Four-poster fantasy

I tell myself that I only need a bed. A clean bed. And hot water. And a decent breakfast. I tell myself that I don’t need to spend a huge amount of money on a room that I will only be showering and sleeping in. That’s how I usually justify my hotel choice. But I have gotten tired of the sameness of hotel rooms, the miles and miles of carpeted corridors, the galleries of cheap prints on bland walls. Still, if the bed is clean and the water is hot and the breakfast is included, price usually wins out.

I don’t make the sort of money that allows me to rack up three-digit-euro-a-night hotel rooms. If I did, perhaps the stars would matter. But they don’t. Not really. Anyway, I found out this week that the word luxury as used in the hotel world applies to 6* and 7* hotels and resorts, and not, as I’ve always thought, to the 5* ones like the Four Seasons. So my usual 3* stays have now paled to paler than pale.

When we were planning our trip to Killarney, I reserved two hotels online. Himself reserved one. He seemed quite attached to his choice and I wasn’t much bothered about mine, so his was the one we went with. There was little if any difference in the price of all three. All promised clean beds, hot water, and a decent breakfast. Decision made, I left it at that. I didn’t do my homework. I didn’t check the website. I didn’t check the reviews. I simply trusted that it would work out.

We turfed up to the Earls Court House Hotel just off Muckross Road on a Monday night. We were late arriving but had rung ahead. ‘Just ring the doorbell,’ the nice lady said. ‘Someone will open up.’ So we did. And they did. And it wasn’t at all what I expected, not that I’d expected anything other than a clean bed, hot water, and a decent breakfast.

Hotel history of Killarney

Tourists have been visiting Killarney since the mid-eighteenth century, thanks to the then Lord of Kenmare,  Thomas, 4th Viscount Kenmare, who began by inviting visitors and residents to the town. When Queen Victoria dropped by in 1861, Killarney went international, and it’s been on the global tourist map ever since. Before the railway came in 1853, it had three hotels. A year later, it had seven. And they’ve multiplied over the last 150 years to epic numbers. It seems like every other house in Killarney is a B&B, a guesthouse, or a small hotel. Roomex.com lists 93 hotels. Alphrooms lists 53. Kerry Hotels lists 247. And out of all these, himself chose the Earls Court House Hotel.

Ray, one half of Moynihan team that owns and runs the place, answered the bell. He was all chat. We signed the forms and got our keys, only too delighted when he mentioned that he’d put us in a four-poster bed and hoped we’d enjoy our stay. I knew that wasn’t what we’d booked but hey, I’d never slept in a hand-built 6ft x 6ft four-poster bed so I kept quiet. For a change. Anyway, all I was after was a clean bed, hot water, and a decent breakfast. Breakfast started at 8 but we were due to start the conference at 8. ‘No problem’. he said. ‘We can open the kitchen for ye at half seven. And if there’s anything else you’d like, let us know.’ It was all very relaxed. I offered to pay but he said we could do that when we checked out. No rush.

The voice in the lift announces each floor in a broad Kerry accent. The carpeted corridors don’t match. The paintings and prints on the walls are a hodgepodge of styles. The  Period armchairs sprinkled around the place are upholstered in all sorts of materials and patterns.  And the overall effect is absolutely fabulous. It’s like stepping into a period house, complete with drawing rooms, drapes, and duck-down duvets. Okay, so maybe the duvets are a bit on the modern side but they’re covered with heavy brocade bedspreads that turn a sleep into an experience you want to drag out forever. Tucked out of sight at the back of the hotel is a service room where guests can do laundry. A pragmatic nod to twenty-first-century living.

This is a photo taken from their website. No matter how much I tried I couldn’t do the room justice with my limited photographic skills. We didn’t get the flowers or the wine, but that’s not a complaint – it’s me being honest. I wouldn’t want ye to get too envious. For the first time in a long time, I didn’t want to leave my hotel room. I cut short a night out on the town and passed up on another to come back to the room and work. It was so quiet, so spacious, so real that I caught myself reaching for a bell-pull that existed only in my mind’s eye. I wanted to summon the maid to turn down the bed and draw me a bath (or in this case, a Jacuzzi).

