Dublin was our first home exchange
The row home on Sullivan Street, near Phoenix Park, about 2 miles west of the city centre, is larger than our apartment in Collioure. It’s on two floors, linked by a treacherous circular staircase. We carefully heed our host’s warning to walk in bare feet or shoes, but not socks, and have no accidents.
There are always new things to learn when you live in someone else’s home. Like hot water. We were instructed to turn the switch in the press to start the hot water heater. The press? Not only where is it, but what is it?
It’s a closet. We finally find the switch in the closet in the downstairs bathroom.
Once we get the system, the hot water is plentiful. But one day, hurrying home with not much time to make a dinner reservation, we realized we had not left the hot water on. It takes about 20 minutes to get up to temperature. We cancelled our reservation and went another day.
Someone knocks on the door. They’ve heard that the house is for sale, which is true, and they want to take a look around. Should we? We decide that our host, who wants the house sold, will not be upset if we allow the visit, but we watch carefully.
The bedroom is decorated beautifully, and the linens are superb. But we’re learning that most of the world apparently does not read in bed, like we do every night, and the lighting is really not adequate for that purpose.
There are shops nearby, and local pubs, all described in the materials and maps our host has left. It’s fun to shop locally, although we don’t buy much, since we’re not doing any real cooking. In fact, although I like to cook, we didn’t do much cooking on any of our trips all summer. It’s not easy to get used to someone else’s kitchen, and there are so many great restaurants to try.
We left our Dublin home in the same condition we found it, and were pleased to find that our home exchange guests in Collioure did likewise.
All in all, a positive experience.
our first day in Dublin
We arrive by taxi, in the dark, on Sullivan Street near Phoenix Park.
It’s a working class neighborhood and the small red brick row homes are not pretentious, but the neat flower boxes and painted doors are charming. One of the reasons to do home exchange is the chance to live in a real neighborhood instead of a hotel, and this is surely a real neighborhood. We’re thrilled.
The next morning, it’s time to reconnoiter.
Our exchange host has left a large pile of maps and instructions, including where to take the bus. We walk a block or so, and find the #10 bus, which of course, but surprisingly at first, is on the left side of the street.
Now the question is how to pay. Exact change is required, and fortunately we have it. This begins two weeks of making sure we always have the change needed to go wherever we’re going, and to get back.
It’s a double decker bus and we go topside for the view. The trip is slow in the morning traffic, but we enjoy the sights of the city as we roll through neighborhoods suggesting a variety of economic levels. In 20 minutes, we’re on O’Connell Street in the center of Dublin.
We get off across from the General Post Office, the place where the 1916 rising began and the bullet holes are still proudly displayed. Pat of course, is Irish, and I have read many books and listened to many Irish ballads. This place is a shrine … to persistence, to failure, and, ultimately, to success.
We walk along O’Connell, past the luxurious Gresham Hotel and across the River Liffey, flowing from 75 miles away in the mountains of County Wicklow (the source also of the clear pure water which makes Guinness beer).
First on our agenda is the main Tourist Office, located in a magnificent former church on Suffolk Street, the office Samantha Brown featured on her Passport to Europe show about Dublin. It’s a fantastic place, with lots of useful books and merchandise, a very friendly staff, and a charming café. We will return several times in the next two weeks, for information and for reservations.
I purchase another city map. I need a durable map that folds into my camera bag, and that has all the streets. Until I have a map that exactly fits my needs, I can’t be comfortable.
I also buy Fodor’s Ireland, for our out-of-town trips, and we pick up Dublin brochures, tram routes, bus routes, theatre announcements, everything that’s free. Now I have the tools to plan our two weeks.
Grafton Street, the pedestrian shopping street in the center of Dublin, is mobbed. Our first impression is that it’s not quite as elegant as it was before, ten years ago. Street musicians play in front of McDonald’s.
We buy an Irish Times and head off to St. Stephen’s Green, a 22 acre park at the end of Grafton Street, first enclosed in 1664, a place of peace in the center of the city, except when it too hosted riflemen in 1916. We share a bench in the shade with a young father and his three small sons. A brass band plays at a nearby gazebo.
