We became so completely involved in the new life that we had not thought of our “Bolthole" in months. Then out of the blue, Jo came into the studio one January day while I was on the air. During one of the records, she told me she had just received a call from the Irish Tourist Board. They were so grateful for all we had said and done to promote Ireland that they wanted us to go there for a week. They offered to assign one of their people, provide the car, and take us wherever we want to go.
This invitation came at absolutely the worst possible time. We had just hocked our souls, to buy a station and now were supposed to whip off to Ireland. Impossible.
So, we made plans to go. At this point I need to introduce you to Pat our oldest daughter at age 21. From the time she was 10, Pat lived for horses, taking lessons, being a Hot Walker at Arlington Park or an Exercise Girl at Sportsman. She had become good friends with Earlie Fires, one of the top jockeys. Pat knew that Ireland was center for almost everything that had to do with thoroughbreds. She asked if she could go too. We worked it out. There were riding establishments near Dublin that Pat had to see.
Somehow, during all our frantic upheaval, Jo found time to do some basic research on Ireland. She was an inveterate reader and really dug into what to see and where to go in Ireland. By inviting us to pick the itinerary, the Tourist Board played right into her hands. She knew what we would do and where we would go. Amazing! For me, I felt as if I were on a roller coaster just thundering along for the ride.
The three of us boarded an AerLingus 707 in mid January. There has always been something special about this airline. The second the door closed you were in Ireland. The appearance of the flight attendants, they all had the Irish twinkle, the good Irish sound, and we were mostly surrounded by Americans with a lot of Irish in them. Some years it would be a roaring all night party, a group of soccer or football fans going back for a match. Almost always the flight would include children, families taking the kids back to see grandparents. The flights were happy occasions. I have yet to meet a surly passenger or flight attendant on AerLingus.
In those days, flights from Chicago tended to be irregular. Some years AerLingus flew up to Canada for a stop to pick up a few more passengers and continue. Other times the flight would go to Boston or New York and then over the Atlantic. For an extended period of time the company had budget problems and stopped flying out of Chicago altogether. This meant we had to take another airline to New York or Boston and connect with AerLingus. Eventually the Irish Tourist Board office in Chicago was closed and we lost wonderful friends, but back then in 1970 everything was running smoothly.
There is a familiar pattern of flight from Chicago to Shannon. Take off in the late afternoon with a stop somewhere along about dusk, then up to around 35,000 feet and dark. Drinks and dinner would follow. Then would come the movie, but actually, the Irish much preferred conversation. In an amazingly short time, the sky would lighten, passengers would shake out the cobwebs and a surge of electricity would fill the cabin. What one has to remember is the 6 hour time change. When we were having dinner and a glass of wine at about 8:00pm Chicago time, it was already 2:00am in Ireland. It is always a short night. After the hot hand towels were passed, in the good old Japanese tradition, a light breakfast was served and before we really had time to think about the distance we’d covered, we were over Ireland.
As the plane had gradually descended to around 10,000 feet and below, we would begin to see the greens of Ireland, the hedge rows, the hills, and the Shannon River and its huge muddy estuary. To this day, I have never been able to fully accept what jet flight at around 500 miles an hour can accomplish. To think of our ancestors in tiny ships and the miles of cold, rolling Atlantic, contrasted with a meal, a movie, a nap and there you are …amazes me. So, off the plane and into the terminal to an official who would stamp the passport and welcome us to Ireland. Then it was seek out luggage that was going round and round on the carousel, ours almost always the last to arrive. Then out to past the sleepy customs agents who would just wave us through. I have always felt that the early morning arrival time would enable a person to bring in a grizzly bear and the Irish agent would just wave. It is just not fair to ask any decent Irishman or woman to function before 10am.
You are now in Ireland to be met by someone, or pick up a rental car and go …on the left side of the road, the adrenaline pumping, the air so fresh! Ah …I must stop here at Shannon to tell you two stories about the place. Then we will get on with our trip.
Let us talk about this piece of real estate, because a certain American was quite involved in selecting its location.
