11. An Irish welcome

I had been counting down to Saturday 7th Feb for nearly a month. Having the trip to look forward to really gave me something to focus on away from work, which made it all seem more bearable somehow. Eventually, on a cold New York morning, I got out of a cab, made my way into the airport and joined the security queue. I took off my rucksack and got out my passport and my ancient little orange leather diary, that I’d been refilling with new calendar inserts since I was a student; taking its stubby little, heavy-lead and wooden pencil I put a cross through the day before. I marked it so heavily I had to blow the extra lead off the page, for fear it would smudge. For that was the past and before me was the present.

I found my mom and aunt by the bookstore and we all seemed to immediately be in holiday mood. My mom always bought more books than she could read, and I always had the opposite problem, not bringing enough. Back in the day, our compromise was that I would read hers when I’d finished my own, so I tried to guide her, without making it too obvious, towards things I thought might be interesting in the airport bookshop. I told myself that books were kind of my area and so anything I chose well would be good for her too. I was, then, very impressed with myself as I steered her and my aunt away from the celebrity biography section towards modern fiction. At one point I became so confident I considered a push towards the classics section or even poetry, but I was conscious that we so often ruin a good thing by our own greed for more, so I stood back and allowed their own interests to guide them then onwards.

Although I had brought a couple of my own books to read, I did like something I could dip into and think about sometimes, rather than read too quickly. I decided to treat myself to a little volume of poetry because it was thin enough to fit into my already bulging rucksack. It was the late Chilean writer, Pablo Naruda’s, book of poetry: ‘Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair’. There was something about some poetry that I loved. It fired parts of the brain which otherwise lay dormant. I couldn’t quite picture any particular scene, but the constant, fleeting sentiments it conjured made me feel as if in flux, in a sort of state of fluid possibility as in the mind of the creator. I had picked up the book and flicked to a poem entitled ‘White Bee’, which began:

White Bee, you buzz in my soul, drunk with honey,

and your flight winds in slow spirals of smoke’.

I had to have it.

On the flight we were lucky to have three seats all together, and I got to learn more about the reasons for the trip. I knew that aunt Jane and mom had, for years, been researching their side of the family history, namely their father’s family, the Taggarts. They had joined an online forum for Taggart family historians in the US, where you could share your own family trees, and piece them together with those of others. Through this and years of library research in Ireland and the Maine libraries and census offices, they had worked out that the first of the family to come from Ireland was John William Taggart, who moved to the USA around 1828. Through Church and merchant vessel records from the time, they had been able to work out that he was a Presbyterian farmer, who as the second son of a tenant farming family, had found himself single and without a vocation at 17 years old. Rather than sticking around the family farm, which already had to support his elderly father and older, and their families, John had decided to take his chances and spent what little money he could raise from the family on his ticket to America.

His gamble had paid off, and shortly after arriving in New England, he found himself a job as a labourer in a busy shipyard in burgeoning town of Belfast on the coast of Maine. The town had been set up by Ulster-Scots immigrants from the North of Ireland like Taggart himself. His touch, practical upbringing and hardwork ethic had paid dividends with the town’s early founders, who rewarded him by granting him lands further along the coast, at which he was able to set up his own shipyard, from which he became a relatively wealthy merchant. Sadly for us, this wealth had been divided too many times to trickle down in any meaningful way to us, but mom and aunt Jane had told me that they each received $ 25,000 from their father on the day of their weddings, which he attributed to him passing on inheritance from his own father’s investments. I had not asked Mom if she intended to pass the same amount, plus interest, onto Laura and I, in the event we were to marry, but I secretly hoped that she did have it squirrelled away somewhere.

Although John Taggart’s contemporaries had named their fledgling town in homage to their home city in Ireland, Taggart himself was not from Belfast, but from the rural north coast of Ireland. Records had shown that his family farm was located on the rugged north-east coastal road between the towns of Ballycastle and Ballintoy. And that was about all they knew of him from records they could find in America. So, the driving force behind Mom and Jane’s trip was to go to the north coast, see the sites, breathe the air, see the towns where he had lived as well as to see what records could be dug up locally with further information.