For lunch, we wander back down Grafton, and one block over to South William Street, to the Georgian mansion built in 1774 for Lord Powerscourt, now an elegant center of galleries, boutique shops and restaurants. We climb to the third level and enjoy panini and penne with Peroli beer at La Corte, watching the action in the atrium below.
Not so Irish, you say. Well, much of Dublin is not so Irish anymore. Dublin has become a sophisticated international city, fully immersed in the European Union, and doing very well, thank you.
For example, over the course of two weeks, we had maybe 15 meals in Dublin, and only once or twice was the waiter or waitress Irish. Even some of the bartenders in the pubs were not of the land. This led to many interesting conversations, and a feeling that, on balance, progress has been very good for the Irish.
The Marks & Spencer food court on Grafton Street provides wine and chocolates for our dinner tonight at Una’s home. Una, you may remember, is the lady from whom we purchased our home in Collioure (see finding our home in Collioure). We haven’t seen her since, and we are excited about our upcoming evening.
We take the spanking new Luas light rail tram to the Heuston train station in West Dublin, a 10 minute walk to our apartment.
dinner with Una
One of the really great pleasures of our retirement travel plan, which we hope will continue to expand, is that we have made great new friendships in many wonderful places.
We bought our apartment in Collioure from Una (see finding our perfect apartment ), but it’s been a year since we’ve seen her. As soon as arrangements were set for our home exchange in Dublin, Pat corresponded with Una and she invited us to dinner.
Her friend Con will pick us up at 7:30. We decide to wait outside at 7:25, so he won’t have to find a parking spot, but he’s already there when we emerge, and we’re immediately immersed in his great Irish smile and manner.
I, of course, head for the front right door, the passenger door in the U.S., but the driver’s door throughout most of the present and former British empire. Everyone smiles, and I sheepishly retreat to the other side.
Una’s house is on the outskirts of Dublin, and what a magnificent property it is, the house set in the midst of lush quiet grounds. There’s a large kitchen, formal sitting rooms, and a delightful veranda, where we settle down to eat.
Una’s friend Mary, who was with her when we first met in Collioure, is here as well. The conversation is non-stop, intelligent, and full of laughter. Rosé, white and red wines complement rack of lamb, fruit, cheese, and salad. The evening is cool and the sky is filled with stars. Life is good.
Una is a great reader with an eclectic collection of books in her wood-paneled library. We’ve read many of the same authors. She invites me to choose a book to take with me, and I pick Enduring Love by Ian McEwan, a famous Irish author I have not read.
Coincidences. The following January, at the Key West Literary Seminar, I meet Mr. McEwan and tell him how riveted I was by the opening scenes of Enduring Love, which describe a horrible accident in a helium balloon.
Una tells me how much she enjoyed my novel, The Heretic, but how fearful she was, before she read it, that she wouldn’t like it, since she thought the DaVinci Code was awful.
“How did Dan Brown ever get published?” she asks.
I guess 40 million copies pretty much answers that question. Whatever its flaws, it tells a story that captivated the world. I should write such an awful novel.
A little more wine and a lot more glorious conversation, and Una calls a taxi for us. What a wonderful first 24 hours in Dublin.
organizing our two weeks in Ireland
Pat and I have both been to Ireland before (Pat three times), so we’re using this occasion to explore different parts of the country and other aspects of Dublin.
We plan trips to Wexford (where our new Collioure friends Valerie and Lorcan have a home) and to Cork. We will also re-visit Pat’s family in Westport, County Mayo.
But first we must go to Avoca, the real-life home of the BBC television series Ballykissangel, which became a sort of cult event for Pat and me, and many of our friends, several years ago in New York.
If you like things Irish, and you’ve never seen the show, the DVDs for several seasons are available on amazon.com. It’ll be a great treat. We decide to train to Arklow, from which we’ll either bike or take a cab the seven miles to Avoca.
Bike? What were we thinking?
I spread out my maps and schedules, and we select our travel dates, interspersing one or more days in Dublin between each out-of-town trip. This is the luxury of having two weeks, which is a major benefit of our home exchange approach to travel. We can accomplish a lot without the constant running about that is often so exhausting on a shorter trip.
