Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A Tale in Two Cities: St. Patrick's Day ~ Dublin & Belfast

Even though I’m not Catholic, we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day —it’s my son, Steve’s birthday. Why, we’ve even gone to Ireland to celebrate—twice.

Back in 2000 Steve took a job in England. So, Jay and I and Laura, our then 9-year-old daughter flew to Dublin arriving in the morning mist. Lush, velvety green hills enveloped us, making it obvious why this country is called the Emerald Isle.

Our taxi was forced to drop us blocks from our hotel; the holiday parade was swarming all over the streets. I felt self-conscious and out of place as I rolled my luggage down the sidewalk to St. Stephen’s Green. There, at last, was our hotel.

Like so many other grand dames, The Shelbourne, boasts a special room for high tea and a reading room with leather chairs, which, to be honest, reeked of cigarette and cigar smoke. The hallway leading to our room included a few steps and some odd turns, making me realize the building had been renovated numerous times.

But the place had an ambiance most welcoming and, on this day, most festive. Families reunited and embraced distant relatives and good friends. Children scooted under foot and furniture and no one minded.

By the time we freshened up, the parade had passed and the crowds were off in the pubs for lunch. We joined them, but the lines now snaked out onto the sidewalk. While we waited, we discovered buffet presentations were the only choice of the day. That became a problem because Laura was not familiar with the culinary offerings. She turned her nose up at Irish stew, corned beef and cabbage, leeks and mutton. Surely the Irish cooked something she liked, but we didn’t find it that day.

By evening Steve, of course, was ready to party but our young one was ready for bed. Jay and I took turns in the hotel bar meeting Steve and mingling with Irish girls and gents, their complexions as pale and smooth as creamy butter. The accents were distinctive to our ears, and charming. And oh, their glorious auburn hair was pretty enough to evoke poetry.

We raised a glass to Jay’s ancestors (his Mother is the former Patty McCormick), Dublin, Steve, you name it; but before long also gave into sleep. Not what you’d call a St. Patrick’s blow-out.

I have to admit I was surprised that the holiday centered on family, not drinking. I also recall the men wearing real shamrocks on their lapels, no tacky fake flowers. And no green hair, face paint, leprechaun hats or other exaggerated d├ęcor. And certainly no green beer. A good friend and a pint of Guinness were enough.

Next day we visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin Castle, and walked down to the trendy Temple Bar area, crossing over a bridge on the River Liffey. Thankfully Laura found an acceptable item on the menu – salmon.

We met chatty locals in stores, pubs and restaurants and whomever we asked for directions or assistance, always answered us with kindness. We departed with endearing memories and vowed to return

And with the luck of the Irish, in 2005 we nabbed an incredibly low airfare to Belfast. Steve was not with us on this trip but we toasted his birthday as we landed-- early on St. Patrick’s Day. This time we arrived at our hotel before the parades started.

In fact, this was the first year, since the end of the "Troubles,” that Belfast even sponsored a St. Patrick’s Day parade. It wasn’t a big event, but the mood was electric and a feeling of unity filled the air.

The concierge suggested lunch upstaris at the Crown Liquor Saloon. Built in 1828, this pub is now maintained by the National Trust of Northern Ireland and features an ornate Victorian atmosphere: gilded mirrors, old black and white photos, a tin ceiling and gas lights.

We ran into a group of Scottish ladies from the Highlands who told us they gather annually, but always in a different Irish city. They were imbibing in grand style and had donned hats, supplied when “a drop of black,” or Guinness was ordered. Our waiter gave Laura one, too. Lunch was better than our offering five years earlier. We devoured “Champ,” a mashed potatoes, cheese and chive combination.

Later I met a local woman who overheard my American accent. She stopped me just so she could welcome me to Belfast. I liked that.

We squeezed downstairs through cough producing smoke into a room crammed as tight as Times Square on New Year’s Eve, and just as noisy. Everyone turned toward a telly to cheer The Gold Cup horse race. This is a lengthy steeple chase race through mud filled ponds, over hedges and across green fields. Strangely (at least to me)the horse in the lead lost his hockey, but ran on. Rather wild compared to our Kentucky Derby.

We hired a "black taxi" as I wanted to see the West Belfast Political Wall Murals. First we rode to Shankill Road, the Protestant side. Here, working class row-homes were painted with large scenes. Our driver pointed out the jail and courthouse, which had to use an underground tunnel and just one judge (no jury) for the safety of all those on trial.

Then he drove us to the nearby Catholic side, Falls Road. Here we saw a mural of Bobby Sands, who went on a hunger strike until his death. We also saw Remembrance Park, a peace memorial.

Our driver/guide spoke poignantly and explained that Belfast had made great progress since the 1995 peace agreement. He claimed he grew up fearing bombs and was told not to talk to certain children or adults. He realized this was not a good way; but simply understood that it was the way.

Now he was proud of Belfast, all the economic growth, tourist interest and unification. He thanked us for coming and asked us to spread the word. We left feeling grateful for the opportunity.

Dinner that night at Michael Deanes Brasserie was one of the best meals of our trip. We ate fresh fish, delicately cooked along with gorgeous looking vegetables and scrumptious braised potatoes. I recall Laura commenting on the improved cuisine. The upstairs restaurant, much fancier, has earned Chef Michael Dean a Michelin star; the only one given in Northern Ireland.

Next day we drove off to see the Antrim Coast- stopping at Carrifergus Castle, the Carrick-a-rede Rope Bridge, and the Giant’s Causeway. As the sun was fading we managed to get in a quick peek at the ruins of Dunluce Castle, which sits at the very edge of an imposing cliff.

We found both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland to be magnificent. The people are friendly and welcoming and best of all, always ready to tell a story. Even better is to sit and share the tale over a drink in the pub, followed by foot stomping music. And the food these days is a far cry from just meat and potatoes. As Laura says, “It’s not great, but pretty tasty.”


I was going to share a recipe for Champ, but I came across something similar called Colcannon. I just couldn’t resist the recipe because it included a poem about the dish. Now how often do you find such a treat?

Did you ever eat Colcannon
When t'was made with yellow cream,
And the kale and the praties blended
Like the picture in a dream?
Did you ever take a forkful
And dip it in the lake
Of heather-flavoured butter
That your mother used to make?

Colcannon or Irish Smashed Potatoes

2 cups Green cabbage, shredded
2 cups cooked and mashed potatoes
¼ cup green onions, sliced

Dash of pepper

Heat ½ inch of water to boiling. Stir in the cabbage, cover and return to boil. Cook 5 minutes, drain. Fold into the prepared mashed potatoes, along with the onions and pepper. Dot with butter and sprinkle with parsley. Serves 4.