2016 Grateful 9

Being Irish, I have an abiding sense of tragedy that sustains me through temporary periods of joy. Words to that effect have been attributed both Oscar Wilde and WB Yeats but I’m going for Yeats – they seem more poetic and less Wildey to me.

y4I’m a fan of the man. Have been for years. That’s not to say I’m any sort of authority on his work or indeed his life. I’m not. Definitely not. But ever since coming across the album Now and in a time to be, I’ve been a fan. Touted as a musical celebration of the works of WB Yeats, the playlist is classic, and all the more so because the man apparently believed that his poems should be put to music:

1. Under Ben Bulben – Richard Harris
2. An Irish Airman Forsees His Death – Shane MacGowan & Cafe Orchestra
3. Politics – Karl Wallinger
4. Before the World Was Made – Van Morrison
5. A Song of the Rosy-Cross – Mike Scott & Sharon Shannon
6. The Fish – Sinead Lohan
7. Gort Na Sailean (Down by the Salley Gardens) – Tamalin
8. The Four Ages of Man – World Party
9. The Song of Wandering Aengus – Christy Moore
10. He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven – Nervous
11. The Stolen Child – The Waterboys
12. Yeat’s Grave – The Cranberries
13. Lake Isle Of Innisfree – W.B. Yeats
14. Under Ben Bulben – Richard Harris y3

I was living in Valdez at the time, a small Alaska town whose shopping experience was (and perhaps still is) limited. Retail therapy was scarce. But at one stage, there was a music store and it was there that I came across the CD. I bought a copy and after listening to it, went back and bought y2two more. I then had them order in another couple as they made great gifts. I had no luck finding the CD in Ireland or since, for that matter. But I played it over and over and over again. It was while listening to The Waterboys version of Stolen Child that I got my stolenchild moniker.

Fast forward a few years to a dinner in Budapest with the Dix duo and an introduction to yet another compilation of the poet’s work put to music – The Waterboys album, An Appointment with Mr Yeats, reviewed to some acclaim. I listened to it a couple of times and then filed it. With my other CDs.

y5I prefer to work in silence so I rarely listen to music. Unless I’m driving. And I’ve not been driving much till recently. Now that I’m back on the road, the CDs are being dusted off and old joys are being discovered.

This week, I’m grateful to have a car. And while  I’m having to recalibrate my shopping habits given the rural nature of life, I’m grateful that the closest shops keeping convenient opening hours are 30 minutes away. So I get to drive. And I get to listen to music. And I’m really happy to have rediscovered an old favourite.

 

2016 Grateful 18

It’s hard sometimes to look on the bright side of life. [Amazing how those five words, in any sentence, immediately cue the Monty Python tune in my head.] The daily deluge of atrocities, injustices, and calamities served up to us by the global media challenge the most optimistic of optimists, and the most positive of positive thinkers out there. I lay no claim to being either an optimist or a positive thinker, but I delight in the extraordinary, the quirky, the OTT stuff that brightens up my world.

Heading to Rosslare recently, I detoured through Piercetown following the big signs towards Johnstown Castle as instructed.

I did a double take when I came around the corner at Rathaspeck Manor and saw the gate lodge. Known locally as the doll’s house, this little gem warranted a stop and stare but traffic didn’t allow. So I had to go back the next day to investigate.

fate2Apparently, back in 1900, then owners, the Moody family, bought the house from the Paris Exhibition and had it dismantled. They shipped it to Ireland in pieces, where they put it back together as their gate lodge. It’s been lived in by a succession of families over the years and rumour has it that the lodge will soon be opened to the public.

Renovated a couple of years ago, it’s deceptively roomy with two bedrooms on the ground floor, alongside a sitting room, two porches, and a kitchen in the extension. Upstairs in the attic is another bedroom, with turrets accessed by a wooden stairs and four portholes giving an outlook in every direction. That’s the one I’d choose were it not for the constant stream of tourists pulling up outside to take photos.

In a world blighted by bleakness, it’s nice to revel in the whacky, the zany, the quirky. But on the world’s list of eccentric buildings, this wouldn’t even register. Have you seen the Basket Building in Newark? Or the Mushroom Tree House in Cincinnati? Mad. And brilliant. And guaranteed to make me smile. And that’s something to be grateful for.

The-Basket-Building-in-NewarkThe-Mushroom-Tree-House-by-Terry-Brown

Upstairs or downstairs?

