An Irish homecoming: Revisiting the past with an American holiday on the EmeraldIsle
This Thanksgiving, rather than follow my normal routine of gathering with family and celebrating at home, I spent the holiday celebrating a different sort of homecoming, in Ireland.
I lived in Ireland during college on a political internship in Dublin at the Irish Parliament (Tchaicta Dail). It was well over 10 years ago during a time of economic boom for the country. And for me, it was one of the first occasions to live life as a grown up. I had my own flat, my particular grocery, wine and butcher shops, and my own Irish bank accounts. But while I was far from home, I remember that within my first few days on the Emerald Isle an overwhelming feeling of comfort, ease and welcome.
The Irish are truly some of the nicest and most genuine people I’ve ever known, and you couldn't find a happier lot to gather around with tea, Guinness, whiskey (or all three) for a lively discussion on life, religion and politics — which is not too different from Thanksgiving with my family.
But to be honest, I feared that I had held so tightly to those sentimental and romantic memories that I feared going back. Just in case things weren’t the same as I remembered.
The time I spent in Dublin was transformative. It was my first experience to live outside of my American/Texan bubble. And it seemed with every person I met, town I visited and pint of beer I imbibed, I began to have a more well-rounded view of life. But to be honest, I feared that I had held so tightly to those sentimental and romantic memories that I feared going back. Just in case things weren’t the same as I remembered.
But this year, I finally made the effort. And brought my husband along to experience it with me. And despite my fears of heartache, I have to say, this particular homecoming was worth every second.
On our first day, hungry and weary from our transAtlantic flight, we stumbled into our little boutique hotel in Dublin 2, which is in the heart of the City Centre, near the beloved St. Stephen's Green and my former workplace, the Leinster House. Our first goal was to snag a quick shower and then head out for a proper Irish meal. But our plans were happily diverted when our hotel host, Noel Comer greeted us through the "secret" door of the Number 31 Hotel off of Leeson Street.
It was past mid-morning by the time we arrived and as we settled our luggage away, Noel followed his hotel tour with a conventional Irish invitation for tea. The look on my husband's tired and food-deprived face told me we were going to need a lot more than tea and biscuits to satisfy his hunger. We kindly declined and asked if he had suggestions on a place to have an early lunch.
"Nonsense," he replied. "You'll have something here. Now, how does smoked salmon with brown bread and butter sound?"
My husband's eyes lit up. Within minutes, Noel’s quick and steady pace presented us with a full tray of delicious food, and of course, a cup of tea.
His warm demeanor and genuine sincerity in welcoming us was nothing if not charming. He seemed to sing each phrase with harmonic inflections in his tone. It was both disarming and somehow familiar. And I knew, that I had indeed come home.
Smoked salmon and brown bread (usually served with capers and lemon) is a staple snack dish in Ireland. The salmon is some of the best you can get anywhere in the world. But the brown bread is something I've missed most of all.
People tend to hear a lot about Irish soda bread, which is just fine. But brown bread is special. It's rich and dense with nutty flavors and a hint of brown sugar. One slice with a healthy smear of creamy Irish butter (Kerrygold) is the best thing to get you going in the morning. (Cup of tea optional, but strongly encouraged.)
Following our replenishing lunch, we strolled the streets of Dublin and made our way to the Guinness Storehouse. Yes, it's perhaps one of the largest tourist spots in town, but considering my husband had never tasted a Guinness in Ireland, it was only fitting that he do so in its place of origin. Besides, the panoramic view of Dublin from the rooftop bar with a fresh pint in your hands is pretty special. Wicklow Mountains looming to the south, Atlantic Ocean cresting to the east, and the jigsaw puzzle of city streets below. It's a perfect introduction to Dublin.
The next day we left town on a rambling tour bus towards Wicklow County. While we did consider renting our own car to make the trek, after seeing the many un-marked and seemingly unofficial roads our self-assured tour guide navigated for us, we were certain that had we opted for our own car, the likelihood of getting lost numerous times would have put our marriage on a rocky path.