Charles Lindbergh was the man. He flew over southern Ireland on his famous flight to Paris. After hours of monotonous droning of the engine, nothing but rolling waves beneath him, only a map , stars and a compass to guide him, one can only imagine what it felt like to look down and see hedgerows and that magnificent green.
In the early 30’s it became obvious that flight over long distances was for real. The Irish realized that the flight path from America to Europe would probably run right over them. So President Eamon de Valera got in touch with Lindbergh and asked him to come for a visit in order to help the Irish find a suitable sight for an International Airport. The big problem of the day was navigation. No sophisticated navigational instruments were available at that time and radar was still to be developed in the 40’s during W.W.II. So a prominent natural landmark was essential, something that any pilot could spot even in marginal weather. What could be more prominent than the great Shannon River. It meandered almost due south to Limerick and then turned right and flowed almost due west for nearly 40 miles before reaching the west coast of Ireland and the Atlantic Ocean. It is a large river, nearly 3 miles wide at its mouth near Carrigaholt in County Clare. The southwestern corner of the county ought to be an excellent location.
Lindbergh came and looked around. He found and selected two locations. One was near Kilrush, actually a large flat area near a tiny town called Moyasta on the north side of the Shannon. The second was farther east about 30 miles at the head of the Shannon Estuary. It was more centrally located with Ennis to the north and Limerick about 20 miles southeast. De Valera chose the second because of its central location. Lindbergh had made his contribution. Now, as Paul Harvey would say, “here is the rest of the story."
World War II came over Europe. The only planes that could successfully complete a non-stop run from the U.S. to Europe were the great Flying Boats, the Pan Am Clippers. When it was essential to move important military brass to Europe, these planes could make it to a place called Foynes on the Shannon River about half way to Limerick. The Shannon River was critical to transatlantic flight, the linking of America and Europe. At Foynes, there is a little known Aviation Museum filled with pictures and the actual flight hardware of the day. It is a fascinating stop that teaches us how far and how quickly the technology in the 20th century has progressed.
In addition to being a logical place to land airplanes, Shannon Airport has made another important contribution to the world..
This special beverage was created at the Shannon Airport for tourists and has become world famous and relished by many people in many lands — except Ireland. The thought of adding sugar to good Irish whiskey is beyond the pale to any good Irishman.
John Kennedy, our Irish Tourist Board host, was waiting for us at Shannon. He was about 6 feet, a twinkle in his eye, a better than average nose, a man with joie de vivre who could burst out into gales of laughter at the slightest provocation, who always moved quickly and had very definite ideas on everything.
I could read his mind as he approached us, “Oh my God, two rich Americans and the spoiled brat!" If he had only known! John Kennedy offered us a quite formal “Good morning Mr. And Mrs. Bellairs and Pat is it?" In the entire time we knew John, and it was years, I could never get him to call me anything but Mr. Bellairs and Jo, Mrs. Bellairs. He was Dublin Irish and very proper.
“John," I said, "it is very nice of you and Ireland to do all this for us, but we’ve been here before. I’m comfortable driving, and we hate to take up your time for a whole week. Why don’t you just take this time off, have a bit of a holiday for yourself. Everything will be fine."
John looked absolutely horrified and responded that he could not possibly leave us alone to fend for ourselves. It was totally out of the question. So the two rich Americans and the spoiled brat made their way to John’s car, Jo and Pat in back. I sat in the co-pilot’s seat where, over the next week, I was to die a thousand deaths. John Kennedy proved to be a prime candidate for Formula 1 Driver of the Year. He would laugh uproariously as I repeatedly dug my fingers into his dashboard. All that within the first 5 miles! A week of this all over Ireland!
Permit me to digress long enough to squelch a fable that has always existed in Ireland: "The Irish are a laid back and relaxed people." That may be true in some instances but not in their driving. Road racing must have originated in Ireland. They go like mad, flat out all the time. They seem to take an enormous pleasure in passing a truck, called a lorry, while going up a hill then ducking back into line just as the approaching car zooms past going just as hard. I admit, there is some strange talent in the Irish driver. He seems to know just how to dodge instant disaster. He does not have to avoid the cows or the sheep. He just barrels through them — somehow they know it is better to get over.
