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Autumn Becomes Ireland Irish Autumn

Late in the year the Irish countryside is more enchanting than ever

by Richard Todd

ON a palely sunny autumn morning my wife and I arrived at the door of Mount Falcon Castle (despite its name, a little country-house hotel), in the west of Ireland. There was a stillness about the place as we stepped inside. Hunting trophies, some of them clearly exotic, decorated the high paneled walls. I looked at the bookcase. Hunting Ibex in the Himalayas was a representative title. So very quiet. In a moment, though, a cheery young fellow appeared, said, "Hello hello hello," and introduced himself as Steven, the manager; before long my wife and I were sitting by a fire in the library. An Englishwoman in her eighties joined us: Constance, Steven's grandmother, and the owner of the house. She said "Hello hello hello" too -- a custom of the country. Did we like dogs? she wanted to know. The reasons for the question were by now about our feet, a trio of handsome springer spaniels. Soon one was on the chintz-covered sofa. We liked dogs.
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  • I had those feelings common to overnight travelers -- leaden of limb, delusionally clear of mind, and hungry. In need, how we appreciate tact. And it was tact when Steven looked in and asked if we might like a "small" fried breakfast.

    It arrived, and it was every bit as small as I had hoped: eggs, tomatoes, mushrooms, sausages, blood pudding, bacon, toast, and tea. You may have a policy on breakfast (even I may have a policy on breakfast), but this is the indisputably right breakfast to have after an all-night flight to Ireland. And the right move after that is sleep. We were quickly upstairs, to awaken a few hours later, in time to walk outside in what had become by then a pleasantly moribund afternoon.

    Celtic twilight -- mushy term, beautiful thing -- is an all-year phenomenon; it just begins early (about 3:00 P.M.) in the fall. And so we set off on a network of farm lanes behind the house, through woods and pastures, the springers behind, alongside, and ahead. The day ebbed away around us, though color remained above the blackened treeline -- a Magritte sky. Then the sky, too, began to fade, and the air thickened, as we walked with a quicker step to the lights of the house.

    Ireland in late autumn is not everyone's idea of a good or even a plausible time, but it is mine. The light provides reason enough to make this journey -- and for some people, perhaps, reason enough not to. (Prospective travelers who suffer from seasonal affective disorder should probably consult a physician.) Ireland, after all, shares a latitude with places like Labrador and Saskatoon, and the sun angles down in a strikingly different way from its aspect even in northern New England. But of course Ireland isn't Labrador, and thanks to the benevolent Gulf Stream its fields stay green, seeming even to intensify into a brilliant electric color with the season. To a North American eye the slight confusion of low light and lush grass makes for an eerie beauty.

    During the short course of a day you find yourself very aware of the sun's diffident little parabola. Noon occurs -- I saw it on my watch, though I never quite caught it in the sky. Nonetheless, the day seems to consist of a long time that is early morning and another long time that is late afternoon. The sun slants across the landscape, making theatrical shadows and silhouettes, shining full on the brilliant white gable end of a house miles distant, revealing each tuft of wool on a sheep's back. The very blades of grass in the pasture cast shadows.

    I find this light exhilarating, but let's face it, it can stir pangs of melancholy, too. You may feel so joyous that you want to kill yourself -- an Irish sentiment, surely. There are chords heard in Irish music that have the same effect in the viscera. (I cannot believe that only those of us with Irish blood are affected.) Perhaps this is the season they derive from.

    I have been speaking of the sun as if its visible presence were assured. It isn't, of course; this is Ireland, where you can never bank on a fair day even in the middle of one. Oddly, though, you may stand a slightly better chance of finding clement weather in fall than at any other time of the year. Sailors making an ocean crossing often choose this time, a window between hurricane season in the Atlantic and the winter gales that rake the Irish coast.

    My wife and I had an elaborate three-day errand in Sligo town, about an hour north of the Mount Falcon. The sensible thing would have been to stay up there, but we had so thoroughly settled into the comforts of the hotel that it was impossible to move. At dinner each evening Constance presided. We were joined one night by a boisterous film company from Dublin, and another by a young Australian couple full of charm, and a pair of French chasseurs there for the snipe. (Except for their shaving cologne and their excessive admiration of my wife's French accent, the hunters had charm too.)

    It's an odd lot of travelers you meet in Ireland in the fall -- odd, and few. This is good news, unless of course you are in search of authenticity. Ireland has become so successful in presenting itself as a tourist destination that you can't see the place steady and whole without looking tourism full in the face. For the true Irish experience you should probably join a German tour group in July aboard one of those enormous buses that seem always about to get wedged between hedgerows.

    But by the fall the buses have gone to the Costa del Sol. The Germans are Oktoberfesting. The Americans -- well, you will always see Americans, though the typical one may be a lone guy surrounded by Irishmen, wary-hearty noises emanating from the group: global business under way. If you should not delude yourself that you are seeing the "real" Ireland in autumn, you may nonetheless get a look at some of the sinew of its nontourist economy.

