Booking off to Mayo

New Year’s Eve is normally an evening I enjoy. I like to spend it in pyjamas, setting goals for the coming year, recounting the success of the outgoing one and lamenting the cock ups that have inevitably happened. It’s a selfish night. Last year, I’d set my goals, called a pal in Cork for an aul chinwag, then watched a re-run of the Dublin Mayo 2017 All Ireland final. Watching the win again in the depths of a Winter night was just as good as it had been from the Hogan Stand in bright September. It was an evening to celebrate the year and welcome in the potential of the new one. However, this year my family decided, for one reason or another, to stay at home (and cramp my style) so while they partied like nuts downstairs, I had an early night. Is there such thing as a Grinch of New Year?

Waking up fresh as a daisy on the 1st of January was a joy. Checking Expedia and finding a great deal at the Mulranny Park Hotel in Mayo was even more joyous. I was already booked to stay for a few nights from 2nd January, courtesy of a gift voucher Mam had given me for Christmas, but heading a day earlier meant an extra night in beautiful  Mulranny. I loaded the boot, brought ten books and the laptop and off with me across the Shannon to one of the loveliest hotels with its impossibly gorgeous views. So far, so good in 2019.

Orchestrated to the tune of morning walks and edits, sauna/steam room breaks and a dip in the hot tub before bedtime, so ensued the first week of January. I was given room 110 which is truly a big, spacious, beaut of a space. It boasts an enormous bed and a bay window area that soaks up the view across Clew Bay to the bulk of Croagh Patrick. On the first evening in my bay window enclave, I got through a Paris Review and Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends. By the second evening I was tearing through David Park’s The Healing and had blitzed a few chapters from Declan Kiberd’s Inventing Ireland. The reading splurge went on while edits spooled around in the back of my mind. I sat at the manuscript and shifted bits around, but in truth, more than writing, I read and read and read.

One of the days, I took myself off to Achill for what I’d consider to be my ultimate last supper meal – fish and chips from Gielty’s. I fall in love with the pub every time I visit. There’s always a blazing fire, the heartiest of welcomes, the view of Clare Island, the milkiest of pints and the most outrageously generous portions of fresh cod you will get in Ireland, or anywhere for that matter. It’s also the most westerly pub in Europe, but seeing as I’m not an American tourist, that fact doesn’t hold much sway with me. Following my fish feed, I ran up the side of Slievemore and took in the view from the top. Blacksod Bay looked well behaved below but the wind lacing up from it was angry, so I stayed up top for no more than ten or so photos before zigzagging back down towards the Deserted Village. The only souls I met on my travels were sheep. It was gloriously peaceful and a healthy way to purge the few hundred calories I’d debited in Gielty’s. 

Another Sally Rooney and a sports book later and I found myself writing again. Partly inspired by the beauty of the place, partly fuelled by guilt at not having written as much as I had hoped over the course of my stay. It’s a story about the day Ireland played Italy in Croke Park in 2009. Watch this space… And so my stay in the west ticked to an end in the most laid back and relaxed of ways. Armed with lists of targets and plans for the year, a handful of savoured books and a bag of washing I left Mayo to tackle the New Year as refreshed as I can be. There is no such thing as a Grinch of New Year.


I scream

Some things in life are so beautiful you never want them to end. Slow sex with the man of your dreams, sharing happy Christmas mornings with your family, a delicious meal under the Italian sun. The Italian dining experience is one that needs no further writing. The world does not need one more sentence documenting the merits of a succulent veal escalope washed down with caraffes of local wine in a tiny restaurant in Positano or Padua. It doesn’t need one more word about how the fat tomatoes taste like sunshine and make for the most honest arrabiata sauce ever tasted, or how the local wine in Lecce tasted of honey and heaven when you tried it with antipasti di mare in a coastal ristorante.

But what I am going to inkify are the details of a visit to an ice cream parlour in the Vale di Comino, Frosinone. I promise not to rave on about the gelato. In fact, I’ll just mention it once, I had a cherry ice cream. There, it’s out of the way, so I can tell you about the evening in Gelateria Persichini.

It was after seven on a hot July evening when we arrived. The huge car park outside was packed and the crickets had commenced their evening chorus. The lights of the villages high up in the mountains twinkled in the evening heat. Fireworks sparked off from the direction of Brocostella or whichever village was holding its festa. My friend spoke to one of the waiters, who looked around at all the full tables, muttering ‘aspetta’. Then, as if by miracle, three people arose from a table on the front terrace and went inside to settle their bill. The waiter led the three of us in the direction of the vacated table.

