove in my Barnett's drapery-store bikini, building castles in the sand with my sisters and best friend Mary, begging Mum on the way home for a 99 from McSweeneys.
Then it was all hands on deck, making dinner for 'The Men' who worked with Dad on the farm.
I can picture Dad now, holding court at the top of the table, regaling them with stories. He was such a showman and a workaholic and he was always switched on. Even at mealtimes, he could never relax - the phone would be going the whole time and people called to the door continuously.
I don't have many memories of time spent with my dad. There was always so much to be done; cows to milk, corn to sow, silage to cut.
And then, one day, he was gone.
And what was it all for?
The memories pinch my heart, and I suppose I'm telling you this to remind you all how important it is to appreciate what we have, and what a great country we live in, even if the weather is a bit crap sometimes.
As the saying goes, if you don't like the weather, stick around for five minutes, as it's liable to change into a different season!
Things do change, and before you know it, what you think will last forever is only a memory.
Dad's finally relaxing now, by the sea, in the graveyard in Schull.
As graveyards go, it's a good one, with the most amazing view over the harbour.
On weekends at home I visit my sister Tricia's grave, as well as my friend Katie's, who was killed when we were eight.
We lived next door to each other and played together every single day. Then, one day, she was gone as well.
Her sister Mary is still my best friend today.
I tell Will how I've changed.
I like to think it takes a stronger person to admit they need help and overcome their struggle, than lose the battle alone.
I believe if you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.
So in the same way they say it takes noise to appreciate silence, sadness to know happiness and absence to value presence, I always try to snatch any bit of fun that might have my name on it now, especially as I have my own children, Maxim and Seren, to make memories for.
After all, the body heals through recreation, the mind heals with happiness and the spirit heals with fun, and that's what we try to do when we get away from our crazy, crammed lives in Dublin.
Schull is our happy place where we go to - OK, warning: cliche alert - 'stop and smell the roses' and simply enjoy things and take the time to appreciate how all the senses are delighted by nature.
Life may not always be the party we hoped for . . . but while we're here, sure we might as well dance.
The Irish Goodbye
Forget Joyce, Yeats and Behan, the Irish Goodbye is the single greatest aspect of Irish culture.
For anyone who has yet to realise that there is actually a recognised title for what we Irish do when exiting a party, allow me to enlighten you.
The Irish Goodbye (IG) is the practice of leaving a social event without a word to anyone. Basically, once proceedings begin to lag or the music takes a turn or someone is crying in that unfocused and irritating way that you sense is about to become your problem, just smile, act like nothing untoward is happening and head directly to the nearest exit.
Look neither left nor right, keep the head down until you’ve hit the car park and bam, you’re home and dry.
Leaving a party early is not what we are known for, but we have come to realise that leaving a party exactly 25 minutes before things get a bit crap is a bit of an art. I lived abroad for many years, and my non-Irish friends were often baffled and insulted by my style of exit.
I came up against a few obstacles when trying to explain to them how the IG came about. How does one explain to a foreigner that the Irish version of revelling has a somewhat bullying tinge? That the mere act of seeking a non-alcoholic beverage of an evening could result in people chanting at you, ‘Ah, you will, you will, you will, you will’, and that many a non-drinker will feign inebriation just to dodge the tiresome booze-bullying.
With this almost punitive dimension to Irish revelling, is it any wonder that the Irish Goodbye evolved? Even just take the language associated with a fun time, Irish-style — we’re talking about a country where the best thing that can happen on a night out is called a ‘lock-in’.
What my foreign friends were unable to grasp was that the Irish Goodbye is actually the most polite way to exit a party. We all know that once people start to get their coats and make murmurings about taxis, the atmosphere is irrevocably damaged. The man who had been challenging people to throw their shoes over the house only five minutes ago is now forced to reflect on his own early start in the morning. The woman singing Dancing Queen in the kitchen remembers some work thing that’s due on Monday.
People saying goodbye is a downer, and making a production of leaving a gathering inevitably allows in that harsh sliver of reality that is capable of crushing any good night out.
Cead mile failte. We’re the land of a hundred thousand hellos. Just for God’s sake don’t say goodbye.
The first race meeting I ever attended was Laytown, on the strand. I was about 10 years old and mesmerised by it all — by the little parade ring on the land overlooking the beach, by the temporary Tote buildings and the bookies, by the fact that this was a real race meeting, with the jockeys in their colours — and by the notion that, in theory at least, this was a day’s entertainment from which you could actually emerge with more money than you had when you came in.