The Earls Court is more than a 4* boutique hotel furnished with some lovely antiques and an extensive breakfast menu covering everything from award-winning porridge (I didn’t ) to a full Irish (I did); from kippers (I didn’t) to a bacon, cheese and guacamole wrap (I did). The home-cured ham, the homemade brown bread, the lemon drizzle cake … delicious. Yep the Earls  Court is much more than a hotel; it’s an experience.

What makes the Earls Court different

And for all that it has, the one thing the Earls Court doesn’t have is sameness. It’s an original. What started out in in 1990s with 10 rooms has been extended to 40 over the years. Ray and Emer are still very visible, very much in charge. But they’re more than ably assisted by a very personable staff who have a nod for everyone. From the witty Margaret Mary on the front desk to the inimitable Agnes, a veteran of the hospitality business, who adds a breath of fresh air to breakfast, everyone we met had time for us. They were never too harried to stop for a chat, to ask how our day had gone, to answer a question or seven. And they have what everyone in Killarney seems to have been blessed with – the ability to banter.

The Lord of Kenmare knew what he was doing when he recognised in Killarney an innate hospitality that would make it a memorable place to stay for centuries to come. And had the Earls Court been around back in the 1700s, he might even have had our room.

 

 

 

Bertha’s revenge

I like my gin. I’m fond of the odd tipple. I’ve even been known to have a lengthy meal, each course accompanied by a different gin rather than a different wine. I like to think that I helped put Dingle Gin on the map, back before it was ever as popular as it now. I’d like it even better if I could get Murphy’s Dingle Gin ice-cream in Hungary, but that’s silly wishful thinking. Neither An Post nor Magyar Posta are up to the challenge.

This week was a first for me in many respects. My first travel bloggers conference, TBEX Ireland. My first time in a four-poster bed. My first time eating gin-infused ice-cream. And it was also my first time sampling Irish milk gin. I know. I did a double-take, too. It was the same Tuesday night that I tripped over the marvelous Longueville House Cider at the Taste Kerry night at TBEX. Justin Green from Ballyvolane House in Castlelyons, Co. Cork, was on site with his gin, Bertha’s Revenge.

Will the real Bertha please stand up

Bertha is a cow. Or was a cow. She was, in fact, the was the oldest cow in the world when she died in Sneem, Co. Kerry, back in 1993. And she was just 48. Considering the average lifespan of a cow is 18-22 years, I suspected that Bertha might have been a figment of some gin-soaked imagination, but no. She made the headlines in Ireland back in 1986 when she got through her 39th successful pregnancy. She was some gal.

So impressed were the lads at Ballyvolane (Justin Green and Antony Jackson) with this prodigious bovine, that back in 2014 they decided to immortalise her in spirit. Their gin is whey-based. They get the whey [the liquid remaining after milk has been curdled and strained] from the local farmers. To this they add some special yeasts and let them work their magic for all of 30 minutes or so. The resulting ethanol is then distilled several times. Using this and their own natural spring water and what they call ‘an interesting mix of botanicals’, they’ve hand-crafted a milk gin they call Bertha’s Revenge (42% ABV).

Their ‘grass to glass’ philosophy is complemented by their annual donation of a percentage of their sales to charity. Sorta gives a whole new slant to the term ‘cash cow’.

I sipped it neat to taste and then tried it with some Fevertree tonic. And yes. I like. A lot. And I might like it even better in a cocktail. But it’s the backstory I love.

With the Irish market (and indeed the world market) flooded with craft gins of varying degrees of quality, its nice to see producers creative enough infuse their gin with something more ethereal than botanicals – a bovine spirit. Bertha was a good looking cow – and this Ballyvolane gin is a good looking gin.

I don’t profess to be an expert in gin. I only know what I like and what I don’t like. The reviews I leave to the experts – like those at the Gin Foundry.

On the nose, Bertha’s Revenge has a real sweet acidity coming from the whey. Piquancy flicks at the nostrils and the cardamom pops alongside a peppery tingle. This carries through to the taste; the gin is sweet at the fore – the liquorice and sweet woodruf makes themselves known – but there’s also a creamy (dare we say milky) taste, which must come from the base alcohol itself. Juniper rises up, but is quickly pushed aside by cardamom, cloves and cinnamon, which dominate towards the end and lingers long after the first sip. […] The passion behind this spirit comes through in the taste – it is of genuine quality and is one we’d be quick to recommend.