    IRELAND is a small enough country that visitors are sometimes tempted to "see it all" -- a mistake here as elsewhere, of course. Our work done in Sligo, we could have had a fine time tramping around in the nearby Ox Mountains or walking along the beaches of the adjacent County Mayo. Knowing this, still we had decided to yield to curiosity and visit west Cork, a couple of hundred miles to the south. So imagine here a familiar film scene compressing five hours of driving -- motorway and roundabouts, an entanglement with the traffic of Limerick (just as gritty as Frank McCourt has told us) -- and then the little car emerging into the wooded uplands outside snug Mallow and, just at twilight, turning into the stately driveway of Longueville House. Longueville began life in the eighteenth century as an Anglo-Irish mansion. Set in 500 acres of farmland, it has done duty as a hotel for the past fifty years. Here lambs graze outside the front door -- plump creatures whose cousin you will soon enjoy at table.

    The traveler's freedom is somewhat curtailed in fall, without that long evening light in which to reach your mark. No foreigner should drive on the narrow Irish roads at night. (Indeed, I don't think the Irish are so keen on driving then themselves. Why do they pass each other at top speed in the dark -- why else if not to get home sooner and out of harm's way?) But arrival before 5:00 P.M., with dinner at 8:00, has the benefit of providing three of life's more easeful hours, involving no problem more complicated than how exactly to allocate the time among tea, bath, nap, and drink.

    From Mallow the Cork coast is easily reached, and we drove much of the length of it the next afternoon, fortifying ourselves with Bantry's famous rock oysters at noon. This southern coast is Ireland's most intricate, a favorite cruising ground for sailors; pleasingly, it can't be seen in one dazzled look, like the Cliffs of Moher or the other coastal spectacles of Ireland. Part of its charm lies in the myriad roads leading to peninsulas and small harbors.

    Bantry House
    Bantry House, on Bantry Bay, is now
    a museum. Photograph by Joe Cornish.
    We ended up at Kinsale, the town that fronts Ireland's most popular harbor in summer. It offers more than a good anchorage; it has lately become well known as a center -- the center, if you listen to local boosters -- of Irish cuisine.

    Irish cuisine! Surprising how many people will still snort at this concept, though much has recently been written about the fact that they do now cook on this island. It's true that you can still arrange to have a diet of the bland and overdone in Ireland, and this gives some travelers the pleasure of expectations fulfilled. Just as there are those who go to France to be insulted, so, too, people like to return from Ireland praising the scenery and rolling their eyes at the food.
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  • But it's not necessary to punish yourself. The good restaurants are very good indeed, thanks in part to a recent influx of Continental chefs but chiefly to the recognition that unbeatable ingredients from the sea and the farm are right at hand and worth handling with care. We dined well on roasted salmon at the Blue Haven Hotel, in Kinsale, and even better on duck in a raspberry glaze at the Vintage, around the corner. Neither was inexpensive. Dining in contemporary Ireland has this in common with dining in the United States: you tend to get what you pay for.

    One of Ireland's most celebrated chefs is a long-transplanted Frenchman named Youen Jacob, the proprietor of Chez Youen and of an adjoining guesthouse in the seaside town of Baltimore. I found him there one noontime, a man of classic chef proportions and a bluff, engaging manner.

    Youen is known not only for his cooking but also for the force of his personality. He is famous for meals that go on for hours because he insists on bringing on another course, another cognac. "Ah, Youen, that rogue -- he combines the very worst of the Irish and the French," I was told, warmly, by a friend and an admirer of his. On the day I was there, Youen's restaurant was closed, in a sense -- he'll open it if he has two or three people in town wanting dinner. At midday I sought only what could be easily provided by the little dining room in his guesthouse. Perhaps a plate of cheese.

    Youen brought out a selection of eight, consisting of matching pairs of French and Irish cheeses, and somehow we spent the better part of two hours discussing them, with numerous detours. A Roquefort and a Cashel blue; a Camembert and its Irish taste-alike, Guddeen farmhouse; some chevre from both countries; and a Gruyère and an Irish Desmond. I don't want to present myself as someone who should be followed blindly into battle when the battle is about cheese. But I trusted my own appreciation of these Irish cheeses the more because it was reinforced by Youen's great enthusiasm for the local product. In this taste-off it seemed clear that any distinction between the cheeses before us would turn on patriotism rather than on real differences in quality.

    ON the road back to Kinsale I noticed something that I'd failed to see on a couple of other approaches to the town. Amid sugar-beet farms a paved road led to a large, low-lying building well screened by trees. A discreet sign read PFIZER.