He left us with some enormous laminated menus and busied off to a nearby group. The customers reminded him that they had been waiting over an hour for their order. He apologized and again uttered ‘aspetta’ as he disappeared inside. Dario already knew what he wanted, he never deviated from his Copa Fragola when he comes back to visit Italy. Lara decided on a pistachio affair that sounded ambitious, even by Italian standards. I already mentioned what I ordered, and do apologise for mentioning ice cream a further twice, but when in Rome a gelateria…

Twenty minutes passed, and we had discussed our sunburn, the day by the pool in San Donato and how early we’d need to get up in the morning to miss traffic on our way to the beach at Sperlonga. The family at the next nearby table were still ice creamless. We hadn’t yet ordered. A look around at the other tables showed that only a few had been served their dishes. Most tables were empty. Most eyes were on the door, desperate for the return of the waiter, or anyone in gelateria officialdom who could preside over the delivery of their preferred dish.

Dario took a call from pals up in Casalattico. Would he be up soon? They were at the bar, the Macaris and Apriles had arrived back from Dublin today and they were all out. By the sounds of the call, the bar was where all the fun was at. We’ll be up soon was the gist of Dario’s response. And so another twenty minutes passed. ‘Aspetta’ came to take our order. We talked on about the beach, about going to Rome on Saturday, about taking a trip to Ischia next week. The nearby family finally got their order. And another table too, near the plants by the front.

Lara had been to Ischia before on a school trip. She recommended we stay in an agriturismo because hotel rates would be insane this time of year. Unless the three of us wanted to share a room, she suggested, to which Dario had a minor fit.

-Noi tre! Insieme? Va *******! It’s not happening. What if I meet a woman? Where do I bring her, back to my room with the two of you? No, no, no.

-Da, you reckon you’re going to meet a woman there? When was the last time you met a woman you liked in Italy? Lara said.

-I want to keep my options open, he replied.

-Va bene, she said. But you know the answer!

-Si. A long time, per o, I am feeling lucky this summer, he said, and swiped across his phone screen again to check the time. Madonna, they are slow tonight.

We googled an agriturismo on Ischia and found one with two nights availability next week so booked it. An hour had passed. We hadn’t smelled an ice cream.

A man at a table next to us finished his box of cigarettes and cursed that he had no more with him. I got a text from Ireland that took three texts to answer. A further fifteen minutes were spent. I no longer wanted ice cream, I craved wine. Or vodka. Or anything with a respectable alcohol content. But still we persevered.

One hour and fifty nine minutes after we sat down, the waiter arrived at our table with our order.  Two sundae glasses were laid in front of Dario and me, and Lara was given a dish that resembled a miniature canoe. Alas, I will keep my promise of not overbearing on the gelato. Suffice to say, we devoured the contents in ecstatic silence. Some things in life are worth the wait.

In case

There’s an unwritten code that pyjamas are the first things to be packed into a suitcase. No matter how hip the destination, you know you’ll definitely be sleeping. In they go, with the good intentions of anything packed early. They are laid out with precision, taking care not to fold them too much so they won’t hog excess space.

They are generally followed by underwear, which is always an easy choice. For a seven night trip, bring fourteen pairs of knickers and a handful of bras in assorted colours. Socks are dictated by the climate, if it’s going to be sandally weather, then just about five pairs are needed (for when the gym gets hit) because you will be pedi-commando for the duration. But if it’s an Irishy climate, then lob in fourteen pairs too. Better safe than sockless.

Tops have to go next, they’re another uncomplicated choice and they slot in well in lovely easy layers. These are followed by dresses. A double fold of each and the case starts to fill up. Gym gear gets thrown in at this point – just a few sets, there’s no need to be overly ambitious about how many times the treadmill will be visited in the week, but enough so that the same gear won’t have to be worn more than once.

And now the real work starts. The chunky pile of trousers, jeans, footwear, hair straightener and toiletries that sits menacingly beside the case. The shoes alone could fill it. It’s time for revisions. Three pairs of good ‘spares’ are case aside. They’re the ‘just in case’ shoes that get brought on the off chance that your favourites fail you. The favourites will have to do. There can be no substitutes. Space is at a premium.

