SLANE, Ireland — It’s one thing to get a tour of one of the many castles that dot the Irish landscape. It’s another thing to be shown around by the son of a lord, an earl who grew up in that same castle, in Slane, and can explain that the limestone stairs are bowed because he and his siblings would run up and down countless times and can point out the arrangement of the members of U2 and their equipment when they recorded “The Unforgettable Fire” in 1984. Alex Conyngham will tell you how his ancestor hid Scottish Prince Malcolm, who later defeated Macbeth, in a haystack. And he will take you into his new distillery, remove the bung from the side of a sherry barrel, and instruct you to smell the whisky aging inside. It will make you think of raisins, saffron, and moonlight.
New distilleries are not hard to come by in Ireland. It’s the result of Irish whiskey being one of the drink industry’s greatest success stories of the past two decades. Home to nearly 100 distilleries in the mid-1800s, the industry hit hard times — in part because Prohibition halted export to the United States — and distilleries shuttered. By 1987, the number dwindled to three, a dearth that lasted over a decade. Then things changed. Since 2002, high-end premium Irish whiskey grew an eye-popping 805 percent. Little surprise considering there are 21 distilleries operating in Ireland today and 26 more in planning or already under construction. Many of these operations are the sweat and toil of entrepreneurs committed to heritage and craft. Few, however, have a meaningful connection to the landscape — its history, its resources, its folklore. That’s what makes this distillery, set in 18th-century stables that were Alex’s living quarters when he was in college, a little different.
The Conyngham family, though, has a knack for being a little different. Not many three-century-old Irish castles, you see, have pop culture street cred like theirs does. In 1981, during the Troubles, Alex told me, his father, Lord Henry, organized a huge outdoor music event, in part to raise morale and in part to generate revenue for the property. Thin Lizzy and other megastars performed. Concerts at Slane Castle, about 30 miles north of Dublin, remain an annual event, drawing up to tens of thousands of revelers to the grounds each year to see legends like U2, Queen, and Guns N’ Roses play against the majestic castle backdrop. Browne’s Bar, the tavern-esque restaurant in the castle, is a tribute to that legacy: the walls are adorned with images of Lord Henry posing with the likes of Phil Lynott, Thin Lizzie’s frontman, and more. It was a rich history lesson to absorb as I indulged in roast sirloin with Yorkshire pudding on a chilly day after touring the distillery.
But stay in Slane a few days and you quickly learn that whiskey is only one aspect of a densely woven fabric that is Boyne Valley’s edible — and drinkable — bounty. The valley, a World Heritage Site known largely for its three massive passage tombs built more than 5,000 years ago, is tucked into the bend of the Boyne River and comprises a patchwork of quaint villages and vast expanses of farmland. An organization, Discover Boyne Valley Flavours, was established in 2016 to showcase the area’s food and drink makers, largely through tours and festivals. But you hardly have to attend an event to realize the region’s riches. That’s something that fell into stark relief hours after my arrival when, my head whirring from jetlag, I stumbled into Hugo’s Farm Shop, a cheery, compact café with broad tables of raw wood, fresh-baked pastries, containers of tea leaves arranged on a counter, and shelves packed with local provisions: Dunany Organic Flour, New Grange Gold cold-pressed oils, Sheridans Cheese, Graham’s mustard, and sundry jams, crackers and smoked salmon. Owner Ricki Roach Garland, a former show-horse jumper, found his way to the culinary world by processing seaweed for organic skincare products. He prepares an exquisite Moroccan lamb stew.
It was further driven home later that night at Inside Out, a bistro-style restaurant designed to look like, well, you’re outside when you’re in it. To that end, the airy, high-ceilinged dining room is centered around a tree growing through the floor. A pizza oven dominates the front of the restaurant and there are no fewer than 15 pie options, including many topped with local cheese. Chef James Ausden opened the restaurant in 2016 with his wife, Edel Healy, who manages the place. They specialize in Mediterranean-inspired fare with a Gaelic accent, largely inspired by the years they lived in Portugal, a subtle fusion expressed in dishes such as mussels tossed in cider cream with chorizo crumb and dipping bread. And for dessert: Slane whiskey tiramisu, of course.
Sweets are in no short supply next door at George’s Patisserie where Chef Georg Heise, the namesake baker, is living proof of how easy it is to get hooked on Slane’s enchantment. For decades he cooked at Michelin-starred eateries and restaurants in five-star hotels in London, Geneva, and elsewhere. But then he married an Irish woman, they holidayed in Slane, and never left. Now he walks to work instead of sitting in London traffic. He keeps the village well fed with fresh-baked bread, almond tarts, biscuits, brownies and traditional pastries from his native Germany.
The thing about this pace of life, unshackled from urban distractions, is that it lets people — people like Mark Jenkinson — live out a dream. Mark owns Cider Mill Slane, located in a former hay barn on his farm, paces away from his house and his organic orchard. What started as a hobby has evolved into a talent that’s yielded award-winning ciders. When I visited the cidery, he explained the keeved style he employs, an ancient method of natural fermentation. He waxed rhapsodic about ambient yeast and the relationship between tannins and acidity, and poured me a sample of champagne-like Cockagee, which released a bouquet of baking spices, leather, and musty sweetness. Then he brought me next door to another barn, a veritable showroom of old chairs that he collects, and his Irish instinct for poetry kicked in.
“There’s a funny phenomenon with furniture — and music and poetry — in Ireland,” he said, explaining “vernacular” furniture. “Up north, the designs are plain and subdued, and as you move down the country, it gets more flamboyant. You can see the beautiful carvings in the wood are more elaborate. Think about it: it’s like the people — up north, they have a dour, dry sense of humor. Move south and Irish are livelier.”
No visit to an Irish village is complete without a session — or a few — at the local pub and by my second night at Boyle’s, I felt like a regular. I asked John Archbold, owner, bartender, music director (they have regular live performances), handyman, and attentive host, the age of the bar. In response, he introduced me to the man sitting on my left, a Regular. (“Capital ‘r,’ ” John said with a laugh.) His name is Paudy Wall and he’s the unofficial town historian, said John. Paudy showed me scans of old deeds on his phone indicating that the building dates to the 1850s, which explains the walls of massive stones. Then he started talking about ancient battles fought in Boyne Valley, then he headed off bidding, “See you tomorrow!”
I asked John if he could recommend someone who did walking tours. He asked me if I had time to meet tomorrow. Yes, I did. Meet me here at noon, he said, as he let a Guinness settle. John is also a village tour guide.
The sun was bringing out unheard-of shades of green the next day as we trekked up the Hill of Slane. As we walked, John pointed out his home — a small one. He explained the ancient burial mounds on the Hill and how St. Patrick lit a paschal fire here, then pointed out surrounding villages and Dublin on the horizon. Slane felt so small and far away, yet so significant.