We prefer trains to driving wherever practical, and from Dublin, we’re linked by excellent train service to just about anywhere in Ireland. The next day, we go to th etrain station and purchase tickets to Wexford (18 euros), Cork (59 euros) and Galway (40 euros), and Arklow (20 euros). There’s some kind of deal which we don’t quite understand, but the ticket clerk says we got a bargain by purchasing all the tickets at the same time.
At the Dublin Tourist Office, we reserve a car in Galway for the several hours drive to Westport. We could have taken the train directly to Westport, but we’ll want the car in Westport so we can drive out to Pat’s family’s country homes.
We also need a room for our one night in Westport, and the Tourist Bureau reservations clerk checks his computer and quickly identifies a vacancy at a B&B. He makes the call, confirms that the room is still available, and then asks, in a perfect, charming, so Irish way, “Might I take that room off your hands?” We smile at a delightful travel moment.
Now we can fill in the Dublin days from a growing list of interesting options, including several days to do what we like best, which is to just walk around the city and enjoy the sights and the people we always meet.
it’s a bank holiday
On our last day in Dublin, we go to a movie on O’Connell Street. The line for tickets is long, because it’s a bank holiday.
“Why is it called a bank holiday?”
“Because the banks are closed.”
“Why are the banks closed?”
“Because it’s a holiday.”
I swear to you that was a verbatim conversation held while we were waiting to buy the tickets.
it ‘could be true’ in Galway
We were in Galway twice, each time for a few hours, on our way to Westport, and again on the way back. Time enough to have a delightful experience in the Galway Tourist Office.
We found Tourist Offices in Ireland to be extraordinary, with intelligent, helpful people consistently going the extra distance to be helpful. This is always the case, you say? Go to Budapest and learn differently, from people who haven’t yet got the message about how to help tourists.
The young man in the Galway Tourist Office was the best of the best. We asked a few questions, and then he asked if we had time to hear his 10 minute presentation. We had the time, but he was so enthusiastic, we could not have refused even if we were in a hurry. He gave us an over view of central Galway, and then told two stories …
… There’s a clock tower on Eire Square (renamed Kennedy Square after JFK’s visit in 1963 but still called Eire Square on all the signs), erected by the British centuries ago. There are clocks on two sides, facing the new sections of town where all the Brits lived. The other two sides, facing the older, poorer sections of town to which the local Irish had been relegated, have no clocks. From whence comes the expression, “the Brits won’t even give us the time of day.”
… There used to be a Mayor in Galway named Lynch. He had a son, whose girl friend dallied with a stranger. The son killed the stranger. Now, the penalty for such killing was hanging, but since it was the mayor’s son, none of the townspeople would carry out the punishment. So the mayor marched his son to the public square and saw him hanged, amidst a large group, some urging him to carry on, others not. For ever more, such a group was known as a “Lynch mob.”
Are these stories true?
Well, as the Irish say, they “could be true.”
driving too fast on the wrong side of the road
I don’t drive much at all any more, since we have no car. In fact, one of our important criteria in choosing to live in Key West and Collioure is that we don’t need a car in either place.
However, some of our retirement travel does require driving. Including a trip from Galway to Westport.
Unless you want to pay much more for an automatic drive, when you drive in Europe you’re going to be driving stick. Actually, this is fun for me, a throwback to “really driving.”
Pat, who never learned to shift gears, can’t share the driving, but we don’t take long trips anyway, so that doesn’t hinder us much. Maybe some day I’ll try to teach her, since it would be useful for her to know in case of an emergency.
In Ireland (and later in Australia), the stick is on the “wrong” side, so I’m shifting gears left handed. While also driving on the left side of the road. Fortunately, the pedals are the same as in America.
Every initial driving instinct is wrong, and I have to think constantly. It’s not relaxing in the least.
The hardest part for me is judging the space on the left side of the car. It’s even more frightening for the person sitting over there, since on the narrow Irish roads, there’s very little margin for error.
Pat has a tight stomach the entire way, urging me repeatedly to move away from the left edge of the road which is frequently a stone wall. But I can’t move, since there are only inches between the right side of the car and the center line of the two lane roads.
On top of that, Irish road signs share that “uncertain” characteristic of Irish oral directions, so there’s frequent uncertainty as to which road to take and when to turn.