A friend of mine asked me for some advice recently. They want to have a big do in Ireland, in a castle and were wondering if I could recommend one. Given that there are some 30 000 castles in the country in various states of (dis)repair, that was a tough one to answer. My castle of choice has always been Cregg Castle in Galway but it’s no longer open for public residence 🙁 The one I’d like to be able to afford to stay in is Drumoland Castle in Co. Clare. And the one I’d buy, if I had the money do it up, is Johnstown Castle in Wexford.

First built by the Esmondes who settled in the area back in the late 1100s, it changed hands a few times after being confiscated during Cromwell’s reign in the 1600s. The Grogan family came by it in the late seventeenth century and stayed put until one of the descendants, Maurice Larkin, gifted it to the nation back in 1945. Upkeep must have been horrendous.

The 1000 acre estate has it all. The castle is jawdroppingly gorgeous, from every angle.

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20160818_154231_resized20160818_154526_resized20160818_154429_resized20160818_154624_resizedAnd even if, like me, you’re not usually given to being fascinated by gardens, you can’t help but be carried back in time as you stroll the pathways. There are three lakes, complete with turreted towers and lily pads. There are 140 species of trees, 20 peacocks/peahens (I only saw one), and an extended 20160818_161325_resized (587x800)family of red squirrels who were in hiding. The grounds are immaculately kept.

An underground tunnel runs between the meat store and the basement of the castle, lit by glass skylights set in the ground (how novel is that?). This kept the servants out of sight of the family and their guests. (I think Metro 1 in Budapest was built to keep the riffraff out of sight of the hoi polloi on Andrassy – similar thinking?)

20160818_155056_resizedBut back to the trees. The Italian sunken garden is surrounded by Redwoods, a tree I’ve always associated with San Francisco. And there’s a Monterey Cypress which is a Champion Tree of Ireland. Yep – I had to look that up. Apparently some 10 000 trees in Ireland have been measured and of them, 1200 notable for their height, age, size, and girth have made it on to a registry of Champion Trees. Hugging each one of those would be a bucket list of a kind. The Cypress is by Statue Walk, a series of statues facing Castle Lake, each one more evocative than the next. There are plenty of benches to park yourself and your book and whole families had brought their picnics and their rugs. And still there was acres of space.

20160818_160219_resizedThe walled garden was set in the mid-1850s and shows signs of wear and tear. It’s still lovely though, beautiful even. And if the glasshouses were restored to their former glory, it would be spectacular.

Today Teagasc, the Agricultural and Food Development Authority, owns the estate, which is home to their research facility. Until a few years ago, the castle was their offices. The EPA and the Department of Agriculture are also in residence. What a place to work. Am not sure what the plans are for it… but if there’s a lotto win in my future, I’d be happy to have a chat with someone.

As usual, time wasn’t on my side. So next trip, I’ll have to see the Irish Agricultural Museum and the family cemetery and the machicoulis on Rathlannon Castle. And maybe bring a picnic.

As is my wont when wandering around such fine estates, I found myself wishing I’d been born into that era. I had little trouble in imagining myself, Austen-style, walking the grounds. But then there’s always that niggling doubt… who’s to say I’d have been part of the upstairs crew? Pinnies simply don’t do it for me.

Open 9 am to 4.30 pm seven days a week. Worth dropping in if you’re in the vicinity.

2016 Grateful 19

I’m a great fan of public transport. Especially in Ireland. Not because there’s anything at all regular or dependable about it, but because of the conversations that just happen and the characters that use it.

On Friday, I was heading to the airport. I sat in beside an older blonde and paid little attention. I turned on my kindle and started to read. Three pages in, she spoke.

– Are you going the whole way?
– I am, I said. To the airport.
– I’m only going as far as the Red Cow myself. I’m on my holidays – over from the West of Ireland.
– Nice, I said. I hope you enjoy.

And I went back to my book. Two pages later, she piped up again.

– I suppose you can tell by me that I’m a crossdresser.

Yup – I’d clocked the nails, the hair, the dress, the tights, the earrings and I’d also clocked the tufts of grey hair that did nothing for the decolletage.