I think that means they liked it.

Ballyvolane House itself has a great history to it, too, one that runs to witches, murders, and buried treasure. Note to self has  duly been made to visit, next time I’m in the neighbourhood.

 

Ballyvolane House
Castlelyons,
Co. Cork,
P61 FP70, Ireland

Tel: +353 (0)25 36349

 

 

 

 

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‘Tis all in the apples

I was a great fan of Bulmers back in the day. I loved the stuff. But over the years as my stomach ages and my taste buds get a little more sophisticated, that love has waned. While I still enjoy a glass every now and then, I can’t handle it like I used to. I’ve been looking for a replacement for a few years now but find everything too sweet. Or too dry. Or too sharp. Or too gassy. And I’ve tried. Believe me, I’ve tried. I’ve tried craft ciders. I’ve tried English ciders. I’ve tried Hungarian ciders. I came close once with a French cider, but that was a short-lived long-distance relationship.

The other night, at the opening night of TBEXIreland, I was exploring the stables at Killarney Racecourse. The horses were away and the stalls given over to food and beverage producers from the area, courtesy of Taste Kerry. It was there I ran into Rupert and his cider from Longueville House in Mallow, Co. Cork. [As a complete aside, every Rupert I’ve ever met has been tall – is there something in the name?] It was love at first sip. No artificial sweeteners. No additives. No colourings. No sulphates. No preservatives. Nothing but Irish apples and natural yeast.

I did the whole tasting bit. I sniffed and swirled and let the apples soak into my tongue. I did a mental checklist of all the descriptives I could use, checking for notes and bouquets and heritage. A line from a cider review by Charlie Harvey came to mind: robust with a good kick of apple balanced by some nice farmyard notes. Sounds good but in all honesty, I wouldn’t know a farmyard note if it sang to me. I can’t lay claim to be an cider aficionado. I just know what I like. And this I liked. A lot.

I asked him what the secret was to making a good cider. It’s simple. ‘Tis all in the apples: cider apples. They don’t use eating apples or cooking apples or any other sort of apples other than cider apples. Other cider makers might use cider apples but they’ll then add some regular apple juice to the mix for sweetness. Not Longueville. They only use Dabinett & Michelin, heritage, heirloom cider apples.

I went back for seconds, and thirds, and fourths: they were small glasses. Had the queue not been forming behind me, I’d have been brazen enough to ask for a bottle to take with me. But, Rupert assured me that Longueville House Cider is on sale in SuperValue right now – 3 bottles for €10. I thanked the travel gods that I’d booked check-in luggage to take back with me.

And there’s more: Longueville Mór  (slightly stronger than the Longueville House cider with an AVB of 8%). This cider is fortified with brandy. Their brandy. Yes, they do brandy, too. I liked the cider and brandy mix but I’m not a great one for neat alcohol. The brandy is very much a brandy and judging the sighs of satisfaction from those around me, it’s a good one. Me? I preferred the house cider.

Curious, I did a quick search to see if any cider heads had reviewed it. And I found this on Cider Says:

First Impression:  Light orange amber hue.  Very low carbonation.  Smells of cider apple juice, yeast, and a hint of funk.

Tasting Notes:  On the sweeter side of semi-dry.  Medium bodied.  Low tartness, acidity, funk, and tannins.  Hints of bitterness and sourness.  Notes of tannic rich cider apples, barnyard, brown sugar, orange, leather, yeast, and honey.  Moderate length finish.  Moderate apple flavor, sessionability, flavor intensity, and complexity.

And while still curious – What does sessionability mean? – I was delighted to note that my new love is similar to cider from Normandy, France, ‘such as Christian Drouin Pays d’ Auge, due to the richness, flavor notes, and funk’. Whatever funk is.

Now, all I need is for someone in Budapest to stock it.

Longueville_cider

 

Longueville House, Mallow, County Cork, Ireland P51 KC8K
Tel: +353 (0)22 47156
US/CAN toll free tel: 800 323 5463 [email protected]

 

 

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All about the banter in Killarney

Brag about Irish scenery, whiskey, or music. Wrap up Ireland in culture,  prose, or poetry. Colour it in 40 shades of green or 50 shades of rain. For me what sells the place is the banter.