Five minutes into our 2 ½ hour drive to Westport, we agree that we should have taken the train from Dublin to Westport and rented a car there, but it’s too late for that now. We have to tough it out.
Another problem is speed. Irish drivers go way too fast for the roads, often passing on narrow two lane roads, and a head-on collision frequently seems imminent. I’m tempted to look up accident statistics on the web, but I’m afraid it would be too terrifying.
I’m actually thrilled when I get behind a large, slow-moving truck or farm vehicle. Now I can drive more slowly and it’s not my fault.
We do get to Westport, and back, without incident. Except for the damage to our nerves and digestive systems.
finding Pat’s family in Westport
We’ve finally completed our harrowing drive from Galway to Westport, despite the lack of good directions and the astonishingly vague road signs. Pat is coming to think that maybe her own often terrible sense of direction may be a tribal heritage.
Pull over,” Pat says at a small convenience store on the outskirts of Westport, “and I’ll call Maggie to let her know we’re here.”
There’s a problem. Maggie’s phone number isn’t listed. Now, to me, it seems ridiculous that we’ve taken a train from Dublin to Galway, and now driven to Westport, with no assurance that we can reach any of Pat’s family or that they’ll be home if we do find where they live. Pat had tried to write or email before we left the States, but had not made contact. She is not concerned in the least.
“Let’s find our B&B,” she says. “Then we’ll look for Mary.”
Dubious, I drive on. We find the B&B without difficulty, based on instructions we got at the Dublin Tourist Office. Our suitcases unloaded, we set off.
“Mary lives on that curved street near the church,” Pat says. We’ve been there before, and Westport is a small town. We find the curved street.
“What’s her address?” I ask.
“Not a clue,” Pat says, as she hops out of the car and walks up to a house she has chosen at random. I watch her in animated conversation with the lady in the house.
Pat returns to the car. “Mary lives in the next block, but she may not be home, because she visits with her daughter on Tuesdays.” Everybody knows everything about everyone in Irish neighborhoods.
Pat walks down the street. Soon, looking in the rear view mirror, I see her waving for me to join her.
“Mary’s here, and so is one of her daughters (who lives in England) we’ve never met. We’ll call Maggie from here.”
To me this is a miracle, but to Pat it’s exactly what she expected all along. The first time she went to visit her relatives in Westport was an even more unlikely story. All she had then was a name. So she went to the Post Office.
“Do you know where Mary Rooney lives?” she asked.
“And who would be asking?” the postal clerk responded.
“I’m her relative from the States.”
“Well, would you know, Mary Rooney is my mother.”
The postal clerk closed the post office, and later all the Rooney children were excused from school to come home and “meet the Yanks.”
Is it any wonder why I love Ireland so much?
family matters in Westport
We leave Mary’s house and drive out about 10 kilometers on the N59 to find the rest of the family. Three of Mary’s children – Liam, Maggie, and Betty – live in adjacent houses on the family land on the N59. All of the houses have spectacular views of Croughpatrick Mountain, the site of annual pilgrimages.
There are 8 children among the three families, ranging from 6 to 15. We have a pleasant visit, including shooting baskets with the kids. I make two long shots in a row and turn around to receive the plaudits due me, but no one has seen the great event.
Noel (Maggie’s husband), who has been at work, arrives just before we leave.
“Are you still working at the Connemara marble factory?” Pat asks.
“No, I’m selling cars now,” Noel says. Noel talks fast, and he’s funny.
“I finally got a job where they pay me to talk rubbish. I’ve been talking rubbish all my life, and now I get paid for it. It’s brilliant!”
After an hour or so of wonderful conversation and laughter, we promise to return next year with some of Pat’s children. Before the dusk turns to dark, not wanting to drive at night, we head back into Westport, park the car, and walk to dinner.
Westport is an unspoiled gem, a beautiful, absolutely clean little town that is being discovered, but hasn’t yet changed. Everything about it has the flavor of an earlier age. We eat in a charming informal restaurant in the Wyatt Hotel.
Then it’s Henahan’s Bar.
Pat’s maiden name is Hanahan, but it was Henahan in Westport, and her family is related somehow to the family that owns the bar. I tell the bartender that he has a special customer, and he introduces us to the current owner, the seventh generation of first sons named Michael Jack Henahan.