Laytown Strand Races is an amazing thing, which started in 1838, and which is still going — it will be held this year on September 10. Though, as a child, it was to me a disappointment that they couldn’t hold it every week. Which probably contributed to this feeling I have had for most of my life, that I just don’t get to enough race meetings.
I used to love the Phoenix Park races, with its strange Edwardian feel and the even stranger angle of the stands to the finishing post, and I still regard the closure of that track as an abomination. I think of what a thing it would have been during the fat years, to have horse-racing on various Saturdays at a venue so close to the city centre for the beautiful people and, yes, for the ugly people too.
Of the great tracks which feature the biggest races, I would marginally favour the Curragh over Leopardstown — there is something pure about the Curragh; it’s a bit like a links golf course compared to a parkland track. But Fairyhouse will always have a special sentimental attraction for many of us who were taken to see the Irish Grand National there during the Easter holidays.
Bellewstown, while it is not exactly Longchamps in terms of grandeur, is still a delightful old track with the infamous tale of the Yellow Sam betting coup forever attached to it — essentially, it worked on the premise that there was only one phone line into Bellewstown, so the off-course bookies couldn’t get word to the track to slash the odds on this Yellow Sam.
I would like to go to Galway again, when I have enough money. And I always think I should be spending more time at Gowran Park on a summer evening.
The average race meeting now has this air of a theme park, due to the fact that it is funded heavily by television — they are watching the races at Wexford and Clonmel and Ballinrobe in betting offices across the western world and of course the eastern world, so the betting action at the track is but a tiny fraction of what is happening overall. Still, the bookies stand there anyway, accepting cash bets just like they did in days of yore, no amount too small for them to take. They will be at Laytown too, but then everyone should be at Laytown.
Donegal has this weird attraction for Northerners. Or maybe not so weird. There’s spectacular scenery, wonderful beaches, breathtaking drives. Gay Byrne has been singing the county’s praises for donkey’s years. Why wouldn’t we go there? But it certainly has a special place in the folk memory of the Northern Irish out of all proportion to its charms, and we flock there every summer, as if drawn by some primal migratory instinct.
Part of that surely has to do with its traditional place as a refuge from the marching season, when the only thing to do was escape. That Donegal shares a border with only one other county in the Republic, and is otherwise attached to Northern Ireland, makes it feel as if it’s ours.
Years ago, we’d pack up the car with sheets, towels, food, the dog, clothes — everything you needed for two weeks away from home. One year we went with six puppies too.
Unless the Brits pulled us over, we didn’t stop until we’d left occupied territory and were in the Free State. Then we’d all start singing rebel songs.
We stayed in Glencolmcille, on the far west coast. The woman who owned the house would move into the henhouse for the summer. We’d spend the days on the beach, particularly Silver Strand, a wonderful curve of white sand at Malin Beag that’s reached by a long line of steps. As children, it felt like there were hundreds. And there are: 160, to be precise.
There was never any rain. It was always bright and sunny. Admittedly, this may be more nostalgia than accurate meteorology. We’d stand on the rocks and wait for the waves to crash over them and soak us to the skin. I have no idea why we were allowed to risk life and limb this way, but it was all part of the fun.
In the evening, we’d go fishing, which was odd in one way because nobody in the family actually liked fish, but just as well, because we never actually seemed to catch any. The two times I remember reeling in an actual fish, we were too terrified to touch it.
It was such a rare event that photos had to be taken. Even now, I can still see the fishtail wrapped up in newspaper so that I wouldn’t actually have to touch it. I’m not sure what the plan was for the creature, but it was left on the table while decisions were made and the dog ate it, so that was the end of that.
At night, I remember lying in bed and loving the silence. Belfast in the 1970s was many things, but quiet wasn’t one of them. There’d be ghost stories too. Tales of banshees and fairy rings. Donegal had that timeless, magic quality. It’s dark out there too, on the edge of Ireland, and the stories would frighten us so much we’d be desperate to turn on the light, but the light would bring out these huge moths and we were scared of them too!
It’s easier to get there now the roads have improved, but it still feels like a symbolically momentous journey, as the R230 snakes across bogland all the way to the sea. This is properly empty country with few houses, so that it almost seems a shame when what, by that point, seems like the veritable metropolis of Glencolmcille hoves into view. In my memory, it remains an authentic place untouched by the flimsiness of the modern world. We always wondered why our parents didn’t just move there, and there are days when that still seems like the best idea.
On Sherkin Island one summer several years ago, a child of my acquaintance walked home from the beach naked. It was after an early morning swim, and I walked home with the naked child, my wet swimming togs under my pyjamas. We met no one. It wouldn’t have mattered if we had. They would have understood. The rules are different on an island.