I’m back in Ireland. Again. This time in Killarney, Co. Kerry, attending my first TBEX – an international convention of travel bloggers. The main sponsors – Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland – along with the host town of Killarney, are pulling out all the stops when it comes to showcasing the local offer to delegates. Pre- and post-conference side trips include Dingle, the Ring of Kerry, Muckross Abbey, Ross Castle and other local destinations all carefully chosen to give the punters a taste of what some might say is the real Ireland. Posters around the town warn everyone that we’re here – just in case.

The opening event out at the Killarney Racecourse offered an impressive sampling of local food and drinks (courtesy of Taste Kerry), the requisite show of Irish dancing, and a fascinating insight into horse racing given by Sandra Hughes (daughter of the late Dessie Hughes, a legend in his time – I won a few quid on Hardy Eustace in his day) – but more on all that later. What I’m revelling in today is the banter.

We got back into town about 9.30 last night to find a lot of the shops still open. Time works on a different clock in this part of the world. Most of the tourists spend their days out touring the countryside, only coming back into town in the evening, so local merchants have adjusted accordingly.

A young fellah was hoovering inside Shades of Erin – one of the cornucopia of craft shops in town. He assured us he was still open for business and invited us in for a browse. I complimented him on his hoovering and asked if he’d come round and do my house when he was done.

‘Ah sure I will – but don’t tell the mother. I don’t do it at home.’

I was after a Grandfather shirt for himself – one of those heavy brushed-cotton collarless jobs. But he had none in stock.

‘But here, listen. Would you not fancy a poncho? I’ve been sick looking at them for months but today I brought down the price  to €60 and they’ve flown out the door. Mad, isn’t it.’

I wasn’t into ponchos or jumpers or any of the woolens, but he was determined.

‘Yer woman next door might have one – c’mere and we’ll check.’

He led us to a couple of shops a few doors down – Country Crafts. He told the young one inside what we were looking for and left us to it.

‘I only have the one’, she said, pulling out a tent-like shirt in a nice pale blue. ‘It’s all I have left.’ It was massive – an XXXL. Way too big for himself. But she could see I was biting.

‘You’d be quare shnug in this for the winter. ‘Tis lovely and warm. Sure try it on and see.’

I did. The shoulders were down near my elbows and the tail of it covered my knees. But it was, as she promised, quare shnug.

‘They say I’d sell sand to the Arabs’, she said with a smile.

‘Not this particular Arab’, says I.

‘Ah go on’, she said. ‘Tis lovely on ya. I’ll knock another fiver off it. You know you want it…’ And there began the banter. Back and forth. On politics, on tourists, on travel.

I was born in Ireland. I grew up in Ireland. I know Ireland. I’m not one to fall for the tourist twattle. But I love the banter. I wasn’t buying the shirt as much as I was buying the experience. I should have spotted the family resemblance. Danny Cronin and his sister Monica are great brand ambassadors for Killarney and for Ireland. And were Monica running the country, we’d be in good hands.

So with me bagged and sated, she sent us off down to Quills to sort himself out.

I felt my way through the woolens, picked up a present for a friend’s baby, and fixed on a shirt for himself. We went up to the counter to pay. Three women stood waiting to serve us. It was coming up to closing time on a Tuesday night and what business they’d had, had been done. I asked them about the Merino wool, having heard that Ireland was now importing wool from Australia and then  knitting it up. But apparently, we’re also mixing it with Irish wool, to keep it Irish. The traditional Arans with the oiled wool were on sale – they’re not moving as well as they used to, crowded out by the new range of softer wools and pastel colours. There was the usual litany of where are ye from and what are ye doing in town, but far from being rote, they were sincere in their ask. They wanted to know.

Greta, Sheila and Geraldine on the job at Quills

I miss that. I miss getting someone’s life story on the way into town on the bus. I miss the running commentary on the weather or the random remarks from equally random strangers on what I’m wearing or how I’m looking. I miss the engagement, the questions, the innate curiosity that feeds into our stories and embellishes our blather. I miss the banter.