Later, as I drove more and more, I discovered they just looked me in the eye and knocked off my side view mirror. In that year, 1970, there were far fewer cars than we had seen in England and Scotland in the 60’s. Still, Irish roads require total concentration. In my mind, the Roundabout is the invention of the devil, perhaps Cromwell. Instead of a typical American intersection, it is usually necessary to enter a round wheel of traffic while remembering that the driver approaching you in the wheel has the right of way. If this sounds confusing, take my word for it, it is. Simultaneously trying to read road signs and find the right spoke of the wheel to exit makes for the biggest challenge to life in Ireland.
John proceeded to ask what we wanted to see. Jo had done her homework and knew exactly what she wanted to see, as did Pat. John set out first to take care of Pat’s wish, a visit to the horse area. It lays in a semi-circle a few miles outside of Dublin, anchored by Naas and the world famous racetrack, the Curragh, just a few miles south. We visited several stud farms, the main one a true “Horse Raising Establishment" owned by a Lord and Lady Carew. Their daughter is a well known equestrian. Pat’s eyes opened wide as she saw the quality of the horses, the great open fields, the complete indoor ring. She also saw some young people obviously at work, and she was told that these people had scholarships. They tended the horses, mucked out stalls, did whatever was required and in exchange received free riding lessons, board and room. Pat tucked that away in her head for future reference.
Jo had read about a fascinating new project going on in Kilkenny. The Irish were determined to reestablish their own native arts and crafts and were constructing a design center across from Kilkenny Castle. We saw the projects: the ceramics, weaving, painting, silversmithing, wood working all going on in the stables of the castle. The old stalls now housed young working artists. A display and sales center was in front. It was wonderful to be in on the rebirth of such talent. Over the years we saw the effects of this government sponsored effort reflected all over the country. Even John, in his sophisticated Dublin way, was impressed. After centuries of oppression, it seemed that the Irish had lost confidence in themselves. They needed a good dose of the old “I’m good and I know it" pill.
John soon proved why he was there with us. His knowledge of Ireland was complete. Jo might have known where she wanted to go, but when we got there, it was John who knew where to eat, who to meet and where to stay. I think John knew intuitively that we were serious about Ireland, not just enjoying a freebie. We became very comfortable with each other.
We returned to Cashel, but this time with a friend of John’s, a woman who knew everything about this old castle on the peak of the hill looking out over 2,000 years of Irishness. If you’ve been there you know what I mean. We were still free to climb the stone steps all the way to the top and carefully walk the narrow steps and paths. John politely declined to climb with us, something about the height. Since then those stairs and steps were sealed off so visitors have to make do with organized tours and lectures. Over the years, Cashel has gone through long periods of restoration. We were lucky to have visited twice when it was a raw, naked, untouched piece of majesty.
That night, John booked us into the Bishop’s Palace, a small but most impressive hotel located in the town of Cashel at the foot of the Castle. At dinner we looked up at the tower, the juts and angles of Cashel all lit up with spot lights. That view, the light and shadow, that silhouette, is carved into my mind. To me Cashel is sacred. I have taken pictures from all angles. One year I caught it just right. That Cashel hangs over my desk.
On the craft side, in the town of Cashel, on the main street, there is a silversmith who is one of the finest in the world. A visit to him is required.
Since I am discussing our daily driving exploits with John, I need to mention that I am not alone on the subject of driving on Irish roads.
I look forward to Dave Barry columns. I think he is one of our most talented columnists. How he can find a good laugh in almost anything amazes me. Dave has books on all subjects of human frailty that remind me of Robert Burns, “Would someone giftie gie us, to see ourselves as ithers see us." This is a special talent, and I have to quote a little piece of what he found in Ireland.
“Towns are connected by a modern state of the art system of medieval roads about the width of a standard bar of hotel soap. The result is that motorists drive as fast as possible in hopes of getting to their destinations before they meet anybody coming the other way. The only thing that prevents everybody from going 120 miles an hour is the nationwide system — probably operated by the Ministry of Traffic Safety — of tractors being driven very slowly by old men wearing caps. You encounter these roughly every two miles, rain or shine, day or night. As an additional safety measure the roads are also frequented by herds of cows, strolling along and mooing appreciatively at the countryside reminding you very much of tour groups."