As a self-conscious people who believe that everyone else is watching and judging us constantly, we Irish have a great ability to shed our inhibitions when holidaying at home. Out foreign, because we don’t really get the rules about being mostly naked all the time, eating our dinner at 10pm and stopping after the third glass of wine, we can be stiff and awkward in ourselves.
Send us for a week 200km down the road from home, though, and we let it all hang out. Send us to an island, and you can multiply that by 10.
It helps that Sherkin Island, off the coast of west Cork, seems to have a microclimate all of its own. Ask anyone who went there as a child and they’ll tell you the sun always shone. Or that their parents were exceptionally good at scoring the most sheltered spot on one of the island’s beaches. Silver Strand — long and blessed with the best waves. Cow’s — great for small kids. Priest’s — sheltered and secluded, hence the name. Tra Ban — a dream at high tide, morning or evening, when you imagine you could easily swim all the way over to Silver Strand.
And you’ll try them all because the water is sort of addictive. And you’ll even go to them on days that aren’t what you’d call beach weather in Spain; days when the kids ask, ‘Is it raining?’ while you eat the picnic, and you answer, ‘No’. But it is. But it doesn’t matter.
The Jolly Roger pub has reopened, being run by a local returned from the United Arab Emirates. Mark Murphy has the Islander’s Rest Hotel, which looks across to a mainland that seems so far away as the kids have the second ice cream of the day, even though the day and bedtime are long past.
And there’s singing in the hotel bar by the people who have been doing Brian Clickner’s singing workshop, and there are signs up for Derry Clarke’s annual September fund-raising barbecue for the RNLI, and there are normally well-groomed city women with heads of frizz, and there are habitually uptight professional men wearing their lifejackets indoors as comfortably as they’d wear a suit back in the big smoke. There is a sense of ease, and it arrives as you step off the ferry from Baltimore.
Fifteen minutes on a boat. It’s not far. But it’s a world away.
The River Barrow
Something as large and majestic as the Barrow hardly counts as a ‘secret’ but the river certainly is neglected. There is something almost desolate about the Barrow, especially around the small, otherworldly hamlet of St Mullins, close to the Carlow-Kilkenny border. With sawmills, and wooden shingles on some buildings, a visitor to this tiny place could be forgiven for thinking they had accidentally strayed on to the film set of one of those US series about vampires in a remote part of Seattle.
The best stretch for a good walk along Ireland’s second longest river is probably between St Mullins and Goresbridge. Almost anybody can walk it, because the route tracks an old towpath and is completely flat. In spring, the grass is high but by August, walkers have tramped the path flat. Visitors need bring nothing more than comfortable shoes, a pair of togs, ideally a dog, and some cash for a bite to eat and a drink in Graiguenamanagh.
Perhaps the best place to start is Goresbridge in Co Kilkenny; a small town where horses and furniture are bought and sold at auction. Park the car, cross the bridge into Carlow and make your way down to the towpath.
The river, which is part of a bigger system known as the Three Sisters along with the Nore and Suir, flows strongly here — almost sensing that it is close to the sea. It acted as a motorway for the Normans and earlier invaders, who used the 192km river to move quickly inland. It even gets a mention in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene where he praised the ‘goodly Barrow’ — a description that lent the title to a wonderful book about the river published about 15 years ago and well worth reading.
One of life’s greatest joys, for me at least, is swimming in a clean river. Worries about pollution and currents can make this difficult in many places, but Clashganny, about two hours’ walk from Goresbridge, is a popular local bathing spot and accessible to anybody with even moderate swimming ability. Only a fool would pass this place without taking a dip, unless the river was running fast after heavy rainfall. The water is pure and tastes infinitely better than the muck Irish Water puts through our taps these days.
The first, and only, town on this walk is the Norman settlement of Graiguenamanagh, which you will reach about three hours from the start. The river is pretty here, with dozens of moored barges, a gracefully built bridge and a restored mill on the riverfront, which houses the wonderful Waterside Guesthouse; both a bed and breakfast and an excellent spot for a meal. Two other places that are definitely worth visiting in Graignamanagh, apart from the excellent pubs, are the medieval Duiske Abbey and the tiny Cushendale Woollen Mills, which is hidden down a side street and has been in same family for seven generations. It somehow produces the softest of blankets with iron equipment that dates back to Victorian times.
Many will want to call it a day when they reach Graignamanagh, or simply turn around and walk back to Goresbridge, but those wanting to walk further can stroll the extra few miles to St Mullins.
