x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Ireland: The Old Country

In the past decade, luxury tourism in Ireland has developed to match the world's expectations.

The 6,000-acre Luggala Lodge estate is tucked away in the Wicklow Mountains, also called Fancy Mountain, and is available for renting all year round. Photo by Rosemary Behan
The 6,000-acre Luggala Lodge estate is tucked away in the Wicklow Mountains, also called Fancy Mountain, and is available for renting all year round. Photo by Rosemary Behan

Once upon a time in the last century, the eastern banks of Dublin’s River Liffey used to be “the Docklands – as in docks, boats, cargo and builders’ yards, thronging with activity and giving employment to a lot of people. Then the bottom fell out of the market, leaving a legacy of unemployment, poverty and emigration,” according to my aunt. In the 1990s, the area was “regenerated” with all the swagger of the booming economy, dubbed the Celtic Tiger. Then, 10 years later, in a predictably familiar tale played out across the world at various times and in nearby European cities such as Manchester and London, the economy stalled, leaving behind empty buildings, unemployment, poverty and a fresh wave of emigration.

Now, finally, things are back on the upswing, and today’s drive from the airport into Dublin’s city centre, down the M1 and along North Wall Quay, reveals all that has changed physically in the city in the past 15 years. Passing the new O2 entertainment venue, Citigroup’s HQ, the Convention Centre and the International Financial Services Centre, the Dublin that I know from childhood holidays seems to have disappeared. In its place is a slightly sterile area more like London’s Docklands, where I grew up. Yet perhaps this is fitting, because I’m visiting in the summer of 2013, the year of The Gathering, a series of events and festivals to celebrate Irish history, culture and genealogy, and to encourage those with Irish roots to return, perhaps, to see what has changed.

Ahead of me is the striking, five-year old Samuel Beckett Bridge, designed by Santiago Calatrava. A sinuous white steel structure shaped like a harp, it spans the river, which, it seems, is one of the few things still here. A replica of the Jeanie Johnston emigrant ship sits close to a bronze memorial of the Irish Famine, but that seems like ancient history. A new light railway courses through the area and modern apartment blocks, some selling for half of their peak price, form residential quarters. A few hundred metres away, U2’s old studio in Hanover Quay is but a relic on a sightseeing tour. Behind it, on Grand Canal Quay, is a large, modern plaza featuring The Marker, a new, black-and-white-chequered boutique hotel, a new theatre and Google’s European headquarters, Google Docks.

It is not far from here to the Shelbourne Hotel on St Stephen’s Green, a historic property that is now a Marriott that has been rather overenthusiastically modernised – at least in the restaurants. Here, tourists can avail themselves of a “genealogy butler”, who, for a fee, will help trace your Irish lineage – it’s popular mainly with Americans who, it seems, given any hint of Irish ancestry, have no hesitation in declaring themselves Irish.

I’m travelling here for the first time on an Irish passport acquired through my father, who was born and bred in this city. I’m one of tens of millions of people of Irish descent living abroad – like Lebanon and with the same small population of around 4.5 million, there are many more overseas than at home. Being of dual nationality means there has always been a binary aspect to my visits here, and in many ways, it’s reflective of the country’s intractable history. Militant nationalism was largely a reaction to the brutality of colonialism, not benign cultural exchange, yet the latter has muddied the waters to the extent that a purely “Irish” experience is impossible; we’re speaking English, much of the city’s glorious architecture, such as the Merrion Hotel, is Georgian and the names of Anglo-Irish writers such as W B Yeats, Jonathan Swift and Oliver Goldsmith – arguably Oscar Wilde, too, who was born to Anglo-Irish parents – glow as brightly as James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw and my uncle, the playwright Brendan Behan. He joined the Irish Republican Army at the age of 16, fully supported by my grandmother, who was, among other things, a courier for Michael Collins and urged her children to “burn everything English, except their coal”. My grand-uncle, Peadar Kearney, wrote the lyrics to the national anthem, Amhrán na bhFiann (A Soldier’s Song).

Perhaps ironically, that uncompromising nationalism has allowed today’s generation the luxury of internationalism. Wandering through the centre of town, we visit the Fade Street Social restaurant by the Dublin-born chef Dylan McGrath (www.fadestreetsocial.com), a converted factory with a restaurant, bar and roof terrace, where a Polish waiter serves us a delicious, three-course early-evening menu for €25 (Dh127) per person. Gone are the chips, sausages and toasted sandwiches; here, there’s poached sea trout with pickled Thai shallots, crab and lemongrass sauce, edamame beans and cucumber.