– You’re looking well on it. Have you been at it long?
– A fair few years. Men weren’t built for trousers you know. The Scots and the old boys had it right. Skirts are far more comfortable.
– How do you manage the make-up?
– I had to get a few tips at the start, but today I’m only wearing the nail varnish and a bit of lippie, he said, brandishing his shocking pink nails.
– And the heels? Can you cope with the heels?
– I stay low. I leave the heels to the young ones, he said, showing me kitten-heeled sandals.
– What did your family have to say about it all?
– Sure the wife didn’t mind. She’s gone now though. And the in-laws don’t mind either. I don’t go out dressed up at home – just when I’m on my holidays. Ireland’s come a long way, though. We’re a lot more accepting and a lot more tolerant of those who’re a bit different. But sure, we’re doing no one any harm. And life is too short to be miserable. Far too many of us stay home, afraid.

crossdresserHe had to have been in his late 60s, tipping 70. A man from the west of Ireland, from a small town that might be less than charitable in its thinking if he felt he had to get away for a few days half a dozen times a year, to be anonymous, to be himself. But fair play, I thought, fair play. A lesser man would never have brought it up or gotten into conversation. It was good to hear that for the most part, the people he met reacted well and had the manners to tell him he was looking grand. That said, had he being going the whole way to the airport, I might just have suggested a wax, a scarf, or a higher neckline. I’m not sure how he’d have reacted. I’m grateful though that I didn’t get the chance to find out. I love being home.

 

Drive, pray, eat

I doubt there’s anyone who grew up in Ireland in the 70s and 80s who hasn’t been for a drive. In our house, it usually happened on a Sunday. After dinner. Dinner was served (and is still served) at 1pm sharp every day and when we were on dessert (Sundays only), I’d sit and wait to see if Boss was in the mood. The words I was waiting for? ‘Sure, we might go for a drive.’

There would be no plan. We’d just get in the car and drive. I’d try to guess where we were going depending on the right and left turns he’d take. Some days, we’d to go Kilkenny. Other days we’d head to Wicklow. On special days, we’d go to the airport and watch the planes land and take off. Half the joy was in not knowing where the Sunday drive would take us.

Now, a drive is subtly different from and not to be confused with a spin. A drive has the element of surprise; a spin has a destination in mind, as in: ‘Let’s take a spin over to see XYZ.’

Earlier this week, while visiting my cousin in Wexford, the weather wasn’t cooperating. She suggested we go for a drive. No plan. Just a drive.

The first signpost of interest was to Our Lady’s Island, a pilgrimage site that I’d never heard of – and I thought I knew my shrines. The village church has been described as ‘an ecclesiastical architectural gem unsurpassed by any other in the kingdom’ (E.Hore 1875). And it is rather lovely. But it wasn’t the church that caught my interest; it was the island and the pilgrim walk.

20160817_175327_resized20160817_180032_resized20160817_175558_resized20160817_175517_resized20160817_175202_resizedThere’s a pilgrimage season that runs from 15 August to 7 September with clear rules of engagement with nine circuits needed during the season.

  • The pilgrim begins with a visit to the Parish Church
  • The pilgrim now walks along the causeway to the Shrine at the entrance to the Island and prays there for a few moments.
  • Next the pilgrim follows the path to the left of the Island.
  • The Rosary with its fifteen decades (the Mysteries of Light are optional) is recited as the pilgrim walks around the Island.
  • A stop is made at the Shrine at the head of the Island, which is at the halfway point, for another quiet prayer.
  • The pilgrim continues the Rosary and walks back to the Shrine at the entrance to the Island.
    A final prayer of penance is said in the Church.

I had no idea this place existed. And surprises like this are all part of ‘going for a drive’.

We passed another signpost, this time for Kilmore Quay. I remember being mad about  chap from this part of Wexford back in my Banking days and was up for a visit, especially when I heard about the nineteenth-century, mud-walled thatched cottages. Not for the first time, I wondered how long you’d have to live in Ireland to know it all.

20160817_184003_resized 20160817_184424_resized20160817_184138_resized20160817_184429_resized20160817_184529_resized20160817_191535_resized 20160817_194650_resizedI had a vague notion that the village was noted for its fishing and its seafood. And when you have the trawlers landing within a salt-chuck of a local chipper, there’s no question about where you’d choose to eat. The Saltee Chipper is an institution. Famous the length and breadth of the county for its fish and chips, it’s a very unassuming place with a menu that goes above and beyond your usual chipper fare. I had scallops and black pudding to start with. And then beer-battered haddock, chips, and mushy peas for my main. I like my fish and chips. I like my mushy peas. And my eyes were bigger than my belly. This was Wednesday evening. It was Friday before I needed to eat again.

The chipper is named after the Saltee Islands, a pair of privately owned islands that sit some 3-5km in the distance. I must have missed my geography class the day we did Wexford, because I’d never heard of them. The bigger of the two, the Great Saltee, is home to the most famous bird sanctuary in Ireland. The islands have been around forever. Back as far as 3500 BC, people lived there – from Neolithic man to hermits, from Vikings and Normans to medieval monks.