    Ireland, it is often said, remains so beautiful in part by grace of its misfortunes -- the Industrial Revolution passed it by. But its fortunes have turned in recent years, and right now the economy is booming. This puts the Irish to the test: how to talk about something so unbecoming as success?

    Someone could do a learned paper titled "Irish Self-Deprecation: Charm, Superstition, and Guile." I dined one evening (my wife had had to leave early for the States) with a friend, an Irish businessman. The old routine comes naturally to him, as in this joke about the nature of Ireland: "So the fellow comes over from Brussels, and he gets a bit frustrated at the time things are taking to get done. And he says in exasperation, 'Tell me, do you people have a word in Irish that means "mañana"?' And the answer comes back, 'Yes, yes, we do, we do, but I'm afraid it lacks the same force of urgency.'"

    The affable procrastination of the Irish wasn't what occupied my friend's mind: like everyone else, he wanted to talk about the bustle of unprecedented prosperity that had swept the country. Years of investment in public education were now paying off, and the government's industrial policies had worked too. There are complicated ways of explaining those policies, but as far as I could determine, they amount to the encouragement of companies that produce things that range in size from invisible (services) to tiny (microchips) to small (pills). The ten leading drug companies in the world have factories in Ireland, and so many high-tech companies have settled into the Liffey Valley that people like to call it "Silicon Bog." Membership in the European Union has benefited the country enormously. You see it in the bright new tractors in the fields, in new motorways and joint-venture industrial estates. "You know," my friend said, "the Irish have always been good at manipulating systems, figuring out how to pull the levers -- look at what we did to the city politics of your own country. And in point of actual fact, we have played the EU like a fiddle."

    The success of the Republic has given a new dimension to the troubles of the North. No longer a poor cousin, the South now feels itself pulling away economically. In my friend's view, even some unionists were casting a wistful eye to the South.

    Of course, we have a reflexive question when capitalism is going great guns: Will success spoil.... ?

    Bed & Breakfast
    Cozy Kinsale, renowned for its cuisine.
    This photograph and top photograph
    by Rick Henderson/Celtic Images.
    "What will spoil us is the lamentable taste of the Irish," said my friend. It's true that some signs of affluence already disturb the view. The holiday home may well prove the scourge of the Irish landscape. An Irishman likes his wall, and he likes his gateposts, and he may well like his cement eagles atop them. These little bungalows with glossy black-tile roofs and picture windows fit reasonably well into suburbs, or even the heavily vegetated countryside, but on the bleak moors of Mayo or Donegal a cluster of them can pollute the scene for a mile. Similarly, one now almost winces when the blue-and-yellow signs of the EU identify a new road project.

    And yet some perspective is needed. Sometimes, traveling, I follow a capillary plan, which is to say no plan at all, except to drive and, when presented with a choice, to take the smaller road or the one that climbs a hill. In this way I meandered one afternoon in the hilly countryside of inland west Cork, through the market town of Macroom and on up the hills. It was not long before I was swallowed by a soothing rurality. This is a Gaeltacht region, where traditional culture is protected by law; you still hear Irish in the stores, and your own voice is heard as undifferentiated awayness. "Down from Dublin, are you?" I was asked.

    The Famine was acute in these hills, and lore of it still comes quickly to the lips of residents. I stopped by a country schoolyard full of uniformed students at play and chatted with one of the teachers, who soon recounted the Famine tale of the local couple named Buckley who buried their two children one day and died themselves the next. Their bodies were found in their hovel, her feet still held in his hands as if he were warming them. You can still find the cemetery where the family is said to have been buried along with hundreds of others in mass graves.

    On a narrow lane leading out of the village of Ballyvourney I came upon a walking trail into the woods which passed a curious shrine (to Saint Gobnait, I learned, once patron saint of the district) and afforded a view out over the hills and well-tended fields. In this serenity it was impossible to imagine the squalor and deprivation that had consumed the once crowded landscape.

    Western civilization constantly tempts us into mourning a faded pastoral world. But you tend to think differently in Ireland, aware of the misery that filled these hills not long ago. Looking around now, at the productive fields and the occasional industrial estate, you may find yourself believing without irony in progress.

    The impression may have been as fragile as the beauty of the season, but it seemed -- seems -- a splendid moment in Irish history, all the better for being quiet, unbloody, uncelebrated. At any rate, on that benign autumn day I had the sense, rare enough in life, that I was seeing a place that was better than it had been in a very long time.

    The three hotels I have mentioned, though quite different from one another, have in common a place in Ireland's Blue Book. This is an unusually trustworthy guide to thirty-six country-house hotels and restaurants. It's available free of charge from the Irish Tourist Board, at 345 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10154 (800-223-6470), which can supply a great deal of other touristic information as well.

    Richard Todd, a former executive editor of The Atlantic, teaches in the American Studies program at Smith College.

    Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; July 1998; Autumn Becomes Ireland; Volume 282, No. 1; pages 40 - 44.

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