Our second visit to Cashel was even better than our first. We headed south toward Cork and Ballymaloe.
Jo had a surprise waiting for us. She had read about a place just getting underway that was out of the ordinary. Ballymaloe, once one of a network of Norman castles across the countryside southeast of Cork, had very recently been converted into a small hotel and restaurant.
Myrtle Allen and her husband bought Ballymaloe in 1948 and there she began her life as a farmer’s wife, mother, and developed into an internationally recognized writer, hotelier, hostess, and most important, chef. We feel we discovered her that January in 1970. Over the years, she became a television personality. She has produced any number of articles and cookbooks. Her recipes are fun to follow and always include little bits of Myrtle, herself.
Since Jo and I had always been fascinated with restaurants, had helped create a Gourmet Club specializing in ethnic food, we fell totally in love with Myrtle Allen. She began one of her first books by saying, “I would like to thank my husband. Nobody can cook well without somebody who will eat. The more discriminating the gourmet, the better the cook."
In the beginning, Ballymaloe was the home and farm of the Allen family. They loved the place so much that when the children were growing up, they did not like the idea of moving to a smaller home. So they turned the lower room into a restaurant and slowly the rest of the house became a hotel. Only one small corner of the original castle remains, hooked on to what is really a big, rambling house.
You might be interested in the fact that Myrtle does not plunge a lobster into boiling water. She follows the theory that he dies painlessly in slowly warming water. She hopes it is easier on the lobster’s nerves. She says, “It certainly is on mine."
The Allens took great pride in raising most of their needs on the farm. I enjoyed standing out in front and watching the lambs bouncing around after their mothers. To complete a menu being close to the ocean meant that seafood was always available.
Myrtle had a special recipe for her bread. It is true, every woman in Ireland makes her own bread, well almost, and every recipe is just a little different. That goes also for scones. How I love a real Irish scone with home made strawberry jam.
The proof of the pudding, as they say, is that John was so impressed with Ballymaloe that from 1970 on, whenever he was escorting people around Ireland, he always took them to Ballymaloe. He and the Allens became good friends. How about that!
I also recall that one year in cold, blustery March, we visited Ballymaloe to find an unusual guest out front, a helicopter. A family from Dublin had arrived for a meal. The wind rose and the helicopter stayed for those days. The Irish standard of living has been rising steadily. Do not relate the Ireland of today to the potato famine days. A personal helicopter flown by “himself" did catch my attention.
The main reason we came to Ballymaloe was to sample Myrtle Allen’s cooking. For a minute let us consider eating out.
For us in America dining is a pretty simple affair. We make a reservation, go into the restaurant and are ushered to a table. There we order a round or two of drinks, and then get around to looking at a menu. Not so in Ireland, and most of Europe for that matter.
In the small to middle sized (up market inns and hotels) it is different. You begin in a lounge, more like a friend’s living room. There you chat, order a drink, usually a sherry or a glass of wine, never a hard drink like a martini. Then whilst (a good Irish word) you sip on your sherry, the maitre d’ will present the menu. Over pleasant chit chat you make your selections and within a few moments you are summoned to dinner. Your soup that you selected is at your place. Dinner has begun. To me, this is a beautiful routine. In Ireland, dinner is for dining, not sitting and drinking. I remember how upset Louis Szathmary, owner of the Bakery restaurant in Chicago, used to become when his guests seemed to prefer drink to dinner. I have friends who used to complain that they were being rushed when The Bakery followed the European style. Americans want it their way and that is just impossible in the good Irish manner. Yes, after dinner it is quite normal for guests to return to the sitting room for coffee, brandy or some other after dinner drink and lots more conversation, sometimes story telling and sometimes if you are lucky, the singing begins.
This was the dinner routine we discovered in England and Ireland back in the 60’s and there at Ballymaloe in 1970. We thought it was very civilized. If you have ever experienced it I hope you did not feel hassled when dinner arrived so quickly. The after dinner conversation is always fascinating.