Jane’s husband Mike was seriously organised and a real travel expert. He had been to Dublin before on business trips with his company and insisted on helping Jane to plan and book the trip. He had researched hotels and B&B’s tirelessly, but had settled on hiring us our own little, traditional Irish, beach-side house, which looked absolutely idyllic. Horseshoe Cottage was a small thatched house, with white-washed walls and little crooked windows, just overlooking the beach in Cushendall, just a short drive along the coast from Ballycastle to the East. Mike had got us a great deal by going out of the normal tourist season and assured us the cottage had 5 star reviews on all the online travel sites.

I had to confess, though I had initially showed a reluctance at coming on the trip, I was now really looking forward to it, all of it. Jane talked about how the north coast was the most romantic, fairytale part of Ireland, and how the troubles in Belfast had left the quiet north-coast as this sort of untouched wonderland of old Ireland, of which Cushendall was one of the most romantic parts. And it was whilst flicking through pictures of the cottage and surrounding towns that I remember putting my feet up and gradually drifting off to sleep.

We landed in Dublin Airport late on Saturday, and I could see that mom and Jane were tired from the flight. As we walked out into the arrivals area, I was enlivened by the noise and bustle and picking up little snippets of conversations Irish accents all around me. I could see that mom and Jane were excited too, as they kept smiling at each other, “so, we made it” Jane smiled just as we stepped off the plane.

When we found the taxi rank Jane suddenly took over, as she liked to do.

“Hello” she said to the driver, unfolding a sheet of printed A4 paper, “we’re going to, eh, Kilronan House.”

“No problem ladies”, hop in, he replied, “I’ll get those” he said as he started lifting out luggage into the boot.

Mom and Jane’s family history research was to be focused on the North-East Coast, around Ballycastle, where the Taggart family had lived before they moved to America, but we had decided to spend the first night in Dublin because our flight was getting in quite late. Jane’s husband Mike, who had helped book the flights had arranged for us to stay in a hotel there. I had only found out about many of the travel arrangements on the flight, but I didn’t mind this. Spontaneity was not something I was familiar with and so it was a welcome way to relax.

“Is this the place Mike chose for us Jane” I asked as we travelled through the evening traffic, under the old trees and with the city lights of Dublin.

“Yes, you know what he’s like, he plans everything as if he’s still in the police force, meticulously researches every detail. He’s convinced we’ll have the most beautiful cottage in Ireland up on the north coast, in the most secluded village.”

As we pulled up to the hotel, it looked like our own private house. It was on a quiet street near St Stephen’s Green; a big, white, Georgian building.

It was cold, with just a dusting of snow falling onto the street.

“The weather kind of reminds me of home” Jane said, as we got out of the taxi.

The building itself was neat and simple from the outside; classical, white architecture in a row of tall Georgian terraced houses. Although grand and pleasant, the cold exterior revealed very little of the hotel’s true character. For after we rang the doorbell, as soon as the front door opened, it was like seeing a whole new world. The reception area was huge, about two stories tall, with a roaring fire and old, dark wood floors, worn with what looked like a hundred years of age. There was a big seating area in front of the fire and an old grandfather clock ticking away loudly in the corner. The walls were covered almost from top to bottom with gold framed paintings and everywhere there seemed to be footstools in chintz, thick tweed throws, and old, rust red and sunflower rugs. I could hardly pull my eyes away from the visual fest that the interior presented, when the receptionist popped out from a little room and, on seeing us standing there came rushing over and took our bags from the taxi driver, who had disappeared into the cold of the night before I could thank him.

“Checking in Ladies?” came the friendly voice from the small, round, waistcoated receptionist, as he carried two of our cases towards the reception area.

“Yes, just for not night” Jane responded.

“Well” he said, putting the bags down and placing his hands on his hips.

“You’re all very welcome. Eh, please, have a seat by the fire, whilst I find your reservation, can we get you something to drink whilst you wait. Glass of champagne perhaps.”

Mom wasted no time grabbing a seat by the fire, and putting her feet up on a pink, buttoned silk footstool, “Oh yes” she said, as Jane ruffled through her bag for the reservation, “a glass of champagne would be lovely, I think we deserve it after our long flight. Come on Kit … ” she said, pointing me towards the other big armchair in front of the fire.

“Certainly” said the receptionist, ringing through our order.

“Have you eaten ladies?” he said, putting the phone down and waiting for Aunt Jane.