The mound of toiletries is examined and potions and lotions are dispensed into miniature travel sized bottles. It’s then time to examine trousers and jeans. If you wear jeans to the airport, that’ll save you case space, and bingo, that’s half your ‘airport outfit’ picked already! Would one pair extra be enough? Or would two pairs of trousers be a better option? Trousers are lighter. Although, if it’s as sunny as forecast, no will trousers be worn. You’ll wear the jeans and squeeze in one pair of trousers (just in case).

Am I forgetting anything? Chargers, chargers, chargers! Laptop, phone, other electrical device that you are not admitting to packing but it also needs a charger. Spread the tangle of wires across the top of your case, then slide the hair straightener in along the side. At this point, you’ll re-check the hotel website to make doubly sure they supply hair driers, and sigh with relief when they confirm that they do. There is no room for a hair drier, much less a hair, in your case. Damn, runners still have to go in. And a cardigan. What about a light jacket? A spare handbag? Books? Adaptor plugs. No matter how well you plan, you’ll always find something else needed ‘in case’.

Where the reg reads CN

It’s just after 5, and a half moon glows in the sky. It’s almost too dark for walking in the forest park, but you continue on, enjoying the novelty of walking in dark woods. The scent of moss sweetens the air and you breathe in as much you can. Every now and then, where the tree canopy has given way to Winter, the pathway brightens and you can make out the oranges and yellows of wet leaves that mulch underfoot. The river comes in and out of earshot as you round the pathway and pass by Lady’s Lake. Ducks move silently across the surface.

You make for the path along where the chestnut tree used to be. All that remains of it now are a few husks of trunk, strewn about in the very spot that houses so many special memories. It was the chestnut tree that we played in as kids, that our parents and grandparents played in before us. We picnicked beneath it, collected her conkers. It was sent around the world on postcards. The iconic feature of Dún a Rí Park now reduced to a pile of gnarled wood. You walk on.

The path by the Wishing Well is inky black. The heavy arch of laurel leaves covering it blots out light even on the sunniest of days. Now it adds darkness to darkness. You mind your step and pass through it, thinking about a story you have to finish when you get home and another you’d like to write. On down by the river and the evening coolness is  invigorating. You don’t want to leave this place, but dusk is falling like a fog around you. So you climb the steps that lead to the gate and go home to work with your words.

Gunning for Hemingway

Anyone who’s ever been gifted an upgrade to business knows that it is a whole different ball game. I will be forever grateful to the angelic soul who made it possible for me. (He knows who he is.) And as if landing in Chicago for the first time couldn’t be more exciting, I’d just travelled business from Dublin so was off-the-charts happy.

I took a cab to the Mag Mile, checked into the Conrad, then ran out to start exploring.  There was so much to see and I didn’t want to waste a minute. Willis Tower got hit first, then Cloud Gate, on down to see what Navy Pier had to offer and then cocktails at the top of Water Tower Place. The people were great and there was a really positive vibe around the city. Of course, Macy’s was given some attention, and my favourite shop, Ann Taylor. Investments were duly made and then it was time to head to a show in the Goodman Theatre.

The hotel was conveniently located near The Purple Pig restaurant, a must-visit spot that pals had recommended. It was a unique experience with their quirky dishes and serving platters that have a distinctly ‘farmers market’ feel. I woke up the next morning to a snowy wonderland. Everywhere was covered in several feet of snow and through it I trudged up to the Adler Planetarium which turned out to be one of the coolest places I visited. They put on some shows that were truly mind-blowing. I could easily have spent the day there, but off with me to the next door Field Museum.

Lake Michigan was covered in great blocks of ice, and even the Bean was layered thick with snow. Little kids in ski gear skated around a small square that had been turned into an ice rink. The snow fell heavier and I made for the warmth of the Ralph Lauren restaurant at Water Tower Place, another recommendation from a friend back in Ireland. It didn’t disappoint, and from there I was able to watch how the snow slowed the city to a grinding halt. Businesses closed early, putting notices in their windows that due to the adverse conditions, they would remain shut until further notice. Traffic became lighter and lighter. I drank more wine and ordered some cheese. Chicago is amazing.

