Some countries you discover by trolling through a guidebook’s list of monuments. In Ireland, it’s all about the people.
“You’re very welcome here,” they greet you, and then, the stories flow, burnished with a lilting brogue and blinding smile.
“You’re very welcome, indeed,” Wayne Deal, concierge at Dublin’s Davenport Hotel, crooned, as he absolved my jetlag with pots of coffee. It was a bank holiday, and the day of the Dublin Marathon to boot, so chances for a bite to eat were slim. Yet, he made miracles happen, and secured dinner reservations at posh Bentley’s, occupying a Georgian mansion on St. Stephen’s Park, and lunch at trendy Pig’s Ear, overlooking venerable Trinity College, where I heard again, “You’re very welcome!” as I dug into pork pâté garnished with—that’s right—pig’s ear cracklings and a deconstructed shepherd’s pie. “And do have the fish pie at Bentley’s—it’s the best!” my waitress prompted. I did. And it was.
On the spur of the moment, I joined a group at the gates of Trinity—where we first had ogled the inestimably priceless medieval Book of Kells—for a two-hour historical walking tour led by Tony, a Trinity alum and primo storyteller who made the country’s history as thrilling as a bodice-ripper. We traveled from Stone Age on through the notorious Troubles, with stops (and tales) at Parliament, Dublin Castle, and Christ Church with its Viking artifacts. At St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Ireland’s patron saint first baptized new believers, archsatirist Jonathan Swift served as dean (and is buried aside his mistress), and Handel’s Messiah first was performed.
St. Patrick used well water for those rites, but another of Ireland’s near-saints, Arthur Guinness, had a better idea. The brewery producing Dublin’s favorite beverage offers multimedia tours drawing 2,000 folks daily, climaxing in the seventh-floor Gravity Bar, with 360-degree views of the city, while enjoying a complimentary pint.
Will Connor, my genial guide of the city’s Georgian District, swears by this Irish adage: “Never let truth get in the way of a good story.” Yet, he allows fascinating facts to get the better of him, as we wander past mansions that once held the likes of the Duke of Wellington and Oscar Wilde.
We met a more humble individual inside the National Museum: Bog Man, age 25 when he was murdered, somewhere around 300 BC. He’s preserved, mummy-like, complete with pomaded pompadour and wispy goatee, and his grin conveys, “You’re very welcome.”
Upstairs, artifacts revealed that the Vikings had made themselves welcome—or at least, at home—after they sailed in. See their fearsome swords, delicate golden crowns, heavy shackles, and well-worn shoes, along with yet-another skull scored with sword slashes (apparently he wasn’t all that welcome).
Next, we crossed the River Liffey, dividing Dublin’s haves from have-nots at one time. The iconic Famine Sculpture of five gaunt individuals stands on the South bank. Today, it’s home to the famed Abbey Theater, as well as the Hugh Lawrence Gallery—the first modern-art museum in the world, encompassing notables from Monet to Rodin to Ireland’s own Francis Bacon. Just down the street, the Writers’ Museum introduces the panoply of Irish who put pens to the nation’s treasury of storytelling: Wilde, Shaw, Dracula’s Bram Stoker, Beckett, and James Joyce.
Sign up, if you still are standing, for a Literary Pub Crawl visiting writers’ favored haunts. Add in the fiddle and tin-whistle music spilling from many a pub, and you’re assured a lively evening with the locals.
The more genteel among us might head, instead, to dinner at the Clarence Hotel, owned by U2’s Bono, for the Tea Room’s Modern Irish menu of Irish lamb with celeriac mousseline; beet puree and cherry sauce; or saddle of venison with pumpkin and honey, surf clams, and cranberry jus.
An hour from Dublin stands Malahide Castle, home of the Talbots since 1185. Their portraits in the Great Hall testify to battles fought and marriages secured. But today, it’s Jackie, tour guide, detailing the castle’s rich and singular antiques, who points to the painting of the Battle of the Boyne in the dining room, where 14 Talbots breakfasted before setting off to the battle—all were dead by nightfall. I lunch there, myself, on carrot soup and salmon in pastry crust, “old-style, forgotten dishes” resurrected for modern palates.