“We got something on the plane. Plane food, you know. We were going to nip out for something else tonight, but it looks a bit chilly and I’m getting rather comfortable where I am now” my mom replied.

“Ah well, we have a bar at the back of the building that’s open until midnight. It serves food and there’s a great atmosphere. It might be a nice place to see if you only have one night in Dublin.”

After checking into our triple room, which was decorated as interestingly as the reception area, we quickly got changed and headed back downstairs in search of the bar. I wasn’t really that hungry, but I was determined to have one pint of guinness in Dublin, just so I could always say I had done it, if I never made it back to Ireland.

As we walked along the corridor, we initially wondered if the bar was still open, or if we’d gone the wrong way, because it was so quiet. Then we realised that the back of the hotel backed onto another road, and the bar had its own entrance. We were just lucky to have direct access through the hotel. As we approached the end of the door, we could hear the distinct sound of music and loud laughter coming from behind a mint green door, painted exactly the same way as the surrounding corridor, as if to blend in and become part of the wall. But it had a slate sign hanging on it with the word “Paddy’s” etched into it in chalk. Mom and Jane looked almost scared and ushered me to the front. I smiled back at them and shook my head, before opening the door into a fullblown party.

There was a long chestnut bar, with seats all along it, and little booths opposite.  I was taking in the band in the corner, and the general house as Jane pulled my sweater and said “look”, pointing at a couple who were getting up from their booth right across from the centre of the bar. We rushed over and jumped into the big padded leather seats. After looking at the menu, I agreed to go to the bar to place our order.

“Hey, can I order food here?”

“What?” said the barman, stopping in his tracks from shaking a cocktail, and pouring a guinness at the same time.

“Can I order food here too?” I said, this time standing up on the brass rail which fronted the bar.

“Maybe you can.” He said with a smile.

“I’m sorry.”

He poured his cocktail shaker into a drink over a little metal sieve, and handed it to a girl next to me, before wiping his hands on a towel over his shoulder.

“Food orders are supposed to be placed with one of the waitresses walking around, but Annie’s gone out back for a minute, so I’ll do it for you, rather than keep you waiting. You don’t look like a girl who likes to wait for things.”

“Thank you, I think.”

“What can we get you then?”

“My mom and aunt would like your caesar salad … “

“Well, when in Rome” the bartender smirked.

“And … ok, wait … I said. Wait. I was going to just ask what the local speciality was.” I said as smugly as I could.

“Oh” the bartender said, taking a step back, “you’re not one of those are you, I suppose you want me to deliver it in a leprechaun costume and all.”

“No, I’m just very easy.”

He laughed, as if conceding defeat. “Ok, listen it might sound boring anywhere else, but our chef makes his own bread to an old family recipe. It’s wheaten, so it’s a bit sweeter and more thick and crumbly than normal bread. It tastes amazing just spread with butter and with his special soup.”

“Ok sounds good, what’s the special soup?”

“It’s a winter vegetable soup. Very finely blended, all local vegetables. Really nice, all localy grown vegetables and all very good for you.”

“Ok, I’ll have one of those thanks.”

“And to drink?”

“Can my mom and aunt have a glass of champagne each?”

“Sure, are they celebrating something?”

“Um, being on holiday, I think.”

“And I’ll have a guinness. Just a half glass.”

“Wayhey … goes great with wheaten, I couldn’t have chosen better myself. Ok, grab a seat and I’ll bring that right over. And it’s a half pint, just in case you’re ordering it again.”

The wheaten was amazing, so dense with flavour and crumbly and buttery. It melted in your mouth after being dipped into the soup. And I loved the natural, simple, flavours in the soup. It was as it is was all the component vegetables distilled into their pure form and then liquified, so strong were the flavours of leek, potato, carrot and onion.

We all loved the atmosphere in the bar, there were conversations going on at a hundred miles per hour. It was so interesting just to watch people come and go. Especially the local people, meeting up with friends. You could see them approach after work, the men with their long coats and briefcases, the ladies with their big scarves and red noses, coming in out of the snow almost frozen into one stance, and gradually warming up in their social circles, as if literally deicing and coming back to life.

After our first round of drinks, we agreed to have one more. I couldn’t see the original barman anywhere so ordered with the waitress. Just as we were about half way through what we promised was our last drink before bedtime, the barman reappeared over my shoulder.

“D’ya like it then?” he smiled.