As I drive south from Dublin into the Wicklow Mountains, it strikes me as interesting that it’s the homes of the often foreign landed elite and their descendants that have become the bedrock of luxury “Irish” tourism today.

We’re heading to Luggala Lodge, also known as the Guinness Estate (yes, the drink that has become the symbol of Ireland was also the product of an Anglo-Irish family). A beautiful Gothic revival home set in about 2,500 hectares of land, it’s owned by Garech Browne – a family friend, a Guinness heir, a wealthy patron of the Irish arts and the host of legendary parties. The four-bedroomed, whitewashed house, which dates from 1787, is also rented out in its entirety to celebrities – Michael Jackson stayed here for several months in 2006. Its main appeal is privacy – it’s situated at the back of a valley and there’s one very small road in, barred by two sets of electronically controlled gates (“No admittance except by appointment” reads a sign at the first, in English and Gaelic).

Once we’re through the first gate, the landscape unfolds – mountains, loughs (the Irish spelling of lochs), wild moorland and a scattering of cottages, all belonging to the estate. We descend through a fairy-tale woodland, luxuriant grass and moss glowing green and breaking to reveal flashes of lake and lawns where deer graze. We’re met at the entrance by Browne’s butler, Eugene, who shows us to our room – the same one, with the same four-poster bed, that Jackson stayed in. Though old, the property has been quite recently refurbished, and carpets, bedding (Irish linen only), family portraits and furniture are appropriate to their surroundings without being in the slightest bit fusty. Though we’re only 45 kilometres from Dublin, there’s an eerie silence here that feels as though it could be addictive.

Unlike in a hotel, where staff are constantly around, a housekeeper arrives once a day, cooks breakfast, cleans the rooms and then leaves – at other times, catering is by appointment or you can self-cater in the kitchen, which also houses a visitor’s book 15cm thick, listing hundreds of names including Bono, Lucian Freud, Ted Hughes, Daniel Day-Lewis and the folk group The Chieftains (Browne founded their record label Claddagh Records back in 1959).

Down by the lake, an Irish-Canadian television company is filming the second series of Vikings, though it’s under strict instructions not to come near the house. Standing 600 metres above the lake is Fancy Mountain, and I set out to climb it. After about 20 minutes, the path disappears and I find myself wading through a peat bog on a steep slope. I keep going, although there’s not another soul, or pathway, in sight. I walk along sheep tracks towards what I assume is the peak and after about an hour find some rock climbers, tackling the crags above the lake. I take the easier, longer, way down, and enjoy the scenic descent from wild moorland to fields, trees and farmhouses.

It is a few hours’ drive south the next day, via the hugely scenic R756 road, which goes past Glendalough, and on to Waterford, where Waterford Castle Hotel & Golf Resort proves, thankfully, to be more castle than hotel and golf resort. It’s situated on an island in the River Suir, surrounded by parkland. A monastic settlement existed here between the sixth and the eighth centuries; then, in 1160, Maurice Fitzgerald, a cousin of Strongbow, the English Earl of Pembroke, landed in town during the Norman invasion. During a battle, he was taken prisoner and held on the island until he was rescued by his son-in-law to rejoin the victorious Norman army; he was rewarded for his support by becoming potentate over large tracts of land in Munster and Leinster, including the island in which he decided to make his home. The 15th-century castle was heavily rebuilt and expanded in the late 1800s; at around the same time, Edward Fitzgerald, one of a long line of relatives, translated Omar Khayyam’s Rubáiyát, and a room here is dedicated to the Persian poet.

A family home until it was turned into a hotel in 1987, the building’s entrance hall has Portland stone walls, an enormous fireplace, a 16th-century plaster ceiling, tapestries and 19th-century English oil paintings of racehorses. My room is the presidential suite, which, at 426 square metres, is about 10 times the size of a normal hotel room, complete with a sitting room, enormous bedroom and ornately tiled bathroom with a claw-footed bath. There’s a view across the grounds and river, and, like Luggala, a sense of peace lacking in most parts of the world. Service is gracious and down-to-earth.

