Dan Rattiner's Stories

In Search of Guinness: A Trip to the Heart of Modern Ireland

My wife, Chris, and I spent 12 days in Ireland earlier this month and this is a report on that trip. There is something very unusual about Ireland. And after we got back to New York, I began to think about what it was. At first I thought it was because of how beautiful Ireland is. There are places in southwest Ireland that are as spectacular as anything I have seen anywhere else in the world. Beautiful green hills, with sheep grazing on them, the hills tumbling down to the sea. Winding roads, especially on the Dingle Peninsula and the Ring of Kerry, are little more than one lane and offer sheer drops of hundreds of feet down to the ocean. There are more than 400 ancient castles in Ireland and you see them on hills everywhere. There is Dublin, with its beautiful old buildings that line the river that runs down the center in a way that is reminiscent of Paris.

And the weather is unique. The Gulf Stream, bringing tropical showers and high temperatures up the Atlantic, comes to an end at Ireland. You have palm trees in Ireland, which is on a parallel 550 miles north of Montreal. You have sudden tropical showers. You have peeks of sunshine. Then you might have a mist for an hour and a half. I imagine that in Gaelic, the Irish language that is on all street signs next to the English, there are probably 20 different words for rain.

What I finally decided makes Ireland so special, however, is the people. The Irish are welcoming, down to earth and full of fun. And it is not just the Guinness, which is duly drunk in all the bars every day, in order, as I was told, to keep the “flow” going.

A taxi driver explained this to me. Guinness in Ireland, on tap, is different from the Guinness you find anywhere else. It is smooth and gentle and almost like a milkshake.

“It’s only 2.5 percent alcohol,” the driver told me. “Elsewhere else it is 5 or 7.5 and it has a sting. It also has a bitter aftertaste. This is because the Guinness comes into the pubs in barrels and the customers just keep the flow going through the pipes. Without the flow, the Guinness in the pipes gets stale. So we keep the flow going.”

Whether he was making this up or not, I do not know. But after we came home, the first thing I did was take my wife out to Rowdy Hall in East Hampton to order a pint, and then a few days later to an Irish Pub in New York, so we could try again. The Guinness tasted absolutely fine, but then came the bitter aftertaste. It is not the Guinness we had in Ireland, whatever the reason. (Is there Irish Guinness here? Anyone know a place? Please let me know.)

I also noticed that the pub in New York was filled with people talking loud about themselves and one another. The vibe was very serious, very earnest, very loud. Everyone was up to something.

And that’s the point. Everywhere we went in Ireland, people in pubs were laughing and telling stories and singing songs. And it was that way on the streets and in the hotels and shops, too. What was it about these people?

I’ve begun reading books about it. It all comes from the fact that Ireland, unlike the rest of Europe, was never properly westernized. In Ireland, fierce warriors threw back the Romans. And so, while everywhere else, for a thousand years, developed in the Judeo-Christian Roman framework we are so familiar with, Ireland remained a pagan Celtic land believing in a multitude of gods. Their religious leaders, called druids, held religious ceremonies, appealing to these gods, that were celebratory and happy. Elsewhere, where serious Christianity held sway, the people suffered from threats of fire and brimstone. In the end, the Christians had to accept, modify and declare these pagan rituals acceptable. One of these became Halloween.

The Irish countryside, home of folklore and the friendliest folk in the world
The Irish countryside, home of folklore and the friendliest folk in the world, Photo: D. Rattiner

Or consider this. Leaving Killarney for a tour of the Ring of Kerry, our driver noted, as we crossed a little bridge and entered a small town, that a one-week Celtic celebration had just ended. Called Lughnasadh, it is a pagan celebration where farmers go out into the fields and come back with the most handsome goat they can find, who is then crowned and declared King of the celebration. There was a legend connected to this, a complicated and hilarious story still told today.

A married couple, he a wealthy farmer and she a local queen, got into an argument about who was more important. It came down to who owned more property. Brought before them were all the goats, servants, bulls and furs they both owned. It was a tie. But the queen would not put up with it. Hearing of a beautiful brown bull in a neighboring county, she had emissaries go there and ask to borrow this bull for one year, after which time it would be returned, with many gifts in addition. The owner of the bull agreed. But when the emissaries returned to fetch the bull, one of them made the mistake of saying that if the farmer didn’t lend the bull, the queen intended to have her army invade and just take it. This of course led to a refusal to give the bull, after which the two counties went to war, which the queen lost. How this became a celebration with a crowned goat is lost in the midst of time, but you get the idea.

Before we left for Ireland, I had been told that the Irish, unlike the people of many other countries, love Americans, but when I asked Irishmen about this, they shrugged. Hospitality is considered a great virtue in Ireland. In Celtic times, it was a crime to fail to show hospitality, particularly to strangers. Doors were always unlocked.

Hospitality even shows up, indirectly, in Celtic law. Trials were held, with the druids as judges and the king and the community poet—a revered wise man—standing by. If you were convicted of wronging someone, you didn’t pay a fine—there was no coinage—and you didn’t go to jail—there were no jails. You paid in barter. In one known case, a woman was accused of letting her sheep wander off to eat the grass of a neighbor. The neighbor took the case to court and the judge ruled that the offending sheep should be killed and the meat given to the neighbor. But the woman appealed. She felt the decision too harsh. And to make her point, she went on a fast, and every day for a week she went to the neighbor’s house and repeatedly refused hospitality. This was an embarrassment to the neighbor. And the community could see this. The decision was reviewed by an appeals judge, and it was overturned. The woman only had to give the wool of the sheep to the neighbor. The grass would grow back, so would the wool.

Finally, something should be said about the legendary fierceness of the Irish, both in the old days and in recent days with the English and, from time to time, even among themselves. Because the Irish, in Celtic times, thought that the next life was quite nearby this life, they were not afraid to cross over.