Walking down main street on our way home close to 11 o’clock, we passed Eric Gudmunsen getting traction with the tourists with his Trump song. He had them completely engaged. Further on, the lovely Teresa was offering a taste of some caramel ice-cream.

‘Can I interest ye in some ice-cream? Handmade in Dingle. All natural. Lovely stuff.’

Teresa at work in Murphy’s

I took a spoon to be polite and that was me done. I got the low down on it all, checked out the full offer, had a few more samples and promised I’d be back. And I will. They have a Dingle Gin ice-cream that has a kick in it and a lovely sea-salt one that I could have for breakfast. But apart from the creaminess and the taste and the inventiveness of the flavours, they have Teresa. Wearing her Jackie Healy-Rae cap instead of a hairnet, this pint-sized ice-cream enthusiast is a great ambassador for the Murphy brand.

So yes, Ireland has the scenery, the whiskey, the music. It has the culture,  the prose, and the poetry. It has its 40 shades of green and its 50 shades of rain. But what makes it special are the people and their willingness to engage. What makes Ireland Ireland is the banter.

 

 

 

2017 Grateful 23

The new Irish. I heard that phrase this morning and it threw me. For years, centuries, Ireland has been exporting her people to far flung places and they’ve mixed, married, and melted into their new worlds, all the while retaining that Irish connection. They’ve become citizens of other countries. So why then am I so surprised at the thoughts of foreign nationals moving to Ireland and doing the same: mixing, marrying, and melting into Ireland. And becoming what is known as ‘the New Irish’.

In my inbox this morning, I received a link to a piece in The Guardian about the most ethnically diverse town in Ireland – Ballyhaunis, Co. Mayo. Home to the first purpose-built mosque in the country (which dates back to the 1990s), this west- of-Ireland town is quite the example of how immigration and integration can fit in the same sentence, without exaggeration.

The video (just 15 minutes and worth a watch) tells of the GAA (the Gaelic Athletic Association) supplanting the church as the focal point of the community. It shows a club, hemorrhaging Irish players to foreign parts, anxious to bolster numbers – and where better to go looking for talent that to the new-Irish community. The numbers are staggering. More than two-thirds of the kids in the local primary school don’t speak English at home. What was the local convent is now home to 300 asylum seekers from countries like Africa and Syria. And to these you can add the influx of Poles and Eastern Europeans to the mix and the Pakistanis who moved over a while back.

I felt the warm glow of national pride. Finally, a community that gets the need to integrate, to welcome, to get involved. And then the admission. They’re doing what they can to ensure that the kids feel no different to the local kids. But for the adults they can do little.

Direct Provision is the name of the scheme into which asylum seekers in Ireland find themselves. It can take 4 years to have your application processed and there’s an 80% chance you’ll be rejected. Long odds by any reckoning. And for those  years, you get a paltry weekly allowance and are housed and fed. You’re not allowed to work, no matter how qualified you are or how badly the community needs your skills. They’re the rules. Madness.

And while many who have come through the system are grateful to have been granted asylum, for thousands more, it’s a waiting game what will end badly. A temporary reprieve before being shunted on. Across the country, housing estates lie empty, buildings are boarded up. The recession offered a one-way ticket to many who left in search of a better world. And yet thousands more new Irish see Ireland as their home, and Ballyhaunis as their new village. When will someone with some policy power connect the dots?

While it’s by no means a perfect system, I’m grateful that in some parts of Ireland, they’re getting it right. Go, ‘haunis.

 

 

2017 Grateful 44

Dithering at a bus stop outside Dublin Airport recently, debating the merits of taking a 16 or 41, a bus driver hollered at us from inside his bus.

– Where are ye off to?
– Malahide Road
– That’s a long road, love
– Between Artane and Donnycarney
– Ah – you want that bus there (pointing to the one in front of him). Get off at Annesley motors on Cloghran and hop on the 27b and you’ll be sorted. How are ye paying?
– We have Leap cards [Irish equivalent of Oyster cards – prepaid travel cards]
– Ye know it’s two fares, right?
– Yep – cheers
– No bother

So we get on the No. 16 and ask the driver to let us out at Annesley Motors in Cloghran. Then we sit down and wait.