The next morning I awoke a year older. As a birthday treat, I headed down the street to the Peninsula for breakfast. In the opulence of her great lounge, I wrote a few lines, had birthday bubbles and was given a complimentary birthday cake by the lovely staff. It was a gorgeous long and lazy morning. And then it was time for what I’d been looking forward to most. Heading out to Oak Park to visit the house in which Hemingway grew up. The hotel staff I had consulted seemed surprised that I wanted to go to Oak Park and recommended I take a cab, rather than try navigate that area by public transport. I seemed surprised that they seemed surprised. Why would anyone not want to visit Hemingway’s house and the nearby Hemingway museum?

I hopped into a cab with a pleasant Iranian driver. He looked a little confused when I said Oak Park, but then nodded and said that he’d bring me. I sat back and watched the blocks roll by. We drove for over twenty minutes until I noticed the complexion of my tanned driver pale a little. A red light. A crossroads. He looked out the windscreen, then in the mirror at me, then at the traffic light. There was a sharp intake of breath. My gaze followed his out the window. On each street corner stood a gang of guys. They weren’t the type you’d want to ask for directions. Some wore gold chains round their necks, the kind you’d only ever seen on BA Baracas. Some had guns tucked into their low hanging jeans. We drove on, but stopped at the next junction, we were surrounded by the same thing. Gangs of black men in chains and vests, with baggy jeans or track bottoms and weapons on view. Again, at the next junction, it was the same story. Some of the dudes were just a few feet from the car. They looked in at the Iranian and the red Irish woman and I genuinely thought they would shoot me. I begged God to save us, the poor driver was no doubt imploring Allah and together we gave cursory glances in the mirror and shared an unspoken code of terror.

Soon, we arrived at the address. I hadn’t seen a cab miles, so I did a deal with the lovely driver to wait ten minutes for me to being be back into the safety of the City. I promised to run around the museum and the house. The metre was already hot, so he knew he’d get double and a tip. He waited and I actually did speed through the museum, taking photos of all exhibits so I could read them properly in the car on the way back (once we’d passed the ghettos). I sat at a desk for a photo in the house, checked out his bedroom and surprised the curator by getting it all seen in around four minutes. “You sure you don’t want another look around M’am?” he said. My bum was already on the backseat of the cab by the time he finished the sentence. Was it good to see where he was born? Yes. Would I do it all over again? Never. I have never been as terrified as I was that day.

The next day, the snowstorms had got worse and my return flight was delayed by five hours which was great news. It meant I got to watch the Super Bowl in an airport lounge with a really sound man who was equally as happy with the arrangement. He was an Irish man living in Chicago with a business in Ireland which meant he goes back and forth quite a bit. We had many beers and enjoyed the game, and yes, in true Irish style, almost missed our delayed flight on account of having another ‘one for the road’.

One night in Shercock

Kingscourt’s a grand wee town, plenty of pubs and grubberies. There’s Gartlan’s with its thatch and the trad sessions on a Sunday evening. But it’s not Sunday and you’re not stopping off in Kingscourt today, you’re just passing through. On down past Dún a Rí Forest park, home of the famous Wishing Well and the recently deceased Chestnut Tree. If you’d a bit more time you’d tip on in and do the River Walk, down beaneath Rabbit Bridge. Stroll up to Sarah’s Well and meander by the Castle ruins. Tomorrow perhaps. Hangover permitting.

Continue on around the bends that lead over the drumlins towards Shercock. Across in the distance is a hill full of turbines. Great white spinning crosses that stand in memorium to the beautiful landscape they’ve commandeered. Everywhere across Cavan you’ll find outbreaks of turbines, that are gradually reducing the county to a giant wind farm.

There’s been a load of new houses built along the road since you were last down. Some are fine houses although none are built in local Kingscourt brick, or Lagan as it’s now called. Apparently grey pebbledash is all the go. There’s one that looks like a glasshouse, with its great glazed walls that’d make Dermot Bannon weak at the knees. Who lives in glasshouses?

The angelus gives way to the news and it’s time to start thinking about food. You’ve brought dessert with you and can bank on Tara bringing her melanzane starter. In fact, there is zero possibility that she’ll ever bring anything other than her signature dish. After the third or fourth bottle last time, she admitted that it’s the only thing she knows how to cook. You never reminded her of the revelation, so of course you’ll feign surprise when she arrives with it later.

