Irish food and hospitality takes some reckoning with, and I say that not because I’m Irish (isn’t everybody?), but because I recently experienced some of the best hospitality that the Emerald Isle has to offer. I was there in October with my husband, Donald; our first stop, Dingle in the Ring of Kerry to scope out the Dingle Food Festival geared to promoting farm-to-table food, chefs, and artisanal produce from the west of Ireland; from there to Connemara along the Wild Atlantic Way, where we spent some memorable time touring coastal gardens and nature reserves and admired a signpost on the beach pointing the way to New York. Then, from the rugged Atlantic coast, we moved inland to the gentle hills and river valleys of Kilkenny, stopping in the rural town of Borris, with its delicious farmers’ market and not too far from the remnant 17th-century farmhouse that was my mother’s birthplace. Making our way to the coast via Thomastown on the river Nore and Castlemartyr, we skirted Cork and Cobh (from where the Titanic set sail, as well as thousands of Irish immigrants), before making our way to Kinsale on Ireland’s southern coast for the Kinsale Gourmet Food Festival. The weekend opened with the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party (festival-goers followed their guide; we had delightful Dormouse—that’s me with Donald, Dormouse, and Brendan O’Sullivan in the photo), and ended with a lobster lunch. We, however, finished off in Dublin, which is now such a gem of European cosmopolitanism it was hard to recognize from the place I lived in during the 1970s. (But then I’m pretty hard to recognize nowadays, too, and that has nothing to do with the European Union.)
What hit us first? It is so GREEN! Not just in the bejeweled fields shrouded in Atlantic mists, but in an eco-friendly, know-your-farmer, artisanal, non-GMO way. The difference being that the Irish just do it like they’ve always done it, perhaps out of the nation’s native agrarian conservatism allied to extreme lessons learned the hardest way. The 19th-century, monocrop-induced potato famine devastated Ireland’s social and economic fabric, while in the 1980s, a brush with bovine spongiform disease led to food regulations that mean you can now trace the steak on your plate back to the farmer who raised the steer. Ireland is a small island, so when natural resources are limited, sustainability just makes sense—though I doubt they’ll give up peat fires any time soon.
My cousin, Lucinda O’Sullivan, is Ireland’s leading food and travel critic (I am not at all biased, of course), and she and her husband, Brendan (pictured above), traveled with us for much of the way, so we didn’t miss a beat. If you are planning a trip—and you really should—check out her recommendations, and the links given here to the marvellous places we stayed. You’ll not put a foot wrong taking her advice. So be enticed by our story on Kylemore Abbey, page 34, and follow up the links given here, which include some of my own touristy snaps. But they don’t begin to convey the warmth of the people, who served up moments of sheer hilarity with the same gusto as they made us welcome. Be on alert—wry Irish humor sneaks up on you: On holiday in a remote corner of the Ring of Kerry, my mother walked 30 minutes to the corner store to purchase a newspaper. “Is it today’s paper you’ll be after?” asked the shopkeeper. “Yes, please,” said Mum.
“Then you best be coming back tomorrow.”
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Dingle Food Festival
Wild Atlantic Way - Videos:
The Wild Atlantic Way
Meet the People of the Wild Atlantic Way
Renvyle House Hotel
Step House Hotel Carlow
Kinsale Gourmet Food Festival