Wafts of vinegar-laced fish and chips drifting over a half-door from a chipper at the top of the South Strand in Skerries is a sensory pleasure that has never left me. I was a young child, shivering in a wet towel, as my mother rushed to dress me before the drizzling raindrops became torrential. I guess it’s not surprising that the favourite memories of a restaurant critic revolve around food.
I love the fact that we live on an island with easy access to fantastic fishing villages and beaches, even when living in a busy city.
The other great memories of Skerries are of the whopping great Dublin Bay prawns bought from the fishermen on the quay, while my father, meantime, ducked into the Stoop Your Head pub for a ‘quick one’. Our precious ‘catch’ was taken back to the ‘summer’s lease’, thrown in a pot of boiling salted water for a whisker of a minute and eaten straight away. Nobody back then had ever heard of the king prawn, the jumbo prawn or the freshwater prawn, but little did we know we were already getting the best, for no other prawn in the world can equal the flavour and texture of Dublin Bay prawns.
The great ‘prawn hunt’ continued throughout my young years in Skerries, along with Thursday-evening visits to Howth, where we would walk the pier while my mother surveyed the fishermen’s catch before striking a deal. Those memories have left me with a great love of the old-style fishing villages and holiday destinations around Ireland, including Bray, where we would stay in a guesthouse for a few days each year, swim, play the amusements and eat lots of ice-cream.
Skerries still has an almost untouched charm. The Stoop Your Head is now a gastrobar, where you can enjoy old-style Dublin Bay prawns ‘Marie Rose’, or cooked in garlic butter. Nowadays in Howth, the pier is lined with seafood eateries and fish shops, where the world’s your proverbial oyster! For us, however, the perfect trip to Howth involves sitting in the car, looking out over the water at Ireland’s Eye as we scoff a scampi and chips takeaway from Beshoff’s on Harbour Road.
Bray seafront, particularly at weekends, offers the most wonderful passing parade of people and costumes from all over the world.
The must-not-miss place here is the fabulous Gelateria seafront ice-cream parlour, facing the Sea Life aquarium on Strand Road; run by an Italian family, the place does the most amazing range of flavours.
Call me insular, but I have never had much of a desire to travel. In college when people would return from that summer’s ‘in’ destination (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia), I would secretly feel that it was all a bit pack-mentality. Nowadays, there is the effort of getting work done in advance for the weeks away, and packing up all the holiday requirements of a small child. So if I’m travelling, I like to go sit in the sun and chill — as much as is possible with a young baby — at a family place in Spain, or relive the holidays of my childhood in Ireland — Kerry, Cork, Kilkenny. The husband and I are actually planning a staycation for next month, so enamoured are we by the idea of a week off at home, in the comfort of our own house (and with none of the attendant sleep disruption for the baby that a holiday can bring).
Part of it, though, is that I’m a home bird. While my only sibling has bravely struck out as far as Beijing, I live less than a mile from the family home. All the touchstones of where I grew up are around me, which is exactly as I like it.
We live in East Wall. We bought in the boom, telling ourselves it was going to be the Portobello of the northside. That was not how things turned out. Furthermore, in our first year there, an unfortunate incident — involving young men throwing rocks at our front door and window from the elevated railway bridge directly opposite our house — set me quite against the place.
But if there was one thing maternity leave did, it taught me love of place. The pared-back, minimalist lifestyle, all about the daily local minutiae, where a trip to the post office is the sum of a day’s activities, forced me to engage with my area. And, actually, I find I love it.
The local park with the two playgrounds that elicit screams of excitement and outstretched arms from Sarah, my daughter, the minute she realises her proximity to a swing. The cash-only local butcher who told me to come back with the money the first time I bought meat from him and only had a card. The doctor, who spotted something was going on with my mum and made her go for tests, thereby catching things before they got a lot more serious. And the grannies in the surgery waiting-room who play peekaboo endlessly with Sarah every time we go there.
Kennedy’s for breakfast and Gaffney’s pub — which is almost like your granny’s living room — for a glass of wine. Bombay Pantry for Friday-night chicken tikka masala. Even the new-ish Aldi. My aunt, who lives round the corner; the parents, five minutes away; the husband’s best friends on the other side of the park.
Our neighbours who, unasked, arrive at the door with teething remedies when they hear Sarah crying at night; who remembered her birthday and dropped in a card (I can barely remember the birthdays of my immediate family) or pop their head over the wall, offering home-grown vegetables and hand-painted eggs at Easter.