As for Jeff, well it’s anyone’s guess what he’ll serve for mains. He’s the quintessential gourmand who could serve you mud on a stick and it’d always taste great. His new partner is a sommelier in a fancy pants spot in Dublin, so he’s taking care of the wine pairings. Not that any of you will fall out over grape type. Since your college days, you’ve celebrated the merits of all colours and types in great quantity, without prejudice. In fact, your first night together had been spent over too many bottles of Buckfast in Jeff’s dorm room in Trinity. A night that had set the tone for the rest of your days as you became a group of indiscriminate, apolitical drinkers. Any tipple or session would do.

The sign welcomes you to Shercock and you head down towards the chicken factory overlooking the lake. The sun is still high and there are a few rods reaching into the lake. The overgrowth is summer-thick so you can’t make out the shapes of the fishermen, but you know they have to be Eastern Europeans. Anyone with a jot of local knowledge knows that the effluent from the chicken factory drove the fish from Shercock many moons ago in what has become the local St. Patrick and the snakes story. There hasn’t been a fish caught in the lake since the mid-eighties. Those Latvians or Estonians would have more luck digging for gold.

The door opens as soon as you park on the driveway and Jeff’s smiley face beams at you. Samuel is right behind him wearing a baby blue sari.

-We’re doing Indian, he calls out when the car door opens.

-So I see, I reply, nodding at Samuel.

In you go to the secnt of tumeric and lemongrass. The sitting room is a rainbow of colour with chinese lanterns draped from wall to wall.

-I thought you said it was Indian Samuel? You said, smiling at the trail of lights.

-It was all I could find. Pretend they’re Indian.

The three of you laughed.

-And the wine, will that be from Punjab? You ask.

-Eh, no. Bordeaux actually, but it’s the perfect wine. You’ll love it! Here, taste it.

He hands you a glass and it is divine. No sooner than you’ve had a mouthful, Tara arrives.

-Starting without me? she says, walking in and blowing us all kisses. Here, I made a melanzane.

-Ooh lovely, the three of you say together.

-What’s with the Chinese lanterns? she asks.

-We’re having Indian tonight, says Samuel.

-I can see that from the get-up of you, but what’s with the Chinese lanterns?

You all laugh then grab your glasses and propose a toast to what will be another night of endless fun.

-To friendship, Jeff says, holding his glass aloft.

-To Indo-China, you and Tara say together.

The laughter continues into Shercock’s small wee hours.


Druids Glen Dream

Cream and clean, that’s what it was. A pristine example of a Sunday supplement hotel room that all too often turns out to be just a dull facsimile of the version advertised. It was so clean that I was reluctant to put my bag on the white footstool in the corner, and also avoided the beige chaise longue. I set it on the floor beside the wardrobe. Carefully, I might add, the carpet was a deep buttermilk colour, in case you hadn’t guessed, and I wasn’t sure how clean the boot of my car had been on the journey to Wicklow.

First things first, I arranged my toiletries in the huge bathroom, sampled the selection of complimentaries in their miniature bottles, hung up my dress and stuck the phone on to charge. The usual preliminaries dispensed with, I poured myself a glass of wine and ran a bath. A nice hotel room, chilled wine and a hot bath –la dolce vita in Druids Glen. With some Sade on, I languished in the bubbles for the best part of an hour. There was then just enough time to have one thing on my mind. Getting ready. He’d be arriving soon.

I slipped into the mandatory chemise and stockings, an outfit that seems a bit of a paradox if you ask me. The chemise is to play down any notions of dressing up. It doesn’t smack of too much effort in the same way that a PVC number does, nor does it beg for attention like a Maid’s outfit. It is a very ‘this old thing’ type of arrangement. The stockings, however, have the opposite effect. Nylon promises that may end up being worn all night, while the chemise will undoubtedly be cast aside on the buttermilk pile within minutes of his arrival.

A fresh face of nudes and neutrals with just a trace of liner completed the look. In these situations you have to avoid looking like you’ve gone to too much effort. And finally, a spray of fragrance behind each ear and one directed above your décolletage. Effortless preparation, almost.

A text confirmed he’d arrived. My heart sped up. I checked my face, took a second rinse of mouthwash. The full-length mirror in the bathroom confirmed that I looked ok.  The old chemise looked decadent beneath the white halogen lights. The apricot gloss enhanced my lips.

A knock on the door. Just one knock. His usual. Heart thumping, I was careful to open it slowly, trying to look as calm as I could. But can I ever look calm when he’s made it to a dream room in Druids Glen? For me.