Ireland Beckons: New Beginnings
The best piece of advice I've ever had is, “Begin as you mean to carry on.” I've not always followed it, but generally it is true. So, my advice to you, should you ever go to Ireland, is this: Take a taxi from the airport straight to The Merrion Hotel, on Merrion Square in the heart of Dublin. The degree of comfort is just plain splendid, the food is nourishing and wonderfully prepared and presented, the on-site spa has a pool as soft and warm as a baby's cheek, and there are several therapists to manipulate away the kinks of jet lag.
After that, hit the streets—Dublin is calling. Back in the early ‘70s when I lived here for a few years, the place was a quiet backwater. The Georgian terraces were crumbling husks, the shops were asleep, food service was, well, sketchy. It was the land that time forgot.
Not anymore. Thanks to the advent of the Euro in 2000, this place is booming. "Ireland," says Lucinda O'Sullivan, our guide and traveling companion, "is a building site." And property prices are through the roof. Literally. Handsome old cottages that have stood since Cromwell's time in the 1600s are being allowed to collapse into their rafters, so that characterless executive-style houses with all the mod-cons can be erected in their place. This seems to be the destined fate for The Pike, my mother's family home, which I visited yesterday. The roof is still sound, so the walls thus far are intact. The orchard has been plowed up and the barnyard buildings are falling in. My grandfather would be raging! But that is just part of life's rich pattern. However, as Ireland surges into the 21st century, they're in danger of throwing the baby out with bathwater.
But as we travel deeper into the countryside, we find signs of hope. Towns are bustling with the new economy, and artists, craftspeople, and “boutique grocers” offer a taste of the real...and the new...Ireland.
From Dublin, Amy and I followed Lucinda through Wicklow, where we made our first garden stop at Kilruddery House and Gardens, Bray.This is the seat of the Earl of Meath and one of the few remaining 17th-century landscape gardens in the country, laid out by a French gardener named Bonnet, an apprentice of Andre le Notre, who fashioned Versailles. Twin pools stretch from the house into the natural landscape, and a formal parterre garden is laid out below the glass-roofed sculpture court.
From there we traveled south along the coast to Avoca and Knockanree Garden, a private garden beside a babbling brook overhung with ancient boughs. Harold Clarke (no relation!) has made a charming woodland garden, ornatmented with highly personal touches. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to obtain information on open days in the garden.
Lucinda has planned our tour to focus on lesser-known gardens and our stays at hotels with gardens. We finished the day at Ballykealey Manor Hotel, at Ballon in Co. Carlow.
Surrounded by blindingly green pastures (dotted with the new season's first lambs) the building is a fairy-tale construct of turrets and gothic furbelows, and the rooms are spacious enough to accommodate king-size canopy beds and large Victorian mahogany wardrobes. Let me say here and now that the Irish hoteliers understand the need for comfortable beds...and freshly ironed linen sheets!
It being Sunday evening, the restaurant was closed and only bar meals were on offer. At first we thought, phooey! Sandwiches! But no. This is the new Ireland...and though the Irish have always enjoyed a hearty meal, the influx of European chefs has raised the bar so that even in the remotest corner of the country you're sure to find something scrumptious. Well, Amy and I tucked into locally raised pork, smoked salmon (made by the hotel's chef), and fresh-baked brown bread with Irish butter (the only kind to eat!). Ambrosia. And as it's the place where local families come for Sunday dinner, the place was packed with little kids running around, grannies tuning in their hearing aids to keep up with the craich, and that was just the first shift. The second brought the courting couples. Needless to say, Amy and I sat and munched and enjoyed the hubbub.
But this is a garden tour. And if I seem to wax lyrical about the food, it is only because we do have to eat to keep our strength up for all the walking. Monday morning we had a walk around the lovely Altamont garden at Tullow, just down the way from the hotel. This is a private garden gone public, and beautifully so. Long walks beneath mature trees meander down to the lake, dug by the hands of 150 local workers during the 1850s as part of the famine relief program. The garden was filled with hellebores, daffodils, lungwort, and scads of early spring flora. The snowdrops were over, however, which was too bad as I suffer from a bad case of galantophilia, and I get no relief in the States as we have yet to discover the power of the snowdrop.
While Lucinda took me to some of hidden Ireland's gems like Thomastown and Inistioge along the banks of the River Nore. Again, impossibly green pastures, ruined castles (someone else's relatives looking for a chance to upgrade their housing conditions?), craft shops, and more.
Must cut off now, as there are some other guests at our hotel waiting to use the computer. More later.