The islands had their heyday from 1500 to 1800 AD.

The Saltees were in the path of one of the world’s most important sea trading routes – between Britain and the American continent. They were used as a base for pirates, wreckers and smugglers. Pirates from Spain, France, North Africa and America plundered the busy merchant ships within sight of the islands. And in the days of sail the waters around the islands became known as ” the graveyard of a thousand ships” and the islands their tombstones, so dangerous was the area to shipping. The gains of the wreckers and smugglers could very well be hidden in the many caves which have mysterious and romantic names – Lady Walker’s Cave, Happy Hole, Otter’s Cave and Hell Hole, enough for any Treasure Island.

Back in  1798 (I was in school when we did the 1798 Rebellion but this story didn’t make the history books), two  of the leaders hid out in a cave on the islands planning their escape to France. Rumour has it that when the boys took a bath in the cave, the soldiers spotted the soapy water running out and their hideaway was blown. They were hanged for their trouble.

But stranger still, is the story of Prince Michael the First. The Saltees are a micronation – a principality. Purchased by Prince Neale in 1943, Prince crowned himself Prince Michael the First, fulfilling a childhood promise to his mother that one day, he’d own and rule the Saltees.

This chair is erected in memory of my Mother to whom I made a vow when I was 10 years old that one day I would own the Saltee Islands and become the First Prince of the Saltees.

Henceforth my heirs and successors can only proclaim themselves Prince of these Islands by sitting in this chair fully garbed in the Robes and Crown of the Islands and take the Oath of Succession.

Michael the First

It’s amazing what you learn when you go for a drive.

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Who’s yer man?

I thought I had a handle on most things Irish. I thought I knew my writers, my poets, my rebels – the main players at any rate. I thought I knew enough to at least recognise a name, even if the biography that I could put with it was a tad thin. But was I wrong. So wrong.

IMG_4500 (800x600)At the 1916 commemoration here in Budapest (yes, Ireland, other countries commemorated it, too), I sat through an enjoyable 70-minute documentary, 1916: the Irish Rebellion. It was broadcast around the world, live from the National Concert Hall in Dublin. An initiative of the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame in collaboration with RTÉ, it was narrated by the lovely Liam Neeson and was a great refresher of what happened 100 years ago.

While I’m still not convinced of the influence 1916 had on the rest of the world, it did teach me things I didn’t know, or had forgotten. And it introduced me to one Michael Joseph O’Rahilly, known to all and sundry as The O’Rahilly. While others afterwards were commenting on the historical worthiness of the film, I was asking: Who’s yer man? The O’Rahilly? Why did I never hear of him before?

IMG_4484 (800x592)Some weeks later, I was in Dublin doing a 1916 walking tour. Under the able guidance of a young History graduate from Kilkenny, we walked and talked our way through the Dublin of Easter 1916.

He was a breath of fresh air. It was obvious from the get go that he loved his history and had an enviable ability to make it interesting. Rather than recounting dates and giving potted biographies of the players, he told us a story of men who believed, who had a vision. And he told it to us as if he was talking about lads he knew and knew well.

Talking about how the boys kept badgering Germany to give them guns, he said: Sure we wrecked the Germans heads.

Telling us how Britain saw WWI as something to divert their attention from the Irish, he said: The British Prime Minister and the King of England were freaking out over Ireland.

Commenting on the various skills that the rebels brought to the table, most of them being intellectuals and artists, he said of Pearse: He couldn’t shoot, but he was great for the half-time team talk to gee up the men.

Illustrating how the general public in Dublin had no clue what was going on, with British soldiers firing up O’Connell St and our lads firing down, he said: On Easter Monday, people went down to the bridge [O’Connell Bridge] for a gawk and a gossip.

Explaining how revolutionary the Proclamation is in terms of how it puts the rights of men and women on an equal footing, he old us that: James Connolly was all into girl power.

He’d close his eyes as he told us stories as if he was remembering being there himself. Never, ever, ever before has history taken on a life of its own in my company. The lad’s a genius.

IMG_4470 (600x800)And we got some interesting tidbits. I didn’t know that one-third of the British Army in WWI was Irish born. Or that the The Irish Republican Brotherhood was viewed as a nursing home for old Fenians. I knew things were bad in the city but hadn’t realised that the child mortality rate in Dublin was worse than in Calcutta with 6/10 children dead before they turned 10. Or that in 1916, there was worse poverty in the city than in Cairo. I’ve often wondered why we have Gaelic football but never knew that it was because soccer wasn’t tough enough for the Irish and this was our answer.

