At an early age, I learned from my mother that my genealogical roots are murky. Two men could have been my great-grandfather. I never met either of them, but for me, it was an easy choice: One was a tutor from Ireland.
Before I was lucky and focused enough to move to work in the United States 40 years ago, I lived in London with a summer house in Donaghadee, in Northern Ireland, then often called the Black North. I felt part of Ireland as soon as I set foot there.
Why the “Black North”? My ex (and late) much-older husband (important to get the order right) had one explanation, telling me stories about trips he took on government business during World War II from the totally blacked-out Belfast at war in the North to the blazing light-filled streets of neutral Dublin in the republic South. Mouthwatering stories, too, about the ration-free South, where he could get steak and butter and plenty of cheese.
I learned about the 1920s civil war, when Ireland split into the southern free state and Northern Ireland. For many, that didn’t end the struggle against the British. Today Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom, and the peace process has resulted in hopeful signs of reconciliation. Now there is even a Good Food Ireland Touring Map, listing the best culinary recommendations from the South and the North.
Because the “Black North” is still tenaciously used by some to describe Northern Ireland, I have often thought that for those who have never been to Ireland, the South probably looms greener and lighter and more beautiful than the North, but that isn’t true at all.
I had visited the South in 1966 to meet privately with President de Valera, the dominant name in the struggle for Irish independence, but I had never dreamed of proving my point by traveling the island up and down. Last spring, though, it seemed like a good idea, and with my constant companion, artist Peter Heywood, we decided to start in the South and end in the North.
We flew into Dublin from Southampton on Flybe, the largest regional airline in Europe, which provided for our flight a little grazing box with nothing dodgy printed on the label, a throwback to the delicious treats of early travel. Inside was pâté, bruschetta, cherries and cranberries, cheese, and a cookie.
It was a breeze to pick up a 4×4 Nissan from Avis at Dublin Airport, taking 12 days to drive what turned out to be 900 miles or so around Ireland clockwise before flying home to the United States nonstop from Belfast.
Not wanting on this trip any city life, we made Powerscourt Hotel Resort & Spa (rooms, from $195; Powerscourt Estate, Enniskerry; 353-1/274-8888; powerscourthotel.com), in county Wicklow, our first destination. A mere 30-minute drive south of Dublin, it was a case of mistaken identity on my part. I thought we were going to stay in one of Ireland’s most celebrated historic houses, which originated in the 12th century and was developed over decades by Ireland’s most powerful families. It was not to be. The original castle was nearly burnt to the ground, and a close copy, to be visited but not stayed in, was opened in 1997 by the owner who then created the seven-story modern hotel where we were booked.
This Powerscourt came into being during the Celtic Tiger boom, a period between 1995 and 2008 when the Republic of Ireland experienced rapid economic growth (fueled by foreign investment) and was labeled the second wealthiest nation in the European Union. But facing the 2008 financial crisis, it had to bail out its banks (and is still repaying huge debts).
We were upgraded to a suite that was overpowering—the only way to describe it—with heavy, plush decoration and bewildering technology. Woe betide a power cut at Powerscourt. Beside the bed, a touch panel controlled all the lighting, the temperature, too, and even the opening and closing of the many curtains. (please don’t operate the curtains manually, warned a printed card, as they will come off their tracks.) Outside, the visitor could choose to wander through 47 acres of landscaped gardens all created by Powerscourt ancestors from 1731 to the present day. Beyond, in the misty background, the soft green Wicklow National Park beckoned, nearly 50,000 acres of mountains, blanket bogs, and wildlife as diverse as rare orchids, sika deer, red kites, and peregrine falcons. Inside the hotel, you could have been anywhere.
We used ViaMichelin.com, a route planner, to point us southwest on great roads (another Celtic Tiger benefit), taking four hours to cover 180 miles to Shanagarry, in county Cork. It was a joyride, with a stop for smoked salmon sandwiches in county Waterford.
Ballymaloe House (rooms, from $300; Cloyne Rd., Shanagarry; 353-21/465-2531; ballymaloe.ie), 20 miles from Cork, was our destination, the antithesis of Powerscourt. A 17th-century stone house, covered with green vines, built onto a Norman keep, it is nestled in a 400-acre estate, minutes from the fishing village of Ballycotton, on the Celtic Sea, where the menu’s fresh fish comes from.
