Writer Frank Bruni explores his mother's heritage on a trip around Ireland.
My mother was mad for the color green. She carpeted rooms in it, upholstered furniture with it and assembled her wardrobe from it, in all of its shades: Kelly and hunter, pistachio and olive, moss and myrtle. For my sister’s wedding she wore an emerald dress. I thought back then that she was trying to match her eyes. I realized only recently that something bigger and deeper was at work.
You see, I finally visited Ireland. I say “finally” because I should have gone long ago, in tribute to her, in acknowledgment of the Irish in her background, her blood and mine. But that part of our heritage got lost when she married an Italian and was swept into his Italian clan, which was so thoroughly steeped in its ethnicity — and so exuberant about it — that none other had any chance. She learned to make ravioli and frittata with the best of them, and I grew up thinking of myself simply as Italian, despite my pale skin and freckles, which mirrored hers. I even went on to learn Italian and to live briefly in Italy, using it as a base to explore much of Europe. Except for Ireland. Somehow, I kept forgetting about it.
I went in mid-September, and I went mostly, truth be told, because it promised spectacular scenery, bountiful seafood and an infinity of pubs, which my traveling partner, Tom, was especially excited about. We covered as much of the country as we could in a week’s time, dipping into Cork as well as Dublin, logging more than 700 road miles, lounging beside a lake in the southwest and ambling along a creek in the northwest.
But I also went for a sort of communion with, and investigation of, Mom, who died almost 16 years ago. It was like an adult version of that classic children’s book “Are You My Mother?” except that I wasn’t a lost bird asking a kitten, a dog, a boat. I was a grown man asking a country.
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It was on Day 2, on the road between Dublin and Cork, when it hit me that the greens that decorated Mom’s days were the greens that decorate Ireland. You read about them before you come — about their depth, shimmer and variety — but books can’t capture the way the hue of the hillside in front of you, fleeced with sheep, will be markedly different from that of the hillside behind you, flecked with cows. Nor can books convey the sudden shift in these colors with the arrival of a cloud or the onset of rain, which seems to fall four or five times daily and would be infuriating were it not the very agent of this verdant patchwork. Beauty has its price, and in Ireland it’s a soggy one.
I didn’t have relatives to look up or areas of the country to home in on. Mom had never carefully traced her family tree. She knew only that she was a British Isles amalgam and that Ireland was prominent, and maybe predominant, in the mix. Italian-Irish: That’s what she told my three siblings and me we were.
And it was time — long past time — to focus on the far side of the hyphen.
I should make something clear right away, especially since I’ve already mentioned food several times and, like many travelers, put it at the center of every journey. While Ireland is Italy’s peer in natural beauty, it isn’t on the culinary front. As a visitor you just have to make peace with that. By eating carefully I ate well, and there were also serendipitous delights, most notably a fish-and-chips that I’ll return to in a bit. But certain clichés exist for a reason and hold true over time, which is another way of saying that I had potatoes coming at me everywhere I turned.
In Ireland, “and chips” is a phrase that annotates much more than fish. It’s ever-present and all-purpose. One pub near the Rock of Cashel, a cluster of medieval buildings on a hilltop in County Tipperary, advertised a lunch special of lasagna and chips. A fashionable, relatively new riverfront restaurant in Cork named Electric served chips alongside a steak that was already resting on a bed of mashed potatoes, and Electric was a model of spud restraint in comparison with what was actually my favorite among the restaurants I visited, the Winding Stair, in Dublin. There my stuffed cabbage was filled with mashed potatoes and placed beside what tasted like a thin potato purée, which abutted wedges of roasted potato. The kind word for this would be redundancy. The accurate one would be overkill.
Now about that fish-and-chips. We had it for lunch one day at QC’s Seafood Bar & Restaurant in Cahersiveen, on the gorgeously situated Ring of Kerry road as it wends its way along one of the many fingers of land in County Kerry that jut into the Atlantic. An astonishingly creamy fillet of haddock was the treasure inside a beer-battered shell fried to golden perfection, and I could go on and on about that shell’s ideal balance of weight and wisp, or I could simply tell you this: Tom wolfed it down without reservation or pause, despite the fact that just 45 minutes earlier he’d been convulsively ill with motion sickness, a result of our brave and possibly foolhardy attempt to reach Skellig Michael.
With much too little thought to what our passage might be like, we’d set out that morning for Skellig Michael, a tiny, rocky, almost entirely vertical island, about eight miles from shore, with the remains of a sixth- or seventh-century monastery near its summit. It’s one of those riddles of human ambition — how, and why, did people build in such a forbidding place? — and it’s reachable only by crude fishing trawlers, which pack in a dozen tourists apiece and make the trip only on days when the ocean isn’t too turbulent. That’s less than half the time.