I never knew that the world’s first broadcast came from the Irish School of Wireless Telegraphy on O’Connell St: Irish Republic declared in Dublin today. Irish troops have captured city and are in full possession. Enemy cannot move in city. The whole country rising. Before he was executed, Thomas McDonagh apparently offered his executioners cigarettes saying ‘it’s a dirty job lads, but someone’s got to do it.’ Arthur Shields, brother of film star Barry Fitzgerald, who fought alongside Pearse went on to play Pearse in the 1936 John Ford film  The Plough and the Stars. I bet that was far from his imaginings back then. And to think that I’d never noticed the bullet holes in Daniel O’Connell!

IMG_4481 (600x800)I never knew either that in 1900, Dublin had the biggest red light district in Europe, all cleaned up 20 years later by the Legion of Mary. And I didn’t know that what is now Bank of Ireland College Green was the first purpose-built parliament in Europe and has no windows on the outer walls because the clever architect put all the windows in the roof to avoid the window tax. And as for the GPO – the remodelling took 8 years. It had the first lift in Dublin when it reopened in March 1916. And a month later, the inside was completely burned out. Such luck.

But probably my favourite story of the lot was of a Swede and a Finn, soldiers on a week’s R&R in Dublin, who ended up as snipers on the roof of Trinity College. They spoke no English but by the end of the week, he said, they could say the rosary in Irish. Classic.

IMG_4501 (800x600)And he, too, spoke of The O’Rahilly. And his famous charge up Moore Street in an attempt to distract the British and give the lads in the GPO a chance to escape. His was probably the most famous quotation from the Rising:  Well, I’ve helped to wind up the clock – I might as well hear it strike. Of all that was done in the course of those six days, his glorious madness was what stood out for me. He wrote to his wife as he lay dying in Sackville Lane, which would later be renamed O’Rahilly Parade (how come I didn’t know that!).  There was a plaque erected on the site in 1937 and a new one put up in 2005 – this one featuring a copy of the note he wrote as he lay dying, etched on the wall.

IMG_4503 (800x600)This was the end of our tour. The tears that came could have been from the biting cold, but I think it was from the emotion of it all. I’d never fully appreciated 1916 or the sacrifices made or the vision those boys had. To think that the whole country was against them but yet they soldiered on, convinced that this would change the minds of the Irish people and make them sit up and strike back in some form or fashion. How right they were.

If you’re in Dublin this year, do yourself a favour and book yourself a place. 1916 Rebellion Walking Tour. Leaves at 11.30 am from the International Bar on Wicklow Street Monday to Saturday and on Sunday at 1pm. €13 per adult. It’s worth twice the money and more.

 

2016 Grateful 49

Back at the turn of the century, a bunch of Irish friends were making semi-regular trips to France to purchase wine by the bootload. They’d make a weekend of it, stretch out the buying spree to include everything French. I was never invited for two reasons (a) I didn’t drink wine and (b) I didn’t like olives. The fact that I wasn’t living in the country then may also have had something to do with it.

Around the same time, in Oxford, the one and only RG, talked me into sharing a bottle of white wine with him one evening and the rest, as the man says, is history. But I’ve never quite mastered any sort of appreciation for red wine, partly due to an overindulgence in hot port in Anchorage one evening that has left me marked for life. I can’t sit beside an open bag of wine gums without feeling nauseous.

Early this month, I was in Castle Leslie with said same Irish friends. As we sat down to a five-course dinner in our private dining room, it was soon clear that everyone but me was drinking red wine.  What to do? Get a bottle of white for myself? I couldn’t be that obvious.

gin1I’d been a little late to dinner so missed the cocktail order. Instead, I chose one of the 88 gins from an extensive menu curated by Food and Beverages Manager John Matthews. No. 209. From the only distillery in the world that is ‘situated over water’. Based on Pier 50 in San Francisco, it’s quadruple distilled and gets its name from the fact that it’s the 209th distillery to be licensed in the states. And it was rather delicious.  [Note to anyone interested: I have a birthday coming up this year!]

 

Matthews dropped by to see how we were all doing (the service in CL is second to none) and asked if anyone was on the gin. Of course I was. And then he rocked my world by telling me that it’s his belief that gin can accompany a meal just was well as wine. Imagine. A different gin every course. Who needs wine, I thought to myself. I’d be happy to be a guinea pig for this little experiment.
gin2

My 209 went rather nicely with venison starter. But for mains, I was torn between the beef and the pork (pork belly and pigs cheek). For the beef, he recommended an English gin from Birmingham’s Langley distillery  – Botanic (served with lime and juniper berries). Or was it the Scottish Botanist (served with thyme and lemon)?  And for the pork, it was another English  number, the single-distilled Hoxton gin. Made using only alcohol from French summer wheat (who knew?) its recipe includes coconut, grapefruit, juniper, iris, tarragon and ginger. This I had to try. So I went for the pork and savoured the gin. And while it was certainly different, the No. 209 was still winning.