Make peace with the fact that the Irish handle the fork and knife just opposite from the way we do. Were we showing our independence when we switched hands? I often wonder.
The other thing you will notice about Irish dining is that the volume is kept down. The Irish at adjacent tables do not want to hear your conversation, and they surely do not want you to hear theirs. It is fascinating to listen to a whole dining room....“chewing."
Another stop on Jo’s “wish list" was a visit to …
We had observed some very original ceramic ware at Kilkenny and Jo had read about this family of potters and glass blowers in a little town called Shanagarry, just a hop and a jump from Ballymaloe. That seemed like a reasonable distance to us, so after a bit of hopping and jumping we fournd ourselves walking up a path littered with pieces of pots that had not made it through the kiln. We entered a small building where three people were “throwing" on foot-powered wheels. We met the elder Mr. Pierce who was the head of the business, and before we left we acquired a complete set of dinner plates, cups, saucers, beer mugs, and serving bowls. We bought everything we could get our hands on.
We have used our Shanagarry place setting nearly every day since. From time to time we have had to replace a few due to “oops" and “woops" but for the most part our rich brown and white Shanagarry has been a part of our life. As we were leaving, Jo spotted a strange glob of melted and then hardened ceramic about two feet square. It had been a tray of cups that had just had too much heat and had sort of dissolved into a strange mass. Jo said to Mr. Pierce, “Would you sell us that" and she pointed at it. His reply was a laugh and “What in the name of God would ye be wantin with a disaster like that?" He gave it to us, and that no named disaster hangs on our wall today. It certainly is an original.
I am not sure whether the Pierce sons were there at that time. It was perhaps a year or two later that Simon Pierce made his mark with his blown glass. He changed the entire glass market. Up to then it had been mostly Waterford Crystal and Galway Crystal. The Pierce blown glass was thick, heavy and his goblets were special, completely different from the delicate, intricate cutting of Waterford. Simon’s style was simple. I have used the world “globby" for it. Well, anyway, it became very popular. He had an impressive plant near Kikenny and did very well. We always sought out his seconds because we thought any imperfections only enhanced his work. We looked for air bubbles and goblets with a little tilt.
Later, Simon married an American. He moved the business to New England where he has a whole complex of plant, shop and an Irish restaurant. We have never been there but friends report it is quite a place. The Pierce name on pottery and blown glass has become famous. Their work is highly praised and sought after and is found in all the better shops. I admit, we take pride in the fact that we were there in the early days.
With John Kennedy still at the helm, we continued on our grand tour. We worked our way past Cobh, the harbor pronounced Cove, where in the 1880’s, so many Irish took a last look at Ireland before sailing for America and to the streets they thought were paved with gold.
Kinsale has the feel of Europe. It is a deep water harbor surrounded by steep hills and houses built up the sides. It is a town that has always been full of personality, a sailing and deep sea fishing center. The weather is usually a little milder being on the south of coast of Ireland. One could have a good life in Kinsale.
Continuing on, we headed west to the Bantry Bay area and the west of Ireland that Jo and I had explored on our first trip, only this time we had John painting his word pictures and telling his stories. We stayed that night at the Great Southern Hotel in Killarney. At that stop I have a specific memory of Pat. Here is the story. It was cold. Ireland in January is cold and damp and the higher hills are crowned with snow. The temperatures never have the swing that we midwesterns know, but ranges from 38 to 50 degrees are common. Many Irish hotels feature a useful and considerate device consisting of hollow metal pipes, heated with water, that serve as towel racks in the bathrooms. I remember Pat draped over one of these towel racks desperately trying to thaw her body. We often laugh about Pat and her aversion to Irish winters. The days are short and the nights are long. There are always reasons for customs, habits and traditions. When I think of the Irish living in their thatched roof cottages, with flagstone floors and a single turf fireplace to the house, I begin to understand why the Irish day never begins till about 10 am. You would not think of rising at dawn. You would freeze on the spot.