Here are some of the things we saw and did on this trip.

We learned falconry while staying at the Ashford Castle in Cong. We had hawks fly off from our wrists and come back to us.

Dan the falconer
Dan the falconer

In Dublin, we watched a play in a private room upstairs from a bar called Ha’penny Pub. It was an English adaptation by an Irish play of Moliere’s The Misanthrope, and we sat there sitting at tables drinking Guinness while the actors performed this hilarious comedy about a young man so smitten with a woman he gets into a rage when she so much as talks to someone else, even on her cellphone.

We watched another play at the nearby Gaiety Theatre, a serious comedy written by Brendan Behan 50 years ago about his two-year stay in an English prison that resulted from his carrying explosives to some rebels. It was called Borstal Boy and at the end, when the cast came out on stage for curtain calls, they started singing an Irish prison song called “The Auld Triangle” and the entire audience stood up and sang along with them. It had not been in the play. It was just that everyone knew it.

We went on a tour of the Guinness Warehouse at the Guinness factory in Dublin. But the tour was pretty much an advertisement for Guinness and I don’t recommend it, except for one thing. If you go up six flights of stairs to a glass-enclosed pub on the top floor overlooking all of Dublin in every direction, you can redeem your ticket to the tour for a free pint of Guinness at the bar up there. This was one very happy party going on.

We stayed at Clarence Hotel, right along the banks of the river in Dublin, so we could look out and observe the river traffic. This is an old, grand hotel, carefully restored by a new owner, Bono of U2, and it features a penthouse that reportedly rents for $2,500 a night.

We visited a writers museum in Dublin. The Irish have a very strong admiration for their great poets and writers. We saw letters written by George Bernard Shaw, manuscripts by James Joyce, Brendan Behan’s typewriter that one day he reportedly threw through a window, and a room that featured the busts of many, many Irish writers, including one that had been made by an East Hampton sculptor, Peter Lipman-Wulf, and gifted to the museum.

We took a day trip to Belfast, in Northern Ireland, where we met up with a friend who is now a writer for the Games of Thrones TV show being filmed in that city. In the studio, we took pictures of one another sitting in the throne of daggers. And on an adjacent set, we got to watch the filming of a scene from the wings.

Belfast, which experienced daily battles and bombings for many years between the Irish Catholics and English Protestants, is now divided, the two factions separated by walls, thanks to the Good Friday peace agreement brokered by special envoy George J. Mitchell, an agent of Bill Clinton’s, in 1998. Over these walls at night—there are 24 of them—English teenagers throw rocks at the Irish and Irish teenagers throw rocks at the English. When we visited, we found rocks recently thrown. But none came over while we were there.

Dublin Ireland
Photo: D. Rattiner

Back in Dublin, we sat in a pub in a hotel and watched the national hurling championship game on television. Every county in Ireland has its own team. Ireland, by the way, is a very small country, no bigger than the State of New York. You can take a train across its middle from Galway to Dublin in under three hours.

We walked through the ruins of castles in the countryside. One of them, called the Rock of Cashel, was at one time the seat of a Celtic king. Around 1100, the Celts ceded it to the Christians and the bishop of that community, whose grand estate we stayed at that night, made it a Cathedral for the next 600 years.

We ate a grand dinner in Dublin at Thornton, opposite St. Steven’s Green, a restaurant with two Michelin stars. In the same building is Citron, another fine restaurant. Down on Grafton Street, which has been converted into a pedestrian way, we discovered “our” pub, Bewley’s Café, had been there in a converted private home since about 1850.

The Cashel Palace Hotel is as splendid and well-appointed a hotel as exists in Ireland, and the Ballygarry Inn in Tralee is a wonderful hotel and a spa with a restaurant and pub and an energetic and enthusiastic staff. We also stayed in Killarney at the Malton, formerly the Southern Railway Hotel, another grand hotel and spa.

And then there is the incredibly luxurious Ashford Castle in Cong, a massive 6th century Celtic structure on hundreds of lakefront acres restored with stables, a spa, suits of armor, a golf course, tennis courts, a uniformed staff, a tea room and library and living room, a falconry school and stables, three dining rooms (one visited by George V), entertainment and numerous other activities. A boat from its dock on the lake takes you out to a small island where St. Patrick built a church and where Brendan, his navigator, is buried.

Ashford Castle
Ashford Castle, Photo: D. Rattiner

We took this boat ride through a drizzle one afternoon, and while on board, an older man from a nearby village sat on a folding chair, played an accordion and sang Irish folks songs. I videoed him on my cellphone. And then, as I was making this video, I saw that among the passengers listening to him, in the background, was a handsome couple I’d seen at the castle thoroughly in love and now thoroughly enjoying the music and singing along. After we disembarked on the island, I thought this couple might well like this one-minute video I made on my iPhone as a memento.

As we walked back to the boat from the ruined church, I caught up with the woman. Excuse me, I said, I don’t want to disturb you but I have this wonderful video of the accordion player and I thought you and your husband might like a copy.

“Sure,” she said. Then, “Are you from New York?” She had picked up my accent.

“Yes.”

“Where?”

“East Hampton and Manhattan.”

“Where in Manhattan?”

“On the Upper East Side.”

“Where on the Upper East Side?

“85th Street and Fifth Avenue.”

“We live on 85th Street and Fifth Avenue.”

I told her the exact address. This is a 14-story apartment building. They lived in this building too.

“What floor?” she asked.

“Tenth.”

“We live on the tenth.”

Neighbors, meeting on a rainy day on a boat trip between an Irish castle and an Island. What are the chances of that?

“And we have a house in Bridgehampton,” she said.

On the road in Ireland
On the road in Ireland, Photo: D. Rattiner
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