 

I’m a great lover of cannoli and can’t pass it up on those rare occasions it makes a dessert menu. And for this, it was another American gin – Deaths Door (served with pear and cracked coriander. And while the spirit was willing, the body was weak. I was tired, too tired to appreciate another gin. Looking it up later, I see that it has had mixed reviews. And I also see that it’s in Wisconsin, a gin3part of the world I will be in pretty soon – so I might just have to visit in person.

It was a lovely experiment and one I could repeat. I’d have to eat slower though and take longer between courses. Gin isn’t something to be rushed.

It’s been a week crammed with fine dining and notable wines – a good week that included a Black Tie event, some good theatre, and plenty of socialising. Add this to lasting memories of Matthew’s Gin Menu (featuring gins from Ireland, Holland, Australia, Colombia, Spain, Germany, England, Scotland, France, Norway, and the USA) and I have plenty to be grateful for. He also tipped me off to the Ginvent calendar  from the Masters of Malt who can send a sample bottle of new gin for every day in Advent. Did I mention that I have a birthday coming up this year 🙂

 

Atilla the Hun’s descendants making good in Ireland

If you’re looking for a posh weekend away in Ireland, you’ll be spoiled for choice. There are any number of castles and country manors to choose from, depending on what you’re looking for. I believe the Monart in Wexford makes you check in your tablet/laptop at reception and only allows phones to be used in the bedrooms. I don’t know, I’ve not been there myself, and doubt I’d enjoy such a forcible unplugging.

The Lodge at Castle Leslie

The Lodge at Castle Leslie

Contrast that with a recent stay in the Lodge at Castle Leslie, where I spent a lovely few hours working away in one of the many drawing rooms dotted around the place. I was checked on regularly by various staff members who were quite happy to get me tea, coffee, or even a cheeky afternoon cider. Were I in the hospitality business, I’d be poaching these staff, or whomever picked and trained them. Gems, all of them.

There were nine of us in total – a lot of estrogen to pack for a weekend away. We were kicking off a year of noughty birthdays and while individual tastes and pleasures varied, Castle Leslie had something for us all.

It bills itself as being first and foremost a home. Second an equestrian centre. Third a hotel. And fourth a spa.

But let’s back up a little. Apparently the Leslies descended from Atilla the Hun and the first of note was a Hungarian nobleman, no less, a chap call Bartholomew Leslie (mmmm… not a name I’ve run into much in Budapest). The first of the clan to come to Ireland was a Bishop who built  Raphoe Castle in Co. Donegal back in the 1600s. Marrying at the ripe old age of 67, he managed to five children, and at the age of 90, rode from Chester to London in a day at the behest of the King. He bought the current Castle Leslie, then known as Glaslough Castle and Demense, and lived till he was a 100. That’s some ancestry.

His son Charles had an eventful life. A staunch defender of Catholic Ireland, he was arrested  by King William accused of treason and later pardoned by George I and sent home to Ireland to die. Friends included Dean Swift, Samuel Johnson, and Oliver Goldsmith.

Charles’s son Charles took over the estate in the mid-1700s. His claim to fame is the help he gave his impoverished nephew to get an education. An excellent investment given that the nephew – the Duke of Wellington – grew up to defeat Napoleon at Waterloo.

His son Charles died before the famine, during which time his wife Helen ran the estate. Her good deed was to build a famine wall around the estate to keep the locals in work and to run soup kitchens to keep starvation at bay.

IMG_3010 (800x600)IMG_3002 (800x600)Her son Charles was quite extravagant, loved to party, and had great plans for the estate that included a nine-story Gothic tower in the middle of the lake accessible by gondola. [I checked the boathouse. There is no tower and there are no gondolas.] He choked to death on a fish bone before he depleted the family coffers and his brother John took over. It was he who built the castle.

Castle Leslie

Castle Leslie

IMG_3033 (800x600)IMG_3025 (800x600)While I thoroughly enjoyed the grounds and loved the house itself, I’m a tad confused at what makes it a castle. There isn’t a turret to be seen. It is magnificent inside and I had little trouble imagining myself at home to guests or taking tea in the drawing-room. I was glad though, that we were
bedding in the Lodge as those I saw in the castle barely spoke above a whisper and took their handbags to breakfast. That said, as guests on the estate, we had access to the Castle, too. And its magnificent library and home theatre.