Another half pint of Guinness, and a walk up the steep hill to the B&B, where we collapse into bed after a long and tiring and wonderful day. In the morning, we enjoy a full Irish B&B breakfast – one fried egg, sausages, bacon, tomato, toast, cereal, orange juice, coffee and tea – and head back to Galway.
a small absurdity on the train to Dublin
Sometimes little things happen which are so absurd they leave you absolutely dumbfounded, and whenever you recall the incident later, you can’t help but shake your head and smile. One of these episodes happens on the train from Cork to Dublin.
We’re in the latter stages of a long day … up early, train to Cork, walk around town, bus to the seaside village of Kinsale, then reverse the process. It’s been a nice day, but we’re tired and I’m thirsty. There was a vending machine at the station, but then we got in line to board the train and it was too late.
I perk up when I see a railroad employee pushing a small food cart down the aisle of the train. My thirst will soon be quenched.
“Do you have anything cold to drink?” I ask.
“No,” he says, without looking up or stopping.
I guess he’s at the end of a long day, too. Anyway, I give up on the idea of a cold drink. Just then, however, another passenger comes walking down the aisle carrying two cold beers. “Pardon me,” I ask, “do they have cold sodas wherever you bought those beers?”
“Yes, they do. There’s a counter in the next car.”
I look around for the guy with the cart, but he’s in the next car, and besides, what would I say to him anyway?
I get up and get my soda.
The countryside still retains the old charm that most of us associate with Ireland, although thatched roof houses are few and far between. Dublin, on the other hand, is a cosmopolitan European city, with sophisticated restaurants, transportation, and shopping.
Not to worry, there are still plenty of Irish pubs.
At its center, Dublin encourages walking. Turn any corner for a fresh view of captivating architecture, shops and people.
I take far too many photos of colorful wooden doors. I also take photos of faces, Irish mainly, but others too, as the population is now quite mixed. The character of the doors and the faces, related in some unfathomable way, speaks of Ireland to me.
Early one morning, we sit on a street corner bench near the Connally station, sip coffee (me) and tea (Pat), and watch Dublin come to life. Swarms of people are going to work. Young people. The kind of young people who didn’t use to stay in Ireland. Now they not only stay, but more come from other countries, creating an immigration problem for the first time in Ireland’s long history.
If you don’t count the British.
The Temple Bar area is a magnet for the young. Bars and music, and more bars, opportunities to meet, street entertainment, some quite excellent. An old man sits on a stone seat, a living statue. Clusters of flowers decorate entryways and balustrades.
At Parnell Square is the Dublin Writer’s Museum. Does any other city have a writer’s museum? Tributes to W.B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce.
An actor provides 45 minutes of literary quotes, Irish humor, and political commentary. “Ireland is now wealthy,” he says. “The EU gives us money. I don’t know why, but we take it.”
Arbour Hill cemetery holds the remains of 14 martyrs from 1916, buried in a single mass grave where the over-confident Brits callously threw them. A tour guide describes the 1920s conflict between those who would compromise (Eamon DeValera) and those who wouldn’t (Michael Collins). He’s still indignant that there’s nothing to mark the spot in County Cork where Collins was murdered, some say at DeValera’s order.
There’s a wedding at a Greek Church near the cemetery. We talk quietly about the modernization of Ireland with the elderly driver who waits in a black limousine for the bride and groom to emerge. He thinks, on balance, the changes are good.
We stop for the obligatory tea and scones at Bewley’s on Grafton Street, for Guinness at O’Donohues, and on Dawson Street we stumble into the opulent Café en Seine, an early 1900s Art Nouveau Paris interior reminiscent of the New York Café in Budapest where we visited the previous month.
On another day, we return to Café en Seine for a late afternoon snack, and a couple from Northern Ireland urges us to visit. “It’s different now,” they say. “Much better. If you’re still leery of Belfast, try Donegal.” Pat, however, was in Belfast during the “Troubles” and has no desire to return.
At the National Gallery of Art near Merrion Square, I’m moved by the simplicity and compassion of paintings of every day Irish life by John Butler Yeats (1839-1922).