I toured that battle site of 1690 nearby in sunnier circumstances, witnessing a panoramic blow-by-blow of what they call “the dreariest point of Irish history,” akin to our own Civil War, when Britain’s deposed King James, a Catholic, fought Protestant William of Orange, winner of the bloodbath.
It’s a mere three miles further to the medieval town of Drogheda, once rivaling Dublin, and still boasting its own share of history. Here, Highlanes, a 15th-Century Franciscan abbey, reigned as the country’s leading seat of learning back when the Irish were forbidden to enroll in Oxford—today, the abbey is reborn as a regional art gallery. On the hill, Millmount Museum is the site where Oliver Cromwell met his strongest resistance in 1649, when—victor—he massacred the town. St. Oliver Plunkett, whose grisly head is on display in Drogheda’s St. Peter’s Church, was martyred a bit later, in 1681, as a prisoner in London.
Demise came more naturally to those at Newgrange, where archaeologists have discovered burial mounds more than 5,200 years old—that’s right, far older than even the Pyramids—surrounded by 97 immense, carved curbstones (how chiseled and how carried?—still a mystery) shielding a passage to the tomb’s center, where, exactly on solstice morning, a beam of sunlight shines through (again, one marvels: how?—these early Irish were far from stupid.)
“You’re very welcome,” Sir Jack Leslie, 91, invoked. I overnighted at Castle Leslie’s Hunting Lodge hotel in County Monaghan, after touring his familial castle—70 rooms erected by his great-great-grandfather, where recently, Paul McCartney got married (and Leslie spilled the beans to the press).
To say our genteel host is well-connected is what even the most supple raconteur would hail as the unvarnished truth. Here’s a signed portrait of the Duke of Wellington, a relation. Here’s the Mauve Bedroom, where Winston Churchill (a cousin) stayed. So did poet William Butler Yeats and Mick Jagger. Here’s the della Robbia mantelpiece from Italy; the piano where Paderewski played; the pearl ring Leslie’s mother received from the Empress of China when paying a call in Beijing.
Then, it’s on to a cooking class, available to guests, where young chef Gerry Molloy charms us with patter as rapid as the techniques he invokes to prepare squash soup, yeast bread, and risotto. “Mess up,” he charges beginners. “The best way to learn is from your mistakes.” He messed up, himself, when attending a cooking school in Rhode Island, where “we boys from here had a bit of craik [fun] speaking Irish, to take the mick out of the Americans.” He’s delighted to return home, he says, because “Ireland has the world’s best food at our doorstep,” as we later discovered at dinner, feasting on local salmon served with creamed cabbage and caraway, and lamb shank aside red onion marmalade. In the morning, more salmon—smoked, this time—and thick, creamy Irish porridge, offered with a dash of Irish whiskey. How much? “Depends,” the chef quips with a laugh, “on how you want to start your day!”
Leaving the Republic of Ireland in the South, I made for Northern Ireland and the hospitality of another landed gent. Brian, Lord Dunleath, lives in Ballywalter Estate, built by his great-great-grandfather, whose linen mill provided him “the license to print money,” his kin recounts. His ancestor spend it on the likes of the Music Room (one of 100 rooms); the Opal Bedroom (a favorite of Bishop Desmond Tutu); and the Library, where the present lord has just installed a couple of impulse purchases—“two Renoirs and a Chagall.”
Finally, on to Derry (aka Londonderry), a US base in World War II, enfolding history within its 1.25-mile wall, atop which visitors can stroll. It was built in 1613 by Brits as protection from the Irish, Tommy Carlin explains. He offers daily walking tours. The fortifying wall harks back to that deep-rooted Catholic-Protestant schism. King James surrounded the walls, and besieged the city for eight months, after the gates had been thrown shut by the town’s apprentice boys.
Derry also is known as the start of the Irish Troubles in 1918. Later, on Black Sunday—that infamous day in January 1972—14 were killed, as once again, Protestants fought Catholics. One victim was a young schoolgirl who is memorialized on a mural outside the walls. But a neighboring mural portrays the dove of peace, and that’s what Ireland is all about today. Truly, you’re all very welcome. So, come and bide a bit.