Still on the subject of cold, I remember our arrival at Dingle. We headed directly for Benner’s Hotel, went into their small sitting room heated with the turf fireplace and all ordered Irish Whiskey. Once again, John had saved our lives.
In Dingle, a great old fishing harbor, we found an actual home of boat building.
They were hand making the traditional wooden 30 to 40 feet fishing boats. Those Irish craftsmen were a sight to behold. I had my trusty old 8mm movie camera with me and I still take pride in the workmanship I was able to record and preserve. It is sad but that plant no longer exists.
Here began the saga of Jo’s cocktail table. A boat begins with a length of tree. The first step is to make 4 lengthwise cuts making the tree square. The left over pieces, the bark and an inch or so of tree is just waste. Jo said, "That piece, about 10 feet long and about 2 feet wide would make a beautiful cocktail table." That hunk of wood, about 200 pounds worth, was subsequently trucked to Limerick, put on a train, taken to a ship, moved across the Atlantic to New York, shipped to Chicago and was one day was dumped at our front door in Woodstock. I cannot even tell you what it cost. I never dared to keep track. That piece followed us from house to house. We never had time to create the table and now one of my son’s friends has the most magnificent, raved about cocktail table in the midwest.
Dingle Town has become one of the major tourist centers in Ireland, and for most of the summer every facility is “chock-a-block." In the early 90’s, Dingle’s biggest tourist attraction became a gregarious dolphin who took up residence in the bay. He happily greets and smiles at all tourist who come to view him.
The week had flown by. John Kennedy accepted us as being decent people. Actually there was a bit of a thing going on between Pat and John. This sophisticated, debonair, jolly Irishman was new for Pat and she liked what she saw.
Our last stop was in Galway, and this time instead of the B & B in Salthill, we stayed at the Great Southern Hotel on Eyre Square in the center of the city.
Two things happened. Early in the morning, after our night in a suite with 20 foot ceilings and great high windows and our rooms filled with genuine ornate Victorian furniture, I awoke to the sound of animals. I looked out our front window and here came a farmer driving a herd of at least 100 sheep. This to me was a bit strange, right in the middle of the city.
The second Galway experience again had to do with the area in front of the hotel. The grassy central area of Eyre Square had recently been named Kennedy Park in honor of President John F. Kennedy who visited Ireland and Galway in 1963. There was a very nice brass memorial in his honor and he will forever be remembered, not only in Galway but in every corner of Ireland. Most Irish homes follow a custom of displaying a picture of the Pope and another of Jesus Christ. To those two was added a picture of John Kennedy, the late president, not our guide. Obviously he was high on the list. Also, it was the answer to the questions all Americans are bound to get, “And do you have any Irish connections?"
We have always been very grateful to Ireland for that trip. We were beginning to know a lot about its people and its rich history. John helped us to move beneath the surface. We said our good-byes and vowed to come back when I had done a lot more work on Irish writers and their books, plays and poetry. So while I am thinking about it, I will list a few.
2[Then off the top of my head I recall:]
From Willie Clancy to U-2 and Bill Whelan’s Riverdance, Traditional to Contemporary.
The National Theater, The Abbey and the Gate in Dublin and dozens of durable, successful theaters all over Ireland. Do not forget all the movies and all the actresses and actors, and I have barely scratched the surface. As I am writing, a book turned into a movie called Michael Collins is getting great reviews. It is also causing quite a stir in Ireland because it deals with the 1916–1922 troubled times, the struggle with Britain over the North.
A fine example of Irish writing: John B. Keane, columnist, playwright, owner of a pub in Listowel.
There was this elderly Kerry couple, Sean and Mary, who lived way back at the end of the road. As always, they walked the three miles for Sunday mass, their routine over 40 years.
Then a new priest came to their Parish, a young high toned fellow from Dublin. He used all kinds of words and terms that Sean and Mary had never heard. One Sunday on their way home, Sean said to Mary, “About Father O’Malley, the man’s using words, I’ve no idea what he’s talkin’ about. Tell me Mary, do we have sexual relations?"
Mary thought for a moment and replied, “No Sean, if we had we’d have met ’em last year at your brother’s wake."