Heading north to Ballyfin at the foot of the Slieve Bloom Mountains in the centre of the country, down-to-earth was the furthest thing from the minds of the Cootes, the Anglo-Irish family that built this enormous Palladian mansion in more than 16,000 hectares of land in the 1820s. The family’s Latin motto, engraved on its coat of arms at the front of the house, is “cost what it may”, which must have been easy when the family was receiving rents from so many tenant farmers.

Most of the Cootes’ land was confiscated after Irish independence and the family was forced to sell the house and its 240-plus hectares before fleeing back to England. For decades after, the house was used as a boys’ school before being bought by Fred Krehbiel, a Chicago-based electronics magnate with an Irish wife, who spent nine years and millions of dollars restoring the property, before opening it as a luxury hotel in 2011. Just 90 minutes from Dublin, its attractions are endless: cinematically beautiful grounds surrounded by old walls, a lake, stables and a shooting range and exquisite gardens. Inside, it’s a Regency fantasy where, fittingly, no expense seems to have been spared. Many of the features, apart from the lovely basement swimming pool, are original – inside the entrance hall, a 2,000-year-old Roman mosaic shipped over from Italy by the Cootes; a black Belgian marble fireplace; mahogany doors; sandstone flagstone floors in the pantries; a rosewood, sandalwood and purple heart floor, the only other one being in Windsor Castle; Chippendale mirrors; a chandelier from the palace of Napoleon’s sister; a rotunda with a 260-piece, stained-glass ceiling; and a library with 4,500 books.

My bedroom, Westmeath, is one of just 15 – all different, though because these are upstairs, and the roof suffered extensive damage, they have been remodelled more than the downstairs rooms. It’s still fit for a princess, with a golden, carved, French four-poster bed in the centre of the room and enigmatic portraits on the walls. Meals, all multi-course and included in the rate, are taken in different rooms, all immaculately turned out. There’s a huge sense of excitement and anticipation in just coming down for dinner, which guests can, if they want, take in full Regency costume.

I try the horse riding and clay-pigeon shooting, which are both promptly organised and free of too much regulation. I’m soon galloping over sun-scorched fields and blasting clay discs to dust, but almost as exciting is having our own speedy golf buggy with which to explore the grounds and lakeside (happily, there’s no golf course).

Setting off for the long drive to Northern Ireland, my rental car’s satnav can’t plot my route because it’s in a different country. I take the motorway to Dublin and then head north on the M1, only to be thrown off it just as I cross the border because of roadworks. The shock of entering Northern Ireland after the bucolic landscape of the south is grating, too. Rows of identikit housing are very reminiscent of England, except dotted with flags – either the Union Jack or the Ulster Banner, which looks like an English flag. Suddenly, there are overdeveloped tracts of countryside, car washes, grim-looking shopping centres and people in tracksuit trousers. Cooktown has all the charm of an East London high street. On the plus side, I can use pounds and call my friends in Britain on my UK mobile. And here, at least, it’s peaceful – in east Belfast, massive riots are taking place as Orange Order marchers are told to change their route.

The A6 scenic road provides much-needed natural respite before arriving in Derry (the official title of Londonderry has all but been abandoned by locals), where Catholic areas sport the Irish and Palestinian flags and Loyalist areas fly the Red Hand of Ulster and the Scottish flag. The Ardoyne Road, where I’m staying, is a mix of scary- looking housing estates and rolling fields. In the centre of town, I have to do a double take when I see a Unionist come out of a pub carrying a large drum with “Apprentice Boys” written on it. It’s marching season and flags are fluttering as I drive to Browns restaurant (www.brownsrestaurant.com), a quietly sophisticated place close to the train station and the River Foyle. The food is imaginative, delicious and good value – seafood spaghetti with chilli and lemon, sirloin steak with black garlic and shallot purée with salad and mashed potatoes, and chocolate truffle cake, for £22 (Dh136). Northern Irish chefs have been making their names in the past 10 years, perhaps reflecting the necessary grit and determination needed to succeed in a competitive industry in a bitterly contested place. Sitting on the next table are a young couple from Donegal, who say that the marching season is largely peaceful and that they think nothing of driving into what is technically a different country for an evening out.

The next morning, it’s time for a walking tour of the old walled city with Olga, a Catholic originally from Dublin who is desperately keen to show a city moving on from the Troubles. Once you pass a small, ugly, Unionist housing estate with “No Surrender!” painted on the walls (this was the battle cry during the 1689 Siege of Derry, in which the city gates were locked shut against the recently ousted Catholic king of England and Ireland, James II, by a group of 13 “Apprentice Boys”, orphans working for the City of London, which had funded the development of the city), as a Londoner, and from an aesthetic point of view, the old city is surprisingly beautiful and reminiscent of the City of London.