Mr. Yeats had quite a family. Two sons. One, known as J.B. Yeats to distinguish him from his father, is generally recognized as the most famous Irish artist. The other, W.B. Yeats, reigns uncontested as the most famous Irish poet. There was also a daughter, Anne Butler Yeats, a painter sufficiently talented to warrant restrospectives at the Royal Hibernian Academy and the National Gallery.
The Irish Jewish Museum is in an old synagogue, no longer used since the congregants have moved to the suburbs. The museum was opened in 1985 by a former President of Israel, Dr. Chaim Herzog, who was born in Ireland. We learn that the first Jews arrived in Ireland in 1079, and many more came after the expulsions from Spain and Portugal in the 15th century. The Jewish population of Ireland peaked at 5,500 in the 1940s as Jews fled from Nazi Germany, and is now approximately 1800.
The most famous Jew in the history of Ireland is Leopold Bloom, whose long walk one day in 1904 is the basis of James Joyce’s epic novel Ulysses. The story is that Joyce was saved from a beating by a passing Jew and subsequently felt indebted to the Jewish race. His repayment is one of the greatest works in world literature. Some day I’ll read it.
Contrasts abound. One gallery features photos of the new Ireland by a returning son, while an archive next door displays photos of Dublin from the early 20th century.
At the Brown Thomas department store on Grafton Street, Pat shops while I speak with the formally attired doorman who was featured in a Samantha Brown’s Passport to Europe program on Dublin, robustly singing the tale of sweet Molly Malone. He is less sanguine about the changes in Ireland that the limo driver. “Too much money for some,” he says, “not enough for others.”
Something called the Street Performance World Championship is held on Merrion Square, one of Dublin’s largest and grandest Georgian spaces, surrounded on 3 sides by elegant town houses and on the fourth by gardens and museums. Four performance venues are organized in the park, and through a steady rain, the acts go on.
The crowds are deep, but we manage to get close enough to see someone who calls himself That Man. At the conclusion of his act, he points out that, without speaking a single word, he has kept his audience smiling and laughing, in the rain, for 35 minutes. He asks the crowd to grade this remarkable performance, from 1 to 20, to put a euro sign before the grade, and to make a corresponding deposit into the hat he suddenly flourishes. The languages most spoken in Ireland are English, Chinese, Polish, Irish, in that order. We understand the Polish, since 130,000 Poles have recently emigrated to Ireland. But Chinese?
running in Phoenix Park
Pat is a runner, having completed 10 marathons, so she’s thrilled that our Dublin home exchange is located near the sprawling Phoenix Park, which at 1750 acres is the largest enclosed park in Europe.
On the first morning, we go out together. There are two reasons for this. It’s a nice day and I’d like to have my coffee outside. And, Pat has a history of getting lost.
So I buy coffee and a paper at the corner store, and sit on a bench waving goodbye as Pat runs off. Before I can finish the coffee, she’s back.
“Did you get lost?” I ask.
“No. I couldn’t find the park. I ran out and around, and here I am. Where’s the 1750 acres?”
I’m of course skeptical. I have a map and it shows where the park is, so why can’t she find it. I never say that, but Pat knows what I’m thinking when, later that morning, we march out together to find the missing park.
Same result. A brief circuit and we’re back where we started. Pat can hardly stop grinning. “You believe me now?”
We try again the next day and ask directions.
“Just go to the Garda station.”
“Where is it?”
Directions in Ireland are always lacking just a bit in precise specificity. “Just go along, turn after a while, and you’ll see it for sure.”
The next morning, Pat goes out by herself, and returns triumphant, having conquered the park, run six miles, and found her way back. It turns out, contrary to what shows on the map, that we had been in a small side section of the park when we thought we were in the main section.
Later, Pat takes me on a guided tour of the broad meadows, tree lined avenues, and quiet ponds.
the Guinness factory at St. James’s Gate
It is said that the famous black beer contains all of the food groups, and that one can survive quite well on a diet of Guinness alone. Many of the Irish are alleged to have put this theory to the test, with varying results.
From the Guinness web site:
… Arthur Guinness was born in 1725 near Dublin in the town of Celbridge, County Kildare where his father was a Land Steward whose duties included brewing beer for the workers on the estate. Thus young Arthur learnt the art of brewing at an early age.