Instead, we enjoyed the front seat of our Coach Tours of Ireland bus and even more so, our cheerful driver, Joe Egan, who not only shared history and interesting facts about the geography we were traversing, but also cracked a few dozen well-timed jokes and sang myriad Irish ballads in perfect pitch. (He even strong-armed the whole of our mixed-company tour bus to sing a song from home—never thought I'd sing "The Eyes of Texas" in the Irish countryside, but there's a first time for everything.)
Driving through Wicklow was euphoric. In the same way the Hill Country is a quick escape for Austinites, the Wicklow area is just a short jaunt from the bustling streets of Dublin.
Driving through Wicklow was euphoric. In the same way the Hill Country is a quick escape for Austinites, the Wicklow area is just a short jaunt from the bustling streets of Dublin and has all of the quick pics of the fabled vibrant green landscapes, charming towns, stone-walled farm lands, and heaps of grazing sheep made familiar through countless films and TV series.
(Case in point, within a few short hours we managed to see sites where Excaliber, P.S. I Love You, Braveheart, and the famed TV series Ballykissangel were filmed. We even saw Lough Tay where Paul McCartney is rumored to have been inspired to write his long adored ballad, "Yesterday.")
Irish Guinness Stew with crispy chips (read: French fries) and a pint of Guinness for lunch completed the experience — and not surprisingly, set us up for a brief cat nap for the ride back to Dublin. Word to the wise: Irish food is neither light, nor calorie friendly. Particularly in November, it's cold and wet and dark on this island provoking most appetites towards comfort food.
While you can definitely manage a healthy selection from salads, soups and fish-driven dishes, the average tourist looking to savor the true flavors of Irish cuisine are in store for a gut-busting experience. If you're on this track, it's best to start the day with brown bread, have a soul-filling lunch and just drink Guinness for dinner.
I won't go into the long and lengthy details of our many stops at all the Dublin haunts I used to frequent or about our roaming few days in and around Galway touring the countryside and sharing pints with locals over pick up sessions of traditional Irish music in the pubs. How we invoked the poetic words of W.B. Yeats along the winding roads of Connemara; lingered for an eternity at the majestic Cliffs of Moher as the setting sun peaked through the rolling blanket of clouds; savored the briny sweetness of a 6-year-old oyster fresh from Galway Bay at Moran's Oyster Cottage; or the feeling of warmth and joy I felt as the bitterly cold winds of the Burren whipped through us, tangling my hair and kissing my face with sea breeze and rain.
But I will tell you a few facts about Ireland:
- You only truly get a feel for the country if you visit both Dublin city, the West coast around Galway, and — if you have time — popular pockets around Limerick, Cork and Kerry.
- While surveying the sights, keep a copy of poems from Yeats on hand along with a quick read on the history of Ireland. You may not have enough time to really become Irish, but at least you'll gain an appreciation for the depth of culture in this country. (Try The Story of Ireland by Neil Hegarty and Fergal Keane)
- What they say is true, Guinness really is better in Ireland. So are the many other beers on tap here. Smithwick's, Kilkenny, Caffrey's, and more. The key is to sample what the locals drink. For example, you drink Guinness in Dublin and Murphy's in Cork. (Try not to do it the other way around, you'll catch a few stares from your bar man.)
- If you want to try the ubiquitous brown ale called Smithwick's on tap at most pubs, be sure you order a "Smiddicks," instead of a "Smith-Wicks," or you're likely to get a bit of slagging from your bar man.
- If you're from Texas and your tempted to buy one of those classic woolen Irish sweaters, hand-stitched from the Aran Islands, don't do it. Admire the handiwork and opt instead for a nice scarf or a pair of socks. I promise you, you won't get one bit of use out of one of those sweaters in Texas—or anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon Line for that matter. These sweaters are meant for really cold weather. And they're likely to just sit in your closet taking up the space of about 4 Texas-appropriate cotton sweaters.
The truth is, Ireland is a special place that's really hard to describe unless you've lived it. Its history, culture, politics and landscape are all so tightly woven together that you have to stop and take the chance to let it permeate you. Going back to Ireland not only reminded me of all of this, but it reminded me of just how good it can be to go home.