IMG_3032 (800x600)But back to John. Apparently, the older he got, the more his wife Constance grew to detest him. While dining, she hid him from view behind a massive flower arrangement  she called ‘un cache marie’ (hide husband).

Her son John, the 2nd Baronet, married the younger sister of  Lord Randolph Churchill’s wife, Jennie. And his son Shane was the one who converted to Catholicism and married an American whose family was great friends with Robert Louis Stevenson. [Can you just imagine the dinners, the guest lists, and the conversations that the castle has witnessed?]

IMG_3040 (600x800)Running the castle wasn’t for Shane though, who passed it on to his eldest son John (known to all and sundry as Jack). Jack, in turn, turned the estate over to his sister Anita and went to live in Rome. He returned to Ireland, to Glaslough, to the Castle, in 1994 and can still be seen taking tea in the Lodge.

Anita was awarded two Croixes de Guerre by French General de Gaulle for her work as an ambulance driver during the war. She married a submarine commander and moved to Galway in the 1960s, turning the estate over to her younger brother Desmond, coauthor of the best seller Flying Saucers Have Landed, which was, apparently, the first book to record human contact with an alien. No room for ordinary in this family. In the early 1990s, Desmond handed over the Estate to his five children, and it’s now run by his daughter Samantha, or Sammy, as she’s known.

IMG_3013 (800x600)A woman of vision, she started small. With tea rooms. Room by room, the castle was restored to its former glory. And when, in June 2002, Castle Leslie Estate,   Paul McCartney and Heather Mills got married there, over 800 million people worldwide now knew it existed.

IMG_3044 (800x600)IMG_3052 (800x600)In 2004, Sammy bought back the Equestrian Centre and Hunting Lodge, renovated them and opened to the public in 2007. It was in the Lodge that we stayed. Fair play to her. There’s nothing like having a vision and the will and determination to realise it. The stables, too, have been converted and as we walked the grounds, we came across all sorts of hidden gems, including gate lodges and the famous famine wall.IMG_3055 (800x592)

There’s lots more to the Leslie story. If you’re interested, check the website. As a weekend away, I can highly recommend it. I’d go back in a heartbeat. And again, I’d stay in the Lodge. As I said, something for everyone – horse riding, boating, fishing, cookery classes, spa treatments, and lots comfy armchairs, pots of tea and 88 types of gin – but more of that later.

2016 Grateful 50

I’m quite partial to a bit of posh. I’m convinced that in a previous life (or indeed, lives), I was loaded. To the manor born and all that. I feel remarkably at home in country estates and have little problem at all when it comes to imagining hosting a silver-crystal dinner for thirty of my bestest friends in the long hall in front of a roaring fire. I’ve been known to lose myself as I conjure up visions of horse-drawn carriages, calling cards, butlers, and parlour maids. But that was in a previous life, not the one I have now. And no, I’m not complaining. I’m just saying.

I was treated recently to a champagne afternoon tea at the Shelbourne Hotel on Dublin’s St Stephen’s Green. It’s a local institution that has been serving the hoi polloi of the city and oceans of international travellers since 1824. In fact, it’s founder, one Martin Burke from Tipperary, had exactly this in mind. He envisioned a hotel that would ‘woo genteel customers who wanted solid, comfortable and serviceable accommodation at a fashionable address’. He named the hotel after William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne [Burke added the o], and British Prime Minister from 1782 to 1783. [That I never knew.]

It was here that the country’s first Constitution was drafted back in 1922 and over the years, it’s become a landmark and an institution. In the Horseshoe Bar one night many years ago, I turned  with G&T in hand and ran into Nicholas Cage – or rather he ran in to me. That same evening, as I waited outside for a mate to arrive, Martin Sheen stepped out of a taxi and said hello. I’d imagine that a read through the old hotel registers that can be checked out from the hotel’s lobby museum would be an interesting way to pass a wet afternoon.

But I was there for afternoon tea, with champers, in the Lord Mayor’s Lounge. And at €57 per person, I was expecting great things. But times have changed.

We had a 5pm sitting. All that was available. And every seat was taken. I was told on booking that we would have 90 minutes and had this filed away somewhere in the back of my mind, figuring we’d have loads of time.