The captain of our trawler waited until an hour before our departure to determine that we could go, and we pulled slowly away from the fishing village of Portmagee, with its red, blue and yellow storefronts, and chugged past mountainsides where cows grazed in pastures so steep, with such precipitous drop-offs to the bay below them, that I braced myself for a bovine avalanche.
About an hour after we’d left Portmagee, we caught sight of a few seals and a few thousand white seabirds on an uninhabited island just shy of Skellig Michael. Then we approached Skellig Michael itself, but the waves were so violent that we couldn’t dock. We merely circled the island, marveling at its crazy topography of spikes and swirls. I mean to say that some of us marveled, while the rest, including Tom, put their heads between their knees and stayed that way for the duration of the brutally choppy voyage back.
The unpredictable conditions at sea echoed the unpredictable conditions on land. I’ve never been anywhere with as many microclimates as Ireland, at least in the fall. In County Kerry and elsewhere, it could be summer at the foot of a slope, winter just 500 feet higher, spring around the bend and autumn the next town over. It could be all four seasons in just one spot over the course of 90 minutes.
And the wind had a way of picking up without warning or mercy, as it did when we visited the Cliffs of Moher, a few hours’ drive north of County Kerry. It whipped off the Atlantic in arrhythmic torrents, making the sleeves of my jacket flap like wings and threatening to lift my baseball cap — and me — into the sky. Had the cap’s brim been broader, my gender different and my past more virtuous, I could have been the flying nun. This endless Irish loop of stillness shattered by gusts and of sunshine hijacked by clouds brought to mind my mother’s moods, which I understood in a whole new way.
The Cliffs of Moher, in County Clare, are one of Ireland’s most visited attractions, which is why you should consider skipping them. They’re choked with tourists. Besides which, you can find convergences of land and sea equally magnificent in County Kerry. I think in particular of the westernmost promontories near the village of Ballyferriter, where you can ditch your car on the side of the road and stomp through high grass to unmarked viewpoints that give you a panorama of whitecaps, coves, beaches, meadows. Tom and I did this and commanded a peak all our own.
In County Kerry we also found the perfect place to stay, the Carrig Country House, on the shores of Caragh Lake, which is fringed with mountains unsullied by development. The Carrig Country House typifies the kind of inn that Ireland does especially well — more cozy than ostentatious, brimming with antiques, scented by wood-burning fireplaces, surrounded by meticulously tended gardens.
At dinnertime a piano player performed wordless versions of “My Heart Will Go On” and “Just the Way You Are,” and the two gregarious proprietors, Frank and Mary, milled with guests in a parlor outside the dining room, never at a want for words. In Mom I’d always envied that same press-a-button chattiness and knack for storytelling; the source of these gifts was now abundantly clear.
From the Burren we drove up to County Mayo, in the northwest, passing through Castlebar and Newport and finally Westport, all beautifully manicured villages, especially Westport, where purple, red and yellow flowers spilled from pots that were hung on the stone bridges over the river — a creek, really — that ran through the center of town.
Mom, who’d always been so big on flowers, would have loved that particular flourish, and she would have loved the tidiness of the flower beds in St. Stephen’s Green in Dublin, where we began and ended our trip. She preferred her nature orderly, and the neatly trimmed lawns of Trinity College, in the center of the city, would have been just her style. I sat on a bench there and remembered how much she’d enjoyed taking us kids to visit university campuses in New England, the arrangement and architecture of which emulated British schools and tickled her spirit as well as her eye. I also remembered how much she’d loved Boston, with its shamrocks, shellfish and beery cheer.
Ireland, to be honest, overdoes the beer, and on our last night, we craved not only wine but also a relatively elegant contemporary restaurant where, we felt certain, the phrase “and chips” would be absent. That restaurant, the Greenhouse, opened about six months ago, a showcase for the elaborate cooking of a Finnish chef, Mickael Viljanen, who’d made his name at Gregans Castle Hotel, a sumptuous inn in the Burren where Tom and I had in fact stayed for a night, a splurge worth every euro.
The Greenhouse mingled Irish and French influences, and filtered them through the local-and-seasonal ethos of this era, so there were pumpkin seeds and a pumpkin purée with our smoked partridge, presented to us first in the wood box in which it was still being smoked. The aroma enveloped our table.
A foie gras mousse was paired with an apple sorbet, an apple jelly and pickled apple, apples clearly being at or near their peak around Dublin just then. The moment for celeriac must also have been optimal, because this root vegetable, so often deployed as a side, was instead given a white, starchy starring role in the center of a plate. I got the distinct feeling it was understudying for a potato.
There was a fancy-frumpy tension, deliberate, in that dish, as there was in the presentation of a phenomenally good collection of bread in a miniature burlap sack. Mom entered my thoughts anew. She’d had threads of both the ethereal and the earthy in her, seamlessly entwined, and in that sense she was Ireland incarnate. She never made it here. But I did, for her.
Frank Bruni, an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, was the restaurant critic of The Times from June 2004 to August 2009.