In comes our friendly guy. He has a chat with our driver and then shouts down the bus to us:

– Tommy’ll see ye right. He’ll let ye know when to get off. Are ye okay so?

It’s been a while since I’ve merited such attention.

We motor on and Tommy finally calls us out. As he pulls up to the stop, he asks us where we are going:

– Malahide Road. Between Donnycarney and Artane
– Ah sure, why don’t you come on down with me to Beaumont and pick up the 14 That’ll take you to Donnycarney
– But they’d we’d have to walk up the hill instead of down
– Fair point, fair point. I’ll take ye to the next stop – it has a shelter and a timetable so ye can see where ye’re at. No charge. Ye’ll have a wait though. Sure ye won’t come with me?
– Nah. Thanks though. We’re grand

At this stage, the rest of the passengers, all tourists, were trying to figure out who we were and why we were getting such attention.

It was bloody freezin’ as we stood and waited our 12 minutes for the 27B. It was on the screen, getting tantalizingly close only to drop back as it was overtaken by another bus. We watched the countdown. 5 min. 4 min. 2 min. Due. And then it disappeared off the screen and never appeared over the hill. And we were in Cloghran.

A couple of minutes later, a bus pulls up. It had its as seirbhís sign up (out of service). The driver opened the door and the story continued

– What number are ya?, I asked
– What number do you want me to be?
– I’d love you to be a 27B

– Grand so. Hop on.

Not quite believing the randomness of it all, on we got.

– What fare to you want?
– I’ve no clue. I want to go to the Malahide Road. The stop after the turn to Artane Castle
Yeah, but what fare do you want?
– The cheapest

Grand so. That’ll be €1.05

We were on that bus for at least half a hour if not 40 minutes; our €1.05 had run out in the first ten. We wandered in and out of estates, passing the same church at least twice. It was like a mystery tour.

I love Dublin. I love Dubliners. I love the irreverence and their ability to knock some craic out of just about anything. And for those who say that the ‘furriners’ or the ‘non-nationals’ moving into the country will ruin it, only one of those three bus men was Irish. It hadn’t taken the others long to catch on. And for this, I’m grateful.

 

A day of silence

Retreats used to be a focal point of religious life in Ireland. They may well be enjoying a rejuvenation of sorts as busy professionals look to disengage and step outside the online world. Generally, they last for anything from a half-day to two weeks. Most are preached, some are guided (as in silent). And it’s the silence I’m taken with. I’d been toying with the idea of doing a 10-day silent stint somewhere but figured that I should start off slowly – just to see. So when I got a present of a one-day silent retreat at Manresa House in Clontarf (an Oasis Day), I was dead chuffed. That said, it took me two years to get around to booking in and last Saturday was the day.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The last time I’d been on retreat was back in Secondary School and that wasn’t today or yesterday. And back then, prayer and reflection were about as far from our minds as silence.

They told us that we could do as much or as little of the set programme. We could walk the beach at Clontarf across the road, or stroll through the neighbouring St Anne’s Park or simply wander the grounds. And we could have done all three had the weather cooperated. But it was miserable. Teeming rain and howling winds made it a perfect day to be indoors.

Nineteen of us in all showed up. Given the option of a silent lunch or a talking one, I opted for the former. The whole idea for me was to say nothing to nobody. This was my trial. No phone. No laptop. No talking. We had our choice of places to retreat to: a chapel, a prayer room, a library, or the lounge, complete with floor to ceiling windows and reclining chairs.

As I said, I didn’t know quite what to expect. The first of three guided meditations got rid of the residual stress. Left to my own devices I wandered the library and picked up a copy of St Matthew’s Gospel. I cracked it open and read a passage – the answer to something that’s been bothering me for months jumped off the page. I was sold.

The next meditation, coincidentally, was also on a passage from Matthew – a different one. My mind was all over the place but I was getting the hang of it. I’d visited the honor-system book stand and purchased a copy of Antony de Mello’s Rediscovering Life, and each time we were left to amuse ourselves, I’d retreat to a corner and read.