There are interesting stories at every turn, spanning about 1,500 years, from the time when the city was a monastery built in an oak grove, “Doire”, to the Plantation of Ulster – the organised colonisation of Northern Ireland with Protestants from England and Scotland, took place – to the Troubles of the late 1960s and 1970s, when protests against anti-Catholic legislation were met with brutality. It’s a world away from the idyllic landscape of Donegal in the Irish Republic, just a few minutes up the road where I spent many happy family holidays. It’s hard to imagine why, with that on their doorstep, anyone would stay here.

After the tour, I walk to Bogside, a monstrous Catholic housing estate visible from the city walls, famous for the Bloody Sunday massacre of 1972, when 26 marchers and bystanders were shot dead by the British army. I walk here and visit the Bogside Museum, which is filled with foreign tourists; along the way are several murals depicting Israel’s separation barrier in the West Bank. Today, the city is 72 per cent Catholic and, Olga says, Protestant angst is mainly based on a fear of being forced back into a united Ireland by demographics, much like Israel fears the imbalance in Palestine.

It’s something of a relief to drive east out of Derry to the Causeway Coastal Route, a scenic drive that takes me right along Northern Ireland’s northern coast and down to Belfast. Portstewart and Portrush remind me of English seaside resorts, but as I head east, I’m surprised at how wild the landscape becomes. First, there’s the ruins of Dunluce Castle, high on cliffs with the crashing North Atlantic below, then, the Giant’s Causeway, a great stop demanding several hours despite the crowds, and then the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, and, all along the way, pretty villages and a landscape that reminds me of the best parts of Cornwall and Connemara. From Ballycastle, I head south through Ballycastle Forest, which is surrounded by moorland and feels like the Scottish Highlands. Further south still, the A2 takes me on a scenic, coast-hugging road, all the way down to Larne. I’ve done this trip in a day, but would love to go back and spend a week.

From Larne, it’s the start of a slow, inexorable descent into grimness as Belfast approaches. I’m staying in the newly hip city centre, at Ten Square hotel in Donegall Square South. I head straight out on a Black Taxi tour with a driver-guide, Terry Scott, who takes us to the newly developed areas of the city such as the Titanic centre, as well as the Shankill Road and Unionist/Republican flashpoint areas such as the separation barrier at Bombay Street/Cupar Way, which went up in 1969 and isn’t predicted to come down until 2023 at the earliest. What’s really shocking, beyond the fact that it’s still there, is its height and that so many houses on the Catholic side have cages built around them to protect them from missiles. At around seven metres, it’s higher than Israel’s separation barrier in the West Bank. Also dismaying, in 2013, is the way that it and dozens of other barriers throughout the north seem to have been accepted into the fabric of cities to the extent that they are rarely commented on. “Even the atheists here are Protestant or Catholic, so it’s hard,” admits Scott, “but there are projects which try to instil a sense of confidence in their identity, and to stop them from becoming a product of their environment.” By just looking around, you can see how this was exactly what happened.

Equally fascinating in a grim sort of a way is the History of Terror walking tour that I take the next day. On foot, we explore the sites of some of the most notorious bombings of the sectarian conflict, many of which were in the news as I was growing up, with a former British intelligence officer (he doesn’t reveal his background until the end of the tour) explaining, pretty non-judgementally, the background to each attack and the backlash. Thankfully, most of the cages that were in place in Belfast city centre have now gone, though again it’s a shock to realise how widespread their use was and how recently people’s daily lives were separated along sectarian lines.

My trip ends with a delicious meal in James Street South Bar and Grill (www.jamesstreetsouth.co.uk), another buzzy but unpretentious restaurant with great food – seafood chowder (£5.50; Dh34), chicory, blue cheese, apple and walnut salad (£7; Dh43) and truffle fries with Parmesan (£4.50; Dh28). At the next table are a mixed Protestant and Catholic couple enjoying drinks. Catherine, from Dublin, says that she can’t see a united Ireland any time soon because of the superiority of the Northern Ireland economy. The unemployment rate in the Republic is 12 per cent, compared to 7 per cent in the North. “So there are some benefits,” she says. Some things, it seems, have come full circle.

rbehan@thenational.ae