“Oh, yes, the food was great, good choice, thank you.”

“Good, you here from the states for a while?”

It was noisy so we had to lean in and whisper to each other to be properly heard.

“Yes, just one night in Dublin actually, but we were wondering, do you know where St Stephens’ Green is from the hotel, we’d like to go there tomorrow for a while.”

“Oh definitely, it’s not far.”

At this point mum and Jane suddenly seemed to have finished their drinks, and began moving off their side of the booth.

“We’re going to just take these back in the reception area, to sit by the fire for a second, but we’ll see you upstairs Kim, ok? You can add all this to the room.”

“Um, sure, ok”, I responded.

Jane offered her seat to the bartender, who chuckled and sat down. “I’ve just clicked out for the night, but I’ll give you those other tips if you’ll let me buy you a drink.”

“Oh, I said this would be my last … yeah, go on then.“

“That’s a girl” he said, and held his hand out “Ryan”.

“Kimberley” I said and shook his hand.

We sat at the bar and talked for another hour, and I had two more drinks, of course, by which point I felt quite tipsy.

“So, where are you off to on your travels then?” Ryan asked.

“Well, we’ll be here tomorrow morning and then we’re off up to the North Coast.”

“Oh right, whereabouts?”

“Ballycastle?” I said slowly, seeing if it rang a bell.

“Ok nice, I’ve not been up that way myself, I’ve heard it’s very beautiful though.” He said.

“I imagine it’s a bit like this but on a small scale and more rural.” I said.

“Ohh, no. The North it quite different.” Ryan laughed. “My grandad used to say they were the last of the Vikings up there. Ya’ know, big blond fellas, with blue eyes. You’re laughing but look out for it, I’m not joking. They’re not all dark and mysterious like me. And they’re not half as much fun. Very serious.”

With black hair and brown eyes Ryan did resemble Colin Farrell, and had the same ability to charm, I though.

“Be careful, my family are here researching their own history, and we’re from the north coast.”

“Oh the Livorno’s is it, yeah a good old Catholic name maybe, but not Irish.” Ryan said laughing.

“It’s my mom’s family, actually, and they were Presbyterians actually”. I responded, kicking him under the table.

“Oh” Ryan said, as he got up as if leaving, “so you’re one of those are you, very serious, boring, I tell you what I’ll leave you to your old history and …”

“I’m not serious and boring, we’re going to have fun, I’m just saying.”

“Ok, well prove me wrong then” he said, lift my jacket from the seat and standing up.

“There’s a real traditional Irish bar, at the end of the road – Sainty’s. If you can make it there for one more I’ll listen to the rest of your trip plans … but if you want to be serious … ”

Of course I couldn’t resist and we ended up having one final drink at the bar at the end of the road. I insisted on getting this round and for some reason I decided two glasses of Prosecco would be a good idea, which Ryan seemed to find very amusing, although he did’t object and I think seemed to quite enjoy it.

As we walked back to the hotel I told Ryan we would be back for one last night in Dublin on the last day of our trip. We kissed as I said goodbye. It was comfortable. He was a good kisser, and definitely handsome, in a boyish way, but I didn’t really feel much more than that. It made me feel like a teenager again, but not like a woman. As I turned to go back into the hotel he said “see you when you  get back” and I said “yes”, but I wasn’t sure if I meant it. As I began walking up the steps I felt quite light-headed, which may have been contributed to by my alcohol consumption throughout the evening.

Ryan had been really lovely, and I had really enjoyed talking to him, but I just did’t feel really attracted to him, physically. That may sound shallow, but I think physical attraction does have an important, innate role in relationships. Of course people change over time, but that didn’t mean looks weren’t important. You never forget, I think, that boy you met, that girl you met. In your head, when you close your eyes, when you dream of them, it’s that original being you knew who’s still there, even if they look a little different. There still the one you speak to, dance with, care for, or who cares for you. At least that was my opinion. My dream.

Ryan was a nice guy, and we’d had fun, but as the handsome young bartender in a Dublin tourist pub I probably wasn’t the first or the last American girl he’d flirted with, kissed. Maybe I would see him again on our way back. Maybe I wouldn’t. I was relaxed about it. I’d done no harm, no one knew about it and I had been able to properly relax for an evening and get a slightly more authentic experience of Ireland.

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