Sun lit up our large, airy corner room on the ground floor, surrounded outside by wild-rose hedges, lilies, and ferns. A tea tray soon arrived with freshly baked scones, cream, and gooseberry jam as a Mozart concerto played on the radio (no TV in the room) and a breeze rustled tall trees on the nearby riverbank. We were too early for the Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food and Wine, an annual May event, but the Easter Fair was on so we joined dozens of families touring the surrounding farm buildings to see the lambs, piglets, calves, and chickens.
Ballymaloe is very much family-run, and for dinner we joined many members of the large Allen family, including the still-active 91-year-old matriarch, Myrtle Allen, who, with husband Ivan, opened the first Ballymaloe dining room to the public in 1964, serving only food from their farm and gardens. Four years later, stables were converted into bedrooms and the hotel was born. In 1983 the Ballymaloe Cookery School (North Rd., Shanagarry; 353-21/464-6785; cookingisfun.ie) opened nearby in the middle of a 100-acre organic farm. Run by an Allen daughter-in-law, Darina, it has achieved enormous celebrity. Last year, Darina published her latest cookbook, 30 Years at Ballymaloe, while her daughter-in-law Rachel Allen, who also teaches at the school, launched a top-rated cooking series on Irish TV.
It was hard to leave Ballymaloe, but our journey had only just begun. In the morning, we covered 80 miles of rolling countryside, full of fat sheep and storybook leaping lambs, to arrive in county Kerry to stay at one of the few Irish Relais & Châteaux members, Sheen Falls Lodge (rooms, from $195; Kenmare; 353-64/664-600; sheenfallslodge.ie).
Sheen Falls is just outside the divine village of Kenmare (Neidín in Gaelic, “Little Nest”), surrounded by purple-colored heather mountains and deep-blue waters cascading into Kenmare Bay, home of Irish lace making, and, most important, located on the 110-mile-round Ring of Kerry. Sheen Falls Lodge lived up to its name. Our comfortable room overlooked the rushing falls, and the hotel offered activities including falconry, fishing, mountain biking, and kayaking plus terrific massage with Voya oil, a local product made from seaweed.
I needed to repair a broken beaded evening purse, and the concierge directed me to Enny, who, in a small room down an ancient alley in Kenmare, spends her days mending everything from fishermen’s sails to farmers’ boots to...little evening bags. At Snip ’n Cut next door, during an excellent blow-dry, the rosy hairdresser, like everyone we met, was so helpful and, without prompting, suggested a quicker way west to Galway.
“Use the ferry,” she proposed, “to cross the Shannon via Listowel and Tarbat, and avoid Limerick, which will save you at least two hours.” Ireland isn’t called the Emerald Isle for nothing. Lured by a vivid field in the Burren National Park, we dillydallied over a picnic and then got caught up in a traffic jam on the N59 going northwest from Galway to Oughterard, so it still took nearly seven hours to find Currarevagh House (rooms, from $155; Oughterard, Connemara; 353-9/155-2312; currarevagh.com), in county Galway. But, oh, was the drive worth it. How did we discover this gem of an early-19th-century house, surrounded by sweet-smelling woods on the edge of moody Lough Corrib? Through Ireland’s little Blue Book, which, created in the 1970s, began to list private homes, large and small, north and south, that took in paying guests in order to maintain their properties. Just as we had been warned about “traffic calming” alerts (the Irish phrase for deliberate bumps installed on roads to slow traffic down), so our young host, Henry Hodgson, the great-great-great-great-grandson of the original owner in 1842, pointed out that the “gentleness” (fog) had fallen across the lough, usually brilliantly visible from our lovely antiques-decorated bedroom but now totally obliterated.
We met Henry’s father after tea, watching rugby in the TV room. Apparently nicknamed Grumpy by his grandchildren (I could understand why), he softened considerably when he recalled how he had loved his life in West Africa, until “duty called” and he had to return to run Currarevagh when his father died.
A dinner gong rang through the old house at 8, reminding me of my early life in Donaghadee and the many delicious meals at the nearby Ballywalter Park estate (in county Down, Northern Ireland), where a gong summoned guests who waited in the vast library.
