Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Popping Down to Cork

Our entire year in Ireland, we've wanted to visit Cork (both city and county), that much-talked-of region of  coastal beauty at the south of the island. We had incentive to go even before we arrived here last August -- someone, recognizing our love of good beer, had recommended the Franciscan Well brewpub to us. Our landlords talk about it in glowing terms every time they escape on a short holiday to "sigh... Cork." (Aine likes the people, Dos the ocean - though he warned us about Cork city.)

So finally, in the midst of a dissertation and a portfolio and all the final month wrap-up stuff, we decided it was about time to check it out. We had the extra incentive of our resumed beer book project, which requires us to interview some brewers and taste as many brews as we possibly can. (It's a rough gig.)

We shipped out (trained out?) the morning of the 7th. The train ride is pretty painless - just under 3 hours, direct. We schlepped out to our B&B on the west side of the city, right near the University campus... and it was, I won't like, kind of a sketchy establishment. Not like someone was going to haunt us in our sleep... but like we weren't entirely sure the floor in the bathroom would remain a floor for much longer, and we didn't want to leave the laptop in the room.

Fortunately for us, we didn't spend all our time in the room! We were outside as much as possible, I think, because it turns out that summer in Ireland has been hiding in Cork all along. We got to check out the English Market, the bustling (and very European-feeling) conglomerate of butchers, bakers, cheese makers, produce hawkers, and confectioners. (Yum!) We did a bit of walking around, and my general impression of Cork is that it's surprisingly artsy, considering how run down parts of it feel (I guess that means it's artsy without being pretentious?); it has more of a street art culture than Dublin, I think, and there's tons of galleries and music opportunities. (The downside? A whole lot of it smells like trash.) Of course we eventually ended up at the Franciscan. (Maybe Cork is just sketchy in general. We wouldn't have walked down this particular street if we didn't know what awaited at the other end. At least it didn't smell like garbage...) The beers were scrumptious, the beer garden was chill... and it was a good day all around.

The next morning, Jenny called it quits. Not on the trip -- but on the B&B. She found a much nicer B&B just a bit up the road for the same exact price, and we were able to relocate that very morning. (I think it was the shower that did her in. It would have done me in too, had I been the one to shower first.) This Wednesday was dedicated largely to a trip north to Mitchelstown, a small-ish town at the foot of the Ballyhoura "Mountains" and the home of Eight Degrees Brewing, a microbrewery run by an Aussie and a Kiwi. We spent over an hour chatting with them, and they were immensely generous with their time and their thoughts. (Their beer is truly scrumptious, too. If you ever see it, drink it!) They chatted so long with us that we talked right through our intended bus back to Cork - no big deal, as that allowed us to have dinner in town and wait for the next (and last) bus back to the city. We ate a remarkable and memorable meal at the Marketplace - ratatouille-stuffed bell peppers! - and then made it out to our bus stop with plenty of time to spare.

More than plenty of time, apparently. Because at 8:40, the bus didn't show. At 9:00, it still hadn't shown. By 9:30, I was back in the restaurant asking after alternate ways back to Cork, and Jenny was preparing to lie down in front of the bus if it happened to show and threatened to leave without me. These people were remarkably sweet. After they finished arguing about whether the bus was more likely to leave early or be an hour late (no decision), they called cabs to check prices, they called friends to see if anyone was headed to Cork (or wanted to do so for less than the cost of a cab), they contemplated everything short of building us a Wright-brothers-style airplane.

Finally, the bus DID show. (Over an hour late.) Grumble grumble grumble. Needless to say, we were so pleased to have a luxurious room waiting us. (Thank you, Jenny!)

Thursday was our day trip down to Kinsale, the Dos-endorsed coastal town. Summer was hiding from Kinsale that day, but even so it's a wonderful little place, full of narrow winding streets with unique coffee shops and bookshops and art shops. We took an hour boat tour of the harbor, sitting on the top deck at the very front where we couldn't hear the taped tour explanations over the speakers but could take some great pictures and tell our own stories about the landscape, the ruins along the bluffs, the cormorants soaring across the calm surface of the sea. We visited the Kinsale Crystal store, the only place in the world that sells the crystal deep-cut in the back room of the shop. Anna, half of the husband-wife team that run the place, chatted with us for ages about the crystal, about Ireland, about my five-finger shoes, and anything else we found in common. We ended up buying a small crystal bowl for ourselves (it's an heirloom!) and were very pleased with it.

We snacked throughout the day, but after our shopping we sat and had a wonderful picnic lunch (anyone who's eaten breakfast at an Irish B&B knows that lunch happens about 4:00 in the afternoon). Then after we headed back to Cork, we went once again to the Franciscan - not even for the beers so much as for the wood-oven pizza they cook up every Thursday night! And ohhh man, was it good. In my experience, some wood-oven pizzas get cooked too thin or charred too crunchy in spots. These guys did it right - the crust was thin and crisp and yet still bready, the fresh mozzarella was sooo yummy... and it was the perfect accompaniment to our playing pigs in the outdoor patio!