… Arthur acquired a small, disused and ill-equipped brewery at St James’s Gate, still today the site of the Guinness brewery. The lease, signed on 31 December 1759, was for 9000 years (that’s not a typo) at an annual rent of £45.
… Arthur initially brewed ale, but by the 1770s a new drink, a strong black beer called porter was being exported from London. Arthur made the wise decision to brew this new beer himself, and the rest is history.
… Arthur also had the wisdom to marry an heiress. They had 21 children, 10 of whom survived into adulthood, thus establishing the family hierarchy which ran the brewery for many generations.
The Guinness factory is a 15 minute walk from our Dublin home. As we approach the grounds, we see a wonderful juxtaposition of huge shiny brewing tanks and the grey stones of a Catholic church, standing proudly side by side, dual pillars of Irish life.
The tour includes more Guinness history, enlightening descriptions of each stage in the brewing process, a lesson in how to get full enjoyment from every sip, and a voucher for a pint with lunch at one of the several restaurants.
But the highlight is clearly the opportunity to “pull” your own pint, a time honored process you can see repeated in any bar in Ireland and many in Manhattan. I already knew that you don’t just fill the glass.
I’m instructed to pull the tap and fill just to the designated line on the pint glass. The partial pint is then placed on the bar to settle, and for everyone to anticipate the cool taste that awaits. After a suitable wait, I finish the pull, with the tap in the opposite direction (no gas) to achieve a perfect creamy head.
If you’re really good, you can carve a replica of the Guinness logo into the head. I wasn’t that good.
We take our pint to the rooftop bar, where the 360 degree view of Dublin is stunning, including, far off in the distance, the mountains of Wicklow from which the cool water flowed to make the beer we’re now drinking.
Ballykissangel (actually Avoca)
The village of Avoca is a magical destination for us, because it is the real-life location of Ballykissangel, the BBC television show from some years ago that we adored. I’ve been looking forward to this visit for months.
We take an 7:30 am train from Dublin to Arklow, arriving before 9:00. It takes 15 only minutes to walk through the entire town, and still the tourist office hasn’t opened. We have another breakfast.
We had thought we might rent bikes and pedal the 7 miles to Avoca, but we learn that the nearest bike rental is in Wicklow, 20 miles away. Plan B is the cab, which the lovely ladies at the tourist office promise will be here in 5 minutes. It is.
Driving to Avoca, we realize how fortunate we are not to be on bikes. The road is one big rolling hill after another, of surpassing green beauty to be sure, but with no bike path or even shoulder of the road to protect bicyclists from the speeding cars, trucks and buses. In Ireland, the roads are very narrow and the traffic moves very fast.
The taxi driver turns out to be the cousin of the owner of Fitzgerald’s Bar in Avoca, the prime location for everyBallykissangel show. When we arrive at 10:00 am, the village looks just like it did on TV. We take the driver’s card for the return, and emerge onto a movie set.
Assumpta, the sensual and charmingly feisty BallyK tavern owner, is of course not behind the bar, but there’s a regular customer already ensconced, pint in hand. Across the street is Kathleen’s store and not far down the street we find Father Peter Clifford’s church. We enter each location with a warm reverence reflecting how much we enjoyed the show.
The other tourist attraction is the Avoca Hand Weavers outlet, which, dating from 1723, is the oldest surviving working mill in Ireland. The colors in the soft woolen blankets and scarves are vibrant, and it’s mesmerizing to watch the manually operated weaving machines create such beauty right before our eyes.
We lift some colorful scraps from the discard bins, and buy a beautiful scarf for a Christmas gift. We always like to buy things when we travel as reminders of where we’ve been, although luggage weight restrictions are now limiting our ability to do so.
When we get back to Fitzgerald’s at 12:30, the same guy is there, although I suspect it’s not the same pint. I drink a half pint of Guinness, mostly so I can say I did, and the bartender graciously calls the taxi to take us back to Arklow. It’s the same driver, and we share with him what was for us an adventure that met every one of our high expectations.
When we get back to Key West, we buy another season of Ballykissangel on DVD. Every scene in every show will now remind us of our wonderful trip to Avoca.