Dinner was exceptional—local scallops, local beef, and a crumble made with rhubarb from the garden. Again we could have stayed for days, but on we went to follow the Wild Atlantic Way, signed as such, along the dramatic western coastline, through Westport, Ballina, and Sligo to Donegal. (Although the most northerly part of Ireland, county Donegal is part of the Republic of Ireland.)
We didn’t know about the historically directed Blue Book when we searched for a place to stay in Donegal, and Harvey’s Point Hotel (rooms, from $215; Lough Eske, Donegal Town; 353-7/4972-2208; harveyspoint.com), on Lake Eske, would certainly not have qualified. An enormous holiday camp of a hotel, it even marked its glasses to show the staff how much to pour. Hangers in the wardrobes rattled on rings (a particular horror of mine). And the food was so mass-produced (apart from hotel guests, 650 were expected at a buffet lunch on Sunday) that it was hard to distinguish exactly what one was eating.
With Gallagher Chauffeur Travel (353-8/7417-6600), a Donegal tour organization, we escaped for a day’s outing to Killybegs, the second largest fishing port in Ireland and the home of hand-loomed Donegal carpets (which decorate the White House) and Slieve League, the highest sea cliffs in Ireland. There is a path, One Man’s Pass, to the Eagle’s Nest at the top, but even locals say it’s not for the fainthearted.
On day 11, we left Donegal and drove east on the R232, its name changing to the A35 as, unknowingly, we entered into the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland, the Black North.
It wasn’t until we passed through Omagh and saw a signpost to Belfast and our first Union Jack flag that we realized we had crossed the invisible border. The country was just as luscious and green as the countryside had been as we reached Magheralin, in county Armagh. It had taken 21⁄2 hours driving east to reach our last Blue Book stop, Newforge House (rooms, from $185; 58 Newforge Rd., Magheralin; 44-28/9261-1255; newforgehouse.com), down the road from Craigavon, where I was the youngest city commissioner in history in the swinging ’60s, deciding where the traffic lights should go and other vitally important civic duties that, at the time, scared me to death.
John and Louise Mathers, owners of the Georgian Newforge House, showed us up to our room, dominated by a glorious four-poster bed. Later we explored the gardens, surrounded on all sides by green fields. Cream of Spring green soup, roast hake with chive and crab beurre blanc, and Lou’s ginger sponge with rhubarb and white chocolate ice cream made the journey worthwhile. The next a.m., John was eager to tell Peter that his breakfast eggs had come from a beautiful hen that he had admired during our garden tour.
We had a day before catching the plane back to New York, so we had an early lunch at Culloden Estate and Spa (rooms, from $275; Bangor Rd., Hollywood, Belfast; 44-28/9042-1066; hastingshotels.com), overlooking the majestic Belfast Lough. At the end of the 19th century, Culloden was the residence of the Church of Ireland, known as the Bishop’s Palace. Today it is one of Sir William Hastings’s five-star hotels. In the library, I read The Taste of Ulster, which lists regional products now getting world attention, from Clandeboye Estate yogurt to Thompson’s Family Teas and Gracehill black-and-white puddings.
My final stop, on the coast on the way to the famous Giant’s Causeway, was Ballygally Castle (rooms, from $165; Coast Rd., Ballygally; 44-28/2858-1066; hastingshotels.com), once owned by the ex and late older husband whom I referred to as I began this journey.
To my surprise and pleasure, I was taken to see the Shirley Lord Rose Garden, still going strong behind the hotel in the Black North, now as then, set in an avenue of vivid green.
WORTH THE DETOUR: ASHFORD CASTLE
In March, Ireland’s Ashford Castle hotel debuted its two-year renovation, which cost more than the approximately $25 million that Red Carnation Hotels purchased the 787-year-old property for in 2013. All 68 rooms and 14 staterooms and suites have been painstakingly outfitted with locally sourced furnishings, such as antiques from Dublin auction house Adam’s. Other additions include a spa, a swimming pool, a cinema, and two roof terraces. Combine the new amenities with those that the castle is already known for—like its 150-year-old afternoon-tea tradition—and Ashford continues to reign among the top castle hotel experiences in Europe. Rooms, from $250; Cong, County Mayo; 353-94/954-6003; ashfordcastle.com. — Elizabeth Sile
Image Credits: © Victoria Roberts