The trip was kind of a whirlwind - but even though Friday was our last day, it wasn't over yet! That morning, we walked for a good while through the campus of University College Cork. Of course it's not as ancient and manicured as Trinity's campus - but it is infinitely greener, with a great combination of trimmed lawns and wild-seeming woodlands. They have an actual river running through campus, and what must be one of the largest collections of Ogham stones in the world on public display! (Ogham is the ancient Irish method of writing; it's kind of like a vertical system of tally marks along a line. It also looks like a bunch of birds sitting on a telephone wire!) Then we took a walk down to St. Fin Barre's cathedral, whose three spires defined our daily walks to and from the B&Bs. We had to take in the English Market one more time - and this time we treated ourselves to some of the best ice cream we've ever tasted. Then we had one more interview - this one with Shane, the owner of the Franciscan, who was so kind as to sit with us for a while before his pub opened for the day.

That left us just enough time to go back to the campus and lounge about for an hour or so - the day begged for it, and for the first time in ages we were able to lie back on the grass, stare at the clouds through the fractal branches of a tree, and just enjoy breathing. What a perfect end to a wonderful trip!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A Night at the Theatah

On August 2, Jenny and I had the extreme pleasure of once more visiting the theater in this most theater-influenced of cities!

Staying to see this play was a serious factor in our decision-making process waaaaay back when we were deciding when to return to 'Merka. It wasn't just any play -- it's Sean O'Casey's "The Plough and the Stars," a story about the regular people of Dublin set during the failed uprising of 1916. (When it was first performed at the famous Abbey Theatre, it caused riots. Not just throwing-tomatoes-at-the-stage kind of mayhem. I mean genuine riots. That's how revolutionary and controversial it was.) And it wasn't in just any theater -- it was scheduled for the Abbey stage, that very same place where the riots occurred nearly eighty years ago!

Well, we were in for a slight disappointment. Some time after we purchased our tickets, the Abbey announced that it had to undergo renovations of some kind, and the play would be moved to the relatively nearby OReilly Theatre. The move really was a bummer for us; yes, we got to see a play at the Peacock, the Abbey's experimental stage, for Jenny's birthday last October. But this was O'Casey, darnit!

Of course, once we got right down to it, the play was still a treat for us. We made a proper date night out of it, dining first at Messrs. Maguire at a table overlooking O'Connell Bridge and the River Liffey. We were decked out; Jenny looked stunning in her black dress, and I had my dashing Irish tweed coat (which I didn't get to wear, this being one of Dublin's three days of summer). A kind theatergoer took our picture outside before the show:

The stage was intriguing -- rather than the complete walls of the apartment where both the first and final act were set, we saw the doors and the metal girders. The bones of the building really emphasized the vicarious glimpse we were getting into this home, the side of the Easter Rising that history books and popular imagination fail to talk about. As far as we could tell, the play was excellent. (I say as far as we could tell because all the actors were proficient in their inner-Dublin accents; even a year here has not fully prepared us for every turn of phrase or every unique intonation!) A couple of the actors stood out from the rest, especially the man who played Fluther -- his presence stole the show, as far as we were concerned.

It may not have been the night we dreamed of months and months ago, but in its own way, our night at the theater was still magical, and I for one am glad we stuck around to experience it!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Sunset Days

Well the sun is setting as I write this, but the sun is also setting on our time abroad. We've written endlessly. Word after word. Page after page. I've clambered deep into spider's webs, and blown glass bubble-dreams. I've walked the mean streets with hard-boiled detectives who hold hands with lady-monsters. Meanwhile, Zach has looked roadkill in the eye and walked away wiser. He's delved deep into the candy-coated wonders of temptations. He's even acquired some fresh saddle-sores wrangling matters of the heart in the good ol' west. And busy as we are, we've decided to add a new project to our never-ending must-do list: we're going to co-author a book on Irish microbreweries. We see it as one more rope to cinch down the sails of this windjammer we're riding, a zesty little vessel we like to call our lives as writers! And yet...(patient sunset, I have not forgotten thee)...

And yet, three weeks are all that we have left to finish up our portfolios and dissertations. To see all the sights. Eat all the delights. We've had such a marvelous adventure, made such amazing new friends.

But this is by no means our sayonara blog post from the island. Just a quick little note to let everyone know our wonderlust burns bright as ever. We've had a return trip to Waterford to interview GrĂ¡inne Walsh, master (madam?) brewer at Metalman Brewery. Coming up is an extended jaunt to Cork, then a mad-dash to Giant's Causeway, and you'll want to check back in for our write-up of the Ukulele Hooley!

As always, thanks for reading and enjoy those last dog-days of summer! We sure are.