DUBLIN — Bad food, bad weather, scary driving on the “wrong side” of the road, and intolerable cigarette smoke in the pubs.
My memories of Ireland three decades ago — when I last traveled there with my new husband, an Irish immigrant to America born in Scotland — were not pleasant. So I was more than a little dubious last spring when he decided to organize another road trip to the Emerald Isle with our two grown daughters and two good friends — another couple like us, one descended from the Greeks and the other one Irish.
Dublin was our first stop. We arrived late at night, at a small private hotel on St. Stephen’s Green, a beautiful botanical garden in the center of the city. The next morning we sat in the imposing dining room with dark green walls for a huge breakfast — eggs, toast, “bangers” or sausages, blood pudding for those who dared, bacon, fried potatoes, bowls of fruit, baskets of croissants, juice, and strong coffee. The Irish, it seems, adore breakfast — the bigger, the better. Every place we stayed the next week, the breakfasts were massive.
The food in Ireland, in fact, had transmogrified since I was last there — from terrible to delicious. With its bounty of freshly caught fish, locally sourced vegetables, meat, fresh cheeses, butter, cream, organic eggs, and milk, and the expertise of chefs from other European Union countries alongside Irish chefs trained in Paris and Rome, Ireland is now a country of great food. This was one of the biggest differences between then and now.
Sated that first morning, we wandered through the capital city. The weather was damp but not bone-chilling, as it would be later in the week when we got to the west of Ireland with its beautiful wind-swept coast and hauntingly lonely peat bogs.
Like Boston, Dublin is small yet sophisticated — a walkable and historic city. It feels much more worldly than it did 30 years ago. Yet it is still friendly, cozy, and interesting, with small historic squares, Georgian architecture, wonderful public gardens, and educational and artistic treasurers like Trinity College, founded by Queen Elizabeth I in 1502, and its priceless Book of Kells, an illuminated Latin manuscript of the Gospels, dating from 800 AD and produced by monks on the island of Iona.
One night in Dublin, our two poetry-loving daughters took off after dinner for Merrion Square in search of William Butler Yeats’s house (No. 52), while the rest of us wandered along Grafton Street looking for a friendly and noisy pub with good Guinness, of which there are many.
I wished we had had more time to explore, but we had planned a road trip, so it was off to the car-rental agency the next morning to climb aboard our huge white van with its standard shift — six of us with piles of luggage. There would be some highways, but also many narrow and terrifying little roads with drop-offs, hedges, and many, many sheep.
In a week, we toured four counties — Kilkenny, Limerick, Kerry, and Galway — staying in what my husband had described as bed-and-breakfasts, but what seemed to the rest of us rather marvelous English-style country houses. Often the owners would appear as we drove up and seat us before a roaring fire. They always served glorious breakfasts on heirloom china.
Often, at night, they would come into the library, where a fire was always blazing in early May, bearing trays of gin and tonics with ice cubes clinking in silver buckets. It was altogether grand and decadent, yet oddly affordable. Perhaps because of the financial woes of the country and the stress of paying taxes on those country homes, many owners appeared eager to open their doors to travelers like us.
The Irish countryside has a wild and haunting beauty, and many places captured our imaginations. Among them were the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare, five miles of undulating rocky cliffs plunging into the sea. There is a visitors center there and a place for lunch and the ubiquitous hot tea.
There were countless churches, ancient and modern. There was the Rock of Cashel, a promontory rising dramatically out of the Tipperary plain, a symbol of royal and priestly power for more than 1,000 years. There were ancient monasteries and modern ones. There were the magnificent grounds and structures at Kylemore Abbey in Connemara. Originally built during the famine by a wealthy Anglo-Irish man as a present to his wife, the lakeside castle has gone through many iterations including, most recently, as an abbey for Benedictine nuns. The gardens and grounds are magnificent, and one could spend an entire day there, nestled amid the slopes of mountains called the Twelve Bens.
One of our biggest adventures entailed the temporary loss of a handbag. After touring one day, and purchasing many woolen hats, scarves, mittens, and an Irish knit blanket, our party repaired to a local teahouse for refreshments. When we got to our next destination four hours later — after a tricky drive in our lumbering van — our younger daughter gasped in horror. “My purse,” she uttered. “I left my purse back at the teahouse.” That was particularly unwelcome news since she had an international flight the following day and her passport, credit cards, and money were in the purse. All six of us started working to come up with a solution. The teahouse was closed and nobody answered the phone, so my husband suggested we call the garda (police) in the town where the teahouse was located.
The garda knew the owner and went directly to her home. She told them she had been troubled because she didn’t know how to contact us. Then the owner and police found a man who was willing to drive to where we were — for free. Several hours later we had the purse back (we insisted on paying him), and all of its contents.
Our last day before flying back to Dublin found us on a dirt road in the middle of a remote peat bog in Clifden, looking over endless gray sea. We were on the westernmost tip of Europe, where in 1919 the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic touched down. Months before, Dublin-born author Colum McCann had published his latest novel, “TransAtlantic,” which includes that historic flight. We stood on the exact spot where Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown landed, having flown from Newfoundland in an open-air modified bomber made of wood and linen and wire.
A gull sailed overhead. Across the ocean, even farther away, was Boston.