Until recently, we obsessed about eventually moving to Clontarf, where I grew up. Of late though, we’re really happy with our lot.
We’ve had the place repainted, a further setting down of roots. And I find that on the many walks around the neighbourhood to get herself to sleep, I’ve come to love it.
Take the low Road
You might know High Road in Kinsale. It’s the one with the wow factor, skirting along the sheer hill around the harbour to Summercove, with views back down the River Bandon and out to sea. The only thing wrong is that it’s a dodgy walk when there’s traffic around.
This is where the Low Road comes in. (You’ll see it referred to as Scilly Walk on the map, but nobody I know calls it that.) As you’ve probably guessed, the Low Road runs below High Road, along the water’s edge. It isn’t actually pedestrianised, but you’re unlikely to meet a car. What you are most likely to meet on the Low Road is someone with a smile on their face.
We went there recently with our two small kids. The high cliff around the harbour held back the easterly wind. It felt like the South of France, without the crowds. The sun hit on the little ripples across the harbour, so Kinsale looked like it was covered in a thousand points of light. My mother, who was with us, pushed our youngest along in the buggy and teased me for growing old myself. Our three-year-old ran and skipped and shrieked, ‘I love Kin Snail’. I went home with a Low Road smile on my face.
Here’s the thing about the Low Road. It’s free. Nobody is trying to sell you anything. It’s a bite-size chunk of Ireland that you can walk in 15 minutes. Yes, it’s slightly overgrown with nettles and bits of trees, but that’s part of the charm. The Low Road is the exact opposite of the grubby opportunism that has led to Kinsale being labelled as The Gateway to the Wild Atlantic Way. The Low Road is the real deal.
There are only two things that could broaden my Low Road smile. One is a fistful of blackberries. We grow other fruits here in Ireland, but they taste like pale imitations of something that should be sprouting up next to the Med. Find a cluster of ‘blackas’ in a field here in August and you’re half way to heaven (as long as you don’t stand in cow shite — you always need to keep an eye out for that).
And then there’s Beamish. It’s good for a laugh these days, watching the hipsters tying themselves up in knots to find a back-story for their favourite craft beer. You’d swear that when St. Patrick arrived here, he was met by a bearded gentleman who asked if he’d like to join him in a local pale ale. You might as well claim that chicken tikka masala originally came from Tralee.
Beamish has actually been around for ages; it’s made in small batches, it’s unique, and delicious when you get it in the right pub. You might prefer Guinness or Murphy’s — that’s up to you. But if I get my hands on a pint of Beamish after a feast of ‘blackas’ on the Low Road, I can’t help thinking that Ireland must be the best country in the world. If I get my hands on a second pint, I might even believe it.
Susan Jane White
Ah, summer. It’s my favourite day of the year. But my second favourite thing about this beautiful country
is roving through her towns and villages . . . and celebrating the place names. It’s something I do with a mixture of pride and bewilderment, like watching your infant son picking up his first forkful of food before smearing it all over his face.
Wexford is a good place to start. That handsome county has always attracted its fair share of randy holidaymakers. You’ve got Heavenstown, which sounds nice, and it’s just up the road from Fannystown, of course. Except it’s all downhill from there. Literally.
Take a left in Horetown and you’ll soon end up in Bastardstown.
Woopsiedaisies. Is it any wonder tourists find themselves bolting to Effin Limerick?
Ever been to Kinsale? It’s where my older brother threatened to take me when I irritated him. He was saving up for a Nintendo 64 and said he wouldn’t have use for me any longer anyway. Marginally better than Kill, I suppose. Or Nobber.
Yes, Nobber, home to the legendary Muff Crescent. Not the town. The road. I like the town as well. Mind you, I often wonder what life is like up there in Muff. How’s the traffic? And the weather? Is it hot and sweaty, or icy cold this time of year? And tell me, does Muff have a diving club? (As it happens, yes.)
By the way, I know a lady who’s never been to Cum. (I’m not brave enough to google Cum in Mayo).
And then there’s Kilbrittain. Michael Collins country.
And Cavan, eh? A toddler’s dream address, with Legwee, Fartrim and Fartan. But Meelick is the genius child of Galway, not too far from Willyrogue Island. Beat that, Cavan.
And home, at last, to Dublin, with its wealth of suburban retreats.
When I get sick of Stillorgan, I go straight to Curly’s Hole. It’s near the Bull Wall. And why did Dollymount Strand? To get a Fairview of Curly’s Hole. Don’t blame me. Blame history, darling. Embrace it.
Or move to Shepherd’s Bush.
Sunday Indo Living