De Mello has it all figured out. The root cause of sorrow is attachment. He tells a story of a guy going into a restaurant with his mind set on tomato soup. But there’s no tomato soup of the menu. He’s mad. He leaves. He goes to the next restaurant. That’s me. I’ve done that. I once tried four Chinese restaurants because I was fixated on having dumplings for dinner. In de Mello’s lingo, I was attached to my dumplings. And I got quite worked up about not finding any. How much better for me had I been detached and simply picked any one of the may other dishes I liked. The angst I’d have saved myself.

I read this before lunch. Which was just as well.

There is one dish that I cannot abide. I can’t abide the taste of it or the smell of it. I’d rather go without that to sit down to a plate of boiled bacon and cabbage. And that’s exactly what was on the menu. Bacon and cabbage and potato with the obligatory parsley sauce. What a great opportunity to practice detachment. Anyway, there was no choice. I’d not phoned in my dietary preferences in advance (usually I go vegetarian for communal dining), so I ate the bacon. And it wasn’t bad.

Later that afternoon we had more guided meditation and then confession. It’s been a while. Although a practicing Catholic, I’m at odds with the institution and find it hard to confess to things I do not repent. But the Jesuits are pragmatists, believing that ultimately it’ll be between me and my maker and if I can live with the thoughts of how that conversation might go, so can they. Not for the first time, I left the confessional without receiving the sacrament but having enjoyed an enlightening conversation that helped square away something else that had been bothering me for a while.  I was batting 3 for 3.

We finished up with a final meditation, what St Ignatius calls the Daily Examen, an elaboration on my nightly grateful ritual. Before we left, we had the option of going to mass. I usually shy away from Mass in English as I’ve been a little disillusioned by the inability of those preaching to make the Gospel relevant. Best, I think, to spend my mass time in communing in my own way, none the wiser.

The celebrant was from Malta. I could tell by his accent. And given that both Brexit and the Trump election were mentioned, his sermon was Relevant with a capital R.

Conclusion: It was a great gift. A very worthwhile way to spend a day. And although I did think more than once that I could enjoy a similar quiet and solitude down  by the Kis Balaton, I realised that there, I’d always find something to do. A day devoted to thinking, reflecting, and yes, the occasional nap, is a rarity, but one certainly worth repeating.

Maybe next time, I’ll try the 4-day one and gradually work myself up to the full 8 days of silence. Bliss.

 

2017 Grateful 45

Jacques Brel is alive and well and living in Paris? Nope, he’s not. He’s dead. Dead and very buried on an island in French Polynesia. But his songs are still doing their thing and at the Gate Theatre in Dublin this week I met the Belgian in spirit for the first time.

I was in town. My mate had tickets. It was a given that I’d go. I asked no questions as I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen bad, really bad theatre. I’ve seen mediocre stuff, but even a mediocre night at the theatre beats a night of thumb twiddling.

So, to Jacques. I wasn’t the only one in the company who’d not heard of him so I wasn’t that put out. Born Jacques Romain Georges Brel, he died back in 1978 at the very young age of 49. Lauded as the master of the chanson (a lyric-driven French song style), his work has influenced the likes of Leonard Cohen and Rod McKuen, two of my favourite lyricists. McKuen was one of the first Americans to translate his songs, which were originally written in French and Dutch.

Brel himself wasn’t above influence either. Probably his most recognised song, Ne me quitte pas (If you go away), recorded by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand, Nina Simone, Tom Jones, Marlene Dietrich and a litany of others, has a melody in part derived from Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6. Needless to say, I didn’t recognise it. But no surprises there.

The cast of four – Risteárd Cooper, Karen McCartney, Stephanie McKeon and Rory Nolan – were well into it all. The revue was originally performed in Paris in 1968 to great acclaim and there wasn’t anyone in the audience on Thursday night who didn’t enjoy it either. It was magical. The scene was set in Paris, in a crumbling old bar reminiscent of Budapest’s Piaf. It ran uninterrupted for 90 minutes with song after song sung with a passion and enunciation that lent clarity and soul to every word.

The four swung seamlessly between tunes, adopting the roles required by each set of lyrics. Each song told the type of poignant and heartfelt story that never dates. I was particularly taken with The Old Folks and the lines:

Though you may live in town, you live so far away
When you’ve lived too long

As I said, Brel’s songs were originally recorded in French or Dutch and subsequently translated to English so while Elly Stone’s version does the man justice, his original is something else and worth a listen.