SB6 (800x468)First up, the champagne, a choice of pink or white. Real stuff, too. Lovely. Then the sambos. One each of a choice of four. While they were tasty, I was surprised at how uninspiring they were. And open, too. I know I spend a lot of time in Hungary, home of the open sandwich, but still, I like my breads to meet. I like a traditional sambo. But they were tasty.

Next up, the three-tiered cake dish with scones, cakes, and desserts (working from the bottom up). It was the scones I’d come for, really. Those and the clotted cream. [It’s the only time I eat jam. And in living memory, no matter how full I have been, I have never turned down a cream tea. Even now I can taste the clotted Cornish cream I had last summer.] I have very fond memories of afternoon teas, including one at the Parsonage in Oxford, or the Ritz in London, or the Empress on Vacouver Island. I’d been salivating since morning at the thoughts of a repeat. But the scones were small and the cream wasn’t clotted. But they were tasty.

SB2 (800x600)The macaroons, those multi-coloured pastel things that took the world by storm a couple of years ago, were very very sweet. All the cakes were very sweet. Too sweet. But they looked amazing. I was particularly taken with the eggshell, its sweet centre and shortbread soldiers for SB1 (800x599)dipping. But it was far too sweet.

All the while we chatted, drank tea, then switched to coffee. We looked around, took in the sights, caught the occasional waft of another conversation as it wound its away around the living room. All very pleasant. It was tipping on 6.30 and our 90 minutes were up, but there were tables vacant and no one waiting to come in. We had just arrived at the top-tier when our waiter came over and asked, politely, if we’d like to box it up and take it home. We were getting the bum’s rush!! This I certainly didn’t expect. Another 10 minutes wouldn’t have killed them. A little put out, we boxed and left.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon and great to see how the other half live. Some of our fellow afternoon-teaers looked like regulars. Must be nice. The decor, the ambiance, the setting all took me back to that previous life when the hotel might have been my home from home in the city. That said, I wonder if the Shelbourne has become a tad complacent? Is it resting a little on its laurels? As posh afternoon teas go, I’ve had better. In my book, substance trumps appearance every time.

Still, I’m grateful that I’ve been able to add another memory to the memory bank of well-spent afternoons. I’m grateful that we got to kick off M’s birthday week in style. And I’m grateful to the inimitable Mr N for treating me to a taste of times past. Lovely. Lovely indeed.

Being walked by a dog

Hammer 2I’ve never professed to being an animal lover. Perhaps it has something to do with losing a succession of pets as child to poison and cars. I learned from an early age not to get too attached to anything on four legs.

I did dog sit a couple of dogs for a week once in Alaska and quite enjoyed the experience. It was nice to have someone rush to the door to meet me each evening and these lads were too old and too lazy to need much in the way of exercise.

I recently toyed with the idea of getting a pup but then realised quite quickly that they would be on their own more often than not and as I struggle to keep my plants alive, I wouldn’t be too optimistic about my pet’s longevity.

Working from a mate’s house in Dublin today, I was asked to take the dog, Hammer, for a walk. I like him. As dogs go, he’s intelligent and funny and very handsome. They said that he’d let me know when he was ready. About 12.15. And on the nose, he jumped up on the chair behind me and gently began to push me off. I got the message.

I took some poop bags, having been instructed that if he pooped on the path I was to pick it up. He mightn’t, they said. But then again he might. And he did. Four times. Four separate occasions. And I lost all but one bag along the way so it was quite the chore. Me walking the streets of Dublin with a tiny plastic bag full of dogshit is something might not have captured the interest of the paparazzis even had there been any about, but I felt as if I were on parade.

And then he peed. At least ten times. It seemed as if he was answering messages left for him along the way because make no mistake, he was walking me, not the other way around.

Many lifetimes ago, when I was visiting from Alaska with my then boyfriend, we stayed with the same friends. He got up one morning and went for a walk before breakfast under instruction to be back within half an hour. An hour later no sign. We’d warned him that the streets of Dublin had evolved without much planning. All the houses on one street look the same and rarely do those streets run in straight lines. This was back in the days before mobile phones so we had to set out in groups to see if we could find him. I was left to stand guard at the front window in case he should pass back this way. Which he did. Two hours later. And, in typical male form, denied ever being lost.

Today, I walked those same streets and got just as lost. I have no sense of direction at the best of times and hadn’t a clue where I was. I was conscious that I had a speech to write and work to do and that time was ticking by. I was getting anxious. And Hammer knew it. He looked at me with something approaching despair and said ok, ok, I’ll take you home. And he did. Amazing.  I’m left wondering which one of us is the smarter being.