McKeon’s version of Carousel left me reeling. I was there with her, on the carousel, going fast and faster to the point of dizziness. Amazing. But like all Brel’s songs, this too was what Cooper calls a ‘playlet’. And what Peter Crawley explains in his review in the Irish Times as creating

 an image of life that is always accelerating, finally moving so fast that it threatens to spin out of control completely.

We met a young girl whose sweetheart didn’t come home from the war. We met a young soldier who lost is virginity in army whorehouse. We even had a glimpse of Brel talking from his grave. I enjoyed every last minute of it and have made a note to self to buy Marc Almond’s album Jacques to hear it all again. If you’re in Dublin in February, it’s a must see.

This week, I’m grateful I didn’t ask questions because it wouldn’t have been something I’d have picked to go to see myself… and although discovering him late, my life is already all the richer for knowing of Jacques Brel.

 

2016 Grateful 2

From posh cocktails on the Southside to garlic chips in an inner-city chipper – a night out in Dublin has it all. Especially if it’s with de wimmen – all frocked up.

20161215_175248_resizedAmbling up Dawson Street to meet the rest of de Wimmen at Peruke and Periwig, we stopped in at the Mansion House to see the live crib. Every morning, a farmer from north Dublin brings in a couple of sheep, a goat, and a donkey. He can’t believe that some kids in Dublin have never seen real animals up close and in person. The mind boggles. The grounds of the Mansion House, home to Dublin’s Lord Mayor, have been transformed into a winter wonderland. Perfect to set the mood.

In then to Peruke and Periwig, a rather posh stop-off on Dawson Street with three floors carefully kitted out to look like your great-grandmother’s living room, had your great-grandmother been part of the landed gentry of the day. They boast a very extensive cocktail menu with their original take on a lot of old classics. And they know their stuff. Last time we came to drink. This time we came to eat, too. And it was all rather lovely. We had three hours before our table was needed for the next shift so we couldn’t get too comfortable but a 6pm start meant we could still get mileage out of the sparkly tops.

As we paid the bill we talked about where to next. I mentioned an older old friend of ours whom we hadn’t seen since my birthday and said it would be good to catch up with him. A septuagenarian of regular habits, we knew he’d be in one of two pubs  – one in town, another in the ‘burbs – so we hopped it a taxi and went off in pursuit. The taxi driver was highly amused at the the thoughts of us moving from Dawson Street to Dorset Street but was happy enough to drive us around. He listened as we ran through various plays we’d seen and actors we liked and theatres we’d visited (which just happened to be the subject we landed on as he drove off) and told us we should do a vlog. YouTube, he said, would love us. We might even get more people going to the theatre and get ourselves free tickets.  He’d been highly entertained.

20161215_214917_resizedWe found our mate in what we all knew as Joxers but it’d been a while and it had now reverted to its original name – The Long Island. Another living room came to mind when I saw the altar-like effect in the back corner underneath the TV showing the darts. All a little mad. And while the boys in P&P had been full of information about their menu, the lads here were just full of chat. Service was great. And the banter was everything.

We stayed still those working the next day called a halt and when we ambled out on to the street to get a taxi, I was overcome by a craving for chips. And I wasn’t wanting for company. We descended on the local chippie – a Turkish place with one customer (from Transylvania) and a chap from Pakistan  behind the counter. The changing face of Ireland.

20161216_002739_resizedWe ordered two kebabs and garlic chips, which we devoured with far more gusto that we had the posh meal earlier at P&P, an irony that wasn’t lost on us. You can dress us up and take us out and we can do the posh restaurants and the fancy cocktails, but we get just as much pleasure from a few jars in the local followed by a bag of chips.

This week, I’m grateful that my world isn’t segmented, that I’m not boxed in. I’m grateful that I have the wherewithal to ratchet up or down depending on what the occasion requires. And I’m grateful, too, that I have the type of friends willing to ratchet with me.

 

 

2016 Grateful 6: Adrian McKinty

I bought a washing machine a couple of months ago and every time I go play scrabble, Facebook throws out an ad for a washing machine. I’ve been reduced to venting my frustration at the ineptitude of its advertising algorithms by screaming at my laptop: I’ve already bought a bloody washing machine. I don’t need another! Read more